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The Candidate’s a Dodger: An Electoral Folksong from Oral Tradition to Aaron Copland

See caption for details.

The back and front covers of a Resettlement Administration Song Sheet of “The Dodger” from 1937. The cover art, which shows a jackrabbit dodging away over a log, is by Charles Pollock, then an artist of the social realist school. He worked for the Resettlement Administration overseeing art projects, especially murals. Pollock later changed his style to abstract expressionism, as did his more famous younger brother, Jackson Pollock.

As Election Day draws near, people often ask the AFC staff if we have any election-related songs or folklore. Of course we do! You can see a selection of song materials from throughout the Library of Congress in the essay “Songs of Politics and Political Campaigns.” But in this blog post I’ll focus on just one song: “The Dodger.”

Of all the political items in our archive, none is as popular, or as controversial, as this one. Recorded by such groups as The Almanac Singers and the Weavers, and arranged by Aaron Copland into a piece of vocal art music, “The Dodger” is a recognized American classic. I’ve turned up some new evidence which sheds light on this song’s origins and early history, which I’ll share in my next post. In this one, I’ll introduce the song and its place in American tradition.

“The Dodger” was recorded for our archive from four different singers. The earliest recordings of the song were sung by Emma Dusenbury (1862-1941) of Mena, Arkansas [1]. Mrs. Dusenbury was born in Georgia, but moved to the Arkansas Ozarks at the age of 10. She learned most of her songs there, before moving to Mena, which is not in the Ozarks but in the Ouachita mountains. Still, she is considered one of the greatest of all Ozark folksingers, having contributed over a hundred songs to the AFC Archive. Mrs. Dusenbury was at the time a widow, and had been blind for decades. She lived with her daughter Ora, who managed the farm and raised chickens and ducks.

Woman in a checked dress pulls a rope attached to a pulley..

Emma Dusenbury draws water from her well in Mena, Arkansas. Photo by Vance Randolph. AFC 1941/001. Vance Randolph Collection. [More Information]

Emma Dusenbury was visited in August, 1936 by John Lomax for the Library of Congress, and then again in December of the same year by Sidney Robertson Cowell, who was working for the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration, under the supervision of Charles Seeger. Both collectors recorded “The Dodger,” and both recordings are in the AFC archive.

In the version collected by Lomax, Dusenbury omitted one verse, so the Cowell recording is more complete. Cowell’s was also the first American folk version of the song to be published, as Seeger had initiated a “Folk Song Sheet Program” to publish individual songs in an inexpensive but attractive format.

According to a letter Cowell wrote to the archive in February 1986:

[The Folk Song Sheet Program] was one of several notions about helping resettled families carry their tradition with them when they moved. Charles Seeger, who thought up the idea of the series on the model of the 17th century English ballad sheets, forgot that the people whose musical traditions he was concerned about carried the music and words in their heads and were for the most part not literate; ballad sheets were an urban tradition. [2]

“The Dodger” was number 6 in the series, and was published in 1937. In the player below, find Cowell’s recording of the song. After that, find the song sheet and the lyrics.

Emma Dusenbury’s Version

The Dodger
Emma Dusenbury
AFC 1939/016: AFS 03230 B02

Notated Music of "The Dodger."

Page 1 of the transcription from the Resettlement Administration Song Sheet of “The Dodger” from 1937.

Yes, the candidate’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger
Yes, the candidate’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger too.
He’ll meet you and treat you and ask you for your vote
But look out, boys, he’s a-dodgin’ for your note

Refrain: Yes, we’re all a-dodgin’, dodgin’, dodgin’ dodgin’
Yes, we’re all dodgin’ out our way through the world.

Yes, the lawyer he’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger
Yes, the lawyer he’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger, too.
He’ll plead your case and claim you for a friend
But look out, boys, he’s easy for to bend.

Yes, the merchant he’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger
Yes, the merchant he’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger, too
He’ll sell you goods at a double price,
But when you go to pay him you got to pay him twice.

Yes the doctor, he’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger
Yes the doctor he’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger, too.
He’ll doctor you and cure you for half you possess
Look out, boys, hes a-dodgin’ for the rest.

Yes the preacher he’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger
Yes the preacher he’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger, too
He’ll preach the gospel and tell you of your crimes,
But look out, boys, he’s a-dodgin’ for your dimes.

Notated Music of "The Dodger"

Page 2 of the transcription from the Resettlement Administration Song Sheet of “The Dodger” from 1937.

Yes, the farmer he’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger
Yes, the farmer he’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger, too
He’ll plow his cotton, he’ll hoe his corn
And he’ll make a living just as sure as you’re born.

