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Lyr Add: The Old Fish Song

Stewie 28 Apr 03 - 02:12 AM
Charley Noble 28 Apr 03 - 07:41 AM
Little Robyn 28 Apr 03 - 07:47 PM
GUEST,Stephanie Weissman 23 Jun 05 - 12:36 AM
Joe Offer 23 Jun 05 - 12:52 AM
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Subject: Lyr Add: The Old Fish Song
From: Stewie
Date: 28 Apr 03 - 02:12 AM

Here's a bit of serendipity, given Charley Noble's recent thread on an unusual Jonah and the whale song. This remarkable cautionary tale turns up in the recent Yazoo 7-CD set of Kentucky mountain music. It's a bit of an epic, testing my typing endurance to the full. It is hardly likely to take a place beside the great ballads, but it is definitely unusual:


Now Buddy get up and come here to your pap
I'll tell you a story, climb up in my lap
It's better than the story of Daniel or Ruth
Although it is fishy, it's every bit true

Now listen right good while I tell you this tale
How Jonah the prophet got caught by a whale
That whale caught poor Jonah and bless your dear soul
It not only caught him, it swallowed him whole

Part of the story is awfully sad
Tis about a big city that went to the bad
When the Lord saw them people with such wicked ways
He said, 'I can't stand this but forty more days'

He spoke to old Jonah then said, 'Go and try
To the wicked old city and tell them that I
Give 'em forty more days to get humbled down
And if they don't do it, I'll tear up the town'

When he heard the Lord speaking, old Jonah said, 'No
I'm a true hard-shelled Baptist and so I won't go
The Nineveh people are nothing to me
And then I'll begin for a mission you'll see'

So he went down to the job, it was there in great haste
That he boarded a ship for a different place
The Lord looked down on that ship and said he,
'Old Jonah is fixin' to run out on me'

He sets the wind a-blowing with squeaks and with squalls
The sea then got rowdy and kicked up its heels
Old Jonah confessed it was caused by his sin
So the crew threw him out and the whale took him in

The whale said to Jonah, 'Old feller don't fret
I'm sent here to take you in out of the wet'
So he opened his mouth and poor Jonah went in
'You're going to get punished right much for your sin'

'Twas a funny sight, Bud, that ever was seen
When Jonah rode off in his new submarine
The Nineveh people did not repent
For the message of warning to them was missent

On a bed of green seaweed that whale tried to rest
He said, 'Now I'll sleep while my food will digest'
So he got mighty restless and sore-afraid
For he rumbled inside as the old prophet prayed

Now you see how God's letter to Nineveh lay
In the dead letter office for three nights and days
The old prophet shut in as tight as a lock
But all things will be opened as sure as you knock

The third day the old fish arose from his bed
With his stomach tore up and a pain in his head
He said, 'I must get to the air mighty quick
That filthy old sinner is a-making me sick'

So he winked his big eyes and he wiggled his tail
Pulled out for the shore to deliver his mail
He came to the shore then he looked all around
And vomited Jonah clear out on the ground

Old Jonah thanked God for his mercy and grace
He turned to the whale and then he made a face
He said, 'After three days and nights you have found
A good man, old sucker, you can't keep down

So the prophet stretched out with a yawn and a sigh
Set down in the sun for his clothing to dry
He thought how much better his preaching would be
Since from a whale seminary he'd had a degree

Having rested himself, he dried well in the sun
Then he started for Nineveh almost in a run
He said, 'I must hurry and try not to sin
I'm sure I don't want to be swallowed again'

He arrived at the city about a week late
Then he preached from the time that he entered the gate
'Til the whole population repented and prayed
And the great hand of justice and vengeance was stayed

When you disobey, mammy, remember this tale
When you run off from home, look out for a whale
There's varmints to get you on sea and on land
And a boy can be swallowed much easier than a man

Source: transcription in booklet accompanying Various Artists 'Kentucky Mountain Music' 7-CD box set Yazoo 2200. As sung by Blind Jim Howard and recorded for the Library of Congress in Harlan, KY, 1933.


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Subject: RE: Lyr Add: The Old Fish Song
From: Charley Noble
Date: 28 Apr 03 - 07:41 AM

Lots of fun! I'm also amused to see evidence of folk-processing with regard to Jonah's embarkation point, the seaport of "Jaffa":

So he went down to the JOB, it was there in great haste...

Nice to hear the rest of the story.

Charley Noble

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add: The Old Fish Song
From: Little Robyn
Date: 28 Apr 03 - 07:47 PM

Mike Seeger sang a version of it when he was in NZ in 1970.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add: The Old Fish Song
From: GUEST,Stephanie Weissman
Date: 23 Jun 05 - 12:36 AM

Mike Seeger recorded a version of this. Slightly different lyrics: instead of the "Mission" line, he sings, "Them I won't give but a nickel to see", and he boards the ship at Jaffa.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add: The Old Fish Song
From: Joe Offer
Date: 23 Jun 05 - 12:52 AM

Hey, there's an entry on this song in the Traditional Ballad Index:

Old Fish Song, The

DESCRIPTION: Humorous retelling of the Jonah myth. Jonah is ordered by God to preach repentance to Nineveh. Not wanting the job, he goes to sea. God raises a storm; the sailors throw Jonah overboard. He is swallowed by a whale. Children are warned to obey
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1933 (field recording, Blind James Howard)
LONG DESCRIPTION: God sees that the people of Nineveh are wicked, and sends Jonah to preach to them. Jonah says he's a hard-shell Baptist and refuses to go, being against foreign missions. He gets on a ship, but God, angered, raises a storm and the sailors throw Jonah overboard, where he's swallowed by a whale. The whale has indigestion, and vomits Jonah back out; Jonah heads for Nineveh and preaches and prophesies until the population repents. The moral is that one should be obedient: "When you disobey mammy, remember this tale/When you run off from home, bud, look out for a whale/There's varmints to get you on sea and on land/And a boy can be swallowed lots easier than a man."
KEYWORDS: captivity travel prophecy Bible humorous religious whale gods
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Cohen/Seeger/Wood, p. 124-125, "The Old Fish Song" (1 text, 1 tune)

Blind James Howard, "The Old Fish Song" (LC 74A, 1933)
New Lost City Ramblers, "The Old Fish Song" (on NLCR01, NLCRCD1)

Notes: This hilarious song almost certainly began its life as a printed "ballot." - PJS
Book of Jonah, ch. 1-3. In the Bible, of course, it's a great fish rather than a whale. - PJS
Interestingly, the story leaves out most of chapter 4 of Jonah, in which the repentance of Nineveh causes Jonah to get mad at God again. Perhaps it's the author who's the hard-shell Baptist. - RBW
File: CSW124

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The Ballad Index Copyright 2005 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.

Click here for the version in the Digital Tradition.

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