Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Hobo's Lullaby"

"Hobo's Lullaby" is one of those songs that most people associate with a particular artist - in this case, Woody Guthrie - and are usually surprised to find out that that particular artist is not the actual creator of the piece. Certainly Woody popularized the song, and his well-known adventures riding the rails always lent a degree of credibility to his performance of it.

But "Hobo's Lullaby" was actually written by an obscure early folk singer named Goebbel Reeves, known as "The Texas Drifter," born in 1899 in Texas and died fifty years ago here in southern California. "Half-written" might better describe the composition. Wikipedia attributes the melody to an earlier Carter Family song (though Reeves was clearly a contemporary of the Carters and not a later artist), but somebody over there just didn't do his or her homework (so I added a little bit to the article, including a KT reference).

Reeves, whose life seemed to rotate among stints in the armed services, flirtation with commercial success (he did a good number of early recordings and was part of the cast at the Grand Ol' Opry for a time), and long stretches as a real hobo, clearly and cleverly re-worked the melody line of one of the greatest songs to come out of the American Civil War and one of the most popular during it (especially for Union troopers), George F. Root's "Just Before The Battle, Mother." [You'd also know of Root for his most famous and stirring march, "The Battle Cry of Freedom," sometimes called "Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys." Yes, as I've said here before, I am a complete Civil War nerd, down to the music.]

Just to see where Reeves got the melody - and because any excuse to post a quality artist will do for me - here is the great Marty Robbins doing a superb version of Root's song:

Reeves had great material to work from, and his lyrics do his effort justice. Woody Guthrie just didn't cover that many songs by other writers, and it has been said by son Arlo and others that "Hobo's Lullaby" was WG's favorite of all songs. The gentle, almost romantic rhythm, the little indictment of the Establishment, the compassion for simple people fallen on hard times - pure Woody Guthrie - and my don't we need him today! So Goebbel Reeves wrote a great song, but one boosted to a wider audience by the popularity of Woody, much as last week's Tom Paxton owed much to the Chad Mitchell Trio's covering of his songs.

For what may be the most sensitive recorded interpretation, we turn to Nick Reynolds, whose solo leads on quieter songs are among the most memorable in the entire catalog of the group. This upload, of course, is from the 1989 video An Evening With The Kingston Trio:

Nick Reynolds' self-effacing nature allowed his enormous talent, here on display as a supremely tasteful guitarist as well as an outstanding vocalist, to seem at times overshadowed by the easy and apparently effortless natural ability of Bob Shane, the fiery artistic temperament of John Stewart, and the witty intellectual brilliance of Dave Guard. But Nick's #1 fan was Shane himself, who described Nick at last October not only as his "best, best friend" but also as "pure genius." And Stewart remarked at nearly every Fantasy Camp that Nick's playing was "the real rhythm of the Kingston Trio" and echoed a comment that he made in his essay in The Kingston Trio On Record - that a roomful of trained musicians could study for a lifetime and never acquire the talent that Nick Reynolds had to entertain people and perform music.

For some other versions now - the voice of an angel sojourning here on earth for an era that we are blessed to be living in - Emmylou Harris:

Arlo Guthrie changes the words slightly, and his voice has a richer and more mellifluous timbre than his dad's - he, too, has always been a great singer:

For a pure folk sound, absolutely nothing tops Pete Seeger, vocal and banjo only:

Michael Jonathon, the host of the Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour, which has archives on the site that include shows with John Stewart and Ian Tyson among scores of others, is also an accomplished folk musician and here does a fine duet with fiddler Gabriel Witcher:

Finally - Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits will go down in rock history as the writer of one of the great opening guitar riffs in history (with Clapton's "Layla" and Keith Richards' "Satisfaction" among others) in "Money For Nothing," - but like Clapton is a protean guitarist who can play damn near anything on the instrument. Here Knopfler adds a tasteful guitar wash behind the blues-flavored vocals of one of his bandmates,* not identified in the video:

The joy for me of doing these weekly articles is finding great and unexpected performances of songs I've always loved. This week - well, nothing great by Emmylou Harris or Marty Robbins could ever be said to be unexpected - but what a joy to find them nonetheless.

*note stgermain's comment below for information on the other musicians in the Knopfler video - thanks stgermain!



stgermain said...

Hi - I enjoyed your videos of different artists' interpretations of one of my favorite songs. A little info on the other performers in the Mark Knopfler clip: the singer is Brendan Croker, with Steve Phillips also on guitar, and Guy Fletcher on keyboards. Knopfler's sublime playing is on his 1958 Les Paul.

stgermain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jim said...

I love this series of Videos and the attendant articles, by Jim Moran. Hobo's Lullaby has been a long-time favorite of mine, and it's wonderful to see/hear a variety of great artists put their own interpretations on the song. Of course, my personal favorite will always be Nick Reynolds, for many of the reasons Jim cited, and just for being Nick Reynolds.
Thanks for another great read, Jim...