04. Buffalo Skinners
(Woody Guthrie/Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., BMI)
Track 4 – The Buffalo Skinners (MASTER 902)
This is an American dramatic ballad, lean, spare, and stark, certainly the equal of great novels or of grander opera so praised by critics; at its most matter-of-fact, it might be described as a ballad noir. Guthrie learned it in 1940, while visiting Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, D.C.; there Lomax played for his guest a variant of the ballad entitled “Boggy Creek” collected sometime earlier by his father, John A. Lomax. (Guthrie’s text more or less follows that of Lomax, as printed in his Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads [Macmillan, 1938], pp. 41-42.) The ballad that Lomax had snared from one H. Knight of Sterling City, Texas, however, is not original to the Southwest, or to cowboys or to buffalo skinners. In the earlier Minstrelsy of Maine (Houghton Mifflin, 1927), pp. 22-23, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth, reported a ballad they called “Canaday-I-O.” Set to a tune more or less familiar as “The Wild Colonial Boy,” the ballad credited to one Ephraim Bailey
warned “jolly lumbermen” not “to spend a pleasant winter up…in that forsaken G____ D____ place called Canaday-I-O.”
To describe what we have suffered is past the art of man,
But to give a full description, I will do the best I can:
Our food the dogs would snarl at, our beds were on the snow,
We suffered worst than murderers up in Canada I O.
Peeling the narrative back, step by grisly step, Phillips Barry in Bulletin of the Folk-Song Society of the Northeast, VI, tracked this ballad from the buffalo skinners of the Great Plains to misled lumberjacks in Michigan, back to woodsmen in Pennsylvania, and eventually to shantyboys in Maine. Guthrie, thereby, is singing a truly quintessential American ballad, and an early workers’ protest song.