Legends of Myself 104

Posted on August 7, 2016

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  1. Vancouver, 1962. Jimmy Crack Corn in Little Italy

Our flight from Schou School brought us to the Commercial Drive neighbourhood, now known as The Drive but then known as Little Italy.  Our first residence in that neighbourhood was on 2nd Avenue.  The Drive itself was just up the block, and there were establishments there that specialized in the Italian market, so pungent to our unaccustomed noses that some stores we crossed the street to avoid.  Everybody’s ethnic to somebody else.  Otherwise what it was, was an introduction to what has always felt like my neighbourhood in my chosen city.

And we came to it with song.  The place where we moved to on 2nd Avenue was on the second floor of a house.  I don’t remember it being any more than a single room, although not a bad one.  And we had no television there.  Instead, Dad acquired a mandolin and that became our entertainment.

We sang:

Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care

Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care

Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care

My master’s gone away.

It was a song about a slave’s sorrow when his master dies because of an accident with a “Blue Tail Fly.”  We didn’t catch that the blue tail fly was a Union soldier, or con onto the deep sarcasm of the lyrics.  We just thought the song was great fun and sang it with loud and hilarious enthusiasm.

To the tune of John Brown’s Body we sang, “Solidarity Forever”, “because the union makes us strong.”  Or the hymn-flavoured, “We Will Overcome.”  Or the equally hymn-flavoured, “We Shall Not Be Moved”:

            Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,

            We shall not be moved.

Merle Travis Sixteen TonsWe also encountered the coal ballads of Merle Travis.  “Dark as a Dungeon”:

            Where the rain never falls and sun never shines,

            It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.

Or even better, “Sixteen Tons”:

            You load sixteen tons and what do you get,

            Another day older and deeper in debt

Where Merle Travis quotes his Daddy for his best line:

            Saint Peter don’t you call me since I can’t go

            I owe my soul to the company store.

We sang, in parody of religious pretensions,

            Away, away, with rum by gum, with rum by gum, with rum by gum,

            Away, away with rum by gum, that’s the song of the Salvation Army.

But much more tellingly, evoking an earlier era when religious organizations used to come out on the street and play religious music to drown out union organizers and other such riff-raff, there’re songs like the Preacher and the Slave.

            Long-haired preachers come out every night,

            Try to teach you what’s wrong and what’s right

            But if you ask about something to eat,

            They will tell you in voices so sweet:

                        You will eat (you will eat)

                        Bye and bye (bye and bye)

                        In that wonderful land above the sky

                        Work and pray (work and pray)

                        Live on hay (live on hay)

                        You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (That’s a lie!)

Earl Robinson.pngWhen I went to university in 1975 to attend the Arts One programme at UBC, one of the things the programme did was bring in a genuine lefty folksinger, Earl Robinson, who had impeccable credentials, for instance a co-writing credit on the labour movement standard, “Joe Hill”:

                        I thought I saw Joe Hill last night

                        Alive as you or me.

He sang Joe Hill that day, then as we sat around him in a circle, he taught us all how to sing “The Preacher and the Slave.”  Everybody’s job was to repeat the parts of the chorus in brackets, after the lead singer had sung them, but, most importantly, and Earl emphasized this, you have to shout out, “That’s a lie!” at the end of the pie in the sky line.  He had us all, a bunch of White kids and me, doing just that.

But he didn’t have to teach me.  I grew up knowing the answer to pie in the sky.

That was a famous season, the singing season on Commercial Drive, and whenever we talk about the mad days of our family, that is always a part of our discussion.  Marylou always complained that Irene sang the loudest and she was always out of tune.  I can’t say I noticed.  I don’t remember my father’s mandolin playing either, just knew that it provided all the accompaniment that we needed.

Perhaps not all, but most, of the songs we sang then came from a single book that we would all sit around reading as we sang.  It was called Songs of Work and Freedom.  It is still available now under the more mealy-mouthed title Songs of Work and Protest.  It was put together by Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer in 1960.

The arrangements are a bit odd, not really representative of the folk tradition, but a better selection of left-wing folk, from an era when crowds actually sang at protests, probably can’t be found anywhere.  It is an indelible part of my own past anyway, and of my family history.

I don’t sing Jimmy crack corn anymore, but I still occasionally give the lie to pie in the sky.