The People Today

Ronnie D. Lankford, a writer and music critic, says the Folk Revival was already in decline “…by 1967 [when it] had moved over to make room for folk-rock and acid rock.” 1 Though the Revival had a longer life in the Midwest where trends are slow to arrive and depart, it still had to die. Here’s how I think it happened: The 1970’s saw two great equal and opposite musical forces seep into the Midwest—folk music and disco. Two more opposing musical cultures couldn’t possibly exist at the same time in the same place, so by about 1980, the two forces reached a point of equilibrium, and just like matter and anti-matter, cancelled each other out. I knew it was over in the early ‘80’s when I heard a disguntled folkie singing in a coffeehouse to a sparse crowd,

Nobody comes to the coffeehouse
Nobody comes to the coffeehouse
Nobody comes to the coffeehouse
Folksingers are boring

First they start some silly song
Try to make you sing along
Always drag it out too long
Folksingers are boring

First they sing a song about a train
Then they sing a song about a train
Then they sing a song abaout a train
Folksingers are boring

Give us Salsa; give us soul
Give us good old rock and roll 2

And so on. I feel the loss to this day.

So, in the ‘80’s, The People cut their hair, shaved their beards, put on ties, got jobs, had kids, and watched Thirty Something and The Wonder Years on TV. The coffee house was gone, and with no place for The People to hang out, they just kicked around for a few years. But something else happened in the ‘80’s: The People bought personal computers and shortly after went online, and that’s where The People are today. As I began to question my own spotty memory of learning “I Ride and Old Paint” in grade school, I knew I had to go to The People to validate my claim, and I found them virtually. They were easy to spot: entering lyrics into folksong data bases, posting song requests on discussion boards, writing folk music blogs, reviewing CD’s for online music ‘zines, hosting folk music podcasts, liking Facebook pages for long-dead musicians like Hank Williams (Yes! The Drifting Cowboy, dead since 1953, has a Facebook page, and 748,457  people like it), and late into the night, after the rest of the family has gone to sleep, in the privacy of a bedroom or basement rec room so no one can hear and complain about the noise—showing the world how to play a Lester Flatt G run or fingerpick like Mississippi John Hurt…on YouTube!

Not trusting my memory, I booted up, and immediately found validation by Googling “I ride an old paint” and “grade school.” Punching the “I feel lucky” button, I was rewarded with this from Barbara on Cowboypoetry.com: “We got to talking about songs about Montana and I sang ‘I Ride an Ol’ Paint’ for them. I had learned that song forty years ago in grade school.” 3 Perfect! Barbara goes on to explain that she is dissatisfied with her grade school teacher’s explanation of the chorus, “Ride around little doggies; ride around slow/For the Fiery and the Snuffy are rarin’ to go” as “…the names of two locomotives waiting to take the cattle to market after the roundup.”

That’s where The People come in. In a passionate, online, dogpile discussion (which in the heat of the Folk Revival might have taken place in a coffeehouse or commune over a meal of veggies and brown rice), the reference to “Fiery and Snuffy” is interpreted as “…fiery (another term for paint) and the snuffy (a buff- or snuff-colored horse),” the respondent quoting from Songs of the Wild West 3.

From an anonymous respondent “…‘the fiery & snuffy’ have always meant (to me) that the ones prone to spooking & snorting (the fiery & the snuff-y) are just LOOKING for an excuse to stampede…And therefore, you would want to “ride around them SLOW.”

From musician, auctioneer and DJ Stan Howe: “The ‘Fiery & Snuffy’…refer to Lighting and Thunder.”

From Don: “[My dad] said ‘fiery’ and ‘snuffy’ were the campfire and branding iron.”

From Milton, a working cowboy, “…whenever you’re holding up a herd of cattle to work, be it branding or cutting out steers, there are always a certain few in the herd [the Firey and Snuffy] that are looking for a chance to break out of the hold up and head back to their home range.”

This online discussion took place over four years, and eventually veered into the illumination of other cowboy lingo in the song. The “hoolihan” refers to a lasso, or according to Milton, “…a loop thrown, usually when you’re roping horses” or more specifically, a particular method of swinging to loop “…backward instead of forward [causing] it to flatten out before it reached the head of the animal to be roped. Just one swing and it could be tossed thirty feet forward…” Subduing calves or horses with the lasso is a dangerous business, and figuratively, “…throwing the hoolihan could be used to mean ‘getting ready to die’ similar to ‘headin’ for the last roundup,” adds Don.

In researching this folksong collection, these songs of the people, I decided to go to The People as least as much as the experts. Scholarly writing about ballads and balladry may have played itself out. A review of scholarly work on the subject shows little work post 1972. The heyday of the great English language folksong collectors—Child, Lomax, Sandburg—is over, but in the places The People hang out—online, in traditional music magazines and contemporary recordings—folk songs are alive, well and dynamic.

Want to find out what a 14th Century Scottish Earl, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, J.D. Salinger, rackabilly singer Johnny Preston, jazz pianist Red Garland, Bob Dylan, novelist Alice McDermott and…Rush Limbaugh…have in common? Read the next essay, “Like a Version.

The People Today

Sources

  1. Lankford, Ronnie D. “Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band.”  http://www.allmusic.com/ artist/jim-kweskin-the-jug-band-p195526/biography. Retrieved 1/27/12.
  1. Calhoun, Andrew. “Folksingers Are Boring.” http://www.waterbug.com/calhoun/lyrics/folksingers.html. Retrieved 1/27/12.
  1.  “Just What Do ‘Snuffy’ and ‘Fiery’ mean in ‘I Ride and [sic] Old Paint?’” Featured at the Bar D Ranch. http://www.cowboypoetry.com/whoknows2.html. Retrieved 1/27/12.

What’s This?

Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School is one folk musician's effort to document, honor and share a collection of folk songs I love and my personal history with them through research, essays, and performance. Read the essays here and watch this site for future performances.

What’s New?

Tara McGovern and I, joined by uilleann piper Jon Cooper, have completed the album version of Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School. For a taste of the CD listen to "Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird" and "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme."

Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme