Considering the Song: “Buckeye Jim”

Over the years, my friend Bill Childs and I have had a number of conversations about (and periodically mused about starting a podcast based around) the folk-friendly nature of kindie music — and not “folk” in the way we’ve been conditioned to think of it, i.e. college kids singing about their feelings outside coffee shops, but in the truly traditional sense of the word. As anyone who’s spent any amount of time listening to children’s music could tell you, it’s a lot more acceptable (encouraged, even) for artists to perform traditional folk standards, and the downside of this is that you’ll end up hearing countless versions of “Mister Rabbit” and “Ring Around the Rosie” until you want to cry; I think it’s worth it, though, because it gives us a chance to strengthen our ties to our shared musical history.

These songs have sort of faded into the background for a lot of us, even as they’re playing, but they say a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from. Even though the versions we’re familiar with today have often been bleached of their original meaning, their stories still echo through their chords, and if we really take the time to absorb them, they can offer surprisingly rich rewards.

Today I want to write a little about “Buckeye Jim” — probably not the most over-recorded song in the family music canon, but certainly one that most of us have heard more times than we can count. It’s undergone something of a resurgence in popularity over the last few years, thanks to Wes Anderson’s inclusion of Burl Ives’ version in the soundtrack to Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it’s a lot older than Ives; I’m actually not sure anyone’s been able to definitively trace it back to its source.

“Jim” is part of the deepest folk music tradition, harking back to a time when there really wasn’t any such thing as a “definitive” version of a song; lines were added, subtracted, and absorbed as performers carried them from place to place. The “Buckeye Jim” that survives today has its roots in what’s commonly referred to as the “Limber Jim” group or tree of songs, and shares bits of DNA with everything from “Jim Along Josie,” “Shiloh,” and “Liza Jane” (the latter of which boasts its own rich history and large number of offspring).

My daughter fell in love with “Buckeye Jim” through Elizabeth Mitchell’s version, which is found on her You Are My Little Bird album (along with “Little Liza Jane,” actually). It’s a beautiful rendition of the song, one that emphasizes its lilting arrangement and follows the peaceful adventures of birds as they weave, nest, and spin. She also loves Caspar Babypants’ version, recorded for This Is Fun!, which is a little more sprightly — and works in a Babypants-penned B section that, with its lines promising an end to grief and pain, offers a hint of the song’s original, darker tone.

Both versions diverge from the traditional version Ives recorded, which concludes with a verse about an old woman dying of whooping cough in an old wooden trough, which is understandable, albeit slightly lamentable. Although that verse is kind of horrific out of context — and Ives’ version just sort of drops the listener in as an oh-by-the-way after its lines about red birds dancing with green bullfrogs — that verse isn’t just there to give your children nightmares.

“Limber Jim” shares some of its musical ingredients with “Jim Along Josie,” but where that song offers a sort of willfully goofy minstrel travelogue, “Limber” is a darker, stranger tale, with references to gambling, violence, and various gross, fantastical creatures:

Went down the ribber, couldn’t get across;
Hopped on a rebel louse; thought ’twas a hoss,
Oh, lor’, gals, ‘t ain’t no lie,
Lice in Camp Chase big enough to cry

Bridle up a rat, sir; saddle up a cat,
Please han’ me down my Leghorn hat,
Went to see widow; widow warn’t home;
Saw to her daughter–she geve me honeycomb.

Jay-bird sittin’ on a swinging limb,
Winked at me an’ I winked at him.
Up with a rock an’ struck him on the shin,
God damn yer soul, don’t wink again.

So on and so forth. “Buckeye Jim” takes that basic meter, adds some cuddlier animals, and shifts the focus closer to home. In the version Ives came across, the lyrics warned:

Buckeye Jim, you can’t go
Go weave and spin, you can’t go
Buckeye Jim.

Those lines cut to the heart of the song’s roots as a worker’s (or, more accurately, slave’s) lament — a sort of matter-of-fact cautionary tale about the consequences of breaking rules that can’t be broken, and the death that rewards even those who follow the rules. (The folks at Mudcat go into a lot more detail in this thread — block off an afternoon and go soak in their scholarship.) This commenter at Rootsweb hits it right on the head, I think:

As “a children’s song” or “a lullaby” it might have served several purposes — subtle instruction on fixed class and power differences; caution about any “impulse to flight” and the consequences of acting on such an impulse — or the “wooden trough/holler log” consequences of staying; portable self-comforting if you got separated or sold off from your family, or them dead or killed and you bound out… Then too it’s not hard to imagine its origins as a “working blues”… sing the truths you can’t safely say… keep each other’s spirits up … share sadness, courage, soul, and wit.

All things to think about the next time you’re humming along with someone’s pretty cover of “Buckeye Jim.” And you’ve got your choice of versions to choose from — Allmusic has an impressive list here, and I put together 14 of them in this Spotify playlist, including the versions by Caspar Babypants, Elizabeth Mitchell, Burl Ives, and Ella Jenkins. Enjoy — and if there’s something you’d like to see covered in our Considering the Song series, please let me know!