Tennessee Dog (Jimmie Strothers)

I loved this from the first moment I heard it, and worked up an arrangement a few years later because I was regularly singing “Mole in the Ground” and wanted an alternative song that would fill the same slot in my sets. This fit the bill perfectly: banjo-style guitar part, goofy animal lyric. Then came the barking, but I’ll get to that in a minute..

This was recorded in 1936 by a banjo player and singer named James or Jimmie Strothers, a wonderfully versatile musician whose one recording session included blues, work songs, a ballad, and this unclassifiable masterpiece.

Strothers was born in Virginia in 1883, which makes him one of the oldest black rural musicians whose work got preserved on records, and his music reaches back before the blues era, to styles that a lot of people now associate with Euro-American country music. By the time southern rural music began being captured on record a lot of Afro-American musicians and listeners had moved on to other styles, and the selective processes of both folklorists and commercial recording companies further cemented the idea of separate ethnic traditions.  So it’s worth underlining that the kind of banjo playing Strother (and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and Uncle Dave Macon) did was originally associated with black musicians and African traditions.

Getting back to Strothers, he apparently became blind in a mining accident sometime around the turn of the century and lived much of his life in Baltimore. He was recorded for the Library of Congress by John Lomax and Harold Spivacke while serving a second degree murder sentence in the Virginia State Penitentiary, and a collection of correspondence related to his parole includes a letter in which he explains that since becoming blind he had traveled widely on his own and “I am also a musician and can easily earn my money for living expenses.” Those were the good old days.

So anyway, I started playing this around the house, getting the guitar part the way I wanted. At that point I was living with Suzannah, who had been raised as an only child in a house full of dogs and tended to prefer them to people. She naturally approved of me adding a dog song to my repertoire — and, one afternoon as I was playing it, began barking along in appropriate places.

That was obviously the missing ingredient, and I persuaded her to perform this with me a couple of times — I’d introduce her as the second vocalist and she would sit demurely on a stool until the appropriate moment, then bark. It brought down the house… but we only did it a couple of times, then life intervened and that was that.

I kept doing the song, of course, but it never occurred to me to do my own barking until I was recording this video. Then the spirit descended upon me, and the result is before you.