The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Old Joe Clark

By Donna Huffer © 1988

Issue: October, 1988

A past-time of the Clark family was playing music. The Clark family has been forever immortalized in the song "Old Joe Clark" written by a sawmill hand, Samuel Downey.

Samuel Downey could neither read nor write and drove a horse team up and down the mountain of Irish Creek Valley dragging logs to the mills. A natural banjo player, he often composed songs while driving his horses. "Old Joe Clark," a ballad, made fun of Joseph Clark, Jr., his son-in-law John Pultz, and a mysterious woman named Betsy Brown.

"Old Joe Clark had a mule
His name was Morgan Brown
And every tooth in that mule's head,
Was sixteen inches around.

Old Joe Clark had a cow,
She was muley born,
It takes a jaybird a week and a half,
To fly from horn to horn."

The song "Old Joe Clark" also reflected Sam Downey's job of dragging logs down the mountain to the sawmill.

"Sixteen horses in my team,
The leaders they are blind,
And every time the sun goes down,
There's a pretty girl on my mind.

Eighteen miles of mountain road,
And fifteen miles of sand,
If I ever travel this road again,
I'll be a married man."

Downey's song centered around the sad romance of John H. Pultz and Betsy Brown. According to Clark family legend, John Pultz unsuccessfully courted Betsy Brown, a woman living in the area. To forget her, John Pultz moved to Irish Creek where he met and then married Joe Clark's daughter, Sarah.

"Fare you well, Old Joe Clark,
Goodbye Betsy Brown,
Fare you well, Old Joe Clark,
Fare you well, I'm gone."

This song became popular throughout Virginia and soon banjo and fiddle players everywhere were picking out the tune and making up their own verses. As to the song's author, he died in poverty, according to Dr. E. P. Tompkins who wrote:

"A note-worthy side-light on this phase of Irish Creek history is this: This company employed, as driver of one of their six-horse teams, a man by the name of Sam Downey. Sam was an illiterate man, but he had one striking propensity - he was intensely musical. Melody flowed from Sam's soul as naturally as water in the mountain streams of Sam's habitat. Perhaps it was to amuse himself as his team plodded along with the great loads of timber, that Sam would compose jingles and "set them to music," if this can be said of an entirely illiterate man knowing nothing of scientific technique regard music. He would sing them over and over - catchy airs, and simple lines, easy to remember. Some of his ditties might be classed as real folk-songs. One in particular might have made Sam more money than he ever earned by hauling lumber, had he but known how to capitalize on his musical ability. This song eventually found its way all over the country, even it is said to the Pacific coast. It is called "Old Joe Clark," and is today to be found in books of folk music. One day a mountaineer came by my office and in the course of conversation was asked: "Did you ever know Sam Downey?" His reply was: "Yes, I knowed him, when he got to old to work he came to live with his married daughter near our home. One day Sam took a bucket of swill into the trough, and as he straightened up, he fell over backwards, and when they got to him, he was plumb dead."

So ended the life of a truly gifted man and songwriter; although he was never famous, Sam Downey made the Clark family known nationwide.