Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July, 2010)

There are two songs called Diamond Joe. One of them is about a ranch owner who mistreats his help. It was written in the 1950s, perhaps by Cisco Houston. You can hear it on Laurie Lewis's Flying Fish album, Singin' My Blues Away.

This is the other one, and its origin is much more mysterious. The narrator wants Diamond Joe to come and get him, but it's unclear just who or what Joe is. I'm pretty sure it's not the Jack of Diamonds, the subject of several gambling songs. If you're playing cards, you may want the jack to come to you, but you don't want it to come and take you away. My conclusion: Diamond Joe was a steamboat, and this is one more example of a roustabout (or wannabe roustabout) song: the narrator wants the steamboat to come and take him away. That's only speculation, of course, but writing and conversation would be much shorter if we had to stick to known facts.

Here's the steamboat evidence: Joseph Reynolds (1819 - 1891) was a Chicago grain dealer who devised a logo (JO inside a diamond) to distinguish himself from another Joseph Reynolds. Dissatisfied with the shipping situation, he built a steamboat, The Diamond Jo, to haul freight on the upper Mississippi (St. Paul to St. Louis). He later expanded the business to become the Diamond Jo Line, with all the boats sporting his logo. After the railroads began to carry more of the grain, the steamboats became mostly passenger vessels. There are only two remnants of the operation: the Diamond Jo name is now used by an unrelated riverboat casino in Dubuque, Iowa, and Reynolds Hall, the University of Chicago student union, was built with an endowment from Reynolds.

This version was recorded by the Georgia Crackers (Paul and Leon Cofer) for Okeh records in 1927 (re-released on Document DOCD-8021, Georgia Stringbands, Vol. 1). Their repertoire was almost completely songs from African-American sources, but, at the same session, they recorded a number of Anglo-American traditional songs as The Cofer Brothers. It's not clear what the marketing strategy was, as all the records were released in Okeh's hillbilly series.

If it was a steamboat song, there's a mystery as to how it traveled from the Mississippi River to Georgia. The only other source is Charlie Butler, a prisoner at Mississippi's infamous Parchman Farm, recorded in 1941 and released on Rounder CD 1500, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. He uses the same chorus with a completely different set of verses.

Both versions use floating verses that don't have much to do with steamboats. Kurt Gegenhuber recently posted an article on his site, , describing the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music as a collage, a coherent artistic structure made by pasting together disparate items. Someone else responded that songs like this one, with its floating verses, are also collages, art created from scraps.


Complete Lyrics:

Diamond Joe, come and get me,
My wife died and quit me,
Diamond Joe, you better come get me, Diamond Joe.

1. I'm gonna buy me a sack of flour,
Cook me a hoecake every hour,
Diamond Joe, you better come get me, Diamond Joe.

2. I'm gonna buy me a piece of meat,
Cook me a slice once a week,
Diamond Joe (etc.)

3. I'm gonna buy me a peck of meal,
Take me a hoecake to the field,

4. I'm gonna buy me a jug of whiskey,
I'm gonna make my baby frisky,

5. (Repeat verse 1).

6. (Repeat verse 2).

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.