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 Provençal 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.

Monday, January 16, 2012

John Stewart's America

Public Sale (detail) by Andrew Wyeth
"Stewart's uncompromising lyrical vision....relates the past as if it were a living, breathing present..." -Thom Jurek, Allmusic
"You have achieved in music what I have attempted in painting."
-Andrew Wyeth To John Stewart

“... His work...constitutes a stunning body of lonesome reflections on the promise and betrayal of the American experience... His is a music of longing... a hushed hope that what is best in this country will somehow emerge....”
—A. Lin Neumann, Phoenix New Times

John Coburn Stewart (1939-2008) was a quintessentially American songwriter, perhaps the quintessentially American songwriter in the decades following the incapacitation and finally the death of Woody Guthrie in 1967, which quite by accident happened to be the year that Stewart commenced his solo career as singer-songwriter and began to create record albums that would midwife into existence the musical genre we now call Americana. Look before '67 and you won't find much that could fairly be described by that term - but following Stewart's late '60s classic LPs Signals Through The Glass, California Bloodlines, and Willard, the genre blooms into a hundred flowers, intertwines itself around folk-rock, and finally morphs into the renascent "roots music" so popular today. Stewart was there at the creation, and his writing and vision influenced a generation of musicians who followed him far more than the public at large is aware or than he is often given credit for. Despite some flirtations with large-scale commercial success (he did, after all, write one of the enduring and all-time feel-good standards of American pop-rock, "Daydream Believer," and he had a number of high-charting singles hits like "Gold" in the late 70s), Stewart as an artist remained as much outside the mainstream of popular music as the characters he created in his songs seemed to exist outside the mainstream of U.S. society - characters like E.A. Stuart and Willard and The Razorback Woman, all of whom we will meet below, and scores, maybe hundreds of others.

For those unfamiliar with Stewart's life and work, a short intro is in order. Born in San Diego as World War II was breaking out in Europe, Stewart grew up mainly in Pomona, CA outside of Los Angeles, though the family moved around somewhat since his father was an accomplished trainer of race horses. In his mid-teens, Stewart fell under the spell of Elvis Presley and first-generation rock and roll, taught himself to play guitar, and started a band called Johnny Stewart and the Furies that released a record of a tune written by Stewart.

His musical direction, however, took a 90 degree turn in 1958 when he heard the acoustic sound of Kingston Trio, which was in the first stages of redirecting American pop into a folk-flavored sensibility that it had only known previously in the late 1940s during the brief run at the top of the charts of the eventually blacklisted Weavers. Stewart taught himself to play the five string banjo (whose sound was at the core of many KT recordings), eventually becoming an accomplished innovator with the instrument, and before he was 20 he had sold two songs to the Kingstons, who recorded both of them and named an album after one. A year and a half later, one of the original KT members left in a dispute with the other two, and both the remaining musicians and their manager felt that Stewart was ideally suited to step in because he knew the repertoire and was already an accomplished singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter. And so in the summer of 1961, a few weeks before his 22nd birthday, John Stewart joined what was at the time in those pre-Beatle days the most popular musical group in the U.S. and quite likely the world, selling as it had more than ten million recordings in the two years prior to Stewart's arrival - in a country with half the population of ours today.

Stewart spent the next six years with the group, singing on some of its biggest singles hits and honing his craft as a songwriter, at points with songs like "New Frontier" and "Road To Freedom" that prefigured his later fascination with American ideals and themes. But as the post-Beatles and electric Bob Dylan phenomena eclipsed acoustic folk music in popularity, Stewart began to chafe at the restrictions of working within a framework not of his own making, however high a platform that framework had given him, and he decided to strike out on his own at exactly the same time that the group decided to call it quits.

The Kingston Trio had sold about $200 million (in 2012 dollars) for Capitol Records, and it was hence not surprising that it was that label that released the first three solo Stewart albums cited above. Though all three recordings were praised lavishly by music critics, none sold well enough to justify to Capitol an extension of his contract, and Stewart began what would become a lifelong odyssey of moving from label to label, first to Warners, then RCA, then RSO, then Polydor, and then to a dozen or more smaller labels. Always - always - Stewart was producing first-rate songs and recordings, greatly respected but with only a few exceptions not charting especially well. Stewart's brush with the big time came during his years with the RSO label, whose Saturday Night Fever was the largest-selling album in history at the time of its release, though the label still managed to go bankrupt just when Stewart's commercial star was beginning to rise with a top 5 single,"Gold," two more top 20 singles, and a top 10 album.

