John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a minor American classic - brief, poignant, and deceptive in its apparent simplicity. After all, what's so tough about it? One hundred pages of big print, two guys, a dog or two, a really bad villain, and a tragically inevitable conclusion.* Just right for the seventh through ninth graders who are usually required to read it, no?
Well, no. Like most of Steinbeck's novels, Of Mice and Men expresses the writer's deeply progressive and socialist political beliefs, his anger toward rapacious capitalism (always personified in his books by an authority figure like a bank or [as here] a Boss), and his fundamental faith in the redemptive power of loyalty and love. In stark contrast to the novel's other characters, George and Lenny have hope through much of the book because they have each other; their interdependent friendship is profoundly affecting, even though the bad guys seem finally to win. George is as isolated at the end of the novel as any of the other hopeless souls on the ranch, a point visualized in two of the three film versions (1981 with Robert Blake and Randy Quaid and 1992 with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich) by a brief scene (not in Steinbeck's book but certainly implied by it) depicting George on the road again, this time alone.
And it is that lonely road that is the subject of this week's song, "I Feel Like I Gotta Travel On," attributed to Paul Clayton, a seminal but today largely-forgotten figure of the folk revival years. Like Lou Gottlieb, Clayton (1931-1967) came to professional folk music with some pretty hefty academic credentials - a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a masters from the same university in folklore studies. He had taught himself guitar, banjo, and dulcimer while in high school, and had even had his own folk radio show during those same years. At Virginia, prominent folklorist Arthur Kyle Davis was so impressed by Clayton's knowledge of traditional songs that he made the young scholar his research assistant (along with another undergrad named Matthew J. Bruccoli, who would become one of the nation's leading professor/scholars on F. Scott Fitzgerald) and took him on folksong collecting expeditions throughout the Appalachian mountains. Clayton had recorded professionally as part of a group for the Stinson label as early as 1952; he eventually abandoned academic life in favor of collecting, performing, and writing about folk music. Naturally, he moved to Greenwich Village around 1954 and recorded dozens of albums for Tradition (where he met and worked with Liam Clancy), Elektra, Folkways, and more. Clayton was about as successful as any traditionalist singer expected to be in the pre-folk boom days; he had a lovely, mellow voice reminiscent of Pete Seeger or Bob Gibson and a simple but effective guitar accompaniment style.** Clayton's career nosedived with the whole folk movement, and feeling abandoned by performers whom he had mentored (including Bob Dylan, who has always acknowledged Clayton's influence) and depressed by drug use, legal troubles, and his closeted homosexuality, he took his own life in 1967.
Clayton left behind a truly remarkable discography and his copyrights for his widely-covered arrangements of some traditional songs. Chief among these is his "I Feel Like I Gotta Travel On," about the origins of which Clayton was always mysterious. The likeliest reason is that he had heard the basic words of the chorus in a traditional song and had incorporated them into an old W.C. Handy melody, probably "Harlem Blues." The other verses were likewise adopted from other earlier songs, making Clayton's piece one that was rather more assembled from earlier sources than actually composed.
The original copyrighted lyrics that Clayton himself recorded reflect that Steinbeckian ambivalence toward the road, which in American folklore can be the portal to a new life or the desperate means of escape from an old one. Clayton's lyric quite clearly expresses the latter, as reflected in our first rendition by the Kingston Trio from 1964:
The KT was the only major group to catch some of the melancholy that Clayton had invested in the song. The Weavers' version that predates the Kingstons by about five years catches the wistfulness but at the expense of substantially re-writing (and re-copyrighting) the lyrics as Clayton wrote them:
The extent to which the KT was indebted to the Weavers is clear here, at least as far as musical stylings went. The Weavers' lyric re-write, possible because of Clayton's use of a public domain tune, enabled the group to retain all publishing royalties for themselves, and the BMI website lists Weavers Seeger, Hays, and Gilbert as copyright holders as well as Clayton. That was something that the Kingstons also learned from the Weavers, though while there are people who still deride the former group for pulling that little trick, very few people today recall how thoroughly the Weavers protected and profited from their own repertoire in exactly the same manner.
I wonder if any of Clayton's depression emanated from what happened next when country singers got wind of Clayton's work. The prototype for that was the country hit by Billy Grammer in 1959:
Grammer is using Clayton's words but charges through them as if blissfully unaware of what he is singing about. In his hands and those of some of the other country performers below, all the affect and sadness disappear from the song and it becomes a kind of "Happy Wanderer"(you know, "Val-der-ee, val-der-ah") with slide guitar and requisite twang added. Consider Jerry Reed, Tammy Wynette et al. from 1975:
Ditto Boxcar Willie, who sound positively cheerful:
The always-cheerful Seekers:
I have to confess to a great deal of disappointment here - the Seekers are doing the Weavers lyric, not Clayton's - and they could have done so much better.
Chet Atkins provides momentary relief - slower, if not exactly reflective:
The nadir may well be here - archetypal kitsch from The Lawrence Welk Show from 1972:
Looking at the different versions of this song reminded me sharply of my article on Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans", where similarly most of the artists ignore the implications of the lyric and just charge full speed ahead - you know, a train song, riding the rails, the Song of the Open Road and all. Clayton was trying to reflect on something very different - on the feelings of sadness and abandonment of the rootless and disaffected. As Clayton conceived it, this is the song that George Milton might well have been singing to himself as he had to hit that never-ending road alone right after the end of Of Mice and Men.
*If you have forgotten the plot, Wikipedia has a decent short summary HERE.
**Here is Clayton from an album of sea chanties singing "Spanish Ladies," which film buffs will recognize as the fragment sung repeatedly by deranged shark hunter Quint (played by Robert Shaw) in 1975's Jaws: