When My Willie Come Home
First Lady of the Air

Old Dog Blue

I often wonder what I'll do when my song-by-song series on Diamonds in the Rough comes to an end. I'd love to work on another album, but the only one that seems worthy is Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. But given the pace at which I've run through Diamonds, I calculate The Anthology would take me about ten years. Besides, what can I say about something like "Old Dog Blue" that hasn't been said before (and better)? For example, Robert Cantwell, in his book "When We Were Good," writes beautifully about it.

But today is the 79th anniversary of the recording of Old Dog Blue on February 2, 1928, in Memphis, Tennessee on the Victor label. To commemorate that great event, here's a couple notions ...

When I first heard Jim Jackson sing Old Dog Blue, my reaction was to regret its sexism. In the first verse, the singer off-handedly mentions the recent death of his wife, and then goes on to mourn the death of his dog, movingly, in verse after verse after verse:

I'm going back where I come
I'm going back where I come
I'm going back to Giles County
My wife died and left me a bounty
Me and them pretty girls ganged around
That's the reason I'm going to Giles County

Had an old dog whose name was Blue
You know Blue was mighty true
You know Blue was a good old dog
Blue treed a possum in a hollow log
You know from that he's a good old dog
Do we take this as a joke about the relative importance of wives and dogs?

I've seen (can't remember where) the explanation that the song is hard to sort out because it's really two or more songs spliced together. The line mentioning his wife is like a vestigial organ, left over from some previous stage in the song's evolution. There's some support for this view. Later, in the middle of everything, we get this strange non-sequitur:

Blue treed a possum out on a limb
Blue looked at me and I looked at him
Grabbed that possum, put him in a sack
Don't move, Blue, 'til I get back.

It rained, it rained, yeah
It rained, it rained, yeah

Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on
Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on
Is the dog wearing a dress? No, this verse about a girl in a red dress waiting for the singer appears often in old folk and blues songs — so, it's what's called a "floating stanza."

But I think it's slightly condescending, a little dismissive of Jim Jackson's artistry, to think as if he's just a passive antenna through which floating stanzas appear and disappear without rhyme or reason. I trust my own aesthetics here — this performance of this text is heartbreaking, and increasingly so each time I hear it, year after year. Jackson chose his words to move us, and it works.

Once you accept that the text is very deliberate, the song comes into focus as brilliant psychological observation. It's a study of grief, the way it really works in a real brain. It hits with the force it does because it mirrors sorrow as we actually experience it. Do we really always mourn the most obvious things, or do we sometimes focus on proxies, fetishes, or symbols instead?

Jackson's character's wife has just died, so he's decided to go back to a place of his youth, before he was married, to relive happier days. It seems rather optimistic, even desperate — Jackson's character doesn't sound so young now.

Blue, too, seems to have been gone for a long time — so long that you'd expect a grown man to have gotten over it a bit. And I suspect he has. What I hear is a mind returning to everything its ever lost, trying to reconnect with it all both physically and emotionally.

By so vividly recalling this dog, by revisiting that intense ENCOUNTER between species ("Blue looked at me and I looked at him"), the singer is tracing his own edges, the limits and contours of his own identity. He is refamiliarizing himself with his manhood and his humanity, through memory.

In this way, Jackson's character is like the later folk revivalists of the 1950's and after, about whom Cantwell writes so beautifully. They renounced their identities, abandoned all hope, denied their inheritances, and then — through song — rebuilt themselves. They invented themselves as a new cast of characters meant to inhabit a new world, which they then also built, on a foundation of reinvented memories.


Editor's Note: This is the second ... jeez, only SECOND? ... installment of an experiment — The Celestial Monochord is posting one entry every day during the month of February 2007.

Also, note that the lyrics to this song are notoriously hard to get exactly right.




Thanks for the essay.

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