Part of the problem for Stewart was his own maverick nature - he was doing country-rock, electric folk, synthesizer-based instrumentation, and a passel of other genres and styles well before they became mainstream, and his music was often
even less understood by pop audiences of the time than it was appreciated. But there was more than a bit of bad luck or poor timing at work here. John Stewart's vision in his songs of America and its people was never in step with the self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, materialistic ethos that has come to characterize American values more in the last thirty years than had ever been the case at any other time since the 19th century. Stewart's compassion for - and identification with - the common folk, the people of the heartland, the people of the forgotten corners of the nation and world, especially those in travail and up against it all, was never going to resonate with a pop culture that celebrated The Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous and elevated minor talents and pathetically broken individuals to demigod status.

So John Stewart soldiered on in the shadow of Fame through the next four decades, ultimately releasing more than fifty complete albums worth of original material and performing in coffee houses, small theaters, folk clubs - anywhere that enough of the small coterie of his rabidly devoted following could be assembled to justify the expense of travel. Along the way, a significant number of his compositions found their way onto other artists' records, with several of those becoming hits. Following his death from an aneurysm on January 19th, 2008, there was finally an outpouring of published appreciation from critics, musicians, and music business people, with major memorial articles appearing internationally in publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Sunday Times Of London, Britain's The Independent and The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and dozens and dozens of others. "Folk Patriarch," those obits called him - "Trend-setting Singer-Songwriter," "Acclaimed Songwriter & Performer" - all the accolades now broadcast in the major print and online outlets that had too frequently ignored him while he was alive, in a final and probably fitting irony for an artist who had courted Fame but never cared enough for her to cut his hair, put on a tie - or ask her out for a second date.

What John Stewart has left behind him as a legacy is as remarkable a collection of folk-influenced songs as this nation has yet produced, and while his range as a songwriter extends into all the reaches of human experience (more on this at the end), his portrait of America as he knew it and cared for it remains likely the single most compelling element of that body of work. That America is the land of "front row dancers" and "cowboys in the distance," of "roses and canyons and night-blooming jasmine," "angels with guns," and yes, "daydream believers." So this retrospective will focus on three themes derived from that vision - American people, American places, and American promise. The songs in each of those categories presented here are wonderful compositions, though many Stewart fans (and my own preferences, in fact) might have nominated others in their places, there is a peculiarly democratic and populist nature to the selections - because these are the John Stewart songs that the people out there in the America of today have chosen to embed in videos and upload to the internet. I think that Stewart would have liked that aspect of it - John Stewart as remembered by the common folks of the country that he loved.

American People

"Willard" - we have all seen Willard Jefferson somewhere, some time:

"July, You're A Woman" - one of JS's most popular songs, covered several times by other groups, in a video created out of the love of Stewart's people and places:

"Razorback Woman" - Uploader CPS Ward describes this as "A difficult childhood recalled with dark, bitter humor" - which extends, as you'll see, to the video itself:

"Wind Dies Down" - A dry summer in the heartland and the memorable Miss Moonlight Albright:

"Mother Country" - a live performance from a few months before Stewart's death. There had been some internet chatter at the time about Stewart having lost his voice - which the choruses here emphatically disprove. One of Stewart's best and most enduring and most idiosyncratic songs with the unforgettable E.A. Stuart and The Old Campaigner:

American Places

"Missouri Birds" - "Go into the world while you're young":

"Kansas Rain" - "Ain't no change in Kansas Rain" - "I was standin' in line at that Bank of America/Nobody spoke they were in the house of god..."

"Let The Big Horse Run" - Kentucky, Virginia, and anywhere the horses race...

"The Pirates Of Stone County Road" - everywhere in America where people remember childhood:

"California Bloodlines" - A bright and uptempo live radio version of a song whose studio recording was rather more reflective; the title song from the album that Rolling Stone named one of the top 200 of all time:

American Promise

The very young John Stewart was imbued with a Kennedy-era idealism that was reflected in his ringingly patriotic compositions for the Kingston Trio, "New Frontier" (sung HERE by the current KT) and "Road To Freedom." As the years passed and the times changed, Stewart's optimism dimmed and darkened to a degree, in part because of his involvement as a kind of official campaign musician in Robert F. Kennedy's ill-starred and tragic run for the presidency in 1968. Kennedy's assassination affected Stewart profoundly, and he tried to come to terms with it in a number of songs, three of the best of which are here.

