This song changed my life, because when I saw a flier for a Dave Van Ronk concert at age 12, I went home and checked the two LPs I had with Van Ronk tracks, and one of them was Blues at Newport, and I put on this song, then played it for my mother, and we went to the concert, and that was that.
I don’t remember how or when I learned to play it myself — my guess is it was one Dave taught me during my year of lessons. In any case, it became a staple of my repertoire, and has remained a staple ever since. The one additional touch came that summer, when I was playing on the street in Harvard Square with Rob. I played this every night, and one night one of the other street musicians happened to be listening, and after I finished he came up and showed me the roll Blind Blake played in the instrumental bridge.
I remember the whole thing perfectly: he was wearing a brown leather jacket and a hat, and had a mustache, and he told me to just finger the left-hand chords the way I always did, and stood behind me and played the roll with his right hand, while I did the chords… and then I tried, and then he showed me again, and I got it.
Dave always credited this song to Blind Blake, and that’s certainly where he learned it, but he changed it around some and wrote the third verse himself — he did that quite a bit, writing new verses and rewriting old ones, without taking credit for the changes, which is one of the reasons so few people recognized his talents as a songwriter. I’ve made some minor changes as well, and picked up other bits here and there, but this is substantially Dave’s version, with the Blake guitar roll from that guy in Harvard Square.
It’s what used to be called a “patter” song, essentially an extended comic recitation with a sung chorus. Bert Williams, among others, made this kind of thing very popular in the early 20th century, and many of the most notable black performers of this kind of material were considered comedians rather than singers — even Speckled Red, of “Dirty Dozen” fame, is credited on his early 78s as “comedian with piano.”
Most modern revivalists have tended to treat songs like this as historical artifacts, doing their best to sing the recorded verses accurately even if some of the lines make no sense to them or their audiences. However, Dave understood it as a comedy routine and rewrote it accordingly, looking for material that would get laughs from his audience, which was obviously kind of different from the folks Blake was singing for in 1927.