Yes, the lover he’s a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger
Yes, the lover he’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger, too
He’ll hug you and kiss you and call you his bride
But look out, girls, he’s telling you a lie.

That’s all of THAT dodger!

Soon after he published Mrs. Dusenbury’s version of “The Dodger,” Charles Seeger came under political fire from Congress because the song seemed politically sensitive. According to a 1972 oral history interview with Seeger:

One day when I was not in the office, there was a telephone call to Mr. Tugwell from (Senator) Vinson. He demanded to know before the next morning how it was that the Resettlement Administration had published a song called “The Candidate’s a Dodger.” He said this was an insult not only to the elected officials in the United States, but to the American government as a whole and the American people thereby; unless satisfactory explanation of the song was given, the Resettlement Administration budget would be reduced from $14,000,000 to $1,000,000. […] Fortunately, we had the knowledge that this song, which is one of the songs sung by Emma Dusenberry and collected by Mrs. Cowell, was a Democratic campaign song of the election of 1884, between Cleveland and Blaine, which was a very dirty election in which Blaine was charged with having been a dodger in the Civil War–that is, paying somebody to take his place in the army. The explanation assuaged the senator, who was a staunch Democrat. [3]

Head and shoulders portrait of bearded man

Charles Seeger, ca. 1930. LC Prints and Photographs Division. [More information at //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.20094]

Once “The Dodger” had itself dodged the wrath of Rep. Vinson, it went on to fame. In 1941 it appeared in Our Singing Country, one of John and Alan Lomax’s most popular books. In the same year, it was recorded commercially for the first time, by the political folk-revival group The Almanac Singers, and released on their album Sod-Buster Ballads. Hear it at their official YouTube channel.

Interestingly, The Almanac Singers did not learn “The Dodger” from either of the published transcriptions. Instead, Lee Hays, the member of the Almanac Singers who sang the lead vocal on that recording, had learned it directly from Mrs. Dusenbury. He was an Arkansas native and a distant relative of Mrs. Dusenbury, whose maiden name was also Hays. Hays reported visiting her in 1938 while teaching drama at Commonwealth College near Mena, and inviting her to the college to perform her ballads onstage, eventually learning “The Dodger” directly from her. [4]

The Almanac Singers made some changes to the song. Having perhaps misunderstood Mrs. Dusenbury, they had the candidate “ask you for your vote” but also said he was “dodging for your vote,” instead of “your note.” They changed the verse on “The Farmer” to “he won’t make a living as sure as you’re born,” to reflect the era’s drought conditions. They also left out the verse about “The Doctor,” but added two more dodgers. Of “The Sheriff,” they sang: “He’ll act like a friend and a mighty fine man/ but look out boys, he’ll put you in the can.” And of the “The General,” they sang: “He’ll march you up and he’ll march you down/ But look out boys, he’ll put you underground.” As political activists they were wary of police, and as pacifists they distrusted generals, so in these verses they expanded on the political message suggested by “The Candidate.”

Head and Shoulders portrait of Ms. Sidney Robertson Cowell

Sidney Robertson Cowell ca 1926. LC Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection, Music Division. [More Information]

The Almanac Singers were not a great commercial success. Many of their songs were pacifist and internationalist, which became increasingly unpopular as America prepared to enter World War II. The criticism of “The General” in their version of “The Dodger” became politically sensitive after December, 1941, which was only a few months after it was released. In 1942, according to an interview with Seeger, a headline in the New York World-Telegram called them “Commie Singers” and effectively ended their career as a band; Pete Seeger joined the army in July 1942 and Woody Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine in early 1943. Some years later, Hays recorded the song again with a more popular group, The Weavers [5]. (You can hear that version on their YouTube Channel). But as of the breakup of the Almanac Singers, “The Dodger” still hadn’t become truly famous in the music world.

The song rose to greater fame in 1950, when Aaron Copland adapted it from Our Singing Country and made it part of his first set of Old American Songs. The songs were originally scored for voice and piano, and then reworked for orchestra and baritone (or mezzo-soprano). Through Copland, “The Dodger” became part of the standard song repertoire of American art music. Copland reduced the song to what he saw as its essential three verses: “The Candidate,” “The Preacher,” and “The Lover.” He changed the song’s rhythm and tempo to allow for dramatic singing on the part of a master vocalist, and scored a lively accompaniment, which gives it a whimsical feeling. See Thomas Hampson and his accompanist Wolfram Rieger perform their version in the player below.

