An interesting question came across the transom the other day, from a Mr. McGinley. I mention that name because it’s actually related to his question.
You may recall that many singers use a longer set of lyrics for “SJI” that include the narrator walking into Old Joe’s Barroom, on the corner by the square, or some variation thereof. Sometimes the proprietor of Old Joe’s is named Joe McKennedy or similar — but sometimes he’s Joe McGinley. (Refresher course here.)
Mr. McGinley wrote:
I am particularly interested in the Joseph McGinley version. Where does this name fit into the history of the song? Is it old or perhaps a personal or made up version by the Animals? Who was Joseph McGinley?. You state that the song has an old Irish origin. Do either of the two names appear that far back in any version of the song? McGinley is an Irish surname that would have been known in Ireland in the 1790’s and before.
The funny thing is my grandfather used to sing this song in the 1950’s (I think) using the Joseph McGinley version. With The Animals being English, the song ‘probably’ refers to an Irisman in Ireland or England at the time….I dont know. Yet the earliest I have found using this name in print is for The Animals in the mid 1960’s! Have you seen the Joseph McGinley version in print any earlier than that?
Here’s what I can say.
First, although “SJI” has been traced back to an Irish folk ballad called “The Unfortunate Rake,” the lyrics to that (very different) tune makes no mention of a McGinley or a McKennedy — or, for that matter, a bar. Read the lyrics here.
Second, I took a moment to revisit the lyrics offered up by Kenneth S. Goldstein to accompany the 1960 Folkways collection, The Unfortunate Rake. That collection includes Dave Van Ronk’s rendition of Gambler’s Blues, the made-in-America tune that is basically “SJI” by another name, and Van Ronk does refer to the barroom scene and “Big Joe McKennedy.” Nother of the earlier variations on “Unfortunate Rake” in Goldstein’s roundup (and there are a lot) have anything like this.
Next I looked at the two versions of the lyrics to “Those Gamblers Blues” set out by Carl Sandburg in his 1927 book American Songbag. One set starts out in “old Joe’s barroom,” and in this case it’s “Joe McKenny” who tells the tale. (The other set does not have such a scene.)
Finally I re-listened to a few versions, and consulted Robert W. Harwood’s I Went Down To St. James Infirmary for good measure. Fess Williams’ “Gambler’s Blues” starts out in “old Joe’s barrom,” but refers to Sam Jackson, “the driver of a delivery car” as the storyteller. Jimmie Rodgers’ sets his version (“Those Gambler’s Blues”) in Big Kid’s Barroom.
I listened again to the Animals version, and the lyric in this take does seem to be “Joseph McGinley.”
I will admit that I have not re-listened to every single version of “SJI” that own, but so far as I can figure, the Animals version seems to be the only one that renders the name that way.
And that is the best I can do. Of course, if anybody out there can add to the answer, I’d love to hear it — and I presume Mr. McGinley would too.