What makes a song a folk song, anyway?
One familiar answer is that a folk song is a song without an author. Folk song scholars even have a name for the theory that some songs emerge without any one person composing them. They call it "communal creation."
But by the mid-20th century, that same intellectual community was doing a lot of head scratching over how, exactly, a song could exist without someone in particular making it up. The documented histories of the songs we call folk songs bear out this uncertainty.
Take the cowboy song "Goodbye, Old Paint" for example. It seems like an easy fit with the folk song category. It has no precisely known author, after all. But is it really anonymous?
In 1942, the song collector John Lomax was traveling through the Texas panhandle. He met with a local man named Jess Morris and recorded Morris performing "Goodbye, Old Paint":
Morris gave his account of the song's origins in a letter to Lomax:
After the Civil War in 1865, father hired an ex-slave by the name of Charley Willis--colored—who was about 17 yrs. old, to break horses for him… Charley played a jewsharp, and taught me to play it. It was on this jewsharp that I learned to play Ol' Paint, at the age of 7 (seven). In later years I learned to play the fiddle, and played Ol' Paint on the fiddle, in my own special arrangement--tuning the fiddle accordingly.
In Stephan Wade's 2012 book "The Beautiful Music All Around Us" we learn that Morris had first learned to play the fiddle from another ex-slave turned cowhand named James Neeley before taking up formal training. He would train as a classical violinist at Valparaiso University in Indiana. The ever eclectic Morris chose his love of the old-fashioned breakdown music of his youth to express himself after four years of classical education.
The song has obscure origins. Especially if you're looking for a single originating composer. But calling it anonymous is a bit of a stretch. Willis, Morris, and even Lomax himself leave personal stamps on the song, giving it definition before Lomax introduces it to the public as a folk song.
Thanks in large part to these three figures, the song has become a folk standard. And, circulating without any strong affiliation with an individual author, it might crop up anywhere.
Let's "fast forward" to New York's downtown music scene in the 1970s and '80s. An eccentric cellist named Arthur Russell is making home recordings that defy easy classification. Some of his music would sound at home in a dance club. Other pieces might be more appropriate for a concert hall. In the midst of a jam with tablas and woodwinds, he inserts an off-kilter version of an American folk song:
Just as it did for Jess Morris, "Goodbye, Old Paint" continues to lend itself to "special arrangements."
Check out Dom Flemons's own version of "Goodbye, Old Paint" on this month's episode of American Songster Radio. "Goodbye, Old Paint" is one of the songs Dom has added to his repertoire of material sung by the African American cowboys who shaped the American west.