Three of Charles Seeger’s children went on to be professional folksingers: Pete, Mike, and Peggy. All of them performed “The Dodger.” In March 2007, the American Folklife Center brought them together to perform for what turned out to be the last time; Mike died in 2009. [6] During those concerts, they played their own version of “The Dodger”; see it in the player below.

The influence of the Almanac Singers, The Weavers, and the Seeger family in the folk world ensured that “The Dodger” would remain popular on the folk scene. The eminence of Aaron Copland as an American composer likewise caused it to remain a perennial favorite of the art music repertoire. But all these versions were based on just one of the known traditional versions. For a more complete understanding of the song, we need to go back to the archival sources and listen to them. Luckily, AFC has three more traditional versions of “The Dodger” to enjoy!

Myra Pipkin’s Version

Myra Pipkin (center) and her husband Frank (right) being recorded by Charles Todd (left), in Shafter FSA Camp, 1941. Photo by Robert Hemmig. AFC 1985/001. [More Information at //hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/afcts.p009]

Myra Pipkin (1893-1977) was recorded by Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin in Arvin FSA camp in California in 1941; the FSA (or Farm Security Administration) had taken over from the Resettlement Administration the task of housing migrant workers. Like Emma Dusenbury, Mrs. Pipkin’s family had come from Arkansas, but they moved to Oklahoma in 1898, when she was a child. They moved by wagon train, and in an interview she recounted vivid memories of a near-disaster when stampeding cattle almost overturned her wagon. In the wake of the Dust Bowl, she moved to California with her husband and children.

She did not tell the collectors where she learned “The Dodger,” but it seems to have been most common in Arkansas, so it may have gone to Oklahoma with her family or neighbors. Hear her version in the player below, underneath the photo and the lyrics.

In the player below, hear Myra Pipkin’s version, which she called “Corn Dodgers.” [7]

Corn Dodgers
Myra Pipkin
AFC 1985/001: AFS 05128a01

Seated woman holding baby

Myra Pipkin, photographed by Robert Hemmig in 1941. [More information at  //hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/afcts.p010]

O the bachelor’s a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger all the way through the world
He’ll comb his hair
He’ll court a little here and he’ll court a little there
O he is a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger, dodger too.

O the girls are a dodger, they’re a long corn dodger
And they’re a dodger all the way through the world
They’ll get a new dress and take a spell of paintin’
If they can’t catch a beau they’ll take a spell of faintin’
O they’re a dodger, they’re a long corn dodger
And they’re a dodger, dodger too.

O the boys are a dodger, they’re a long corn dodger
And they’re a dodger all the way through the world
They’ll go to see the girls and tell ’em they all love ’em
And the next thing you know, they’re makin’ fun of ’em
O they’re a dodger, they’re a long corn dodger
And they’re a dodger, dodger too.

O the merchant he’s a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger all the way through the world
He’ll start around the counter and he’ll go a trottin’
And its, now old friends ain’tcha got a patch of cotton
O he’s a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger, dodger too.

O the miller he’s a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger all the way through the world
He’ll mill your corn, he’ll mill it to the letter
And the next thing you know, he’ll mill it a little better
O he’s a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger, dodger too.

O the Doctor he’s a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger all the way through the world
He’ll go to see the patient and roll out the pills
And the next thing off, he’s a makin’ up big bills
O he’s a dodger He’s a long corn dodger
And he’s a dodger, dodger too.

All of Mrs. Pipkin’s recordings are online in the AFC presentation Voices from the Dust Bowl.

Nancy Humble Griffin’s Version

Griffin15

Nancy Humble Griffin, photographed in 1941 by Alan Lomax.  AFC 1941/037.  [More Information]

According to an obituary posted online by her great-granddaughter, Nancy Humble Griffin (1855-1947) was originally from Louisiana but moved to Texas when she was two years old. She was a first cousin of Jim Bowie, who died at the Alamo. Well known as a traditional singer in her Texas community, she was sought out by fellow Texans John A. and Alan Lomax in 1941.  Alan went ahead to scout, and shot some very expressive photos. John returned a few months later and recorded 38 songs from her, including “The Dodger.” The collections do not reveal where Mrs. Griffin learned the song.

