“Philadelphia Lawyer” is another song I’ve known forever, but never fully appreciated until I heard someone else sing it. The someone else in this case was Peter Keane, who sang a really nice version when we used to do gigs together in the 1990s, and he gave me a new appreciation of it, but I still wasn’t tempted to sing it myself…
…and then I moved to Philadelphia, fell in love with the city, and this naturally became part of my repertoire.
The phrase “smart as a Philadelphia Lawyer” (or “clever as…,” “keen as…”) was proverbial by the early 19th century, generally traced to a case from 1733 in which a Scottish-born, Philadelphia-based lawyer named Andrew Hamilton defended a German immigrant printer named John Peter Zenger who was accused of printing several “low ballads” in his New York Weekly Journal, which, it was charged, contained “many things tending to sedition and faction, and to bring his Majesty’s government into contempt, and to disturb the peace thereof.” The judge did not accept the argument that the ballads were justifiable if they could not be proved false, and ordered the jury to convict, but Hamilton’s eloquence persuaded them otherwise and Zenger was acquitted — thus establishing a right to freedom of the press which was later codified in the US Constitution.
Despite its noble beginnings, the phrase was most often framed in uncomplimentary terms, to suggest a smooth-talking rascal. That’s how Woody Guthrie understood it, and his ballad was a canny confection combining two popular stereotypes: the eastern scalawag and Reno’s reputation as “the divorce capital of the world.”
I have a personal connection to that story as well, because in 1958 my father went to Reno for the divorce that allowed him to marry my mother. He had to stay six weeks to establish residency, and spent the time learning to ride western style — dude ranches were a Reno specialty, catering to divorce exiles — and developing an enduring affection for horses and blue jeans. When he got back east, he wore jeans for the wedding, which was performed by the postmaster of Durham, New Hampshire.
I benefited from those six weeks in multiple ways: first off, it’s how I got here; second, my father’s affection for western horse culture led to a couple of family trips to ranches, where we all learned to ride, and to a horse trip through the Canyon de Chelly, and a few other opportunities to play cowboy; finally, I have a feeling my father’s affection for the west played a part in his accepting my choice to become a rambling folksinger.
I think of this song as a companion piece to The Zebra Dun, another cowboy song with a prominent dude and a surprise ending. Woody Guthrie has been remembered more for his political songs than for his commercial songwriting savvy, but he was part of the Western music boom, a radio personality who got hits for his cousin, Cowboy Jack Guthrie, with “Oklahoma Hills,” and for the Maddox Brothers and Rose with this one. He was a competent hoedown fiddler and mandolin player, and I’ve always loved this picture of him as a cowboy-suited member of what appears to be a pretty slick Western show band: