In this post, I’ll present some exciting new evidence about the history of an important American folksong, “The Dodger.” It significantly changes our understanding of the story of “The Dodger,” showing the song to be older than was previously known. It also shows that the song was known in England before America, and that similar songs in Australian folk tradition owe their roots to the same English sources.
In a previous post, I outlined the history of “The Dodger” in American folk music, and the importance of AFC’s archival recordings of the song. As I said there, “The Dodger” is a recognized American classic, recorded by such groups as The Almanac Singers and the Weavers, and arranged by Aaron Copland into a standard of the American art-music vocal repertoire, as part of his first set of Old American Songs. All these popular renditions were based on a version recorded in 1936, which is now part of the American Folklife Center’s archive.
Let’s refresh our memories by listening to that version, sung by Mrs. Emma Dusenbury for Sidney Robertson Cowell of the Resettlement Administration:
Let’s also hear Thomas Hampson’s rendition of Copland’s arrangement, which was based on Mrs. Dusenbury’s recording:
“The Dodger” is a good song to be exploring in the run-up to an election. Charles Seeger, who first published the song for the U.S. Government’s Resettlement Administration, said in an oral history interview that it stemmed from electoral politics:
This song […] 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.
Given Seeger’s claim, it’s an interesting wrinkle that, of the four traditional versions in the AFC archive, only one singer, Mrs. Dusenbury, included “The Candidate” as one of the dodgers. This suggests that perhaps the song originated before the campaign, and “the candidate” was added to a pre-existing folksong in order to ridicule Blaine.
So, where and when did “The Dodger” take recognizable form? Seeger’s memoirs show that he had a theory about that too:
It’s a nice song, a parody of that type of thing which was probably produced in one of the early agrarian reform movements in the country; it might have been the Grange, it might have been any farmers’ organization.
Later scholars all seem to have used Seeger’s two conjectures as the basis of their statements about the song’s background. In 1941, before he had published the idea of the agrarian reform movements as an origin for the song, the Lomaxes paraphrased him in Our Singing Country:
Mrs. Emma Dusenberry of Mena, Arkansas, sings “The Dodger.” She learned it in the 1880s, when a farmer could still make a living, “just as sure as he was born.” […] Said to have been used as an anti-Blaine song in the Cleveland-Blaine campaign. 
In 1973, after Seeger’s conjecture about “The Dodger” probably being a parody of a song that originated in one of the agrarian reform movements had been published, Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer added agrarian reform to their own explanation of the song’s history:
“The Dodger” originated with the Western farmers during the period of agrarian protest following the Civil War. It is linked specifically with the presidential election of 1884 when the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, was running against Republican James Blaine. Cleveland had won the support of progressives by his fight against Tammany Hall in New York, and “The Dodger” was apparently used as a campaign song to belittle Blaine. The version known today is based on a Library of Congress recording by Mrs. Emma Dusenberry of Mena, Arkansas, who learned it in the 1880s. It was transcribed and first published by Charles Seeger in a little Resettlement Administration songbook.
Seeger never offered any evidence for either of his claims about the song’s origins and political history. Fowke and Glazer, similarly, give no particular evidence for their claim about how the song originated, but it was clearly based on Seeger’s earlier speculations, both of which were plausible but unproven at the time.
Musicologists have been on firmer ground with the tune, noting the song’s use of the melody “We’re All Noddin’,” a Scottish folk tune first published in the great 18th century compendium The Scots Musical Museum, with a song text called “Gudeen to you Kimmer” by Robert Burns. Library of Congress Music Specialist Wayne Shirley, approaching the song from the perspective of an Americanist and a Copland scholar, suggested the 1838 publication The Boston Glee Book, which contains a version of “We’re All Noddin’” (without Burns’s words), as the way in which this tune entered American oral tradition.
Now, we’re in a position to be similarly certain about the song’s text. We can say that “The Dodger” may have been used by the Western farmers or other agrarian movements, but it certainly did not originate with them. It also was not a parody of a song that was created by American agrarian reformers. Instead, it seems to have come to America from England in the 1840s. This means it originated independent of the American agrarian reform movements, though it might well have been influenced by them later.
In fact, if we define “The Dodger” as a song that has a chorus of “We’re All Dodging” and verses that list people of different occupations and state that each is “a dodger,” set to a variant of the tune “We’re All Noddin’,” we can now say that “The Dodger” existed in England by 1842 and in America likely by 1844, and certainly by 1845.We can say this because I’ve turned up an early text in a play called The Artful Dodge, written by E. L. Blanchard, and first performed in London at the Royal Olympic Theatre  on February 2, 1842. The play is described as “a farce in one act,” and features characters with such names as Grudge, Budge, Nudge, Fudge, and Sludge, as well as the title character, Demosthenes Dodge, Esq.
The song we now call “The Dodger” occurs in scene ii of the one-act play, as follows:
Air,—” We are all Noddin’.”
We are all dodging in country and in town.
This world is but a dodge, when from boyhood we begin,
To swindle with impunity, and take each other in;
And life is like a pack of cards, with knaves and honours; but
The game they play is cribbage, where they shuffle deal and cut
For we’re all dodging, &c.
We are all dodgers, dodge, dodge, dodgers,
We are all dodgers, though in a different way.
The politician dodges for a pension and a place,
And very oft in parliament we artful dodges trace.
They nail us for our income tax, but well I know he’ll be
An uncommon artful dodger who can get a rap from me.
For we’re all dodging, &c.
Everybody dodges, dodge, dodge, dodges,
Everybody dodges in their own peculiar way.
The debtor is a dodger who his creditor defies,
And well he eyes the victim that he means to victimise.
The lover is a dodger who to gain a wealthy spouse,
Like other precious puppies to his mistress bows and wows.
So we’re all dodging.
We are all dodging, dodge dodge, dodging,
We are all dodging, wherever we may be.
The other night a hat that did from the gallery go
Was picked up by a dodger who was sitting there below;
But surely we can’t wonder at the cause of such disasters,
For dodging must go smooth enough, since here it runs on
And we’re all dodging, &c.
The manager’s a dodger, a very artful dodger,
The manager’s a dodger who to please the public tries.
In dodging after novelty he passes most his days;
And though it may seem singular, works hardest when he plays.
His house indeed’s a public house, good spirits here he draws;
But the greatest dodge of all is that which gains him your applause.
And we’re all dodgers, &c.
This is certainly a version of “The Dodger,” but it’s not exactly like the later American versions. These later songs typically list people who are “dodgers” and give a description of their particular “dodge.” In other words, all their verses are like the verses about “the politician,” “the debtor,” “the lover” and “the manager” in this older song. Verses 1 and 4 of the theater song are more philosophical and deal with life in general rather than character types. Such verses are unknown in American folk versions.
To give just a little of the literary and theatrical background to Blanchard and his song, Blanchard himself was a well known figure in the London theater scene of the time. He was a playwright, and particularly known for writing the Drury Lane Theatre’s pantomimes for over 40 years. His memoirs show that he was a personal friend of Charles Dickens, who mentions an “artful dodge” in The Pickwick Papers (1836) and of course included a character called The Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1838). Blanchard often attended readings by Dickens, and Dickens attended his plays and pantomimes. The phrase “artful dodge” and the word “dodger” were current in London slang and thus probably known independently by both authors, but Blanchard must certainly also have been at least aware of Dickens’s use of them in his novels. 
The presence of “the manager” as the final dodger in Blanchard’s song is explained by the fact that role of Demosthenes Dodge was created by George Wild, who was also the manager of the Olympic Theatre from 1841 until 1844. When the song was sung during the play’s original run, the audience would have known they were hearing the theater’s manager good-naturedly criticizing himself. This gives us some insight into Blanchard’s worldly, self-referential style, and his place within a theater community prone to insularity and inside jokes.The Artful Dodge was one of Blanchard’s earliest plays, and also one of his most popular pieces; almost 50 years after its debut, when the Drury Lane Theater held a benefit for Blanchard’s widow, the play they chose to perform was The Artful Dodge. According to Dramatic Notes:
June 2nd. Drury Lane. Mr. Augustus Harris lent the theatre for the benefit of the widow of the late E.L. Blanchard, journalist and dramatic critic, for so many years pantomime writer for Old Drury. Mr. Jonas Levy, the well known littérateur, originated the idea of the benefit. Mr. Blanchard’s amusing old farce The Artful Dodge was played by Arthur Williams (Demosthenes Dodge), assisted by a willing cast. […] At the close of the address, Minnie Terry placed a wreath and bouquet at the foot of Mr. Blanchard’s portrait.
Minnie Terry, the eight-year-old niece of England’s best known actress of the age, Ellen Terry, was a member of the English theater’s most important family. This shows again that Blanchard was an important figure in the theater community, which came together to help his widow after his death.
So, if we now know that a version of “The Dodger” existed on the London stage in 1842, and remained popular for almost 50 years, this still leaves us with a question: how did the song come to America? The answer seems to be that it came here with the rest of the play.
By 1844, a farce called The Artful Dodger was being performed in American theaters (see the third item in column 5, “Amusements,” of this page of the April 05, 1844 New York Herald). Although it had a slightly different title on the American stage (The Artful Dodger rather than The Artful Dodge), an advertisement in the American Republican and Baltimore Daily Clipper, March 18, 1845 (see column 4, “Baltimore Museum”), confirms that it contained a song called “We’re all Dodging.” In this version, the contraction “we’re,” which is typical of folk versions of the song, has replaced “we are” from the more formal song text published with the play, suggesting that the song’s transformation to a folksong had already begun. 
The Artful Dodger remained popular on the American stage through the Civil War, and many references to it can be turned up in newspapers. An 1863 advertisement (column 3, “New Richmond Theater,”) even confirms that the play touring so successfully in America was the story of Demosthenes Dodge, leaving us no question that this was Blanchard’s play.
Given Blanchard’s play and its trip across the Atlantic, it’s unnecessary to assume that The Boston Glee Book, or any other version of “We’re All Noddin’” published in America, was a great influence on “The Dodger.” The tune was already attached to the words of “The Dodger” when the song crossed the Atlantic. Since Blanchard, like the tune, came from Britain, it seems likely that he knew the tune from a version published there, or else from oral tradition.
The song’s political overtones are also illuminated by this early version, with its references to politicians and Parliament. As I noted last time, Mrs. Dusenbury’s version is the only American folk version with “The Candidate” as a character. But Blanchard’s text, Like Mrs. Dusenbury’s, includes a nameless, generic politician as the first “dodger” to be mentioned. Mrs. Dusenbury’s song may thus be the American version that has stayed closest to the song’s roots in the theater, by suggesting that the first and foremost “dodge” is politics—regardless of who the politician may be.
What this portends for Charles Seeger’s (as-yet) unproven statement that the song was used in the 1884 presidential campaign between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine is unclear. On the one hand, the references to politics probably weren’t added for that campaign, but on the other, a pre-existing reference to politics might have made it a tempting song to adapt into a campaign song.
Leaving the American context for a moment, Blanchard’s play also sheds light on the Australian history of the dodger song. As Australian singer and song sleuth Warren Fahey has written, a version of “The Dodger” seems to have been sung in Australia by actor George Coppin in the 1850s, and then entered the oral tradition:
Coppin performed a song said to have been of his own composition, in Melbourne in the 1850s, called, ‘We’re all Dodging.’ He may have been using the song well before this. […] No dated, credited copy of the song Coppin sang has so far turned up in either Australia or America, but a song called ‘We’re all Cheating’ has wide currency in Australia, and songs bearing the titles ‘We’re All Dodging’ or ‘The Dodger Song’ are well-known in America.
As it happens, we now do have a “dated, credited copy of the song Coppin sang,” once again in Blanchard’s play. Although Coppin might have claimed to have written the song he performed, in fact he purchased it directly from Blanchard on October 3, 1854. Blanchard’s memoirs contain the following entries from his diary from that year:
Oct. 1st: Prepare MS of Dodge, Cinderella, Crusoe, two pantomimes and songs for Coppin to take to Australia.
2nd: Work hard on copy of Dodge. […]
3rd: Coppin pays £5 for copy of Dodge. Sails to-morrow from Southampton in the Argo. Propose his health, and success to him.
We learn from this that, although the song itself existed for more than a decade before Coppin sang it, he himself did not have it until the day before he left England for Australia. Nevertheless, he might have known and admired the song for years.So what about the question of origins? It seems that Blanchard’s play is likely to be the origin of certain key features of our American “Dodger” song, in particular the “we’re all dodging” chorus and verses about “dodges” being set to the tune of “We’re all Noddin’.” But, as previous scholars have noted as well, “The Dodger” has other antecedents. Fowke and Glazer suggest a connection with “The Farmer Comes to Town,” also known as “The Farmer Feeds Them All,” which describes people of various trades, many of them acting dishonestly, but all of them forgetting that “the farmer feeds them all.” It’s certainly thematically related to “The Dodger,” if not a direct influence.
There are other songs that are clearly connected with “The Dodger.” In particular, in the Anglo-American folksong tradition, there is a well known family of songs in which each verse recounts a way in which a given tradesman cheats his clients. Songs of this type are well known under such titles as “The Rigs of the Times” and “Chapter of Cheats.” Some of these songs may predate Blanchard’s song; if so, he would have had access to broadsides of them selling in the streets of London, or would have heard them sung in the streets and in pubs. It’s therefore possible his “Dodger” song was a loose adaptation of these earlier folksongs, perhaps influenced by the popularity of the phrase “the artful dodge.” Indeed, some versions of “Chapter of Cheats” seem to be set to the same tune as “The Dodger,” and have not been precisely dated. They apparently were either influenced by Blanchard’s song, or were among his sources. (They are also likely to be among the sources of the Australian songs with “we’re all cheating” in the chorus.)
