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Black and white photograph of adult and child at water's edge.
Unidentified photographer. [Man and boy fishing by shore]. 1900-1920. Detroit Publishing Co., publisher. Prints and Photographs Division.

Fish Tunes and Tales

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The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Anita M. Weber.

“Going fishing.”  For some people this is phrase might evoke hours of lazing in a boat casting a line and waiting for a bite—perhaps a great way to spend a last long weekend of summer. Nothing but birds in the sky, insects buzzing, and the snick, snick, snick of the retracting reel followed by that high whine as the reel is cranked faster and faster as a fish is pulled in.

To add to that soundtrack, let’s troll our copyright deposits to see if we can catch some fishing songs. Maybe we’ll find a keeper or two.

Here’s one: “Fishin’ Blues,” perhaps best known from Henry Thomas’s 1928 recording included in Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music. It has been recorded many times since, including by the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965 and by Taj Mahal in 1969. Long a fan of the song, I was always curious about why “the loving wife” was “going to catch more fish than you”;  there was no context for that line of the lyric.

Sheet music cover featuring small drawing of a mountain lake.
“Fishing,” music and lyrics by Chirstopher Smith, 1911. Music Division. Copyright deposit number E 265015.

Well!! Turns out “Fishin’ Blues,” didn’t start out as a song about catching aquatic, gill-bearing animals at all. Written in 1911 by Chris Smith as “Fishing,” this blues is really a revenge song told from the perspective of a wronged wife. She catches her husband, Ephraim, in his “fish tale” and says, “Ephr’am I’m wise to you, you’re just a flirt, you fish for fishes that have on a skirt.” At that, she throws down the gauntlet. “You always say you’re fishing when you stay out late, so here’s a little something I’m going to state: any fish will bite if you’ve got good bait, so I’m going fishing too.” Hmmmm… maybe not quite the song we are looking for. I guess we should stick to its later incarnation as “Fishin’ Blues,” even if the lyrics don’t make sense.

Alright, let’s try another one. How about “Gone Fishin’”? This laid-back number, written by Nick and Charles Kenny, is another favorite of mine.

First seven measures of the printed vocal score.
“Gone Fishin'” (cropped), music and lyrics by Nick and Charles Kenny, 1950. Music Division. Copyright deposit number EU197909.

Popularized by Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, it captures that easy feeling of walking away from the job of an afternoon to just chill “by a shady wady pool.” The copyright deposit provides both the lyric and recitation.

But listening to the Armstrong/Crosby version, you will hear none of Charles Kenny’s original recitation. Instead, it is a back-and-forth duet in which Bing and Louis take turns crooning the lyrics and speaking personalized lines (no doubt written for their performance). Definitely a keeper.

Wow!! Now here’s an interesting one known to generations of television viewers: “The Theme from the Andy Griffith Show.” Played over the opening and closing credits as Andy and son, Opie, walk to and from the fishing hole, this whistled tune is not easily forgotten.

Sheet music cover with black and white photograph of Andy Griffith.
“The Theme from the Andy Griffith Show (The Fishin’ Hole),” music by Earl Hagen and Herbert Spencer, lyrics by Everett Sloane, 1961. Music Division. Copyright deposit number EP150766.

But open the sheet music and . . .  another surprise is in store for us: the song has lyrics!

Refrain of piano and vocal score from printed music.
“The Theme from the Andy Griffith Show (The Fishin’ Hole)” (cropped), music by Earl Hagen and Herbert Spencer, lyrics by Everett Sloane, 1961. Music Division. Copyright deposit number EP 150766.

Even if one cannot read music, the tune may be familiar enough to fit it to these words: “Well now take down your fishin’ pole and meet me at the fishin’ hole. We may not get a bite all day, but don’t you rush away.” If you think you never heard these words sung in an episode, you would be correct; they never were. Also a keeper!

Our fishing expedition is done for the day with the start of a playlist for a lazy afternoon of fishing or just sitting by the water’s edge soaking up the sun and whiling the time away.

Comments (3)

  1. Cool topic for the end of summer. Here’s one that may not be on many folks’ radars. Free jazz “Fish Story” from bassist Henry Grimes mid-60s trio.

  2. Thanks so much, Anita! I enjoyed this article. And love the beautiful old photo. Conjures up long ago memories of my father and brother on a lazy slough in the California delta. My father was frank about his enjoyment of the peace and quiet of being out on the boat on the water, and not being that disappointed if he never caught anything, which he usually tossed back into the water anyway, long before “catch and release.” Very different from trout fishing in high Sierra or salmon fishing the Klamath.

    I have also always liked that Taj Mahal version. You can hear his playful snickering. No matter if it’s sexual innuendo or just the guilty pleasure of shirking work. Something about fishing as a pastime that may be hard to capture in song. Your introductory paragraph could be a set to music as great example.

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