Thursday, September 2, 2010

"The Escape Of Old John Webb"

I believe it was my friend Max Schwartz who has related several times in different posts that one of the things he loved about folk music was its ability to transport us to different times and places like no other kind of music can. That resonated with me, because when I was a boy that was exactly what I felt about traditional songs from time periods I loved, like the era of Yankee whaling or the time of the mountain men or the Civil War - or as here, colonial America.

I loved "The Escape of Old John Webb" the first time I heard it. The lyric provides just enough detail for the listener to fill in the blank spaces and create his or her own personal imaginative drama. My John Webb is a short old man, bald except for a Ben Franklin-esque fringe of shoulder-length white hair. He is dressed in eighteenth century knee-length leather britches, with tattered white stockings and dirtied black leather shoes with tarnished brass buckles. His weskit, or long vest, is dark blue, tattered, and missing buttons as he sits in a dank, straw-floored subterranean cell, clamped to the wall with huge and heavy chains. Bill Tenor is a powerful young man in his 20s in a plain homespun shirt and yellow weskit with the massive shoulders of a defensive tackle, his brown hair tied back in a neat and oiled queue as he tears the jail apart to rescue his friend... I still see these images and get a chill every time I hear the song.

I had always assumed that, with the British being the bad guys, the song was of Revolutionary War vintage. Then about 20 years ago, while I was paging through the voluminous Folk Songs of North America by Alan Lomax, I found that a version of the song had been there all the time (I got the book around 1962) under the title of "Billy Broke Locks." Lomax tells a complicated and metaphorical version of the truth underlying the song, very different from the one told by Burl Ives in his song book. Other books tell yet other versions. From all the obscurity of centuries and folklore, four basic facts emerge:

1) There was a real John Webb (possibly Webber but likely the former), the mintmaster of Salem Mass. in the 1730s.

2) Sometime mid-decade, he fell afoul of the British authorities and was accused of counterfeiting.

3) He was jailed.

4) He got out of jail.

The truth of anything past that is speculative, possibly because the actual song is derived from an older Scots ballad called "Archie o' Cawfield" in which two brothers rescue a third who is doomed to hang and imprisoned in a cell with 40 weight of good Spanish iron and so on.

Ives tells the straightforward version. Webb is printing his own money in this version because royal currency cannot be trusted and Webb's notes are preferred by his neighbors. The Brits arrest him for counterfeiting, and JW's young friend Bill Tenor stages the jailbreak after having escaped from the selfsame jail.

Lomax suggests that it's all a metaphor - the original lyric has "one to let Old Tenor out" - old Tenor being a nickname for Webb, who preferred an older version of the country's currency (called "tenors") to a newer and in the colonies mistrusted and hence valueless version. Lomax further suggests that the lyric should read "billie broke locks" instead of "Billy" - a billie being a bit of Scots terminology for a lead pin, something like a belaying pin on ships and the ancestor of the billie club of nineteenth century police.

Makes sense, and folk songs can surely be that symbolic and indirect. Trouble is - fragmentary tax records show that in 1735 there was in the township of Salem a certain farmer, one William Tenner. And it was the Salem jail that John Webb walked out of - though we will never know if as some suggest he was freed due to lack of evidence (and the rising tide of colonial resentment against overseas British authority) or whether his friends broke him out with redcoat cavalry in hot pursuit.

But we do not have to know. The song stands as it is, one of the best of the American broadside ballads, which were songs printed on a single large sheet, about the size of an old sheet of newsprint.

Given that background, our first version of the song is in broadside ballad form, sequenced by folk expert Lesley Nelson-Burns of The Contemplator website:

Nelson-Burns' site, from which I downloaded this MIDI, is as I've mentioned before one of my go-to sites for information on songs to help me fill in gaps. The overall site is here:

The Contemplator Site

and the Webb-specific page is here:

Old John Webb

John Roberts gives us an authentic-sounding version, accompanying himself only with a concertina  - here from the 2010 Chicago Maritime Festival. Roberts sings the expanded lyric with a couple of verses clearly taken from "Archie o' Cawfield":

Roberts gives the song the kind of swing that makes it sound like a tavern singalong. You can almost smell the ale.

The Kingston Trio's version is the one I've loved for fifty years:

This is such a beautiful arrangement - the quietly urgent vocals that the original Trio did so well, the soft, bare-fingered banjo work by Guard, the way the desperation of the flight is communicated by Guard's "The British were coming..." riding right on the tail of Reynolds' verse - absolutely masterful.

John Stewart was like many of us a fan of the original KT before he joined the group after Guard left. Decades later, after reinventing himself several times in different singer-songwriter modes, Stewart began to return to his KT roots in the 1980s, first with a wonderful short album with former Triomate Nick Reynolds, and then slowly integrating new versions of old KT songs into his shows and later his albums. Here is his take on "John Webb":

I like Stewart's Lindsey-Buckingham-styled folk-rock take on the song - except for that damned whiny Ovation guitar John was playing at the time. Cool fact: Dave Guard and Nick Reynolds are singing on the chorus here.

E.L. Kurtz of Rochester IL is a younger performer who revels in all things Revolutionary. He has been a Revolutionary War battle re-enacter, and his 2007 CD A Soldier's Journey takes eighteen traditional songs and weaves them together into the narrative of a colonist's life as Kurtz imagines it. Here is his "Old John Webb":

Kurtz's dramatic reading has a kind of gusto that just feels right for the heroic tone of the song.

Poor Richard's Penny is a highly talented and thoroughly professional duo that specializes in early American music:

This delightful performance has been posted to YouTube for more than four years now and deserves a much wider audience than it has garnered to this point.

Finally, from the 1962 Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour - Groveton High School's Wayfarer Trio creates an interesting riff on the Kingston version and adds a Limeliter-styled twist at the end:

Fine version - though it is sobering thought to realize that these three fresh-faced boys are all eligible for Social Security today.

If, as former DJ and producer Tomm Rivers suggests, folk is as dead as radio formats in general, then we are all obviously the poorer for it. But the people you really have to feel sorry for are the generations born after people could hear music like this over the air or buy it in a music store. Those younger ones will never have a chance to create their own John Webbs and Bill Tenors in their own sadly under-developed imaginations. Pity.


Pete Curry said...

Jim: Re. "concertina so common in colonial America": I'm pretty sure the concertina is of much more recent invention, ca. 1850. Regards, Pete Curry

Jim Moran said...

Thanks, Pete - I may be using the wrong term and need to revise it. There were forced-air bladder instruments that could play drone notes that were common in the southern colonies especially, according to a book I used extensively in college called something like 'Seventeenth Century America: The Colonial Framework." I thought of "concertina" as a catch-all term, and it isn't, as you point out. I'll edit that out.

Julien said...

A beautifully written, evocative piece: as is the song.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks, Julien. It may well be my single favorite KT song.