Les Green, Singer of Folk Songs

He had been travelin’ on

As I’ve noted in the past, my father was a singer of folk songs in the Binghamton, NY area. He performed roughly from 1959 to 1974, when he moved to Charlotte, NC. I didn’t know the source of most of the songs at the time.

Not incidentally, his designation was quite deliberate. He did not want to be called a folk singer, for some of the songs he performed – Do Lord, Walk With Me Lord, So Soon in the Morning, I’m On My Way to Freedom Land, Amen, and others were more gospel.

Here are some of the songs in his repertoire. The songlist would vary, both over time and depending on the audience – children, church, community, e.g. The photo was given to me by my friend Bill, who I’ve known since kindergarten, and tweaked by Arthur

My father performed for my class, and Leslie’s, about once per semester for about four years. He always performed Goodnight, Irene, the Leadbelly/Weavers song, in my class. This led to false speculation that I had a crush on my classmate Irene.

When I speculate about the original source of when Dad heard a particular song, it’s based on what I recall of his record collection, which included Leadbelly, Odetta, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Harry Belafonte, who he vaguely modeled himself after. He also had some folk compilation albums. But none of his performances copied the records. He made them his own.

Some songs

Lonesome and Lonely Traveler. This was his theme song, even when my sister Leslie and I joined him. He likely heard it from The Weavers,  although he might have heard the Limelighters version. Here’s a nice rendition by Joe and Eddie.

When I First Came to This Land. This Pennsylvania Dutch song he probably heard by Pete Seeger.

Two Brothers, written by Irving Gordon (1951), performed by Kay Starr, and later, Jimmie Rogers. Did he first hear The Weavers version? Later: Dusty Springfield. My father, who never learned to play the guitar properly played a nice C-C-D-D#-E riff.

Cindy, Cindy is old, certainly by 1904, with several versions in the marketplace. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both performed it. I suspect dad heard the latter’s version. Listen to Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, which I own; also Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. The Green Family Singers’ schtick involved Leslie and me humming, extending the verses.

A Hole in the Bucket. This may go back to 18th century Germany. Dad almost certainly learned it from Harry Belafonte and Odetta and not Sesame Street. This became Leslie and my tour de force, milking it for all it was worth.

I asked here where The Crocodile song came from. Someone answered Jimmie Rodgers.

More songs

Worried Man. This was recorded as Worried Man Blues by The Carter Family (1930), Woody Guthrie  (1940), and later with Woody’s contemporaries such as Pete Seeger in the 1950s. With new verses and dropping “Blues”, The Kingston Trio recorded it in 1959, and I suspect it is their version Dad heard.

Take This Hammer appears to date from the late nineteenth century, probably the 1870s. Dad was influenced by Leadbelly. BTW, in my CD collection is this Notting Hillbillies track, called Railroad Worksong

Follow the Drinking Gourd is an African American folk song first published in 1928. Was his version influenced by Joe and Eddie? Also, listen to Eric Bibb.

Sinner Man. I’d think that he was listening to Nina Simone, but it could have been the Swan Silvertones, the Weavers, or others. Here’s a take by
Cory Wells and the Enemys, which I have on a Three Dog Night compilation.

The Car Song was a Woody Guthrie song. My dad used to do both a child’s voice and the father’s until I joined in and did the child bit.

Passing Through was a 1948 folk song written by Dick Blakeslee. I suspect Dad heard Pete Seeger, but it was also recorded by The Highwaymen, Cisco Houston, and Earl Scruggs. Apparently, Leonard Cohen later made it famous. Here’s a version by Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Buffy Sainte Marie.

Les Green would have been 95 tomorrow. 

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

4 thoughts on “Les Green, Singer of Folk Songs”

  1. Great blog about Dad, Roger! The librarian in you is shining through, sharing data and info to us all, including me. Thanks for sharing. I will check out those originals you posted. Happy Heavenly Birthday, Dad. Love you and miss you.

  2. I first heard “Sinner Man” in Washington Square (NYC) in 1959. When did the weavers record it ?

  3. According to Wikipedia: “A version of ‘Sinner Man’ released in 1956, by Swedish-American folk singer William Clauson, credited Baxter, Holt, Cheeks and James as co-writers. Another gospel group, the Swan Silvertones, released their version of the song in 1957 on the Vee-Jay label, and folk singer Guy Carawan issued a version in 1958. Carawan wrote that he had learned the song in 1956 from Bob Gibson. Most modern recorded versions derive from the 1956 recording by Les Baxter. Further changes and additions were codified in 1959 by the folk music group the Weavers. The Weavers’ performance of the song appears on their compilation albums Gospel and Reunion at Carnegie Hall Part 2.”

  4. Nice post. I’m struck by how often there are details about someone we only realise later we never asked about (like the sources your Dad was drawing on, for example). We all have those kinds of things, but at least you were able to figure out probably sources. Photo looks better in context!

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