“The Butcher Boy” / “The Railroad Boy”

Title from American broadside, Harding B 18(71) - J.H. Johnson, Stationer and Printer, ca. 1860

Title from American broadside, Harding B 18(71) – J.H. Johnson, Stationer and Printer, ca. 1860

Introduction: “It’s the butcher boy I love so well …”

The title of today’s song suggests a narrative consistent with the stereotype of violent misogyny in our genre of choice.  Strictly speaking, this time that could lead to some inaccurate assumptions.  The boy in question is simply the son of a meat cutter, for example.  Oh, misogyny is there; but the lethal violence is self-inflicted.  Of course, suicide is a device we treat carefully in the songs we consider here.  Nevertheless, it’s crucial to what makes “The Butcher Boy” compelling.

In my experience, one Appalachian variant of this British ballad ranks among the most moving in the Anglo-American tradition.  Though that’s subjective, its popularity suggests I’m not alone in my judgment.  More objectively, as one of the tracks Harry Smith included on his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, we can reasonably call it part of the bedrock of the Folk Revival.  Suffice it to say, its addition to this blog is long overdue.

We’ll get to Buell Kazee’s classic version on the Anthology below, but I want to start with the track that opened my ears to the disturbing inner world of this ballad.  Titled “Go Dig My Grave,” I discovered it long ago on the live album Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City.   This marks the third time I’ve gone to that recording for inspiration in writing here.  If you’ll take this taste, you’ll understand why I keep drawing from that well.

Lyrics for “Go Dig My Grave” by Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson

Doc picks an old-time banjo and Jean sings with a voice born of ancient mountains.  The result is tectonic.  There is no care for anyone who might study it or try to say something intelligent about it.  This is traditional balladry, meant to shake one to the marrow.

Close your eyes and listen again; or try it with Dave Van Ronk, A capella.  His live performance is the other that most moves me.

Lyrics for “The Butcher Boy” by Dave Van Ronk

“He courted me my life away …”

Both versions tell the story of a young woman who commits suicide in response to her lover’s inconstancy and rejection.  Both hint as well that she is pregnant, though unlike some versions they do not make it explicit.  It’s an easy scenario to imagine, and a theme well-represented in the greater body of folk ballads.  At any rate, she needs him and he spurns her, then she hangs herself.

Van Ronk’s voice betrays little affect, yet drags us by the heels through gravel to the grave.  It is devastating.  Though he came up in the urban Folk Revival, he delivers in the traditional style with the narrative out front.  Of course, Watson and Ritchie made coin in the Sixties off some of the same listeners as Van Ronk.  Yet, they also give us something that transcends such context.  With sounds fused from colliding Scots-Irish, West African, and Cherokee traditions, theirs is a performance born in the fire of ‘old, weird America.’

Harry Smith curates coffee in Allen Ginsburg's kitchen, ca. mid to late 1980s. Photo by Allen Ginsburg

Harry Smith curates coffee in Allen Ginsburg’s kitchen, ca. mid to late 1980s. Photo by Allen Ginsburg, available online @ The Allen Ginsburg Project.

You, of course, must judge for yourself.

Harry Smith had to choose as well, though not between those two tracks.  As he assembled his Anthology of American Folk Music in the years leading to its release in 1952, he cut his collection of thousands of pre-Depression 78s into a jewel of eighty-four facets.

Band six of the first volume, Ballads, conjures Buell Kazee’s “The Butcher’s Boy (The Railroad Boy.)”  Kazee originally recorded the track for Brunswick on January 16, 1928, which they cataloged as 213-A and released backed with “The Wagoner’s Lad (Loving Nancy).”  Smith described the narrative in his signature headline style – “Father finds daughter’s body with note attached when railroad boy mistreats her.”  Some combination of that story with Kazee’s precise claw hammer picking and polished vocals must have entranced Smith.

Maybe it will you, too.

Lyrics for Buell Kazee’s “The Butcher’s Boy (The Railroad Boy)”

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