I was singing a song for a friend who is more than twenty years my junior. The folksong, “I Ride an Old Paint,” includes the lyrics,
Old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song;
One went to Denver, and the other went wrong.
His wife, she died in a poolroom fight;
Still the old man keeps singing from morning ‘til night.
I finished the song, and my friend asked, “Where did you learn that one?” The question startled me because I don’t remember not knowing the song.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Grade school, I guess.”
“Grade school?” he said. “His wife died in a poolroom fight, and you learned that in grade school?”
I thought about it. “Yeah,” I said. “Kids were a lot tougher back then.”
That was the beginning of “Folksongs You Never Sang in Grade School,” an effort to document, honor and share a collection of folk songs I love and my personal history with them. As a collector, interpreter and performer of folk songs for 40 years, I have always been drawn to “edgy” traditional songs—songs of warning, songs of danger, historical songs of murder and war, songs of disaster, songs of regret, songs of grief, of the ghosts who haunt people and the people who haunt ghosts. Without a doubt, the English-speaking world has produced an ample supply of these songs from the edge, passed down over hundreds of years through the oral tradition. And I’m not talking about bawdy songs. There are plenty of them, too, but I love songs about honest human drama more than the intentionally risqué.
That’s 40 years of seeking, learning, performing and loving folksongs, but even longer than that just hearing folksongs around me on TV shows like Hootenanny, The Smothers Brothers, and The Johnny Cash Show; at bible school and summer camp; in cub scouts and 4-H; and, of course, in grade school. Folksongs are literally songs of the people, so as I began to question my own spotty memory of learning “I Ride and Old Paint” in grade school, I knew I would have to go to the people to validate my claim, but where are the people these days?
I became serious about folk songs during the Folk Revival which, like other trends (i.e. chipotle peppers, yoga, bagels, yogurt, and Thai restaurants) came late to the hardcore, rural Midwest. The Revival hit central Iowa in the early 1970’s, and back then, the people were easy to spot. They were wearing second-hand clothing and sitting around in coffee houses with guitars and mandolins. They were lounging under ancient oak trees on the university commons trading songs and self-consciously tossing their heads to chase the long hair out of their eyes. They were singing union songs as if they sweat each day in a coal mine and singing protest songs whenever anything might need protesting. They crowded into smoky, sweltering, un-air conditioned attic apartments wearing bib overalls and peasant blouses, listening to scratchy 78 recordings, and writing down lyrics. And late into the night, any place where no one would complain about the noise or call the police, they would play and sing all the folk songs they knew. No one took music lessons; they learned from each other. I remember early one morning the people had been playing and singing all night in a dingy, communal conglomeration of flophouse apartments with a big, empty common room in front above a pool hall on the main street of a university town. It was just before dawn, and a bearded mandolin player who I knew only as “Turtle” announced, “Let’s sing ‘Blood on the Saddle’ one more time and call it a night.” So we did:
There was blood on the saddle and blood all around,
And a great big puddle of blood on the ground.
A cowboy lay in it all covered with gore,
And he never will ride any broncos no more.
Oh, pity the cowboy, all bloody and red,
For the bronco fell on him and caved in his head.
Stories from the edge. Folksongs you never sang in grade school. Where are the people today?