Rivers seem to play a larger part in American folk music than they do in that of just about any other country. Sure, there are some Irish folk songs about the Shannon, and the Scots' "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton" is a standard; students of French probably remember singing "Sur le pont d'Avignon," and I have no doubt that the Rhine and the Volga and the Yang-tze and all the other big rivers have inspired some folkloric response.
But consider the rivers of America and the scores of songs they have inspired. The Hudson. The Chattahoochee. The Potomac. The Shenandoah. The Ohio. The Rio Grande. The Arkansas. The Red. The Wabash. And the Father of Waters himself, the Mississippi...and those are just the high profile waterways that have songs attached to them.
It is easy to understand why, since first, those rivers were the principal highways to and through the vast interior of North America in the days before railroads. But fully as important, I think, is that fact of the sheer majesty, power, and beauty of so many of them. If you'll forgive another short list - the Hudson at West Point. The Shenandoah at Harper's Ferry. The Ohio in southern Indiana. The Mississippi a mile wide near Cairo...so many more.
I have always loved the river and riverboat folk songs, perhaps second only to my love of a good sea chantey. Bob Gibson's first album in 1957 was called Folk Songs of the Ohio, and it was one of my favorites. The Weavers' "The E-Ri-E Was A Risin'" is a song that I still love to sing and play, as well as that great and stately cousin song, "The Erie Canal." You could do an entire book or a boxed album set on wonderful American river songs - and folkies have done so.
I suppose that reflecting on the very old "John Webb" song last week is part of what prompted me to pick "Rockabout My Saro Jane" for this week. I hadn't really thought much about the song for many years until recently. Last April when I was profiling Lou Gottlieb and his arrangement of "Good News", I remembered a passage from folk historian Ronald Cohen's Rainbow Quest that I used in the linked article and cite again here - Gottlieb told Cohen that
I had a wife and children and no money so I started working as a stand up comic and got a job at the Purple Onion. There were three guys there who used to hang around the Hungry i all the time. In fact, they'd be in the dressing room half the time. But they were cute....They were the opening act at the Purple Onion...Well, sir, these kids really had something different. There was a magic about that act that was hard to explain. When they made their first record...they needed a tune. I had a couple of old charts from the Gateway Singers that I quickly re-scored for three voices. They sang a song I stole from Uncle Dave Macon called "Rock About My Saro Jane" and put it on their first album. And they let me publish it. The royalties ultimately came out to thirty grand.
Here is Uncle Dave's recording from which Dr. Lou derived the arrangement to which he refers, courtesy of Chicago area roots expert Jeremy Raven:
Gottlieb was referring, of course, to the wet-behind-the-ears boys who were forming the Kingston Trio, and his arrangement of "Saro Jane" was a rousing opening number to the second side of that first album. I promptly forgot about the song (after remembering that I had indeed enjoyed it greatly) until late one night at the recent Trio Fantasy Camp in Arizona. A bunch of us were playing a few old KT songs in the Burns/Askins Hospitality Annex when Bob Shane and his wife Bobbie walked in and sat down to listen and sing along. Bobbie requested two songs that she said rightly that no one ever seemed to play at the camp, Stan Wilson's "I Bawled"...and "Saro Jane." Play them we did, and I was struck by what a fine arrangement Gottlieb had come up with and how much fun the song was.
As is obvious in the lyric, "Saro Jane" is a roustabout or stevedore's song from the Mississippi River. Alan Lomax also cites Uncle Dave Macon as the source, asserting that Macon learned the song in 1887 from black workers on the Cumberland River docks in Nashville but maintaining that the song was much older, probably of Civil War vintage. The late Rod Cook specialized in covering Macon's tunes and style - here he is with some absolutely first-class clawhammer on the song:
That is one fine sounding banjo, expertly played.
And here is what Lou Gottlieb came up with for the Trio - what they lack in finesse they make up for in energy:
Dr. Lou puts the verses completely in a minor mode and then creates a wonderful transition into the chorus by going to a major chord and then to a seventh leading into "Come on and rockabout..." - really nice.
Immortal Grass is a semi-pro assemblage from Haysi, Virginia whose rendition is a sort of bridge from Macon's old-timey mountain style to the more modern bluegrass interpretations upcoming next:
Something inside me says that folk music ought to be played this way - by a group of friends in a paneled parlor - with the lead singer in white socks. Perfect.
The Grascals are an up and coming "new grass" kind of act who put a good deal more professional polish on their rendition than the previous three videos demonstrate:
Finally, Wayne Shrubsall bills himself as "The Banjo Guy," and he delivers a different take on Dave Macon's arrangement than Rod Cook's. This video is well worth a listen for Shrubsall's introduction and his use of a century-old Vega/Fairbanks banjo:
In introducing "Saro Jane" in his Folksongs of North America, Lomax says that our country's interior rivers have been "pathways of folklore and song...made by men who shouted in triumph as the loads were hurled down, made by men who were driven by their own unbridled and beautiful strength to bring melody and rhythm...to the breast of the great rivers."
That's unusually poetic for Lomax - but it seems to me to fit perfectly for "Saro Jane" and a few dozen similar songs.
Appendix, April 2017
As I wend my way through the tedious taskk of changing the embed codes (the HTML that enables us to see these videos on this site) per the note on the left, I often run across an absolutely essential version of a song that was not available when I wrote the original essay. Just such a case is here. The New Lost City Ramblers - John Cohen, Tom Paley, and the late Mike Seeger - were the exact contemporaries of the Kingston Trio and other pop folkies, all of whom got started in 1958, but the Ramblers were as radically opposed to the popularizers as could be imagined. The NCLR wanted to demonstrate an absolute fidelity to the arrangements and identities of the tunes that the commercial groups were popularizing, and that is just what the Ramblers do here with this outstanding rendition of "Saro Jane:.