The Dodger
Nancy Humble Griffin, 1941
AFC 1941/017: AFS 05689 A04

Griffin 002

Nancy Humble Griffin, Photographed in 1941 by Alan Lomax. AFC 1941/037. [More Information]

Oh, Men are dodgers, yes they’re known dodgers
Oh, men are dodgers, and they’re dodgers too
Raise up a crop of boys, they’ll do their very best
And when they get grown they’re sure to run away

Refrain: (And) we’re we’re all a dodgin’, dodgin’ dodgin’ dodgin’
And we’re all a dodgin’ our way through the world

Oh, Ladies they’re dodgers, yes they’re known dodgers
Oh, Ladies they’re dodgers, and they’re dodgers too
Raise up a crowd of girls, and they’ll do their very best
And when they get grown they’re sure to do their worst

Old Maids they’re dodgers, yes they’re known dodgers
Old Maids they’re dodgers, and they’re dodgers too
They’ll get before the looking glass, a chalkin’ and a paintin’
And when a boy comes, they’ll take a spell of faintin’

Young men they’re dodgers, yes they’re known dodgers
Young men they’re dodgers, and they’re dodgers too
They’ll go out to preachin’ and they’ll look might nice
Look out girls, they’re a dodgin’ for a wife

Young ladies they’re dodgers, yes they’re known dodgers
Young ladies they’re dodgers, and they’re dodgers too
They’ll go out to preachin’ and they’ll make a great show
Look out boys, they’re a dodgin’ for a beau

Oh, the Preacher he’s a dodger, yes, he’s a known dodger
The Preacher he’s a dodger, and he’s a dodger too
He’ll get up in the pulpit he looks might solemn
He’ll pass around the hat, he’s a-preachin’ for your dollar

Oh, the Lawyer he’s a dodger, yes, he’s a known dodger
The Lawyer he’s a dodger, and he’s a dodger too
He’ll convict you on your crimes boys and won’t go your bail
Look out boys, he will dodge you off to jail

Oh, the Devil he’s a dodger, yes, he’s a known dodger
The Devil he’s a dodger, and he’s a dodger too
He’ll pick up his shovel, he’ll rake that coal
Look out sinners, he’s a dodgin’ for your soul.

Neal Morris’s Version

01.01.0458

Neal Morris, Photographed in 1959 by Alan Lomax. AFC 2004/004. [More Information]

Neal Morris (1887-1965) was an Arkansas farmer, musician, dance-caller, and quintessential Ozark mountaineer. He said he was related to Lewis Morris, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his half-brother Gouverneur Morris, signer of the U.S. Constitution. He was full of songs and stories, and passed this quality along to his son James Corbett Morris, who became a professional singer-songwriter and used the stage name Jimmy Driftwood.

Neal Morris’s father had been a good friend of Milt Oldfield, the father of U.S. Congressman William Oldfield, and he recounted a story in which his father and Milt, who were both music teachers, came up with a proposition about music:

Music had no end. You could learn all the other guy learned and after you got that done, something new would crop up. That’s why music advanced. […] They said that music grew like the grapevine that is never pruned. That each year it would put on a little more.

Morris’s version of “The Dodger” was collected by Alan Lomax in 1959. Note that Morris censors out the word “Hell” in the verse about the lawyer, then sings it three more times in the course of the song! Morris told Lomax he had written the verse about Holiness preachers himself. Perhaps he was inspired by his father and Milt’s observation that music had no end!

Corn Dodgers
Neal Morris
AFC 2004/004: T913Ro2

01.01.0460

Neal Morris, Photographed in 1959 by Alan Lomax. AFC 2004/001. [More Information]

Well, the doctor, he’s a dodger, he’s a long corn dodger
And the doctor, he’s a dodger, and he’s a dodger, too
He’ll go to see his patients and give a dose of pills
And the next thing you know, he’s a-dodging for his bill

Refrain: And it’s all a dodgin, it’s a long corn dodger
And it’s all a dodgin–that’s the way with the world

And the lawyer, he’s a dodger; he’s a long corn dodger
And the lawyer, he’s a dodger,  and he’s a dodger, too
He’ll plead your case and he’ll wish you well,
And the next thing you know, he’ll wish you in – – – –

And the Methodist’s a dodger; they’re a long corn dodger
And the Methodist a dodger, and they’re a dodger, too
They’ll talk about Hell and Heaven on high
And the next thing you know, they’re a-dodging for the pie

And the Baptists they’re a dodger; they’re a long corn dodger
And the Baptists they’re a dodger, and they’re a dodger, too
They’ll drink their wine and their liquor, too
They’ll drink it all up and say, “There ain’t none for you”

Well a Campbellite’s a dodger; he’s a long corn dodger
And a Campbellite’s a dodger, and he’s a dodger, too
He’s got his religion, and he don’t know where he got her,
And he’ll swear the way to Heaven is through a hole of water

And the Holiness a dodger; they’re a long corn dodger
And the Holiness a dodger, and they’re a dodger, too
They’ll jump and roll and whoop and yell
For everybody else is a-going to Hell

