The Deck of Cards, or The Old Weird America Part 2

Returning to the other side of that post WWII Tex Ritter record I discussed yesterday, let’s look at The Deck of Cards. I think I probably first heard this as the Wink Martindale version from 1959 which was the third or fourth time a version of The Deck of Cards had charted on some hit parade somewhere, and as the Wikipedia link shows, it would return again and again, which should not surprise us, since the story dates back to the 18th century.

I rather liked the piece when I heard it as a child. First off it was spoken not sung, so it stood out from all the singers on the radio, and the piece’s narrative twist, that the threatened poor and irreverent man would show himself to be learned and pious, is the kind of twist that can keep a piece of folk material current for centuries. As I said in the last post, no one in the mid-20th century folk revival would have ever considered The Deck of Cards an authentic folk song—but like our supposed irreverent soldier—it is, and not what folks presumed it to be.

Did this record specifically influence the Parlando project to mix music and spoken/chanted words? Not at any conscious level. The popular spoken word record with music just was around in my childhood. Yet, as one starts to do concentrated work in some area you may begin to notice all kinds of things that must have taught you some possibilities.

The plot of The Deck of Cards follows the rhythm of a joke: tension, danger, expectation; then unexpected twist, release of tension, pleasure. So, it’s not surprising then that some of the renditions of this old tale passing through the folk process twist it again to parody, and so here’s mine. It’s based loosely on that rough Robyn Hitchcock version, even uses a couple of his lines, but is mostly mine. If you don’t know the 1948 Tex Ritter version, you can hear it first by clicking here. You should listen to Tex, you can’t have irreverence without reverence. Or you can hear T Texas Tyler’s version which predates Tex Ritter’s by a few months here.

Oddly enough, I performed a straight rendition of the 1948 text the same day that the LYL Band recorded this parody, but you won’t hear that here when you click on the gadget that should appear below.

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Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey

It’s election day in the United States, a day of great hope and fear. Yesterday I was on the shore of a great lake and the sunrise was a perfect unbroken horizon of a bright line with pink above that, and then graduations to blue rising up over our heads as high as we wished to look. At our feet, the lake waves came from wherever they come from and broke on the stone ballots cast on the beach.

We are riding a great wave of change sweeping from wherever it comes from to wherever it goes. I feel our country has become both more perceptive and more blind,  in what is too close to equal amounts. I do not know what part of that proportion of blindness is mine or yours. Perhaps until we see, if we ever see, we will not know.
 
We’ve talked about myths here before, our big stories that explain ourselves. When Homer sang his myths he was said to be blind, and myths are often blind. When John Keats read Homer in Chapman’s translation, he wrote about it in a fine sonnet almost exactly 200 years ago, but oops! he put the wrong explorer on that Pacific-viewing peak. So clearly a mistake that a friend pointed it out to Keats immediately, but in the end, it harms the poem in only that simple and clear “wrong guy, Johnny!” way. People who know about these things might note that Chapman’s translation of Homer, published 400 years ago this year, is a bit loose as well. Homer’s music is always very hard to translate, but they say that Chapman added some additional material dear to his own philosophy.

Let’s just leave it at this for now: little or big deviations from the truth make up many, perhaps all, myths, those explanations of ourselves. We grow blind and perceptive at the same time.This piece, Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey, is as much true as my proportion of blindness and perception can make it now.

My appreciation of what was called “folk music” in the US in the mid 20th Century was founded on an appreciation for “authenticity.” “Authenticity” is a particularly hard to define myth. If I can distill it briefly, “Authenticity” believes that certain emotions and feelings are more perceptive, closer to the truth of things. So, to portray those emotions and to share them through art allows one’s audience to see and share the truth of things. The 20th Century American folk music circles search for authenticity is not much different from hard-core punk later in the century (the two musical movements have many parallels).

I saw the folk song Rye Whiskey though that shared myth of authenticity, just as the piece recounts. On the page, and as performed by many folk-revival singers, Rye Whiskey seems to call on harrowing emotions. However, for a time this year it occurred to me to see what I could find out about my great-grandfather for whom I was named, A decade-old report from an uncle that he liked the song Rye Whiskey was one thing I knew.
 
Around this time a co-worker thought my son, who likes math, would be interested in some sets of numbers relating to a deck of playing cards. I told the co-worker that some of that material was used in a hit song of my youth, The Deck of Cards. Turns out The Deck of Cards was a hit not once, but several times, and that Tex Ritter had been one of the earliest to have a successful cover recording of it.

On the other side of Tex’s A Deck of Cards was Rye Whiskey, a  that song that was part of Tex’s repertoire for a long time, going back at least into the 1930s. I can’t say for sure where Frank Eli Hudson heard Rye Whiskey, but Tex Ritter would be an odds-on favorite.

The Deck of Cards was not “authentic” folk music. Robyn Hitchcock once did a parody of it that is hilarious. And Tex’s version of Rye Whiskey?  Well, listen to the piece as played by the LYL Band to hear what I found about how my great-grandfather, authentically living in that “Old Wierd America” that Greil Marcus writes about, might have experienced this song. The gadget to play Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey should appear below.

 

 

After you’ve heard my tale, here are some versions of Tex Ritter singing this authentic American folk song.