Thursday, September 30, 2010

"The Erie Canal/Low Bridge"

"The Erie Canal" song represents a confluence of many of the deepest, longest-term, most cherished and most abiding interests of my entire life. It is one of the very first songs that I ever remember hearing and singing along with, back in the very early 1950s to a children's record that featured what was probably Burl Ives' version. It reflects on what was one of the most moving chapters in early American history, which with literature has been the greatest intellectual joy of all my years. It is, as we shall see, a nostalgic reflection on a time that had already past when the song was published - and we Hibernian Americans are nothing if not nostalgic. Finally, it reflects in its lyric the best of what America used to be and can be again - a land where government in partnership with energetic individuals works best to serve the interests of the common people who work for a living, and not the interests of those already-fabulously wealthy folks who plead, then as now, for just one more break that will somehow mystically redound to the Greater Good while it further enriches them.

The Erie Canal project was the Mission to the Moon of its day - widely considered an impossible folly, it was completed on-time and at budget and began immediately to pay for itself, not only in dollars but in the improvement of the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Americans in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the Upper Midwest in general. Just as the voyage to the moon engendered directly or indirectly a plethora of useful technologies (including most of the advances that led to the computer I'm typing on and the internet to which this will be published), the Erie Canal provided an economic lifeline for all of the Americans who had moved into the old Northwest Territory that we now call the Midwest (my birthplace, not coincidentally). The Canal created a cheap and dependable transportation link that enabled farmers and miners and settlers and lumbermen to put cold, hard cash in their pockets and improve their lot and that of their families.

While canals linking Lake Erie at Buffalo, NY with the Hudson River (and consequently the Atlantic Ocean) at Albany had been proposed as early as the 1760s, it took the vision of career politician (an honorable term, once upon a time) DeWitt Clinton to realize the dream. Clinton had held virtually every important office in the short history of the state of New York - state legislator, mayor of NYC, U.S. representative and senator (and nearly successful presidential candidate), lieutenant governor, and finally governor. In the latter two capacities, Clinton cajoled, bullied, and persuaded the NY legislature to budget $7 million to build the canal - an unthinkable, TARP-like sum at the time, when the federal budget in DC was a mere $19 million per year. Clinton understood that no amount of privatization or outsourcing could make this project happen. It was a government enterprise all the way, and it was government that succeeded in accomplishing a task that most rational people thought impossible.

It took a mere seven years to complete the 363 mile "ditch," including 83 locks that enabled the flat-bottomed barges to rise the 600 foot differential between Albany and Buffalo. It was the most stupendous and amazing feat of civil engineering of its era - and this despite the fact that none of the men who planned the route and the locks were professional engineers or government employees. It was truly a marriage of the vision and energy of private citizens with the sponsorship that only a government acting as its incorporated citizenry could provide.

The Erie Canal also gave rise to a subculture of teamsters and boatmen and merchants who quite naturally gloried in their roles in this wondrous achievement and consequently and of course sang about it. There were some great songs - "The E-Ri-E Was A-Rising," "Oh! Dat Low Bridge!," "Raging Canal," and of course, this week's selection, likely the most famous of all, published in 1905 as "Low Bridge, Everybody Down" by Thomas Allen. Allen maintained that he composed the song as a nostalgic tribute to the then-vanished mule teams and drivers who had originally pulled the barges through the canal at fifteen miles a day, replaced eventually by steam cars that could do the job cheaper and faster. But Allen was likely drawing to a degree at least from songs that had actually been sung by the workers themselves - in the best folk tradition, he borrowed and stole and invented and re-arranged until he had a song that was simultaneously all his but with a musical DNA stretching back decades before.

I found it just a tad discouraging that I couldn't find on YouTube or elsewhere a Burl Ives recording or one that sounded really like the version I learned as a child - but this amusing video from theBigFish [sic] comes fairly close:

You can hear Allen's musical sophistication here - the key and tempo shifts, with the melancholy minor-keyed verses resolving gently into the positive, upbeat major chord chorus. This version is a bit too Springsteen-ish for my tastes, but it is the basic song with minimal embellishment.

[Interpolated Edit - May 2012: Eureka! A video of Pete Seeger doing part of the song has been uploaded to YouTube. I wish Seeger had done the whole thing - but at least we can get the idea of how the song should sound:

Now this really amateur home recording from RoseMarama of New Zealand at least has the virtue of solo guitar accompaniment:

I think Rose does a commendable job - at least she performs it like a folk song and really seems to enjoy doing so.