Well, the young girl’s a dodger; she’s a long corn dodger
And the young girl’s a dodger, and she’s a dodger, too
She’ll spend half her time with the powder and the paint
To make a boy think he’s a-getting what he ain’t

Well the old maid’s a dodger; she’s a long corn dodger
And the old maid’s a dodger, and she’s a dodger, too
She’ll spend half her time a primping and a-painting
If she can’t catch a beau, she’ll catch a spell of fainting

And, the boys, they’re a dodger; they’re a long corn dodger
And the boys, they’re a dodger, and they’re a dodger, too
They’ll go to see the girl, and they’ll tell that they love her
And the next thing you know, they’re a-dodging for another

And the infidel’s a dodger; he’s a long corn dodger
And the infidel’s a dodger, and he’s a dodger, too
Swear they ain’t no Hell, nor Heaven on high
But he’ll get a shaking up in the sweet bye and bye

Find the rest of Neal Morris’s recordings online at the Association for Cultural Equity.

Clearly, “The Dodger” collected a wide variety of verses, and each of AFC’s four versions has distinctive aspects. In general, the verses revolve around four themes: children, courtship, occupations, and religion. Nancy Humble Griffin’s version is unusual in including two verses from the perspective of a mother discussing children, and in ending with “The Devil,” a unique character found only in her version. Neal Morris’s concentrates on the foibles of different Christian denominations. Myra Pipkin’s features the miller, who could be imported from “cheating tradesmen” songs, as we’ll explore in my next post.

Most interestingly, Emma Dusenbury’s is the only one to include “The Candidate.” If Charles Seeger was right that this song was used in the Grover Cleveland campaign, this might mean that “The Candidate” was added to a pre-existing American folksong for that election. On the other hand, such a character might have been in the oldest versions, and might have dropped out in later forms. We’ll take a look at these ideas next time–when we’ll also see some exciting evidence shedding new light on the song’s origins.

Notes

1 Most of the collectors who visited Mrs. Dusenbury believed that her name was spelled “Dusenberry,” and much of the correspondence about her uses this spelling. Most people now believe the correct spelling was Dusenbury, although her grave marker says “Duesbury.”

2. Cowell was probably being overly harsh toward Seeger’s idea. Ballad sheets and manuscript books were well known in rural communities with limited literacy. Moreover, Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin included in their 1940 fieldnotes the statement that between January and August of 1940, the Shafter FSA Camp library had checked out “7,400 books and about 600 magazines” to readers in the camp, suggesting that many migrant workers served by Seeger’s agency were not only literate but actually enjoyed reading.

3. There was no Senator Vinson in the 75th Congress. Seeger probably meant Representative Carl Vinson of Georgia.

4. The folk scene at that time was a small world: another member of the Almanac Singers was Pete Seeger, whose father Charles had published the song sheet of “The Dodger.” Their recording of “The Dodger” was produced by Alan Lomax, who had published the song in Our Singing Country, and whose father John had made the first known audio recording of “The Dodger” from Mrs. Dusenbury. Because of these multiple connections to the song’s history, Lee Hays’s direct relationship with Mrs. Dusenbury and “The Dodger” are often overlooked, and people assume the Almanac singers learned it from one of the printed sources.

5. Lee Hays and Pete Seeger were both members of The Weavers, who performed their own version of “The Dodger.” They didn’t record it until 1963, after Seeger had left the group and been replaced by Erik Darling. They changed many of the song’s punchlines to make them more modern, but reinstated “note” at the end of the first verse. This is why I suspect that Hays had simply misunderstood Mrs. Dusenbury and had later looked up one of the transcriptions to find he’d been singing it wrong! Beginning with the version he recorded with The Almanac Singers, Hays dropped “The Sheriff,” kept “The General,” and reinstated “The Doctor” (but with a different punchline). Finally, The Weavers added, after “The Lover,” “The Singer,” whose verse ran: “Sittin’ on the porch, all day long/ And he just keeps singin’ the same damn song.” Their version has not been as influential as the earlier Almanac Singers recording.

6. In addition to the concert in the Coolidge Auditorium, AFC co-sponsored a second concert the following night with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington.  That second concert was therefore the final time the three Seegers performed together.

7.  Corn Dodger is a traditional name for a small nugget of cornbread, either baked in a skillet or fried.  They can be more like traditional cornbread or more like hush puppies, depending on whose recipe you follow. No one knows why the food item got this name, but someone thought it was fun to make the “dodgers” in the song into “corn dodgers.”

Resources

The Library’s Wayne D. Shirley did a curator talk about “The Dodger,” available on video here.

Other field recordings of “The Dodger” are online at The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection and the John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection.

 

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