Tell Old Bill (Bob Gibson, Ben Harney, et al.)

This was one of my regular numbers during that first summer of street singing. I learned it from Dave Van Ronk’s second album and, although he’d stopped singing it by the time I knew him, it was one of his big showstoppers back in 1961. His first wife, Terri Thal, recalls that it was also one of his regular teaching pieces when he gave guitar lessons: “For years, student after student would sit in our living room repeating that damned song over and over and over again. It still rings in my head.”

Dave’s source was undoubtedly Bob Gibson, who recorded it in 1957 on one of his most popular albums. (There’s a nice online clip of Gibson performing it in 1958, interesting among other things for how much he sounds like Pete Seeger, not only in his banjo and singing style, but in the spoken introduction.) Gibson was an incredibly influential figure on the folk scene of the 1950s, probably second only to Seeger. Dave tended to consider his approach too slick, cabaret-style, and distanced from authentic rural traditions — though he liked him a lot as a drinking buddy — but nonetheless picked up some of his material, including this, the Bahamian lullaby Joan Baez recorded as “All My Trials,” and probably some other songs I haven’t noticed.

As for Gibson’s source, it would have been Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, which was likewise a major influence on folk revival performers of that period, though it is rarely consulted today. (It was also the source of another of Dave’s standards, “Wandering.”) Sandburg took some of his material from the collections of folklorists like John Lomax (including “Dink’s Song,” which most people got from him), but also made a habit of turning parties and visits into song-swapping sessions as he traveled around the country. He apparently got “Tell Old Bill” from a painter named Nancy Barnhart in St. Louis, and published it in the first edition of the Songbag, in 1927, as “Dis Mornin’, Dis Evenin’, So Soon,” with the lyric in African American dialect, and the warning to Bill in the first verse given as “to let dem downtown coons alone.” (John and Alan Lomax published this version in American Ballads and Folk Songs, giving Sandburg as their source.)

Sam Hinton, another early, influential, and largely unremembered folk revivalist whom I’ve discussed in previous posts learned a different version from a black farmer in Texas, which he recorded for the Library of Congress in 1947, and Sandburg’s later editions included some verses from this version, which in turn led to Gibson’s version, and hence Dave’s. Which would be the story, except…

Yet another version of the song — though without the cohesive “old Bill” storyline — was recorded for the Library of Congress in 1925, two years before Sandburg’s first publication, and it is significant in all sorts of interesting ways. For one, it was one of the handful of songs recorded by Ben Harney, one of the first ragtime composers. For another, it is a version of Harney’s first hit and one of the first published ragtime compositions, from 1895, which was titled “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon But You’ve Done Broke Down…” a familiar title to Van Ronk fans although, aside from the title line, which presumably inspired the later Bessie Smith song that became a staple of Dave’s repertoire, this song has nothing to do with that one.

Nor, oddly enough, does the song Harney recorded for the LOC (which is well worth hearing) follow the same lyrical line as his published hit. On the cylinder, recorded by the pioneering folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon, Harney introduces it as “absolutely the first song published in ragtime; the first song ever written in ragtime… conceived by Ben Harney, in Louisville, Kentucky.” But what he sings sounds like a folk song compiled from a mix of unrelated, floating verses. Indeed, most of the verses are common to multiple other songs collected around the South, although, as Neil Rosenberg writes in his annotation to the LOC disc, “because Harney published his text in 1895 and performed it frequently for the next thirty years, it is quite possible that at least some of the texts recorded by folksong collectors during the early decades of this century reflect the popularity of Harney’s song.” Or, on the other hand, what Harney sang in 1925 might have changed from what he heard or wrote in 1895, picking up new verses hither and yon…

As they used to say: that’s the folk process.