"Clack Clack" - referring to the clatter of the wheels of RFK's funeral train, an echo of Abraham Lincoln's, complete with Stewart's heartland imagery and very real sense of loss - this from the very early 1970s:

"The Last Hurrah" - a quiet reflection on what we now know was the passing of an era, but an admonition as well to "keep your dreams as clean as silver":

"Dreamers On The Rise" - decades after the fact, Stewart looks back on the idealism of the time in what is the favorite JS song for many of his fans:

"Armstrong" - Out of the darkness of the post-RFK period and the gathering storm of disasters yet to come, Stewart was always able to find a light and a hope:


"Survivors" - Once again, after the Watergate scandal, Stewart looks to the American character for hope in adversity. The high harmony here clearly is the late John Denver, and from the first chorus onward, the song becomes essentially a duet.

"I Remember America" - An early 90s reflection on all that had been lost from Stewart's younger years:

"Botswanna" - Though written in the late 1980s, the theme is as contemporary as the Occupy movement, and with the same sensibility in a general way. It is a song about California and America even more than it is about Africa - "I wonder if God cries"..."Every face you see is you and it is I..."

John Stewart had to the end of his life a trait that I especially admired, one that he shared in common with nearly all other truly great artists and that is conspicuously missing from the work in music of songwriters better-known than he is, many of whom pretend to a level of artistic accomplishment that they have not in fact achieved. Stewart never confused the strictly personal in his music with the universal, nor did he believe that merely setting thoughts and emotions to a tune would make them important. At the same time, he had the genuine artist's courage and hope to believe that he did have something of value to say that transcended the fashionable and the fleeting, that could both address and illuminate what was and remains the best of the country whose landscapes and people infused and permeated his art. It is a daring vision and hope, one that we will not see again from another artist in our lifetimes.


Links to dozens of articles and websites related to John Stewart's life and work, as well as more videos of both Stewart and of other artists covering his songs, are available on The John Stewart Memorial Page.

Last year's Comparative Video 101 post on "Chilly Winds" can be accessed HERE.

The 2010 post reflecting on "July, You're A Woman" is HERE.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"The Old Maid's Song/Take Her Out Of Pity"

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...
- Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities, 1859

Probably no one ever expressed more succinctly the permanent and apparently unchanging nature of the human condition as did Dickens here in this justifiably famous opening to a marvelous and romantic novel (that, parenthetically, most of us were forced to read when we were much too young to appreciate or understand it). Consider: Dickens was writing in the middle of the 19th century about events late in the 18th, but here in the early reaches of the 21st the sentiment still rings true. We are as beset by war and economic woes and uncertainty and political madness in 2012 as we have been at any and every other time in our lives - and as in fact people have always been, everywhere.

Yet that sense that the world and its troubles always remains the same - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say - is deceptive, perhaps even illusory. Things do change, and sometimes for the better. Consider again: while the state of race relations in the U.S. today may be abysmal, with frequent reminders of such in the media (for example, the recent stories of racist notes on meal recepits at fast food restaurants), would any of those of us old enough to remember the 1950s and 60s not agree that we live in a much better, more just, more equitable country now than we did fifty or sixty years ago? Have there not been very real and very significant gains made toward establishing the justice and insuring the domestic tranquility that have been our objectives since the beginning of the nation?

Likewise, a girl born in the United States today, or in fact at nearly any time over the last forty or so years, has a universe of greater choices available to her than virtually any of her female forbears did, even here in the land of the free. Traditional avenues of motherhood and domestic life are still open to her, but her direction, her sense of herself, her range of possibilities are not as completely circumscribed by those older roles as they once were. Prior to the mid-20th century, marriage was the only game in town for women - it was marriage, even a bad one, or poverty. In the U.S. and everywhere else, a woman could neither own real property nor inherit it, and the only guarantor of a good life for her children was the support of a financially stable man.

Women of my mother's or even my sisters' generations who wanted a career for themselves in addition to or in place of family life were often swimming against a current of resistance, sometimes obvious, perhaps more often passive or disguised, as in the proverbial glass ceiling. The young women of today, though, and here I am including the ladies grown into maturity during the thirty years I taught in all-girls schools, believe and live as though full equality with men in opportunity and achievement is their birthright, as of course we now recognize it to be.