This version from 1958 features Mitch Miller's group on background and the Sandpipers:

The Corndoggers start out promisingly and carry a good boat-man-sounding vocal throughout - but then instrumentally they go all Springsteen on us. Too bad:

I can do without the drums, guys. It's a FOLK song.

Sony-BMG has blocked virtually every video of Bruce Springsteen performing his 2006 Seeger Sessions version of the song, except for an occasional bootleg that manages to pass under the radar, as in this crude cellphone video from a Dublin performance:

I had a mixed reaction to the Boss's Seeger project (much as Pete himself did). Springsteen is a rocker, one of the best that this country has produced. But as we all know, rock is derived primarily from black blues and rhythm and blues traditions. I thought that Springsteen's best efforts on that album were those that tapped into black traditions, spirituals like "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." I didn't feel that Euro-Anglo-Irish derived tunes like "Jesse James" or this one worked particularly well at all.

And now for some genuinely different versions - first, the Kingston Trio:

This is one of the last Public Domain numbers attempted by the group. It's a serviceable arrangement - kind of a "generic uptempo folksong" reading that sacrifices the emotional nuances of the original for a kind of good-timey feeling that is more anticipatory of what in 1962 the New Christy Minstrels were about to do with pop folk music than reflective of the more sensitive and often introspective folk arrangements of the original Trio.

Speaking of different - here is a soul arrangement by The Juke Box Band:

The rhythm here is a fascinating melding of reggae with straight-up R&B. Maybe not folk, but a "noble experiment."

Frank Macchia's All Star Jazz Band likewise combines a bit of Dixieland with a more contemporary ex-temp jazz style - a really interesting crossover:

This CD of Machia's is called Folk Songs For Jazzers, and that about says it all. It is a great effort, and if the song is propelled far beyond its folk roots, it's still nice to see kissing cousins jazz and folk getting along so well.

When I was a boy, I loved "The Erie Canal" song's shift into the major key on the chorus, and I sang along lustily. I suppose that now I am a lot older, it is Allen's nostalgia that touches me most deeply. Our boatman's affection for ol' Sal - an anachronism whose time has passed - connects somehow with my wistful memories of a time when folk was folk and an acoustic guitar and/or banjo and a good song like this one was all that you needed to make compelling music that people would connect with and listen to.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rod McKuen's "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?"

I never really thought of Rod McKuen as having anything directly to do with folk music, and I kind of doubt that he did either. That is no kind of criticism at all - he is what he is, and that is a fine pop songwriter who writes rather more in the French cabaret tradition of pop music than in the American Kern-Gershwin-Berlin-Cahn-Bacharach/David tradition. And though pop folk groups like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters had a lot to do with propelling McKuen's earliest songwriting efforts into the national consciousness, his staying power as a songwriter has come from the large number of pop vocalists who have recorded his tunes. Frank Sinatra's 1969 album A Man Alone is comprised entirely of songs by McKuen, the only time in Sinatra's long and legendary career that Ol' Blue Eyes paid any songwriter (and he worked with all the great ones) that kind of compliment.

I discussed McKuen's controversial career as a poet a year and a half ago when I wrote about his freehand rendering of Jacques Brel's song "Le Moribond" as "Seasons In The Sun: - but some of the exact points at which he is vulnerable to (often savage) critiques as a poet are precisely the points that stand him in good stead as a lyricist. His words are often simple, transparent, and emotional verging on the sentimental. This may or may not make for good poetry, depending on your tastes, but these qualities make for often very effective lyrics when set to the kind of reflective, often Brel-sounding melodies to which McKuen sets them. Now 77 years old, he still writes and performs, singing in that peculiarly affecting throaty baritone of his.

I always thought that McKuen the composer was at his best when, as with French writers like Brel, his lyrics and melodies were tinged with a kind of fin de siecle melancholy, a sadness as gentle as an autumn mist. Think, for instance, of the lyric derived from William Butler Yeats in McKuen's "Isle in the Water" - the subtle changes he makes to Yeats' poem and his original lines make even this love song quietly wistful. "Love's Been Good To Me" is one of the 60s best reflective ballads, and "Rusting in the Rain" is surely one of the loveliest of all laments for the passing of time and the inevitable changes that it brings.

