Another by Buffy Sainte-Marie, though, like a lot of people, I thought it was an old folk song that I just happened to learn from her recording. The story is certainly old, and I also do a Caribbean version called “Shame and Scandal in the Family,” but this version doesn’t seem to trace any further back than Buffy.
I listened to Sainte-Marie way more often than to Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, or any of the other women on the sixties folk scene. There was something about her voice that grabbed me, and her arrangements ranged from nice solo guitar and mouth bow to country bands and some synthesizer experiments that worked better than most of that stuff. I also loved her songwriting — her most famous songs were political: “Universal Soldier” and her Native American protest songs “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” but she also wrote romantic songs, rowdy songs, sexy songs, weird mystical/psychedelic songs, and songs that sounded a lot more authentically traditional than most of the pseudo-trad confections on that scene.
“Johnny Be Fair” has been generally accepted as an Irish folk ditty — I thought it was Irish, a lot of people on the internet think it’s Irish, and she sings it in Irish style — but she is credited as the songwriter and no one seems to be able to find a version that predates hers, so unless somebody informs me otherwise, I’m gonna assume she wrote it. A lot of people on the early folk scene believed that that songs with staying power would gradually become part of the broad, anonymous oral tradition — but this is one of the few examples that has actually made that transition.
And now, my apologies for writing an exegesis that is far longer than the song itself, and far duller… and I recommend that anyone who hasn’t listened to Sainte-Marie’s work take some time to check her out.