All of this is what makes this week's song, known by many names but most commonly as "The Old Maid's Song" or "Take Her Out Of Pity," both clearly archaic in its situation yet still profoundly moving in its sentiments. It is, as with several other songs profiled here recently, very old - the first printed version called "The Poor Auld Maid" appeared in 1636, and like most really old songs, there are many variant versions. In some, it is the lady herself who is speaking, so the chorus (nearly always a variation on "Come a landsman, a pinsman..."*) climaxes with "take me out of pity"; more often, though, it is a melancholy and concerned brother who seeks for his sister a better fate than the poverty and scorn of old maid-hood. The song works better this way, I think, since the third verse extolling her virtues seems less like the bragging it would be were she singing it than it does like the high and sincere estimation of a loving sibling.

Some early versions have the girl eventually marrying a chimney sweep; others, like the related Scots reel "The Old Maid In The Garrett" with a verse virtually identical to our song's chorus, make bitter fun of the lonely and not-so-young lady. The likely author of the root song, 17th century London balladeer Martin Parker, called it "The Wooing Maid," had her singing it, and included eighteen verses. By the time the song crosses the Atlantic, though, it seems to have reduced itself to the three verses presented in the versions below as it burrowed its way into the folk culture of the southern mountains.

It seems as if the American folk revival singers who did the number heard it first in a recording by Peggy Seeger from 1955, a sample of which can be heard on Amazon HERE. The first version I heard was by the Kingston Trio in 1961. There were two video uploads of the song on YouTube (including one from me), but Capitol/EMI has been cracking down recently (a post on that upcoming) and these videos are now blocked in the U.S.

However - my own folk group the Chilly Winds based our version instrumentally and vocally on the KT's, so this is a fair approximation of what I heard fifty years ago:

We moved the instrumental to the middle of the song and ended with the intro redux instead of on the V7th chord, but otherwise that's pretty much what the Trio did.

Flash! - 5/27/13: Capitol has been good enough to lift the replay ban on many Kingston Trio tracks - so here is the 1961 recording by that group.

Interesting to compare to The Chilly Winds - a few differences in the approach.

Another major pop folk group gave the song the other spin - here it is sung as "The Old Maid's Lament" by The Womenfolk:

The grainy video is annoying, but it is interesting to hear it sung in Martin Parker's originally-conceived feminine voice.

Clive Palmer is an English folkie, co-founder of The Incredible String Band, and just as his contemporary UK rock musicians like Eric Clapton made themselves masters of American rhythm and blues, Palmer became a 5-string banjo virtuoso:

Wonderful mountain frailing here, and Palmer's spare, unadorned accompaniment has an expressively authentic feel to it.

Ireland's Wolfe Tones, perhaps my favorite Celtic group after the Clancys and the Dubliners for their unabashedly radical Irish republican songs, give it an almost predictable gusto:

This is from a 1966 album; I was reminded of nothing other than the Clancys' delightful version of "Nancy Whiskey" in rhythm and harmonies.

The song has some legs, as we see now - because the next two versions are international. First, a semi-pro band from Madrid called Wenaives:

They sing better in English than I do in Spanish, for sure - it just strikes me as a curious song to cover for an Iberian band. Perhaps it is the simple C-Am-F-G7 chord pattern that is so characteristic of American '50s pop ballads.

That might equally be the case for this homage to the Kingstons' version (note the instrumental part) from Christine and Flora in China:

I always enjoy videos of people making folk music at home, and I think that the ladies do a fine job, again given the difficulty of singing in a language not their own.

It would be lovely if this song were merely a plaintive relic of a time long gone, and thank all the powers that be that it is so in the America of today. The sad fact is, though, that across the globe the desperate plaint of this song remains a stark reality for hundreds of millions of women, even in this century.

*No sources are quite sure what a "pinsman" is - some versions of the song say "tinsman" or "tinsmith," which are self-evident, and others suggest that the correct word is "pensman," or scribe or secretary.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Folk Royalty & "The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night"

The recently concluded holidays are probably what got me to thinking about children's songs, what with the powerful emotional pull of the carols and more modern songs that flooded radio airwaves and shopping mall muzak machines for the last couple of months (really, way too long, but that's another story). Celebrating holidays is, after all, about maintaining traditions, and the music is more than merely a background for those - it is, coupled with the scents of holiday cooking permeating one's home, the absolutely most emotionally evocative of all the elements of our winter festivals.

