I learned this song from Peter Keane when we were exploring material to play as a duo. I had met Peter sometime in the early 1980s, by lucky happenstance: I was playing a street pitch on Holyoke Plaza in Harvard Square, he was a freshman in Harvard Yard, he’d been working on “St. Louis Tickle” in his dorm room and walked out of the yard, and I happened to be playing it. So he came over and introduced himself, said he was playing a set at the Nameless Coffeehouse that week or the next, I went down and heard him, and he was great. So I introduced him to Bill Morrissey and he became one of the gang, hanging out with me and Bill at Jeff McLaughlin’s house and various other places.
Bill and I both picked Peter to be a star, because he was young and handsome, sang real pretty, and had an instantly engaging stage presence. When he played at the Nameless there would be couple of rows of young women screaming, which was not normal on the local folk scene. He also had a interestingly varied repertoire, notable touchstones being Mississippi John Hurt and Buddy Holly — who I wouldn’t have thought of mixing till I heard Peter — as well as Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, and a gorgeous version of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
Within a year or two Peter was running the folk music programming at WHRB, the Harvard radio station, which led to me having a deejay show, irritating some listeners with my definition of folk music, which included Fats Waller playing “Oh, Susannah” and Aretha Franklin, but not the contemporary singer-songwriter stuff other people tended to play. (Other listeners were happy to go along with me, including Jim Kweskin, who called out of the blue one day to say how much he enjoyed the show.) And one summer Peter and I did a live half-hour show following the long-running Saturday morning favorite, Hillbilly at Harvard. Our model was the Maddox Brothers and Rose, whose old radio broadcasts had recently been reissued by Arhoolie. We’d kid around and play songs, which meant working up new material every week, and we didn’t set the world on fire, but it was good practice.
We also did some gigs together, where I’d do a set, Peter would do a set, and we’d do one as a duo. It was a good mix, since we had somewhat different tastes and very different voices, and the guitars blended beautifully. The only disaster was a suburban bar gig where they wanted us to sing Simon & Garfunkel and the bartender ended up calling the owner to come fire us halfway through the evening. Then Washtub Robbie Phillips scored a Monday night residency at the Plough and Stars and we put together a band, the Streetcorner Cowboys, with Robbie, Peter, me, Mark Earley on harmonica, and Matt Leavenworth showing up pretty often to sit in on fiddle. And then Peter moved to Austin, and the rest may be history, but not this history.
So that’s where I learned “Shake Sugaree.” I knew it was by Elizabeth Cotten, the left-handed guitar player famous for composing “Freight Train,” but it wasn’t on the one LP of hers I had and I don’t think I’d ever heard her version. The story behind it is charming: Cotten worked up the guitar part first and played it for her great-grandchildren, who made up the lyrics:
The first verse, my oldest great-grandson, he made that himself, and from that each child would say a word and add to it. To tell the truth, I don’t know what got it started… but it must have been something said or something done. That’s practically how all my songs I pick up.
Cotten’s recording had her great-granddaughter Brenda singing the lyrics, and I just listened to it and noticed how many verses I didn’t know and how many of the ones I sing are different from hers. I don’t know if Peter edited it down and made the changes, or if he got it from some interim version, or if I just altered it over the years without noticing. Either way, it’s a nice song.
As for Peter, he’s still in Austin and still playing great. Check out his website. And I’m overdue for a visit.