March 23, 2010

Soapy Smith: The banjo playing singing gangster.

(Click image to enlarge)
The Banjo Player

On page 29 of Alias Soapy Smith, Edwin Bobo Smith talks about his cousins "Cheap John" business. As a come-on Soapy played the Banjo and sang some songs.

Edwin writes,

... “I’ve quit the store and other jobs for a much better thing,” he confided, after the affectionate welcome. “I’ve learned a racket that’s new in this part of the world, one of the slickest and surest money-makers; I have become a cheap John, a dealer in odds and ends of merchandise, and I go from town to town selling my stuff on the streets. I mount a box; take up a banjo, which I twang to the accompaniment of a few plantation songs like the Little Old Log Cabin or Old Black Joe; this never fails to draw a crowd and the rest is easy for then they are primed to buy my stock of socks, hanker chiefs, suspenders, razor belts before the rush of customers and it is a bad day if I don’t net $20 or $25. In a few towns the merchants were so sore at losing trade that they had regulations passed to drive me out.” The story was enchanting and I thought: “This boy will be a millionaire; there’s only one Jeff.” Plans were formed to induct me into the same profession. I was to learn the cheap John technique and Jeff was to stake me to my first layout. I could sing a little and twanging a banjo took but a few lessons.

I did some checking on the two songs mentioned, The Little Old Log Cabin and Old Black Joe and here is what I dug up.

The Little Old Log Cabin In the Lane
1871 song sheet cover.

The full name is The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane. It was written by Will S. Hays in 1871 for the minstrel trade. Written in dialect, the song tells of an elderly man, presumably a slave or former slave, passing his latter years in a broken-down old log cabin.

The melody was widely used and adapted to a variety of other songs of the era, including "The Little Old Sod Shanty On The Claim" and "Little Joe, The Wrangler." You can hear the song below and read the lyrics as they are sung. Feel free to sing along, we won't tell.

Old Black Joe
1860 song sheet cover.

An American parlor song composed by Stephen Foster in 1860. You can hear the song and read the lyrics below.


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