McKuen's "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?," also known as "Two-Ten, Six-Eighteen," falls right into line with the songs cited above. Like "Rusting in the Rain," a large part of the emotional impact of the song comes from an individual returning to a familiar place and finding that it has become most unfamiliar due to the changes wrought by the inexorable passage of time. That fact that the returnee is an American soldier coming home from an unnamed foreign war to a people who have forgotten him and his sacrifices on their behalf makes this tune about as close to a "protest" song as McKuen would write.

McKuen composed "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?" in the 1960s, which could lead easily to a misinterpretation of it that would both undermine its universality and do it a great injustice. It is not about the Viet Nam war, though it is eerie how clearly McKuen's lyric anticipated what would become the experience of many a returning VN vet in the decade following its 1962 composition. Given McKuen's age, if there IS any specific conflict motivating him, it is far likelier the Korean War that was fought largely by men his age. In 1962, the U.S. had a smallish military presence in Southeast Asia - perhaps 25,000 soldiers then compared to the 600,000 at the height of the war - and U.S. participation in the growing conflict still at that point enjoyed fairly widespread popular support.

Part of the song's effectiveness is that it takes no political side about any war. It relates the experience of the return home through the eyes of the soldier. In his mind, he has "nearly died/To keep us free" - and perception in this case is the equivalent of reality. McKuen's comment that no returning veteran should be nameless and shunned is one that could and does apply to any war, any where, any time.

Our first version of the song is from McKuen himself, here from about 1970:

This is McKuen's original lyric, one that the Kingston Trio shortened by an entire line in each verse in their version. Once again, I'm using the 1963 concert version of the song from the 2009 CD Flashback because I think that Bob Shane's vocal is greatly superior to the studio version from the album Sunny Side:

Johnny Cash was gifted with a voice whose timbre lent itself most naturally to songs of melancholy and loneliness, and though the Man In Black was most often characterized in his lifetime as "country," he is more properly appreciated as what today is called "roots," which means with a healthy pure folk influence as well - which you can hear in this version remarkable a capella version of McKuen's composition by Cash:

No genre-identification problem with the next two artists. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when country music really was country music, first with one of the genre's all time greatest artists, Waylon Jennings:

and Hank Williams, Jr. from 1963:

Both of these last two are solid, professional efforts. I think that Jennings does the greatest justice to the song of all the versions presented here.

A final thought. The peroration or grand conclusion of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, arguably the greatest speech ever written by an American, looks past the awful cataclysm that any war is and urges the nation of his time - and really all nations in all times - "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

All you can say to that is "Amen."

Friday, September 17, 2010

"The Streets of Laredo"

Like baseball, jazz, the personal computer, and about a million other things, the cowboy ballad is a strictly American invention. Of course, as we'll see shortly, many of them are based on older songs of everything from work to murder, but the peculiar alchemy of the American experience has distilled those earlier tunes into a very distinctive folk form, one that reflects the hard life that engendered the songs in an underlying melancholy and an often mordant and biting (if very dark) humor.

While my personal favorite cowboy song has always been "Get Along Little Dogies" - probably because that is one of the first songs I remember ever hearing in my life - my own number two would be what is by common consent the best-known and quite possibly the best of the real traditional tunes, "The Streets of Laredo."

The very name conjures up a host of images - the paintings of Remington and Russell, a book and TV miniseries, and a scene or two from just about every Western film ever made. The real Laredo, Texas is a border town in the southwestern part of the state - not exactly prime cattle country and far off of the beaten trails of the great cattle drives that started in the center of the Lone Star state and ended in the truly wild and lawless prairie railhead destinations of Wichita, Dodge City, and Abilene.

"The Streets of Laredo" has about as fine a pedigree as you could ask for in a folk song. Most sources will tell you that it appears to be descended from a 17th century English folk number called "The Dying Rake" - that last word meaning, of course, what our generation would have called a playboy and what the young 'uns today call a player.

But we who are blessed to be of Irish extraction know better. Sure, the dying young man lyric might indeed come from the Brits - but the tune is note for note a derivation of the great Irish lament "The Bard of Armagh," composed by the very real if mysterious Phelim Brady. But that song (video below) is written in a straight 4/4 time signature, which means that it's just a regular da-da-da-da beat, if a bit slow. In an exceptionally odd transformation, the American Laredo version takes the melody and converts it to 3/4 time - DA-da-da - which is a tempo most commonly associated with the romantic waltz and not really what you'd expect from a dying cowboy. See note above about a mordant sense of humor.

