Edited by Daniel W. Patterson.

         One of the earliest documentaries on Folkstreams, To Hear Your Banjo Play was described by Stu Jamieson, a participant, as an “information film” made for the U.S. State Department. Alan Lomax wrote its script to frame performances by a very young Pete Seeger, interlarded with others by Woody Guthrie, Baldwin “Butch” Hawes, and several other unidentified folk revival musicians. Traditional performers also appear in the film. Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee back up Woody Guthrie. They are the best known musicians in the film and the black song "John Henry" the best known American ballad. Two white Virginians Lomax had recorded for the Library of Congress are also in the film—Texas Gladden and the blind singer Horton Barker. Gladden sings most of the British ballad "The Farmer's Curst Wife" and Barker a bit of "Wondrous Love," here with others oddly harmonizing by ear. These two singers were becoming known outside their state through a few tours and 78-rpm discs issued from the Library. The two were probably filmed in the 1930s when they sang at the Whitetop Folk Festival in Virginia—this, at least, is what is known about another scene showing William “Bud” Spencer “flatfooting” to “The Arkansas Traveler” played by the left-handed fiddler Howard Wyatt.
         The film closes with extended footage of folk-revival dancers in New York City. This dance group was founded in 1934 by Texas-born Margot Mayo, whose father was president of the college that became Texas A&M. The film does not identify the square-dance caller, but we know it is Robert “Stu” Jamieson. He published a 13-page account entitled “The Old-Time Kentucky Running Set” in which he tells of calling the dance in this film. He says, “Call timing is a cinch if the caller is also dancing.” But for the filming “in 1947 there were no FM mikes. If I called while dancing, the recorded volume varied too widely. So the director, sound man, and cinematographer insisted on my standing still, on a chair, on the sidelines, while the skilled members of Margot Mayo’s American Square Dance Group danced either with Margot leading the figures, or leaderless. Call timing was a very tough job, especially since I had to prerecord the entire sequence of calls in a recording studio, then had to ‘lip sync’ for the camera while the Group danced for the camera to the recorded calls.” In his account of the dance Jamieson included calls he often used for it. This helped us to transcribe the sound track. But each performance was unique and Jamieson knew many calls, so a number of them in the film remain difficult to catch. His account does clarify, however, that the basic structure of this dance is “a series of petty circle calls sandwiched between two sequences of grand circle figures.” Jamieson says, “For dramatic reasons, and to inspire dancers and musicians who are feeling the drawdown of energy from what could easily be an unbroken fifteen to twenty minutes at high speed, I like to place the fanciest, most elaborate and spectacular grand circle figures near the end.” We see that in this film.
It is the speed that gives this dance its name. “The old running set,” he says. “was danced at very high speed, using short steps, with the ball of the foot carrying the dancer’s weight in contradistinction to the usual heel-and-toe stride. At very high speeds, such as at 165 beats per minute, the dance is less strenuous…. At lower speeds dancers tend towards the normal stride, causing extra effort. The faster running set dancers seem to float, and glide along.” The film includes, then, evidence of the importance of dance in the folk revival movement. Jamieson’s booklet is further testimony to this, as is the website on which it is available, The Square Dance History Project.  



Copyright MCDXLVI by Irving Lerner & Willard Van Dyke

Woody Guthrie, Baldwin Hawes,
Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Texas Gladden,
Margot Mayo’s The American Square Dance Group

Story & Dialogue written by
Incorporating sequences directed by
Charles Korvin
Photography by Richard Leacock
Peter Glushanok & Larry Madison

Did you ever see a muskrat, Sally Ann
Dragging his slick tail through the sand?
Taking a banjo, Sally Ann,
I'm gonna marry you, Sally Ann
I'm gonna marry you, Sal, Sal
I'm gonna marry you, Sally Ann
I'm gonna marry you, Sal, Sal
I'm gonna marry you, Sally Ann.

ALAN LOMAX: Hello there, Peter.

SEEGER: Howdy.

LOMAX: Mighty nice music you're making, Pete.

SEEGER: Oh, I'm just warming up.

LOMAX: What's that funny looking guitar you're playing?

SEEGER: Oh, this isn't a guitar. This is a banjo.

LOMAX: Well, tell me, is the banjo something new?

SEEGER: New? About as new as America is. You see, American Negro slaves made the first real banjos, couple hundred years ago, out of old hollow gourds and possum skins, I guess. But then the banjos spread all over the whole country. Everyone loved them. They traveled west in the covered wagons. Later on, the banjo went out of style, got countrified. Nowadays you are liable to hear it played by some old farmer. And the hands on the strings will be hardened by work and worn by the weather, like these hands of an old friend of mine down in Virginia. He can't read music, you know. He plays by ear. Some old tune, a tune that made feet pat in pioneer days. What's he thinking about? Maybe about picnic last Saturday, and the square dance, where the boys were swinging the gals, and the gals were skipping and flying.

Couple up forward step forward.
Ladies bow, they just know how.
Swing like thunder.

SEEGER: Picnic on the ground and juicy red watermelon. And old Uncle Bud steps out to dance while the fiddler plays a hoedown. Uncle Bud is near 80, but he hears a banjo ring and looks like his feet move all by themselves. And he cuts the same buck and wings his grandpa used to in the log cabin.
(William "Bud" Spencer, flatfooting, with left-handed fiddler Howard Wyatt at the Whitetop Festival in Virginia, 1930’s)

SEEGER: Yes sir, the banjo still makes folks dance out in the country.

LOMAX: Well then, Pete, what are you doing here in New York City?

SEEGER: Well, it's a funny thing. The people in this big town are beginning to like my kind of music, too. Out there in Big Town, where the skyscrapers glisten in the sun, where the buildings make canyons in the air, American folk music got lost in the roar of the traffic. But now the people are listening again. I guess my old tunes remind them of home, of their roots in the land. Seems my country music kind of fascinates them.

LOMAX: But Peter, why try to revive this American music? Isn't it dead?

SEEGER: Oh no, you're all wrong. It's not dead. It's very much alive for millions of people. Take this little old tune. Well, maybe about two centuries ago, that was an old Scotch ballad. Came over here. But down in the blue hills of Virginia, down where the rough mountain country sort of closed in on the people. This is Mrs. Texas Gladden. Like her mother before her, she's singing a ballad to make the work go easy.

Fi di, diddle i day, diddle i, diddle i day

Then the Devil came to the old man one day
Says, "One of your family I'm here to take away."
And fi, di, diddle i day, diddle i, diddle i day

“It's not your oldest son I crave
But your old scolding wife I'll sure take away"
And a fi, di, diddle i day...

SEEGER: Yes, in these southern mountains, you will find the clear, pure stream of frontier balladry, and lonely cabins, and the memories of little old ladies sitting in the sun. An old lady who keeps the ballads with her love letters.

(TEXAS GLADDEN, continuing)
And off to hell he went clickety clack
And a fi, di, diddle i day, diddle i diddle i day  
Then he set her down at old Hell's gate…

SEEGER: The same ballad that Mrs. Gladden sings to the young folks at the country picnic.

Then one little devil went a-climbing the walls
Says, "Take her back, Daddy, she's a-murdering us all.
And a fi, di, diddle i, day, diddle i, diddle i day

The old man was a-peaking through the crack,
And he saw the old Devil come a-lugging her back.
And a fi, di, diddle i, day, diddle i, diddle i day

Then said the old man, "We are bound for a curse,
For she's been to Hell, and she's ten times worse."
And a fi, di, diddle i, day, diddle i, diddle i day

Then surely the women are worse than the men  
For they're damned to Hell and ...

SEEGER: From generation to generation, on down the ballads have been handed. And not just the ballads. As the picnic ends, the old folks gather to sing a spiritual.

O, my soul
What wondrous love is this,
O, my soul?
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To send such perfect peace
To my soul, to my soul,
To send such perfect peace
To my soul?

When I was sinking down,
Sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down.
Sinking down . . .

SEEGER: When you come down into the flat, hot, country of the South, down into the rich cotton land, you hear a different kind of music. The music of the sharecroppers, the migratory workers, music that's jangling and mournful.

I was born in South Carolina.
Down to Georgia I did go.
There I met a fair young maiden,
And her name, I never did know.

SEEGER: Their work is seasonal. It's hard. They're bowed down in poverty, bowed down to the earth. You can see poverty written all over their faces and poverty in their song.
Won't you take me back again?
In her hair she wore white roses
And her lips was rosy red.
On her breast...

SEEGER: There's strength in this music, too. Strength that made millions of bales of southern cotton. Two races met here in the South. Together they built the South. And together they made a new kind of music.

I don't want your silver change
All I want...

GUTHRIE: (singing)
John Henry, when he was a baby
Sittin' down on his mammy's knee,
Picked up a hammer in his little right hand,
Said, "It's gonna be the death of me.
Hammer 'll be the death of me.

(Brownie McGhee joins in)
Hammer will be the death of me,
Lord, Lord.
Hammer 'll be the death of me."

Well, the Captain, he said to John Henry,
"I'm gonna bring my steam drill around.
I'm gonna bring my steam drill out on this job,
Whop that steel on down,
(McGhee joins in)
And I'm gonna whop that steel on down,
I'm gonna whop that steel on down,
Lord, Lord,
Whop that..."

SEEGER: This is a new work song with the beat of steam engines in the rhythm.

John Henry had a little woman
Her name was Polly Ann.
Johnny took sick and he had to go to bed.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man,
Polly Ann drove steel like a man,
Polly Ann drove steel like a man,
Lord, Lord.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man,
Lord, Lord.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.

GUTHRIE: Talk to me, Sonny.

(Terry plays harmonica solo)

Took John Henry to the graveyard.
McGHEE: Yeah.

We buried him down in the sand.
Every locomotive come a rollin' by
'Cause John laid a steel driving man,
Lord, Lord.
John laid a steel driving man,
Lord, Lord.
John laid a steel driving man,
Lord, Lord.
John laid a steel driving man.
John laid a steel driving man.
Steel driving man.
John laid...

(applause from gathered dancers)

SEEGER: How long you kids been standing here?

FIDDLER: Why shucks, we've been standing here for the last ten minutes listening to you.

SEEGER: Well I'll be darned.

FIDDLER: Say, how about that square dance we're gonna have? My fiddle bow's itching.

(Margot Mayo's American Square Dance Group of New York City prepares to dance the Old-Time Kentucky Running Set)

SEEGER: See, everybody got tuned up here?



SEEGER: Caller, get 'em ready for that first set.

Up the river, and around the bend.
Grab your partners. We're gone again!

All hands join and circle south.
Get a little moonshine in your mouth.

Swing the honey at your side.
Swing her wide and promenade a while.

 ... turn back and open the tunnel

Hand over hand and head over heel.
The more you dance the better you feel.

The better you feel, the more you dance...

Ace of diamonds, Jack of spades,
You want to get straight to promenade.

One more circle, circle to your left.

Odd couples out to the right. Circle up four.

Circle the floor with all your might.

Odds to the right. Circle the floor with all your might.

Even couple's good to go.

Birdie in the cage with a three-rail pen.
Birdie flies and buzzard gets in.

Swing your partner round and do-si-do.

Ladies bow and gents know how.

Circle four and dance some more, same old four.

That's the way. Balance to.
Balance through and shake your shoe.

Swing the honey that belongs to you.

Pint o' whiskey, quart o' gin,
Everybody balance in.

Liked that one--do it again.

Swing your partner round and round...

Wish I had a nickel, wish I had a dime,
Wish I had a pretty little gal to kiss her all the time.

Round and round Old Joe Clark,
Round and round I say.
I'll follow you a thousand miles to hear your banjo play
Round and round Old Joe Clark,
Round and round I say.
I'll follow you a thousand miles to hear your banjo play