When Art Podell (formerly of Art and Paul and the New Christy Minstrels) and I did a program of Christmas music for Mary Katherine Aldin's KPFK-FM "Alive And Picking" radio show (of happy memory) a month ago, Art noted that all Christmas songs are in one way or another folk songs - they are all meant to be sung and remembered and sung again, year in and year out, even those most recently composed as well as centuries-old carols. "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (which I included on our radio playlist), for example, were popularized by Gene Autry only in the 1940s, but it is hard to find anyone in the U.S. who has not at least heard those songs, and most of us under 80 probably sang them as well. Art was spot-on correct: if that doesn't make a tune a folk song, I am not sure the term has any meaning worth paying attention to.

The primary means of oral transmission of folk music through the most of the last century was through group singing, especially in primary schools. It was a poor school indeed that did not make at least some provision for children, especially younger ones, to sing together on a weekly basis. That's how most of us learned "Skip To My Lou" or "Camptown Races" or "Oh, Susanna!" and many more - and as I noted last summer in my post about "The Hunter", those music programs have been chopped dramatically through the last several decades, leaving an ever-growing number of children to develop emotional bonds with the music of the Disney animations that they see that rather than with the meat-and-potatoes folk-ish songs of our own childhoods.

That's a pity, because those children may well be missing the delights of songs just such as "The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night," a bit of nonsense that posits a very homey-looking family of anthropomorphic foxes, with a daddy fox going to town to provide for his ten little fox kits. It is a very old song, even by English folk song standards, with versions in print as long ago as 1500, a mere fifteen or twenty years after printing came to England. The Oxford Book Of Nursery Rhymes lists the first verse as

It fell ageyns the next nyght
the fox yede to with all his myghte,
with-outen cole or candlelight,
whan that he cam vnto the toowne.

That's pre-Shakespeare Middle English, though only "yede" (meaning "go") is completely archaic, and you can see that the opening is very close to the version sung most widely today. The near-uniformity of the lyric that we hear in this week's versions results in all likelihood from the 1810 miscellany of fairy tales and songs printed in the UK called Gammer Gurton's Garland - a book used routinely by schoolmarms on both sides of the pond throughout the 19th century for the edification of the minds of the young.

The song came across the Atlantic with the English colonists and embedded itself firmly in America's folkways, and it is no surprise that one of the most popular versions of the era of recorded music was done by Burl Ives, who actually had a number of folk hits in the 1930s:

Ives' version contrasts interestingly with that of his one-time friend Pete Seeger:

Seeger and Ives were both fine singers, but the instrumental laurels here clearly go to Pete, who could really make that banjo blaze.

Odetta brings a greater dramatic flair to her interpretation, and you can practically see her entrancing a room full of children with this:

Such a fine voice, and so sad that she is gone.

But Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio is still very much with us, and in 2008 after fifty years of recording with groups finally released a solo album. Shane thought enough of "The Fox" to include it with a number of other gems on that recording, and in the liner notes he writes that he used to sing it in the early 50s with fellow KT founder Dave Guard when both were school kids - "We felt it was a cute song and fun to sing. I still think it's cute song and fun to sing.":

Shane's recollection of this goes back 60 years, and I'd wager a modest sum that singing it brings back more than a few memories for him.

Harry Belafonte is a contemporary of Odetta and Shane and was in fact something of an inspiration to them both. But there's no mistaking Harry B's inimitable calypso-flavored take on the number:

Like nearly everything else Belafonte did, this works wonderfully in his own idiom.

Finally, the pride of San Diego's roots music scene, Nickel Creek with a more modern inflection, in a very early performance of theirs from the 90s on Austin City Limits:

There you have a half dozen of the major folk artists of the last half century or more bringing their talents to bear on a centuries-old ditty designed to delight children. The why of that may be quite simple. There is also a video on YouTube of actor Jake Gyllenhaal singing a fragment of it, saying that his father used to sing it to his siblings and him - and there are at least half a dozen comments on the video versions out there which identify dad or mom as singing the song better than the pros themselves. I'd guess that sentiment would sit just fine with our artists, because that's what folk music is supposed to be about.

Late Addition, 1/12/12

Just found this version by pop/rockabilly star Jimmy Rodgers, of 1950s vintage. It was hiding under the title of "The Fox and the Goose":