So out first performance here is of the Irish ancestor of the Laredo song, performed by one of the great folk singers of the last century, Tommy Makem, whose signature song this was and who himself hailed from Keady in Armagh and hence was himself called through his life "The Bard of Armagh":

Makem's best version this is not, IMHO. That was at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, where Tommy was accompanied only by the supremely tasteful Bruce Langhorne, who realized that the point of a guitar accompaniment is to support the vocal, not overwhelm or upstage it. And whoever is playing guitar here (definitely neither Makem nor Liam Clancy, who in a score of lifetimes would never play this way) is distorting the melody with a bunch of major and minor seventh chords that just don't fit here. Sadly, as of now, this is the only Makem performance of the number on YouTube.

An offshoot version of this song, one that incorporates the dying youth motif from the British version, is a well-known blues/jazz standard from New Orleans called "The St. James Infirmary." The melody is only vaguely similar to "Laredo/Armagh" but the kinship of the lyric is clear. Doc Watson here does an Appalachian version called "St. James Hospital":

For "The Streets of Laredo" - why not start with maybe the best of all cowboy singers, Marty Robbins:

All Robbins ever needed to turn in a sublime performance was that impossibly small guitar he often played. But his studio version of the song has other virtues, including some secondary orchestration that includes a brushed snare drum that emphasizes the waltz tempo even more clearly than Marty's strumming does above:

Johnny Cash recorded several versions throughout his long career, never more effectively than in this moving rendition on his American Recordings series from the years just before his death.

Cash includes the reference to the "dance hall maidens" in the unexpurgated lyric. The "Rake" song makes it clear that the British youth is dying of syphilis, but that indelicate fact is masked in the American version by the fatal gunshot wound.

The great Chet Atkins uses "Laredo" as the second half of a medley with "Greensleeves" to wonderful effect:

Atkins plays the "Laredo" melody with a harmony a third under the melody and gives it just a bit of a flamenco-like lilt, which I believe is a tip of his guitar to the Mexico border town origin of the song.

Finally, we come to what I have regarded since the first time I heard it as a major disappointment and a massively missed opportunity, as the Kingston Trio turns the song into a one-shot joke:

The live audience clearly enjoyed it, and I suppose that the fact that every folk/western/country singer had given the song a try made it ripe for satire.

But no one else even thought to create the arrangement that Shane, Reynolds, and Stewart did.

Note that all of the "Laredo" arrangements above are roughly similar, based as they are on a mostly two chord accompaniment, often in the key of D. The chord progression there is then mostly a I - V7, or just a D to an A7. But the Trio infers the tragedy of the lyric and comes up with two radical changes. First, the second chord in the pattern is an A minor 7th, which lends a real sense of drama to the accompaniment, a dark shading perfectly consonant with the bleak tale of the lyric. Second, though they preserve the basic 3/4 timing, they hurry the accompaniment with Nick Reynolds' intense and almost-flamenco-sounding speed strumming that supports what I have called the "quiet urgency" of so many vocals of the Guard era Trio and almost never invoked in the Stewart years. The stage is set for a classic Kingston Trio non-traditional but brilliantly re-imagined folk song.

And then the deflation - a joke that I didn't find funny the first time and never have since. I remember being tremendously disappointed and chagrined. One big problem with the joke is just that it is way too self-referential. From "Zombie Jamboree" through the Seven-Up commercials through concert patter, Nick Reynolds was the butt of much of the group's onstage humor. The concert audience knew this - the Kingstons were the most popular act in the U.S. at the time, and it's a safe bet that most of the people knew of the ad campaign and the other NR jokes. But without that frame of reference, the joke becomes as flat as a week-old open can of soda. Most folks who didn't know the internal group dynamic would not have found it funny in the first place, and literally no one for whom I've played the cut today even cracks a smile.

But each to his own. "The Streets of Laredo" is such a great song, so evocative, so American that I still feel bad that we missed out on hearing what would have been the best recorded version of the song - which is why I invariably stop this last video at 1:08.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Rockabout My Saro Jane"

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 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 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:.

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.