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Old Joe Clark

[ Roud 3594 ; Ballad Index R533 ; Mudcat 25394 , 136168 ; trad.]

Pete Seeger sang the American old-timey song Old Joe Clark at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in February 1964. A recording of this concert was released in 2016 on his Fellside CD Pete Seeger in England.

Hedy West sang Old Joe Clark in 1965 on her Topic album Old Times and Hard Times. She noted:

Before the railways, automobiles and mail order houses brought the town to the country, before television, radio and gramophone brought “instant music” into the home, the play-party was a natural solution to the problem of self-made social amusement, in communities where religious feelings were so strong that dances were generally proscribed but dancing-games permitted to the young. A favourite dance-game was Old Joe Clark with its melody based on the minstrel show tune of Lucy Long, and its text made up of floating verses borrowed from sundry other play-party songs such as Ida Red, Shady Grove, Cindy, Liza Jane, Bile dem Cabbage Down, Sally Ann, and others. Of the verses of Old Joe Clark, one Indiana farmer said: “There’s thousands of ’em. Everyone has his own version.” Scholars set the number more modestly at 144.

Old Joe Clark is one of the songs Uncle Gus Mulkey used to play on the fiddle when his fingers were still nimble. Kim Mulkey had disapproved and pretended not to know of his son’s fiddle playing till he began to hear Gus playing religious tunes. Kim Mulkey’s fundamentalist religion placed native song and the instruments they were played on as being in league with the devil.

L.G. ‘Pug’ Allen of Stuarts Draft, Augusta County, VA, played the square-dance tune Old Joe Clark in a 16 August 1980 recording on volume 5 of the Musical Traditions anthology of songs, tunes and stories from Mike Yates’ Appalachian collections, Far in the Mountains. Mike Yates noted:

Old Joe Clark is a popular and well-known square-dance tune in the mountains. Is it, however, based on the life of a real person? Over the years various suggestions have been put forward, the most popular being a Joseph Clark who was born in Clay County, Kentucky, on 18 September 1839. In 1857 he married a young girl, Elizabeth Sandlin, before enlisting to fight in the Civil War. In 1864 Elizabeth left and Clark reputedly fathered a whole clan of children by various women. Clark, originally a farmer, then opened a small store. He supplemented his income by running a licensed moonshine still selling whisky and brandy from the store. Joe Clark died in 1886, shot by an irate neighbour.

The Carnival Band played the tune Old Joe Clark in 1991 on their CD with Maddy Prior, Carols and Capers.

Dave Burland sang Old Joe Clarke in 1996 on his CD Benchmark.

Chipolata 5 played and sang Old Joe Clarke in 1997 on their CD Skinless with Eliza Carthy helping out with her fiddle.

Jon Boden learned Old Joe Clark at the Forest School Camps with quite different verses than Hedy West’s, which together make just ten of the supposed 144 verses… He sang it as the 15 October 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Will Pound played Old Joe Clark on his 2013 CD A Cut Above.


Hedy West sings Old Joe Clark

Old Joe Clark’s mad at me, I’ll tell you the reason why:
I ran through his cabbage patch and tore down all his rye.

Chorus (after each verse):
Walk Joe Clark, talk Joe Clark,
Goodbye Billy Brown,
Walk Joe Clark, talk Joe Clark,
I’m gonna leave this town.

I went down to Old Joe Clark’s to get me a glass of wine;
He tied me up to his whupping post and he give me ninety-nine.

I went back down to Old Joe Clark’s to get me a glass of gin;
He charged me up for whupping his horse and he give hell again.

I don’t give a damn for Old Joe Clark and I’ll tell you the reason why:
He blows his nose in old corn bread and calls it chicken pie.

Old Joe Clark come to my house, [treats me like a pup ?]
He run the bulldog under the fence and drank my liquor up.

Old Joe Clark is dead and gone and I hope he’s gone to hell!
He made me wear the ball and chain, and it made my ankles swell.

Jon Boden sings Old Joe Clark

Oh when I was a little boy I used to want a knife;
Now I am a bigger boy, I only want a wife.

Chorus (after each verse):
So fare the well, Old Joe Clark,
Fare the well I’m gone,
Fare the well, Old Joe Clark
And goodbye Betsy Brown.

When I was a little girl I used to play with toys;
Now I am a bigger girl, I only play with boys.

Old Joe had a little cat, could neither sing or pray,
He washed his head in the buttermilk jar and washed his sins away.

I wish I was a sugar-tree standing in the middle of town,
And ev’ry time a pretty girl passed I’d shake some sugar down.