Some of you might have noticed that the recent 90th birthday concert in Madison Square Garden for Pete Seeger featured Dave Matthews singing the classic American folk tune "Rye Whiskey" (PBS stations around the country are now showing the concert on "Great Performances"--check your local listings). Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also recently released a version of this song on the CD "B-Sides and Rarities." For some reason, there seems to be renewed interest in this American folk classic. A quick check of the i-Tunes store shows over 40 different versions recorded by various artists over the years.
The song, with it's murky origins sometime in the early nineteenth-century, illustrates the pervasiveness of rye whiskey in American life. It was first recorded by Tex Ritter in 1933 for Columbia Records. Ritter recorded it again for Capitol Records in 1948. You can hear Ritter discuss this song here. The tune was also recorded at mid-century by famous folksingers such as Woody Guthrie (1940) and Pete Seeger (1954).
The lyrics in each of the recordings differs slightly. John Lomax, Jr., the famed musicologist, sang "Rye Whiskey" on his seminal "John Lomax, Jr. sings American Folk Songs" album (released by Smithsonian Folkways in 1952). In the liner notes, Lomax claimed that the song, "(sometimes called JACK OF DIAMONDS) is a well known western folk song of many verses and many versions." Indeed.
Before the days of commercial recorded music (roughly beginning in the late 1910s) amateur musicians fulfilled a community's need for song. Like whiskey, music was produced locally. That meant that lyrical variations, sometimes regional, sometimes peculiar to particular performers, emerged and spread. Not until technologies made it possible for songs to be heard from a machine was music taken from the people, standardized, and turned into a business.
The same was true in the world of liquor. By 1919, the local (even household) production of whiskey (with endless variations) had been banned as part of national prohibition. And when prohibition was finally lifted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration in 1933, new federal laws nonetheless made it illegal to distill your own spirits without a license--which was hard to get. Only distilleries could make spirits. By then, corporations had taken hold of American popular music as well.
Importantly, the song "Rye Whiskey" provides significant clues about nineteenth-century American culture and it's view of rye. Lomax's (and his son's) seminal published work on American folk music--American Ballads and Folksongs (1941) included the song in the seventh chapter, which focused on folk songs with "cocaine and whisky" as subjects. Apparently the use of both was widespread in nineteenth-century America, which accounted for the many variations as well as the many sentiments the song expressed. The vaguely standard version of "Rye Whiskey" variously celebrates manly independence, the joys of life without a wife, the ruinous love/hate relationship an alcoholic has with their spirit of choice, class differences making romance difficult, the dangers of card playing, the desire for steak for the hungry, money for the poor, and religion at one's death, and finally, whiskey's uncanny ability to ease loneliness.
Among the most interesting variations, however, are two found in Lomax's American Ballads (and, interestingly, almost always absent in recorded versions of the song). The first is a verse attributed to African Americans, in the awkward and demeaning pidgin so often ascribed to enslaved peoples in the American South:
In my little log cabin
Ever since I been born
Dere ain't been no nothin'
'Cept dat hard salt, parched corn
But I know whar's a henhouse,
De turkey he charve
An' if ol' Mas'er don' kill me
I cain't never starve.
That this lyric has little to do with whiskey and much to do with the resilience and resistance of enslaved peoples is fascinating. But a question arises: was it a minstrel variation? Unlikely. Perhaps this was a verse that African Americans added to this well known song to express their dignity in the face of the dehumanizing and brutal terror of chattel slavery? No one knows for sure.
Equally important, the famous "duck" lyric found in the song seems to have come from African American folk traditions. Here's the lyric:
If the ocean was whiskey
And I were a duck
I'd dive to the bottom
And never come up
According to Newman White's book American Negro Folk Song (1928), a group of African American workers in Alabama in 1915 sang a song with this verse:
Oh! if the blues was whiskey
I'd stay drunk all the time
'Er if the river was booze
And I was a mallow duck
I'd dive to the bottom and
I'd never come up
Variations on this verse could be found in a number of songs recorded by white and black artists in the 1930s including "Divin' Duck Blues" and "If the River Was Whiskey" as well as Muddy Waters' 1950 hit "Rollin' and Tumblin'."
Another variation found in Lomax's book was a modified version of the typical chorus:
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey,
Rye whiskey, I cry
If I don't get rye whiskey,
I surely will die.
Interestingly, the variant proved to be much darker and less tongue-in-cheek:
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey
You're no friend to me
You killed my poor daddy
Goddamn you, try me.
As this version of the chorus suggests, alcoholism was pervasive in nineteenth-century America--one reason the temperance movement became so powerful. People knew that dependence on liquor could destroy one's life. And they weren't afraid to sing about it.
That neither variant is sung anymore shows that the song continues to evolve--in this case, for the worse. Perhaps it would be more meaningful for Dave Matthews (and everyone else interested in reviving American folk music) to explore the darker, more complex side of these "people's songs" just as we rye aficionados appreciate darker, more complex whiskeys--the "people's spirit."