Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Salty Dog Blues"

A fine line exists, perhaps, between songs and jokes and that are outright bawdy and those that are merely naughty. I would guess that to people of a certain degree of refinement, no such line exists because some topics are simply not fit material for either humor or tune-making. But refinement is not a quality that we ordinarily associate with folk music, or its makers for that matter, since the volk are, well, the volk, and that implies a view of life that the bluenoses might call vulgar but that we might more correctly and less pejoratively term earthy. A good many English language folk songs, the older ones especially, are unselfconsciously ribald, and why not? While the refined Norman nobility of England in the Middle Ages sat in their castles with troubadours strumming lutes and singing Proven├žal poems of romantic and courtly love, the Anglo-Saxon majority labored as subsistence farmers, raising pigs and chickens, oats and barley, fervently hoping that both their livestock and their children would mate successfully to produce another generation of both food from the former and laborers from the latter. Not much tolerance for flighty romance there, but plenty of interest in the mechanics and strategies of reproduction.

By the time many of those Saxon songs became rooted in America, alas, the pervasive influence of the puritanical theology of depravity and shame forced the often openly sexualized nature of the lyrics to go underground, sort of, and in the U.S. we have far more suggestively naughty numbers than we do outright bawdy ones. Even in the years of the folk revival, old English ditties like "Three Jolly Coachmen," "Blow The Candle Out," and "The Hunter" needed a certain degree of expurgation to be acceptable to record labels and radio stations - if you look back at those hyperlinked articles, you'll find some discussion in each of the original and saltier lyrics.

And the fact that I can use the word "salty" to mean "off-color, suggestive" takes us right to the double entendre behind this week's song selection, "Salty Dog Blues." There are all kinds of explanations for what a "salty dog" is - and none of them is even remotely respectable. They range from the elaborate (a heated, brined sausage worn in the underclothes in winter to ward off colds) to the obvious (a salted Coney Island hot dog on a stick, with all the phallic implications thereof). I can think of a couple of other rather literal possibilities as well, but no matter - in any and every event, the singer of the lyrics is expressing a very recognizable longing for the charms of the favored lady, with the lines "If I can't be your salty dog,I won't be your man at all/Honey, let me be your salty dog" or something very similar appearing in every version.

Though most of the modern bluegrass versions of "Salty Dog Blues" can be traced to the Morris Brothers' 1938 recording, older versions were waxed in the 1920s by the Allen Brothers, a white duo who may have been the first to adapt a black blues number that probably originated with Papa Charlie Jackson somewhere around 1910. There is a very old and very scratchy recording of Papa Charlie singing it, but the upload on YouTube is virtually unlistenable - so here is my favorite Delta blues musician, Mississippi John Hurt, with an arrangement pretty close to Jackson's:

Hurt was an amazing guitarist, and there is an impossibly fetching warmth to his vocals - along with some saucy suggestiveness - "please don't leave me in this fix..."

The Allen Brothers' combination of banjo, guitar, and kazoo gives the tune an almost ragtime sense of fun - from 1927:

I first heard the song from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys (which is why they are pictured above) on the Vanguard Newport Folk Festival 1960 album. This TV performance (right after Johnny Cash) is from about the same time:

Flatt and Scruggs recorded "Salty Dog" in the studio several times - interestingly, here with fiddler Benny Sims singing the lead instead of guitarist Flatt, who is featured in the previous video:

Nobody has ever done bluegrass better than Flatt and Scruggs - and Earl just turned 88 and is still performing.

Slightly more countrified and with that classic Nashville sound, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos:

Pop folksingers also got into the act with the number. Here is Sylvia Fricker (at the time, soon to be Sylvia Tyson) on the ABC-TV Hootenanny in 1963:

We can overlook the oddity of a lady singing this particular lyric because of the back-up group. Even through the grain of the video, you can see Ian Tyson leading off, with Scott MacKenzie next on 6 string, Bob Gibson on 12, John Herald ("Four Rode By" and the great 12 string riff on I&S's original "You Were On My Mind") on the first banjo, Journeyman Dick Weissman on the next banjo, and what looks to be Bill Lee on bass. Wowsers, as my students are wont to say at times.

The Kingston Trio also stepped up to the plate with their version of "Salty Dog." Please note how this version differs instrumentally from the preceding. There will be a quiz immediately after the recording.

If you noticed that the band that did as much as or more than any other folk group to popularize the 5 string banjo with non-country, mainstream audiences in the 1950s is not using one on this number - you get +500 extra credit points and an automatic A for the day. The 12 string intro and rhythm (likely played by Glen Campbell, who sat in on this recording) interestingly takes the song back closer to its African-American roots than do the banjo-based bluegrass arrangements above. Not bad for a bunch of crass and commercial popularizers, I'd say.

It's a fine and tuneful bit of slightly naughty fun - and maybe now we can all tell Bob Shane of the KT "what the hell is a salty dog" the next time we see him.

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