With more computing power at our desks (and perhaps in our pockets) than NASA used to put men on the moon, and with the internet connecting each of us almost instantly to nearly 465 million websites and over two billion internet users 1, it’s tempting to think no bit of information is beyond our grasp with just a few keystrokes. It is satisfying, though, that in spite of our postmodern wealth of information technology, some mysteries remain.
Generally speaking, while researching the songs in the Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School collection, I gathered more information about the songs than I needed, and it was easy. I conducted research in my office, on my couch, in friends’ homes, in my brother’s condo and in hotel rooms. Research is easier now than ever before, and the real work of writing these essays has been thinning out the wealth of information and choosing which threads I would gather to bind my thoughts together. With one exception.
I have a longstanding relationship with the song “Pink.” The first (and only) time I heard it performed was about 1983. I had traveled to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, for a concert by the Bloomington-based folk band, Metamora.2 I traveled with a friend and public radio producer who would record the concert for later broadcast. The concert in The Great Hall was spectacular. The trio was brilliant musically but also brought the concert to life with stories and their encyclopedic knowledge of the songs they played. They demonstrated a true love for the music that I have since tried to emulate in my own way.
Knowing so much about the music they played, the performers were given to detailed and lengthy introductions to the songs, but the highlight of the concert for me was a song minimally introduced with one sentence, and I remember it well, “Here’s an old steamboat song.” “Pink” is a difficult song to summarize, so I give it to you in its entirety as I remember learning it:
C’mon my Pink, tell me what you think;
You been too long makin’ up your mind.
You told more lies than the stars in the skies,
And your heart is no more mine.
There was a boy in this old town,
And he lived on cards and wine.
I dragged my razor ‘cross his throat,
And my baby paid the fine.
So hand me down my old valise
And all my dirty, old clothes.
And if my baby asks for me,
Tell her I stepped outdoors.
Yonder come that old steamboat,
Oh, it’s 16 barges long.
And if the captain asks for me,
Tell him I just stepped on.
Get the word to my old pa,
Lord, I never meant him no harm.
And if my mama asks for me,
Tell her I’m dead and gone.
Given my affinity for gritty songs, the second verse appealed to me as a particularly poetic murder ballad, “I dragged my razor ‘cross his throat/And my baby paid the fine.” I also loved the poetry in verse one, “You told more lies than the stars in the skies/And your heart is no more mine.”
I wanted to make “Pink” my own, but it was so obscure that learning it was a chore in those pre-internet days. Since the concert was recorded for radio, I had to wait until it would be broadcast. Back then, I only had a little transistor radio and a big old reel-to-reel tape recorder, so I set them up on the kitchen table, microphones in front of the tiny radio speaker. Only selections from the concert would be included, and I just had to hope my friend the radio producer didn’t edit out “Pink.” I waited and finally heard the words I was waiting for, “Here’s an old steamboat song.”
I learned the song, and though the radio, recorder and reel of tape are long gone, it’s bumped around in my head all these years, and I’ve always wanted to know more about it. I came close in about 1994. I moved to a new town and visited the folk song books in the public library. Sure enough, I found a book of old steamboat songs, leafed through it and found a version of Pink. I was in a hurry, though, and didn’t check out the book. After all, I could always come back for it later. I didn’t even take time to register the title of the book or the song. I just remembered the book’s title as Old Steamboat Songs and the song as “Pink” and a tiny, embossed steamboat on the lower right corner of the otherwise unadorned, yellow cover. Some years passed, and I again found myself in the library with time to kill, so I decided to check out the book. Of course, it was not on the shelf and no record of it remained in the catalog. I had missed my chance.
By this time, though, I was online. I knew the power of the internet and I would use it to learn about “Pink.” First, I searched for the book by title, Old Steamboat Songs, then Steamboat Songs, then Steam Boat Songs, Then Riverboat Songs, etc. I came up empty, so I searched for the song title with no luck. I typed in selected lyrics from the song to no avail. I refined my search and struck out. I began questioning my memory, but finally, using some combination of lyrics and keywords, I came across a variant of the song (much different than the one I’d learned) attributed to Country Music Hall of Fame member, humorist and clawhammer banjo player, Grandpa Jones.3 Finally, I had a solid lead. But…I was in a hurry. I had something to do, so I closed out of the program. After all, I could always search again and find what I wanted.
In 2011, “Pink” again scratched at the edges of my memory when I started writing the essays for Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School. Naturally, with a line that describes slitting the throat of a card player, “Pink” was a natural for inclusion in a collection of gritty folk songs, so I went back to the internet and searched for “Grandpa Jones” and “Pink.” No luck. I tried snippets of lyrics from the song as I remembered it, like “…told more lies than the stars in the skies” and “dragged my razor ‘cross his throat” to no avail. The closest I came was a reference to Stringbean Akeman, 4 often a musical cohort of Grandpa Jones, playing “My Pretty Little Pink,” which after some research I learned was a variation of “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” 5 aka “Fly Around My Blue-Eyed Girl.” The two songs are completely different, sharing only the word “Pink,” apparently used as a name or nickname for a girl. Another dead end.
Frustrated by my inability to learn anything about this great song, I went back to the source, or at least my source, the performers who introduced me to “Pink” some forty years ago. I googled the musician who sang it, found his website (he’s still an active musician) and sent him an email explaining my recollection of the song and my interest in learning more about it. Several weeks passed, and I thought I’d hit another roadblock, but I finally received a reply that he remembered the song and recalled that he learned it from a book called Steamboatin’ Days, and everything fell into place.
By this point in the essay, I’ve used the word “remember” seven times and “memory” twice. If this essay had a subtitle, it would be “The Folk Process in Real Time,” but I’m thinking of using that for the title of a future essay. In writing the Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School essay collection, I’ve tried to make the case that the folk process is about collective authorship and individual songwriters altering existing songs according to their own poetic sensibilities. The multiple versions and variants are the result of conscious deliberation and artistic choice. But there is a random element to the folk process as well, that is, the unreliability of memory. My memory of the music book I found in the public library years ago was only partially correct. Yes, the book had a yellow cover, unadorned but for the simple line drawing of a steamboat in the lower, right-hand corner, but the title wasn’t Old Steamboat Songs; it was Steamboatin’ Days,6 a detail that had my memory not failed me would have considerably shortened my search for the song. My memory of the Grandpa Jones song was probably, Fly Away My Pretty, Little Pink, a totally different song than what I searched for, and Jones may not have been referenced at all; it my have been Stringbean. After all, they were both costume wearing, comic clawhammer banjo players.
Finally, reading the alleged source for the song as it appears in Steamboatin’ Days, I found enough similarity between it and what I currently sing, but many more differences. The title is not “Pink,” but “Come On My Pink, an’ Tell Me What You Think.” Gone is the steamboat captain, gone are Pa and Ma. The razor dragging remains, but gone is the reference to gambling and drinking. Is this the way I heard it? Did the singer at Luther College, decades before, change the lyrics that much? How much have I changed the song over the years? I was hoping to learn more about the song from Mary Wheeler, the author of Steamboatin’ Days, but even after all my searching that was not to be. All I learned was that her source for the song was a man named Uncle Hal Williams, and apparently, he had a pet chicken.
I know I am one of the collective authors of “Pink,” but for the life of me, I don’t know to what degree. About 15 years ago I taught the song to the great Irish guitarist and singer, Pat Egan. Some years later, he contacted me because he had rediscovered the song on an old cassette tape I’d recorded for him. In 2011, Pat sent me his new CD, Fiddle Tunes and Ballads, and I was delighted to hear “Pink.” Sure enough, Pat’s version was a little different than the one I played for him years ago, and I saw the folk process, that great branching tree that spans time and space, living, growing, changing, thriving.
I was tickled pink.
The One That Got Away
- “Internet Usage Statistics.” Internet World Stats. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm. Retrieved 1/26/13.
- Metamora. “Little Potato.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkcnJd-eyQ0. Retrieved 1/26/13.
- Grandpa Jones. “Night Train to Memphis.” YouTube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPkSNoW6m44&feature=player_detailpage. Retrieved 1/26/12.
- Stringbean Akeman. “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel.” YouTube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ilo3UfABRD8. Retrieved 1/26/13.
- Ford, Tennessee Ernie. “Fly Around My Pretty Little Pink.” YouTube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWgUUAb-ujE. Retrieved 1/26/13.
- Wheeler, Mary. Steambotin’ Days: Folk Songs of the River Packet Era. Louisiana State University Press. 1944
- Egan, Pat. “Pink.” Pat Egan and Alex Caton: Fiddle Tunesand Ballads. 2011. http://www.reverbnation.com/patrickegan.