Leadbelly's 'Old Man' and the Work Song Tradition

Leadbelly's album i

Leadbelly's album, Work Songs of the U.S.A., was released in 1942. It was not a big seller at the time. hide caption

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Leadbelly's album

Leadbelly's album, Work Songs of the U.S.A., was released in 1942. It was not a big seller at the time.

'Old Man' Lyrics i

View the lyrics to "Old Man," as seen in the Work Songs of the U.S.A. songbook. hide caption

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'Old Man' Lyrics

View the lyrics to "Old Man," as seen in the Work Songs of the U.S.A. songbook.

On Dec. 14, 1941, Huddie Ledbetter recorded a song called "Old Man." Ledbetter, a singer best known as Leadbelly, is most widely remembered for "Goodnight Irene," "Midnight Special," and "Rock Island Line." He said "Old Man" was a piece that the waterfront laborers — the roustabouts — sang as they loaded the steamboats before making the trip up the Mississippi.

Leadbelly's recording originally appeared on a six-song compilation called Work Songs of the U.S.A., released in spring 1942. The album was not a big seller. An invoice made out to Leadbelly shows 11 copies sold in October and November, with a total of 304 for the entire year. One of those purchasers was a young San Francisco shipwright named Archie Green, who had joined the waterfront union the year before.

The song appealed to Green in part because it represented a work culture that he admired.

"It all came together," Green says. "The music, the singer [and] the style hit me with great strength, and I became interested in the song. I've been interested in it for more than three-quarters of my life. It's a good song."

Leadbelly's theme features a recurrence of lyrical dialogue and free association that is part of the roustabouts' tradition of song. The lyrics often address the relations of workers to bosses, and blacks to whites.

"If you examine the lyrics, you find all sorts of materials," Green says of an earlier song in the same vein, "The Deaf Woman's Courtship." "It's like reading James Joyce's Ulysses, where thousands of images are constantly at play and interact in the author's mind ... If you took all of the roustabout songs as a unit, you would find that roustabouts talked about everything."

Green notes that these songs carried coded messages, both social and political, while roustabouts moved along the gangplanks shouldering their loads of cotton, grain, and tobacco. They took words from tradition, or from the moment at hand, putting old ideas together anew or fitting new thoughts into venerable patterns.

Farther away, but tied by the same kind of answer-back dialogue, lie the frolic songs like Frank Proffitt's "Sourwood Mountain" and "Deaf Woman's Courtship." There, suitors and sweethearts test each other in love just as bosses and laborers test each other in work. All these singers transform toil and desire into art.

Byways of a River Song

Archie Green i

Archie Green's T-shirt reads: "Be nice to me. I own a bank." Hazen Robert Walker hide caption

itoggle caption Hazen Robert Walker
Archie Green

Archie Green's T-shirt reads: "Be nice to me. I own a bank."

Hazen Robert Walker

Sometime in the mid-1960s, when I was not yet a teenager, I first saw Archie Green. He was speaking at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and I remember being struck by the way he explored his topic. Discussing some folk song or another, he seemed like a jazz musician taking his subject through a dozen points of entry. He provided historical context and known lines of influence. He also posed a wealth of questions. And like an unresolved chord, not all of them had answers. Archie placed whatever he was discussing in the realm of lived experience, where political concerns and social forces played a shaping role. He was talking about music, but always set within larger currents of American life.

Later, I learned that as wonderful as Archie thought this music, he had found a way to speak about it without romanticizing. He constructed his scholarship and his sentences in the way he practiced his carpentry — solid, measured with a precision eye, and built to last. After all, for 20 years before he became a professor, he had been a union shipwright on the San Francisco docks.

Over the years, I've read his books and articles, and have come to know him personally. On his trips to Washington, he often stays in our home. During one such visit, I saw Archie in a way that made more sense of those memories I'd had of him so many years before in Chicago. We were at the Library of Congress, and looking down one of its lovely gilded hallways, I watched Archie make a point to folklorists and administrators who worked at the Library. The way he stood and gestured, as these listeners gathered around, all smiling, all engaged, all thirsty for his cogent but freely associative thinking, he seemed like some latter-day Socrates, arrayed not in a robe, but in a T-shirt. Now he's 89, still writing, still meeting and inspiring others, still pursuing his lifelong passion for industrial workers and their creativity. Still Socrates in a T-shirt.

In our radio story, Archie and I consider matters of folk song composition. Unlike a ballad, a term scholars use for songs that follow a narrative sequence and tell a particular story, sometimes based on historical circumstances, lyric songs like "Old Man" can draw from all sorts of events including the moment at hand, and from stray rhymes used before, freely associated. One can only imagine what verses were actually sung during the loading or unloading of a packet boat, a job whose real-life duration far exceeded the recordings of Leadbelly and Joe Shores that only run a minute or two in length.

Archie first heard this song when he was a young man, just starting out on the docks. By then, he was already familiar with "Old Man River," sung by Paul Robeson in Showboat. Now he found in this steamboat worker's song that came from Leadbelly, an expression closer to the actual experiences of dockworkers than Jerome Kern's lyrics likely were. Decades later, beginning with Leadbelly's 1941 recording, and by plain good luck, I ran across an earlier reference to its use by other roustabouts on the Mississippi and then to a recording made by a still-active Mississippi riverman.

"Old Man's" structure also suggested to us some Appalachian songs that used kindred lyrics and, more tellingly, a comparable verse pattern. That led to "The Deaf Woman's Courtship," an old comic song about courtship. While there's no definitive connection between "The Deaf Woman's Courtship" and "Old Man," there is a parallel in their structure just as there's a similar contest of wills. Though much information on "Old Man" is lost to timeā€”no Mississippi steamboat-era roustabouts live to tell us about it today—certainly more about its origin and its use can still be learned. That's a project I hope to pursue in the months ahead.

The two recordings included on this Web site suggest further directions that "Old Man" and "The Deaf Woman's Courtship" have taken. One of them is a 1938 radio performance made by composer Samuel Barber at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. Barber, who accompanies himself here on piano, sings an arrangement drawn from Five Virginian Folk Songs, Op. 34, which Virginia composer John Powell had just published. As a founder of the White Top Festival, an early folk festival held in southwest Virginia, Powell came across a number of traditional Virginia singers, one or another of whom likely provided him with this song, which he subsequently adapted to this formal piano and voice composition.

The other selection comes from a 1958 performance at Carnegie Hall by Texas singer Hally Wood. Ms. Wood had recently learned the song while transcribing selections for a Leadbelly songbook. Among those accompanying her in the chorus are Pete Seeger, and possibly Mike Seeger, who has since recorded the song with banjo, citing both Hally Wood and Leadbelly as his sources. Hally Wood's performance helped launch the song in new directions, sung for many far removed from a Mississippi steamboat landing and those who labored there.

Archie Green once compared "Old Man" to a sorcerer's clock: "Texts and tunes perpetually in motion, unending mystery at its core." The questions that "Old Man" raises let us explore — just as Archie has done for so long himself — the complexities that animate not only American folk song, but American life itself.

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