Here’s a 1936 recording of the Carter Family singing “Cannonball Blues.” I’m not a folk music historian, and I’m not here to unriddle the origin of this song, but it’s clearly a variation of the “Buffalo to Washington” model. There are a lot of songs with a similar tune and chorus, and the subject matter can be pretty flexible: this version (1926) is about the assassination of William McKinley; this one (1944) is about Charles Lindbergh’s Nazi sympathies. But most of them are more like this Woody Guthrie recording (1944), which shares some lyrics with the Carter Family’s “Cannonball Blues,” although it has a different title.
(By the way, all these songs are great, and you should listen to them all.)
In fact, a lot of songs share some lyrics with “Cannonball Blues.” (You can find the Carter Family’s lyrics, if you want to follow along, here. The Carters did several recordings with slightly different structures, but this is typical for them.) Some of these lyrics (“yonder comes a train,” “my baby left me”) are such commonplaces that they don’t even count, but just to give one example of a larger lyrical echo, compare this stanza from “Little Black Train“:
There’s a little black train a-coming,
Coming down the track.
You’ve got to ride that little black train,
But it ain’t a-gonna bring you back.
Long before postmodernism, in 1930, Lil McClintock released a song that was just a pastiche of several older ragtime songs, blended together. You could call it a medley, but the blending is more seamless than your usual medley; the end result sounds like one song with a couple different hooks, and lyrics that make no sense together.
And this kind of pastiche is exactly what many folk songs are (blues songs too); a collection of conventional tags threaded together. Any one tune could have hundreds of potential verses. Because old recordings were done in one take, the lyrics a song got may have been simply whatever verses the singer happened to think of during that one recording session. Some late-’20s/early-’30s folk and blues records are more or less field recordings, local unprofessionals jamming in front of a microphone; their usual improvisation ossified by receiving one official form.
(Something similar can happen outside of traditional music: the Beach Boys muffed the lyrics to the second verse of “Barbara Ann” on their hit live recording, and now no cover band remembers the original, preferring to bluff through something similar. Even Mike Love still sings the “wrong” lyrics, just because someone (probably Dean Torrence) forgot them once in 1965.)
What is the Carters’ “Cannonball Blues” about? It starts with a train moving quickly. The speaker addresses someone and says that she (?) can do three things: two involve laundry and one involves catching a train, presumably the fast train from the opening lines. By the third stanza “my baby,” presumably the person from stanza two, has left, taking with her, indeed, some articles of clothing. Probably she left by train. But next thing, the narrator is himself threatening to leave by train, and never return. He will, in fact, go north, and not return unless something about his luck changes. This time, the “I” is leaving the “you,” although whether the “baby” who left is the same as the “honey babe” the singer is leaving is unclear. Perhaps she came back? Perhaps it is just her memory he leaves. Significantly, the “I” is heading north, the opposite direction of the Buffalo-to-Washington Cannonball, and “baby.”
(I “gendered” the song, but the Carters leave it completely ambiguous; not only did different Carters of different sexes sing the song on different recordings, but neither they nor other artists of the period were averse to singing another gender’s lines. The only unambiguous gendering in the song is the train, which is female.)
There’s plenty to talk about and debate in this summary, but still this is a reasonably coherent “plot” for a song. Of course, it’s probably more or less an accident. If the singer leaves a woman who already left him, it could be because I haven’t thought seriously about this song enough but it’s probably because A.C. Carter was just stringing together different folk tags, more or less at random.
In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges suggests that one can “select two dissimilar works—the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say—attribute them to the same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres“; in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” he more explicitly endorses trying to read the Odyssey as a copy of the Aeneid (instead of vice versa), or reading The Imitation of Christ as though it had been written by a Modernist. The problem with either of these plans is that any critic who tried to write in this way would soon give up in disgust, having concluded he was wasting his time. I’m not here to valorize authorial intent, but I have to acknowledge that given a choice, we almost always choose to consume texts created with some level of intent, and not, say, random collections of poetry magnets. In a word, the plan is not persuasive; no critic is persuaded that this is a good use of his time, no reader is convinced that criticism about randomly generated texts is worth reading.
But anyone who listens to “Cannonball Blues” is going to want to interpret it. This is true of a great many folk songs. Furry Lewis sings in “Kassie Jones” that he left Memphis to spread the news that Memphis women don’t wear no shoes, and this may be a double entendre and it may be flight of fancy, but you can’t hear Furry Lewis sing it without wanting to know.
In the same manner that a photograph, especially a photograph isolated and branded as a work of art, freezes time in such a way that the viewer is able to/is forced to look at one moment in what we all know is an ongoing spectrum of moments, a folk recording freezes an evolving oral tradition, or even one singer’s changing repertoire (Furry Lewis sang a longer Kassie Jones in an earlier recording), creating an object we can contemplate. If the object is good enough—musically good enough, I mean—then the listener is going to want to consume it again and again, and a naturally curious listener will want to know, eventually, what the song is about. Saying “this is a Dadaist text, and it’s not about anything” is not a very satisfying option. The text as word may be simply piggybacking on the skills of guitarists like Maybelle Carter or Furry Lewis, but the end result is the same: a text that demands explication.
And of course it helps that the building blocks are flexible. When the Carters sing that they’re “going up north next fall” they are escaping a bad relationship; when Woody Guthrie sings it he is looking for a new gambling venue. “Little Black Train” is a song explicitly about death, in a way that “Cannonball Blues,” for all their shared lyrics, is not.
My message to Borgesians is: If you want to play the Menard but find all your fanciful analyses silly or unpersuasive, look to the folk-blues canon for a rich vein of the ore you need.
My message to folk fans is: Everything you are listening to is probably a series of arbitrary and random occurrences, but you have almost no choice but to drag a kicking and screaming meaning out of it. In this way folk music is no different from everything else in your life.