23 August, 2010

"Black Jack David" - The Carter Family

Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Three: "Black Jack David" performed by The Carter Family. Recorded in Chicago on October 4, 1940. Original issue Conqueror 9574.

For biographical information on the Carter Family, see the entry for "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man."

"Black Jack David" is a variant of Child 200, "The Gypsy Laddie." It is a traditional Scottish folk tune. James Francis Child dates the earliest printed version of this song to the early 1700s. The first recording of this song was made in 1939 by Cliff Carlisle for Decca. The Carter Family's version came out a year later. It has been recorded literally dozens of times by artists ranging from Woody Guthrie to the White Stripes.

Black Jack David came ridin' through the woods,
And he sang so loud and gaily.
Made the hills around him ring,
And he charmed the heart of a lady.
And he charmed the heart of a lady.

"How old are you, my pretty little miss?
How old are you, my honey?"
She answered him with a silly little smile,
"I'll be sixteen next Sunday.
I'll be sixteen next Sunday."

"Come go with me, my pretty little miss.
Come go with, me my honey.
I'll take you across the deep blue sea,
Where you never shall want for money.
Where you never shall want for money."

She pulled off her high-heeled shoes,
They were made of Spanish leather.
She put on those low-heeled shoes,
And they both rode off together.
And they both rode off together.

"Last night I lay on a warm feather bed,
Beside my husband and baby.
Tonight I lay on the cold, cold ground,
By the side of Black Jack David.
By the side of Black Jack David."

After four appearances on the original Anthology, the Carter Family return with the first of three recordings on volume four. "Black Jack David" is, like the song that preceded it, a ballad which might have found a home on volume one of the original set (although its 1940 recording date puts outside of the perimeters of Smith's original survey). Like "Dog and Gun," however, "Black Jack David" offers a different viewpoint, at least in terms of its treatment of women.

"Black Jack David" tells the story of the titular character, depicted in the song as a free wheeling rambler (a gypsy in the version collected by Child, although no mention is made in this version of David's ethnic background). David charms the heart of a young (not yet sixteen) married woman, who drops everything and leaves her husband and child.

This is similar to "The House Carpenter," but with a significant difference: In that song, the young woman who leaves her husband and child is punished for her transgression when her ship sinks (as was noted in the entry for Ashley's recording, earlier versions of the ballad had a supernatural element. The young wife is punished doubly; first for betraying her dead lover by marrying a house carpenter, and then for leaving her husband for the lover's ghost). The young lady in "Black Jack David" doesn't end so unhappily. In fact, the song's ending is subject for interpretation. The young woman's statement that

"Last night I lay on a warm feather bed,
Beside my husband and baby.
Tonight I lay on the cold, cold ground,
By the side of Black Jack David.
By the side of Black Jack David."

could be interpreted as regret. The contrast of the "warm feather bed" with "the cold, cold ground" certainly seems to imply a value judgment. It could, however, be a simple observation; a statement of fact: "This is how things are." The young woman certainly does not seem to suffer for her decision.

The Carter Family's reading of "Black Jack David" thoroughly Americanizes the song. The 18th century gypsy lad has been transformed into a romantic Western outlaw figure, with more in common with Jesse James than with Robin Hood.

The performance (which features Sara and Maybelle Carter sharing the singing throughout the song, as well as both performing on guitar) also seems to support the theory that the young woman does not regret her decision to elope with Black Jack David. The instrumental performance is buoyant. The two women intertwine their vocals in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish between them. There is none of Sara Carter's usual deadpan fatalism. A.P. Carter, who never participated in performances in any other capacity than as a vocalist, is conspicuously absent from this recording. This is a woman's song, defiant in its defense of the young wife's power to choose her own fate, although she isn't anywhere near as powerful as the lady in "Dog and Gun".

While A.P.'s absence on this recording may not have had anything to do with it, it should be noted that by 1940, Sara and A.P.'s marriage was over.

The Shameless Plug Department: It's been a long time since I've done a podcast episode of "Where Dead Voices Gather." This is partly due to my busy work schedule and partly due to the fact that I now put together a two-hour weekly radio show in my spare time. I do have plans for a seventh episode of "Where Dead Voices Gather," which I hope to put together in the next week or so. In the meantime, you can still listen to the old episodes.

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Here's a '70s television performance of "Black Jack David" by Waylon Jennings.

Download and listen to The Carter Family - "Black Jack David"


  1. Just found this site while looking up the songs on the anthology as I've been listening. This is exactly what I was hoping to find, THANK YOU!

  2. There got to be an even older version of "Black Jack Davy" by Prof IG greer & Mrs Greer (on dulcimer) on Paramount 3195.

    I haven't heard that one yet.

    Joop greets

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