Songs of the “Cheating Tradesmen” type also made it to America, in particular one that was known as “Hard Times.” It was popular both on broadsides and in the oral tradition. John Lomax recorded this song from Mrs. Minnie Floyd of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina on June 8, 1939. Hear it in the player below.
It’s interesting that the oral tradition in America turned Blanchard’s “Dodger” song into one that simply listed different people, many of them tradesmen, and described each one’s characteristic form of cheating, without Blanchard’s verses of a more philosophical bent. In other words, the communal re-creation of the folk tradition caused “The Dodger” to more closely resemble other folksongs, particularly the “Cheating Tradesmen” type. Even if such songs were not among Blanchard’s sources, they seem to have been influences on the later oral versions of “The Dodger.”
Examining the many verses of “Hard Times” on the Library’s broadsides (here, here, here, and here), We find numerous verses on many occupations, with no two broadsides featuring exactly the same text. We know that singers such as Neal Morris added their own verses to “The Dodger,” and it looks like broadside writers similarly added verses to “Hard Times” when they saw fit.
I don’t find a very close connection between broadside verses of “Hard Times” and those of “The Dodger.” “The Judge” on the De Marsan broadside (pictured here) contains the identical rhymes as “The Lawyer” in Nancy Humble Griffin’s “Dodger,” namely “jail” and “bail.” This suggests a possible connection, but only a weak one, so I would judge this to be inconclusive for now. It’s a great subject for future research, though! Since many verses of traditional versions are about courtship and children, it would also be worth looking at play-party songs as a possible source of verses for “The Dodger” in its orally transmitted forms.
Whether individual “cheat” songs influenced the text much we may never know. What we do know is that “The Dodger” has not one but many origins. E. L. Blanchard furnished the framework and the chorus, and he selected the tune. He was influenced by previous folksongs; “We’re all Noddin’” was certainly among his sources, and others may have been as well, particularly “Chapter of Cheats,” which either influenced or was influenced by his “Dodger” song. Various writers and singers, inspired by “Cheating Tradesmen” songs like “Hard Times,” and possibly by play-party or courtship songs, furnished refinements of Blanchard’s framework and new verses on new dodgers.
Most important to the folklorist are the many amateur poets and singers who added their own individual touches to the song. These unsung creators include our four singers Emma Dusenbury, Nancy Humble Griffin, Myra Pipkin, and Neal Morris. They, too, are “originators” of their own versions of this classic piece of American folksong, music, and humor.
I’ll be back with another post before Election Day, looking into Charles Seeger’s connection of “The Dodger” with the Grover Cleveland campaign.
- Mrs. Dusenbury’s name was spelled differently by different people who knew her. I have decided to leave each instance of her name as it appears in the original quotation.
- The Royal Olympic Theatre changed its official name several times during this period, but the word “Olympic” was in every version of the name.
- I believe the word “Dodge” here indicates the character who sings it rather than a title. The song itself appears to be untitled in the play.
- Looking through databases of 19th-century English newspapers, I find numerous instances of the phrase “artful dodge” in the years before Dickens’s work was published, including as the name of a boat, as a description of a boxer’s dodging and weaving, and as the description of a criminal attempting to talk his way out of trouble. The very first instance I find is from 1829, in an article that was reprinted for years as a humorous anecdote in many newspapers. The item purports to be a list of the offerings of a particular tailor, distributed as an advertising card, but the descriptions are rendered entirely in almost incomprehensible slang. One of the items offered is a pair of “kicksies” or trousers, available “with or without the artful dodge.” I suppose the joke is that we have to imagine what this useful feature is! That item first appeared on page 3 of the Morning Chronicle for March 26, 1829. It is interesting that this item appears in many newspapers with different details as to where the tailor was located, making it exactly the sort of urban legend we often see spread in newspapers today. It also seems to be only slightly exaggerated from real examples of tailors’ slang, as this example shows. Also interesting is the fact that the Morning Chronicle was the first paper to offer steady employment to young Charles Dickens.
- The change in the play’s title is probably owed to the fact that “artful dodge” was a well known phrase in England, meaning that the play’s original title would have sounded natural there. However, Americans had heard of the “Artful Dodger” through Dickens, but not of the phrase “the artful dodge,” so the original title would sound like a mistake at worst, or an awkward foreign phrase at best.
The first blog post in this series contains 6 audio or video versions of “The Dodger,” and links to two more. It also contains the Resettlement Administration song sheet of “The Dodger.” In its resource list, find Wayne Shirley’s curator talk about the song.