Your Weekly Worksong is... Woah Back Buck On Tuesday an old song that I only half-knew popped into my head in the field, and it grabbed everyone right off. It's called "Woah Back Buck" and I found some lyrics and recordings, learned it right, and yesterday we used it planting hot peppers. Now here it is for you.
Whoah Back Buck is a classic song performed by iconic worksonger Huddie William "Lead Belly" Leadbetter. (People often write "Leadbelly" but he wrote "Lead Belly" so that's what I use.) If you haven't run into him he is an American music icon, taking his experience on prison chain gangs and communicating it through his incredible music to the rest of the world. He is the guy who brought "Good Night Irene" to the world and his music has been covered by almost everybody... including Elvis, Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra, the White Stripes and Nirvana.
Where I learned it
I went through a serious delta blues phase back in 7th and 8th grade and ran into Lead Belly's recordings back then. It wasn't until I met Jeff Davis of Woodstock, Connecticut, in 2006, that I learned that Lead Belly would singing "Woah God Damn" in some versions and "Cunningham" in others. Legend has it "God Damn" was oxen-driver language and and "Cunningham" was better for polite company.
Why it's a great song:
Simple, rhythmic drive in the chorus, but not overdone... really distinct and interesting. Some of the best old songs have a keen edge to them, and this is no exception. Sometimes it can be cathartic to do all that cussin' and grinnin'.
If you try it:
I've found a copy of both the God Damn and the Cunningham and put it up on worksongs.org - you might learn both in case you're worksonging out with your grandmother. And if you're teaching it, I found it helped to just loop the chorus a bunch of times. When you're out in the field there's plenty of time to just loop it so everyone gets into the rhythm and feels the groove before you start getting into the verses.
Check it out:
- Here is a link to Woah Back Buck on worksongs.org
- Here is a decent starter for more on Lead Belly: the wikipedia article
- Leadbelly Important Recordings 1934-49 (Box Set)
- The Life and Legend of Leadbelly by Chales Wolfe and Kip Lornell
- The Leadbelly Songbook by Moses Asch and Alan Lomax
- Lead Belly, A Life In Pictures by Tyehimba Jess with an intro by Tom Waits
Holler back with any questions or ideas! And let me know if you decide to sing it... -Bennett