Folk music was a terrible embarrassment at the progressive, Quaker-founded grade school I attended in the 1950s. Square dancing! A teacher dressed in floppy jeans and a Pendleton shirt standing on a box calling out “Swing your partner!” and “Dosey-doh!” Then the sing-alongs! The sententious, larded, corpse-like ballads about cowboys and laborers and fair maidens, mines and dungeons, sylvan glades and faraway shores! But only one person in our class had the nerve to force her parents to take her to the Auditorium Arena in Oakland to see Elvis Presley. It was 1956. Soon her parents would be dead on the highway.
“Dead on the highway” -- so much more romantic, more fated, than “killed in an auto accident.” It’s not language anyone used at the time to tell what had happened; it’s the language of the American ballad, which seeks to make death into a story. For it to be a story, the song must make you want to listen. Thus, it calls upon metaphors from all across the land, reaching back across the Atlantic, across hundreds of years and uncounted generations, to catch your ear. “Dead on the highway": Those words could call back the English highwaymen whom President Theodore Roosevelt heard when he read John A. Lomax’s “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.”
“There is something very curious in the reproduction here on our this new continent,” Roosevelt wrote Lomax in 1910, “of essentially the conditions of ballad-growth which obtained in medaeval England; including, by the way, sympathy for the outlaw, Jesse James taking the place of Robin Hood.”
“Dead on the highway": To say that, to make these two deaths into a ballad, or to weave them into a ballad about someone else -- a trucker in the night, a thief on the run, a killer fleeing the police or looking for his next victim, Pretty Boy Floyd or James Dean -- would be to do many things. It would make them heroic, dramatizing their whole lives as an attempt to escape from enemies too powerful even to name. It would seek to mark their deaths as an event, at once singular and part of a tradition -- to raise these people out of the crowd of the anonymous and at the same time join them to a community, even if a community of the dead.
So many American ballads emerged immediately out of death. “Omie Wise,” murdered in 1807. “Tom Dooley” (if you believe the story so often printed as fact, composed by Tom Dula himself in 1868, in his cell, the day before he was hanged for the murder of Laura Foster two years before). “John Henry,” dying in his race with the steam drill perhaps a decade after the end of the Civil War. “Stag” Lee Shelton shooting Billy Lyons on Christmas night, 1895, and hearing “Stag-o-lee” again and again even before he went on trial. Frankie Baker shooting her lover Allen Britt on Oct. 15, 1899, and, supposedly, pianist Bill Dooley composing “Frankie and Albert,” which would travel the world as “Frankie and Johnny,” the very next night. (“They say there really was a Frankie and Johnny,” said a patron during intermission at the Broadway play “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” in 2002, “sometime in the 1930s, I think.”) Charles Starkweather finding his place in Theodore Roosevelt’s gallery long before Bruce Springsteen came along to write a song that, in its way, had already been sung.
We didn’t sing about our friend’s dead parents -- but their deaths, I think, passed into the first folk song I ever heard that carried the sting of death. I’ll say it was one night in 1957. Whenever it was, it was on “The Big Surprise,” one of the quiz shows that sprang up in the wake of the runaway success of “The $64,000 Question” and “Twenty One.” “The Big Surprise” had the big prize -- $100,000 -- and this was the big night, when a woman referred to as “a grandmother” would go for it all. Her category was “American Folk Songs.” She was a schoolteacher, I think. Probably she knew that, sometime in the 18th century, perhaps as part of the great Irish migrations following the potato famine of the late 1840s, a song about a syphilitic, most often known as “The Unfortunate Rake,” made it across the Atlantic and began to travel the United States. One version, from before the trip, began with the singer passing “St. James’ Hospital"; another is called “Locke Hospital.”
As I was a-walking out by the
Cold was the morning and
dark was the day
I spied a young squaddie
wrapped up in old linen
Wrapped up in old linen and cold as the day
The singer calls for a proper funeral (“Over his coffin throw a bunch of white laurels / For he’s a young soldier cut down in his prime”), and then the dead man begins to speak, writing his will after the fact, correcting the man who has begun the song (“Get six of me comrades to carry my coffin / Get six of me comrades to carry me on high / And let everyone hold a bunch of white roses / So no one will notice as we pass them by”).
The song followed the routes of the country’s story, or reenacted that story as the song found it. After the Civil War, among freedmen and -women, it became “St. James Infirmary” -- which, as the song continued its journey across another 100 years, along its way (for its own story may be in its infancy) it became Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” in 1983. As a Negro song there was no happenstance in the story: “I went down to St. James Infirmary,” Bobby “Blue” Bland sang in 1960, as horns sagged behind him, “And I heard my baby groan / And I felt so broken-hearted / She used to be my / Very own.” But among whites, the song remained a kind of accident, or, more crucially -- dramatizing the right of white Americans to public space and the mandated invisibility of black Americans, the rule that they never call attention to themselves, that they pass through white houses or across white streets as if they were not there -- a procession. The white version of the song was called “The Streets of Laredo.” In “St. James Infirmary,” the singer’s beloved dies behind the walls; no party carries the corpse through the town. But in “The Streets of Laredo,” everything is public. There is no pathetic syphilitic soldier, “cold as the day": There is a cowboy, shot down, wanting only to get his tale told before he takes his last breath.
As I walked out through the
streets of Laredo
As I walked out through
Laredo one day
I spied a young cowboy all
dressed in white linen
Dressed in white linen
and cold as the clay
“Sit down beside me and hear my sad story,” he says. “I’m shot through the breast and I know I must die.” “What are the words,” host Jack Barry asked the woman on “The Big Surprise”, “to ‘The Streets of Laredo’?” She might have been in her 50s; To me she looked 100 years old, with wispy white hair and a small flowered hat. It seemed remarkable she could stand without help.
But, standing as she was, she pulled herself up even higher and stood even more firmly as she opened her mouth and, instead of reciting the answer, sang it. She sang the song slowly, as if she in fact did not really remember it, but was trusting each word to take her to the next, relying on the melody -- and in her quivering voice, there was no melody anyone but she could hear -- to give her the story. And yet, because of her age, or her demeanor, the way she got it across that, somehow, the story in the song was more important than whether she won the money, for as long as the song lasted she made you forget that anything outside the song existed at all.
That was when, for me, folk music became more than an embarrassment -- when old songs became something unfathomable, and undeniable. And, as I recall, if I am not substituting wish for memory, “The Big Surprise” was one of the only big quiz shows that, when the investigations concluded, was found not to have been fixed.