Sam Hall (Josh White)

I loved Josh White’s music from the start, and had plenty of parental support: he was the only guitarist whose work my father could recognize instantly, and my mother clearly had a mild crush on him (not an unusual reaction). josh lpI had his Chain Gang and Southern Exposure 78 albums pretty early, but don’t recall learning any songs off them, probably because at that point the guitar parts were too daunting — in any case, my basic Josh repertoire came from a slightly later acquisition, the Elektra two-record “best of” set compiled from his 1950s recordings. It was heavily slanted to blues, but included a couple of British Isles songs, or at least this one, which I learned immediately and sang with great relish.

Apparently descended from a serious gallows-last-words ballad about a young chimney sweep named Jack Hall (I got his first name wrong on the video) who was executed in the late eighteenth century, by the mid 1800s it had become “Samuel Hall,” a comic parody of that form. It seems to have been a barroom and fraternity favorite in the United States in the early twentieth century, and was included by Carl Sandburg in his American Songbag, so there’s no telling where Josh picked it up. In any case, he sang it with grisly pleasure, and in the context of his repertoire of protest blues I understood it as a generalized attack on all authorities, secular or religious, and respectable people in general — and took great pleasure in the gorier bits. As a kid just getting a basic feel for the guitar, it was also one of the few songs of his that I could play.