Other People’s Songs: Diamond Joe

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Other people’s songs: Performances by Dylan of traditional songs, and those written by others with explorations of their origins.

Songs selected by Aaron, additional commentary from the other side of the Atlantic by Tony.  There is an index of earlier commentaries at the end of the article.

Aaron: Often described as “traditional”, the lyrics for this song were actually written in 1944 for a radio show. The tune is the traditional, “Arkansas Traveler.”

This was the second of two ballad operas created by Alan Lomax for the New York City branch of the BBC for broadcast in the UK.

The cast included Wade Mainer, Red Rector, J.E. Mainer, Fred Smith, Cisco Houston, Rosie Ledford, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Sonny Terry, Susie Ledford, Burl Ives and Lily May Ledford. The visual shows the cast in the radio studio.

Diamond Joe · Cisco Houston

Tony: Not knowing the song at all, what with Arkansas traditional songs not being particularly well known in the English county of Northamptonshire, where I now live, I did a bit of looking up, while the recording was playing, and found that when it was first published (in 1847) it went under the name of the “The Arkansas Traveller and Rackinsac Waltz”.

Which then made me look up “Rackinsac”, and thus far I have been defeated.  I’m getting the impression it is  small town, but for once the internet has let me down.  If you know can you write in and say?   A supporting reference on the internet would be helpful.

But it makes me wonder: are there towns and villages that have no listing at all on the internet?   I mean, having moved out of London many, many years ago, I now live in an English village now with a population of 2000.  There’s no school or shop or post office, but we still have our own village website, commemorating the great and glorious history of the village, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.  But maybe it doesn’t always go like this.

Anyway, back to the music.  It’s a traditional folk song, with a very particular style emphasised by the held notes in the vocal line.

Aaron: Bob’s version was included on his 1992 album Good as I Been to You.

Tony: Bob keeps the mournful approach of the song, although the distinguishing held notes at the end of the lines are shorter.   But Bob’s voice here is very much in keeping with the lyrics – he has that ability to do “mournful” and make it sound absolutely real, and this really is a mournful song.

But beside  the mournfulness it made me think, we really ought to try and create folk songs for villages that exist today.  The characters of course don’t have to be real, but it would be an interesting project.   Maybe one day…

However, most of all, with Bob’s version I really started listening to the lyrics, which somehow had passed me by.   So in case you have missed them too, this is the story of a very rich outlaw, who is known for tricking everyone who does business with him and for treating his own team really badly.  As for example in the tale Joe rents out some horses to the singer, but they are “so old they could not stand”.

The singer works for Joe but Joe pays so badly, the singer never has enough money, and the food Joe gives his team is inedible.   But those who work for him find it hard to escape, so in the end the singer is left to reflect on the fact that

And when I'm called up yonderAnd it's my time to goGive my blankets to my buddiesGive the fleas to Diamond Joe

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a folk song that ends that way, and its a shame that (at least for me) Dylan’s voice is not clear enough for that message to be put across – although of course the vocals certainly portray the misery of working for Diamond Joe.

Aaron: Guy Clark recording it as a duet with Verlon Thompson in 2006 for the album Workbench Songs

Tony:  I guess the problem here is that when one puts a bounce in the music as this does, it takes away the awfulness of Joe,  but in a very real sense this still works, as it leaves me nodding in recognition of one or two people I have met over the years who are just inexorably mean or are tricksters.

Overall, Dylan really tells us the horrors of working with Joe, the others make us glad we never came across him.

Aaron: Next time we will look at the other song named Diamond Joe that Bob covered

Other people’s songs…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy
  39. Other People’s Songs: Must be Santa
  40. Other People’s songs: The Christmas Song
  41. Other People’s songs: Corina Corina
  42. Other People’s Songs: Mr Bojangles
  43. Other People’s Songs: It hurts me too
  44. Other people’s songs: Take a message to Mary
  45. Other people’s songs: House of the Rising Sun
  46. Other people’s songs: “Days of 49”
  47. Other people’s songs: In my time of dying
  48. Other people’s songs: Pretty Peggy O
  49. Other people’s songs: Baby Let me Follow You Down
  50. Other people’s songs: Gospel Plow
  51. Other People’s Songs: Melancholy Mood
  52. Other people’s songs: The Boxer and Big Yellow Taxi
  53. Other people’s songs: Early morning rain
  54. Other people’s Songs: Gotta Travel On
  55. Other people’s songs: “Can’t help falling in love”
  56. Other people’s songs: Lily of the West
  57. Other people’s songs: Alberta
  58. Other people’s songs: Little Maggie
  59. Other people’s songs: Sitting on top of the world
  60. Dylan’s take on “Let it be me”
  61. Other people’s songs: From “Take me as I am” all the way to “Baker Street”
  62. Other people’s songs: A fool such as I
  63. Other people’s songs: Sarah Jane and the rhythmic changes
  64. Other people’s songs: Spanish is the loving tongue. Author drawn to tears
  65. Other people’s songs: The ballad of Ira Hayes
  66. Other people’s songs: The usual
  67. Other people’s songs: Blackjack Davey
  68. Other people’s songs: You’re gonna quit me
  69. Other people’s songs: You belong to me
  70. Other people’s songs: Stardust

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