I heard this song all my life, but only started playing it when I recorded my CD, Street Corner Cowboys, in 2000. One of my sure-fire songs at that point was Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement of “Green Rocky Road,” but it seemed silly to record that since everyone knew Dave’s version… and then it struck me that I could do his version of “Old Blue” with pretty much the same arrangement. So I took a crack at it, liked it, and recorded it with Matt Leavenworth on mandolin and Paul Geremia on harmonica. I pretty much stuck with Dave’s lyrics, but when I tried to sing it like he did, with a sort of long moan on both lines of the chorus, it felt draggy, so I shortened the final line, and was thrilled when Paul said he’d never much liked the song, but that way it worked.
“Old Dog Blue” was first recorded in 1928 by the singer and guitarist Jim Jackson. Since he was recording in the blues era and had a huge hit with his first record, “Kansas City Blues,” Jackson is often called a blues singer, but he was a versatile all-around performer who had traveled with minstrel and medicine shows all over the South, then settled in Memphis working the clubs on Beale Street, and even held down a residency at the eminently fashionable Peabody Hotel. Checking back over his repertoire, I’m struck by how many songs I picked up from people who may well have got them from his records: the flip side of “Old Blue” was “He’s In the Jailhouse Now,” and he also cut versions of “Traveling Man” and “Hesitation Blues,” as well as such unique masterpieces as “I’m Gonna Start Me a Graveyard of My Own,” “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop,” and “Bye, Bye, Policeman.”
Samuel Charters, the blues scholar who roomed with Dave on MacDougal Street in the late 1950s, devoted several pages to Jackson in his groundbreaking The Country Blues and singled out this song for comment, saying that it was mentioned by Abbe Niles in The Bookman literary magazine: “…between articles on e.e. cummings and Virginia Woolf, there was a note about ‘Old Dog Blue… a wholly fascinating story of a hound who treed his possums anywhere he found them, from a holler stump to Noah’s Ark.'”
I figured Jackson was probably Dave’s source, though in the liner notes to his LP he said he couldn’t recall where he learned it and suggested the source might have been Guy Carawan. Back then I had no way to check and I’d forgotten about that note until today, when I went online to see if Carawan ever did it… and, by gum, he did. It’s a lovely performance, on a duet album with Peggy Seeger, and he sings a lot of the verses Dave sang, so apparently Dave’s memory was right. And, as it happens, he shortens that last line I was feeling so proud of shortening. So no credit to me, and I’m sorry Paul never heard Guy’s version.