One of the great things about LPs was that they had liner notes on the back of the jacket, which meant that you didn’t have to buy them to read them. I spent hours in Harvard Square, at Minuteman, Briggs & Briggs, Discount Records, and the Harvard Coop, reading liner notes in the folk and blues sections. The notes on one album would mention someone I’d never heard of, so I’d go over to that bin and read the notes on their album, too.
I’m not sure that’s how I got to Tom Paxton—Pete Seeger had recorded several of his songs, which could also have steered me his way—but I have a vague memory of reading the notes on the back of his second album at Minuteman, and asking my mother to buy it for me. In any case, I got it, and I was hooked. I was a nine- or ten-year-old boy, so I didn’t go for the love songs much, but he had some rambling hobo songs that reminded me of Woody and Cisco, and some political songs that were smart and fit together in neat ways, and some that were just fun, like “The Name of the Game is Stud.” I didn’t know what stud poker was—to be frank, I’m still not sure—but the tune and the story were catchy and I listened to that album so much that I think at some point I just realized that I knew all the words.
What I didn’t know at that point, and never noticed until I sang this a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in years, was that it is about the scene at the Gaslight Café, the mythic stomping grounds of Dave Van Ronk, and Tom, and Mississippi John Hurt, and Hugh Romney (later Wavy Gravy), who was married there by the Reverend Gary Davis. When Dave waxed nostalgic, he would talk about long nights drinking at the Kettle of Fish, the bar upstairs where he and the other musicians hung out between sets. And he talked about Sam Hood, who ran the Gaslight and is presumably the “rounder named Sam” in this song, and the marathon poker games they would hold upstairs—though in his stories, the master cardsharp was Sam’s father, Clarence:
“God, that man was a great poker player! There were regular games all the time, and one night I was bumped out early on—I was clearly in a different league from the guys he liked to play with—and Clarence let me kibbitz his hand. I sat there and watched him fold hands that I would have held onto for dear life. Once he threw away a straight! And he was right every goddamn time.”