Once again, I got this from Cisco Houston, but its history is marvelously convoluted. The source for everyone in the folk revival, sort of, more or less, was Paul Clayton — a name that was all but forgotten a few years ago, but now is having a mild revival thanks to a biography and play based on his life. I happened on Clayton even before Cisco Houston, thanks to someone giving me an album called Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick. I learned most of the songs on that album and sang them ad infinitum, when I was maybe seven years old, but don’t recall any of them completely, which may be for the best.
Dave Van Ronk always claimed that Paul’s motto was “If you can’t write, rewrite; if you can’t rewrite, copyright.” If so, the irony is inescapable, since he is most famous today for rewriting an old folksong as “Who’ll Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone),” which Bob Dylan rewrote in turn, ending up with “Don’t think Twice, It’s All Right.” There was apparently at least the germ of a lawsuit; there was also an apparently intimate friendship. But that’s another story.
Getting back to “Travel On,” Clayton apparently picked up a couple of lines from a folksong pamphlet and reworked them into the chorus, which he sang for a lawyer/folksinger in Chicago named Larry Ehrlich, who sang it at a party for Pete Seeger, and Seeger liked it and suggested that they write some verses, so he and Ehrlich and a guy named David Lazar made these up on the spot.
Pete then recorded the song at his final studio session with the Weavers, which was one of the great weird anomalies of the folk revival. It was January 1958, and Jimmie Rodgers (the rock ‘n’ roller, not the yodeling brakeman or the Chicago bluesman) had just had a hit with an electrified version of the Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” so Vanguard Records rushed them into the studio to capitalize on that baby by cutting a rock ‘n’ roll record. They recorded a half-dozen songs, backed by Pete’s banjo, a chromatic harmonica, and two electric guitars. This was one of them, and it is a bizarre experience to hear Pete’s lead vocal punctuated by twangy rockabilly licks. Indeed, it was too bizarre for most record buyers, but a country singer named Billy Grammer jumped on the record, redid it, and got a top ten hit.
None of which I knew until a couple of years ago, when I was working on Dylan Goes Electric! and the redoubtable Dave Samuelson got me copies of the electric Weavers tracks. I just thought it was an old folk song that Cisco sang, and that’s still how I think of it, when not in historian mode.