Diamond Joe


from http://www.lizlyle.lofgrens.org and notes to “A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings”

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.

The song 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), and Charlie Butler, a prisoner at Mississippi’s infamous Parchman “Farm,”  recorded by John Lomax in 1941 for the Library of Congress’ Folk Archive.

Born in Louisiana in 1896, Charlie Butler was discharged from Parchman prison in 1942.  The Archive wrote Butler a letter at Parchman’s prison to obtain his permission to issue this recording of “Diamond Joe.” The unopened envelope came back with a note on it, “Gone Free, Left No Address.”

Charlie Butler sings “Diamond Joe”:


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