Leadbelly's 'Old Man' and the Work Song Tradition In early 1997, two old friends with an interest in music and a propensity for research began corresponding about a song that hadn't been much studied: "Old Man," a song recorded in 1941 by the singer Leadbelly. The song represents a tradition of music sung by American workers.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5686572/5697087" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The origins of folk songs are often mysterious. Take the song Old Man. In early 1997, two old friends with an interest in music and a propensity for research began corresponding about the song - hadn't been studied much. For folklorist and labor historian Archie Green, the search took him back to the early 1940s and his own entry into working life.

For musician Stephen Wade, who was exposed to this song more than a generation later, it echoed some of the first banjo tunes that he learned to play. Along with Green, Stephen Wade has put together this story about the origin and evolution of the song Old Man.

STEPHEN WADE: On December 14, 1941, Huddie Ledbetter, the singer best known as Leadbelly, and most widely remembered for Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, and Rock Island Line, recorded a song called Old Man.


HUDDIE LEDBETTER: (Singing) Old Man I'm going up the Mississippi. Yes I am, yes I am.

WADE: He said the piece that the waterfront laborers, the roustabouts, sang as they loaded the steamboats before making the trip up the Mississippi.


LEDBETTER: (Singing) I'm going to sail on that big Bela Lisa. Yes I am, yes I am.

WADE: 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.

ARCHIE GREEN: That song appealed for a couple of reasons. Although Leadbelly didn't sing a sea shanty, he sang a riverboat song, and it was as close to the shanty in tradition as I could get. And I was intrigued by his style. You know, he banged the guitar. And the text of the song was rather mysterious, it was talking to someone. And it all came together - the music, the singer, the style - hit me with great strength, and I became interested in the song. And I've been interested in it three-quarters of my life. It's a good song.


LEDBETTER: (Singing) Old Man will your daughter take company. I don't know, I don't know.

GREEN: Consciously or unconsciously, Leadbelly had hit upon a series of questions. His questions were fundamental. He asked of the captain or the captain asked of him, in their dialogue, they were really talking about the relations of workers to bosses and blacks to whites.

WADE: Other roustabouts also voiced Leadbelly's theme. In May 1939, Miss Jerome Sage, who was the Mississippi state director of the Federal Music Project, cited in a report, an ex-slave who worked as a nightwatchman on a Vicksburg wharf boat. He recited for her, a stanza, that calls to mind one of Leadbelly's verses.

Captain, Captain, give me your daughter. I'll treat her well and marry her on the water.

Then two weeks later, on June 3, 1939, a 52-year-old river pilot named Joe Showers(ph) was recorded in Greenville.


JOE SHOWERS: (Singing) Quarter(ph) twain. Mark twain.

WADE: After demonstrating some sounding calls used while measuring water depths, he sang one he called The Roustabout Corn Song. He said he had often heard it on the steamboat landings as the roustabouts loaded the boats by hand.


SHOWERS: (Singing) Old Man, Old Man, won'tcha tote some seeds? I can't tote no seeds 'cause the boss is too mean.

GREEN: If you have two roustabouts both offering a song that has certain words in common, that is evidence that the song is in tradition. That's a key phrase that folklorists use. I knew that other people had sung it, and there were symbol or songs - particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. There were a number of mountain songs.


FRANK PROFFITT: (Singing) Old Man, Old Man want your daughter, ho-dee ho-dee diddle um day(ph).

What do you want her for?

To bake my bread and to carry my water, ho-dee ho-dee diddle um day.

WADE: So here's Frank Proffitt from western North Carolina playing Sourwood Mountain, a banjo song he had learned from his father in the 1920s. He's growling out a question and grumbling back a reply. As in Leadbelly's song, Proffitt is singing a dialogue.

Another dialogue song called the Deaf Woman's Courtship focuses entirely on matrimonial prospects. Here we find the greeting of Old Woman, Old Woman, rather than Old Man, Old Man, and the verses fall into a more narrative sequence. The Deaf Woman's Courtship appears in 1826 in a book of Scottish songs and is found in numerous statewide collections since the mid-1900s.

Here's June Carter singing it with Chet Atkins. Her sister Helen on the accordion.


CHET ATKINS: (Singing) Old Woman, Old Woman are you fond of scrubbin'?

Old Woman, Old Woman are you fond of scrubbin'?

JUNE CARTER: (Singing) Well, speak a little louder, sir, I'm powerful hard of hearin'.

Speak a little louder, sir, I'm powerful hard of hearin'.

ATKINS: (Unintelligible) ain'tcha?

CARTER: Never did like to scrub. Say somethin' else.

WADE: This song appealed over a long time, well before the roustabouts sang Old Man. But the roustabouts picked up various phrases that appeared earlier in a variety of settings. It's part of the process of song composition, as Archie Green notes.

GREEN: In studying sea shanties for many years, and studying song origin, the mind of the shanty man is free. It's a form of free association. So that if you examine the lyrics, it's like reading James Joyce's Ulysses, where thousands of images are constantly at play and interact in the author's mind.

He could have been talking about Lindbergh's kidnapping, or the heighth of the Empire State Building, or the war in Iraq. It could've been talking about anything. If you took all of the roustabout songs as a unit, you would find that roustabouts talked about everything.


LEDBETTER: (Singing) Old Man will your dog catch a rabbit?

You can take him and try him, you can take him and try him.

WADE: Sometimes, as Archie says, these songs carried coded messages, both social and political, while the 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 June Carter and Chet Atkins' 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.


LEDBETTER: (Singing) I'm going to sail on that big Bela Lisa. Yes I am, babe, yes I am.

SIEGEL: That's musician Stephen Wade who, along with his friend Archie Green, traced the origin and evolution of this song, Old Man.


Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.