One of the things that I have always loved about folk music is its capacity to surprise. You can be humming along through all the wonderful chanteys and cowboy songs and ballads and love songs...and then stumble unexpectedly on the surpassingly beautiful (like "Shenandoah" or "The Mountains of Mourne") or the darkly tragic (like "The Sloop John B") - or amazingly modern sentiments in a very old song, like "The Wagoner's Lad."
The very first verse of the song, which is known in a host of variants including "My Horses Ain't Hungry" (recorded famously by Peter, Paul and Mary as "Pretty Mary") and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and which dates to the early nineteenth or even late eighteenth century, tells us that we are not in the standard folk universe in this song, where women are usually the objects of either romantic desire or borderline misogynistic humor or scorn. Instead, "Wagoner's Lad" opens with a plaint as old as time, one that remains distressingly true for a really unthinkable percentage of the world's women today - in the Middle East, in most of South Asia and much of East Asia, and in large parts of Africa. Perhaps half of the women in the world today do not choose their husbands freely, making that opening verse perpetually relevant:
O hard is the fortune of all womankind
They're always controlled, they're always confined...
Controlled by their fathers until they are wives
Then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives.
The sad story of an unsuccessful courtship - due to the unsuitable poverty of the young man and the consequent forced and permanent separation of the young couple - is related in the voice of the girl, itself a bit unusual but not unheard of in English language folk songs. What is unique, though, is that the direct bitterness of the opening verse colors the rest of the tale of the lyric with an underlying and inescapable tragedy, as our narrator herself seems at some point in the future doomed to the "slavery" that she so despises, even sadder because love and happiness have flirted with her in the shape of her wagoner's lad, driven off by an unfeeling and unsympathetic father.
One of the earliest recordings of the song was by the legendary Buell Kazee, a Kentuckian who hit his stride in the 1920s a bit before the Carter Family came on the scene with a series of recordings for Brunswick records. Kazee's real ambition was the ministry, which he pursued for the rest of his life. The YouTube recording of Kazee has been removed,* but Smithsonian/Folkways Records has posted an equally authentic traditional rendition by Mr. and Mrs. John Sams of Kentucky - a field recording by John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers:
By way of contrast - here it is as sung by a woman, contemporary Anglo-Irish-American folksinger Sarah McQuaid - a fine a capella version:
And for contrast within a contrast, another lady's a capella version - who better than Joan Baez? This is the younger Baez, singing in that ice-clear soprano, very different from McQuaid's warm, full alto:
The Kingston Trio gives the song a respectful and almost traditional reading - they change the speaker from the girl to the wagoner's lad, much as they did in Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon", and add a chorus from a verse ("Pullin away...") but otherwise keep within the original thought of the song - one of the last times they did so with a folk number. This is the Something Special album version with the orchestra blessedly removed:
Our UK cousins Bert Jansch (of "Anji" fame) and John Renbourn deliver a wonderful, blues-tinged instrumental:
We sometimes forget that singer-songwriter John Denver began his career doing pop-folk versions of traditional songs, both with the Mitchell Trio and here in 1966 solo - the first song on the video with a fine 12 string guitar part:
Finally, Simple Gifts features the alternative version "My Horses Ain't Hungry" reminiscent of PP&M but featuring a guitar played in open D and a hammered dulcimer - really pretty:
Addendum, April 2012
Buell Kaze is back on YouTube, at least for a while: