October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
The Story Behind a Legend
For reasons best known to the muse of history—or to the gremlin of tradition—the state of Arkansas has contributed more than its share to that agglomeration of legend, myth, tall tale, music, raucous humor, bawdry, and regional peculiarity known as American folklore. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most durable, of those contributions is a story-song inspired by the encounter celebrated here in a painting by “C. Gear” in 1899. The song is “The Arkansas Traveler,” and the encounter was real.
Sometime in 1840, the story goes, Colonel Sandford Faulkner stopped to ask directions from an idle fiddler sitting in front of his cabin in the Ozarks (in many versions, as in our painting, the cabin became a tavern). The colonel’s polite questions were met with jokes and sly evasions, the rough frontiersman twitting his highfalutin visitor. A good-natured gentleman, the colonel fell in with the game, and the banter went back and forth for some time. Faulkner later remembered much of the dialogue, and his recitation of it to friends and acquaintances became a favorite in barrooms from Little Rock to New Orleans. Somewhere along the way, the words got scribbled down, and in 1847 music was added and the whole thing printed up. “The Arkansas Traveler” has not stopped since, marching into countless anthologies and recordings, inspiring at least one play of probably deserved obscurity, Kit, the Arkansas Traveler , and being performed everywhere.
The tune, in the tradition of “Turkey in the Straw,” is a lively little thing and perhaps deserves immortality—or at least longevity. However, the lyrics, when comprehensible at all, must have been funnier in 1850: “Sir! Will you tell me where this road goes to? / It’s never gone any whar since I’ve lived here. … Why don’t you finish covering your house and stop the leaks? / It’s been rainin’ all day. / Well, why don’t you do it in dry weather? / It don’t leak then.”
And so on. And on, and on, and on in the venerable tradition of the talking song whose conclusion depends upon the whim of the singer, or the durability of his larynx.