"Old Dog Blue" comes to us out of the African-American tradition, but it may have originated in the old-time medicine shows. It was recorded by black songster Jim Jackson, who wrote "Kansas City Blues" but got his start in medicine shows (and later the Rabbit Foot Minstrels), and it was collected by Vance Randolph in the Ozarks and by John and Alan Lomax in their travels.
The seminal African-American scholar Sterling A. Brown had this to say about "Old Blue" in Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs (1953), excerpted on the University of Illinois' Modern American Poetry website.
... Such folk delights as hunting with the yipping and baying of the hounds and the yells and cheering of the hunters are vividly recreated. "Old Dog Blue" has been memorialized over all of his lop-eared kindred. The greatest trailer on earth, Old Blue keeps his unerring sense in heaven; there he treed a possum in Noah's ark. When Old Dog Blue died,In Folk Song U.S.A. (1947, rpt. Signet 1966), the Lomaxes say:I dug his grave wid a silver spadeThe above lines illustrate a feature of Negro folksong worth remarking. Corning from an old sea-chantey "Stormalong," their presence in a song about a hunting dog shows the folk habit of lifting what they want and using it how they will. ...
I let him down wid a golden chain
And every link I called his name;
Go on Blue, you good dog, you!
Americans in buckskin, linsey-woolsey, and blue jeans have forever loved and lied about their dogs. ... The ballad of Old Blue, certainly the best song about a dog to come out of this country, we have heard in Mississippi and Texas. It is a quiet song, very serious, intensely and genuinely sentimental, in complete contrast to the hundreds of lies we have told about hunting dogs." (30)The earliest version is by Memphis songster Jim Jackson, recorded in Chicago in January 1928 and released on the Vocalion label. Jackson, according to the National Park Service's website Trail of the Hellhound: Delta Blues in the Lower Mississippi Valley," Jackson can be considered more a forerunner of artists like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson than a bluesman himself:
Around 1905, Jackson gained employment as a singer, dancer, and musician in medicine shows. The medicine show was a time-honored American tradition that employed entertainers to draw a crowd to a tent or wagon where vendors hawked alcohol-based patent medicines. By 1912, Jackson was playing local dances, parties, and fish fries, often pairing with Gus Cannon of Cannon's Jug Stompers or fellow Hernando [Miss.] native Robert Wilkins.My guess, and a guess is all it is, "Old Dog Blue" started out as a medicine show song. Jackson's is the earliest and bluesiest version, but, as Sterling Brown suggested, it borrows from sea chanteys. And, as John and Alan Lomax said, it's of a piece with other children's songs about animals from "All the Pretty Little Horses" to "Springfield Mountain." After Jim Jackon's "Old Dog Blue" was included on the influential Anthology of American Folk Music edited edited by Harry Smith in the 1960s, it has been widely covered -- and usually heavily rearranged -- in both the folk and bluegrass repertories. The online Folk Music Index lists 34 print and recorded versions by collectors and artists including the Lomaxes, Vance Randolph's "Ozark Folksongs," Burl Ives, Joan Baez and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Jackson began traveling with minstrel shows in 1915, performing with the Silas Green Minstrels, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and the Abbey Sutton show intermittently until 1930. Minstrel shows, which had been popular during the nineteenth century, featured dancers, musicians, magicians, and comedians under a tent. Jackson was a favorite; his large stage presence, stentorian voice, and friendly demeanor drew substantial crowds whether from a stool, soapbox, or flatbed truck. Like Leadbelly, Jackson had command of hundreds of songs including blues, ballads, vaudeville numbers, and traditional tunes of the nineteenth century. He has been called the greatest repository of pre-blues songs among all recorded musicians.
Other notes culled from the web:
- Lyrics and a link to an mp3 file of Jim Jackson's "Old Dog Blue" on an old-time country blues blog called "done gone" ... Lyrics and links also on Mudcat Cafe. Jackson's "Old Dog Blue" is also on YouTube with a still picture of a blue tick hound for the video.
- Linked to it is a clip of a blue tick coon hound treeing an animal. Listen to it. When you hear a singer calling, "here, Blu-uuu-oo" and going up half an octave or more, this is where it came from, people. Another guess, but one I'd bet the farm on (if I had a farm).
- Lyrics of Tom Russell's "Old Blue" ... and the 30-second clip on Amazon.com ... which is what got me started on singing it again, along with Richard and Mimi Farina's instrumental version on dulcimer and guitar. I think I first heard it years ago by Joan Baez, maybe Burl Ives too. But Tom Russell's version is the one that got under my skin.
- A beguileingly (is that a word?) folked-up version by the Byrds is on Roger McGuinn's Folk Den website ... an mp3 of McGuinn playing it and lyrics with guitar chords. Dulcimer players note: He plays it in D! (Available for non-commerical use, with restrictions, under a Creative Commons license.)
- Lyrics of a much longer version, recorded several by Cisco Houston, has the verse about treeing a possum on Noah's Ark ... or part of the verse ...
- A short bluegrass version of the lyrics on the Bluegrass.net website.
- A YouTube clip of James Tayor playing "Old Blue" at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1991.
- A vintage black-and-white video clip of Ian and Silvia singing it on the '60s Hootenany TV show.
- And a clip of Brooks Williams for those who like what he does to a song.
- Also on YouTube, a folkie who calls himself spikethegreat sings Ramblin' Jack Elliot's "Ol' Blue" to his dog, who sleeps blissfully through the entire 4:05-minute performance.
- Some imaginative literary analysis of Jackon's "Old Dog Blue," some of which I think is pretty sensitive and convincing, on a blog called The Celestial Monochord" apparently out of Minnesota.
- Also on the web: Lyrics of a version by Lacy J. Dalton ...