I first heard the song as a young boy, recorded by Arlo Guthrie on the album One Night. Of course, Arlo learned it from his father's version, (though there are slight differences between them). Woody and Arlo both called the song "Buffalo Skinners". Here is Woody:
Woody learned it as a traditional song, with a long and somewhat convoluted history. Some of that, and some variations, below the orange Kleinur.
Apparently, this song evolved from an earlier, British ballad called "Caledonia", about a girl that stowed away on a sailing ship, to find her lost love. That song became the basis for "Jackarow", in all it's variations. But the sailing song also landed in North America, and became a Canadian logging song called "Canada-I-O". This lumberman's version was first published as a broadside in 1853.
Come all ye jolly lumbermen, and listen to my song
But do not get discouraged, the length it is not long;
Concerning of some lumbermen, who did agree to go
To spend one pleasant winter up in Canada-I-O.
It happened late one season in the fall of fifty-three
A preacher of the gospel one morning came to me;
Says he, "My jolly fellow, how would you like to go
To spend one pleasant winter up in Canada-I-O?"
To him I quickly made reply, and unto him did say,
"In going out to Canada depends upon the pay.
If you will pay good wages, my passage to and fro,
I think I'll go along with you to Canada-I-O."
"Yes, we will pay good wages, and will pay your wages out,
Provided you sign papers that you will stay the route;
But if you do get homesick and swear that home you'll go
We never can your passage pay from Canada-I-O."
"And if you get dissatisfied and do not wish to stay,
We do not wish to bind you, no, not one single day,
You just refund the money we had to pay, you know,
Then you can leave that bonny place called Canada-I-O.
It was by his gift of flattery he enlisted quite a train,
Some twenty-five or thirty, both well and able men;
We had a pleasant journey o'er the road we had to go,
Till we landed at Three Rivers, up in Canada-I-O.
But there our joys were ended, and our sorrows did begin,
Fields, Phillips and Norcross they then came marching in.
They sent us all directions, some where I do not know,
Among those jabbering Frenchmen up in Canada-I-O.
After we had suffered there some eight or ten long weeks,
We arrived at headquarters, up among the lakes;
We thought we'd find a paradise, at least they told us so,
God grant there may be no worse hell than Canada-I-O.
To describe what we have suffered is past the art of man;
But to give a fair description I will do the best I can:
Our food the dogs would snarl at, our beds were on the snow,
We suffered worse than murderers up in Canada-I-O.
Our hearts were made of iron and our souls were cased with steel,
The hardships of that winter could never make us yield;
Fields, Phillips and Norcross they found their match, I know
Among the boys that went from Maine to Canada-I-O.
But now our lumbering is over and we are returning home,
To greet our wives and sweethearts and never more to roam;
To greet our friends and neighbors; we'll tell them not to go
To that forsaken God Damn place called Canada-I-O.
(lyrics thanks to Mudcat.org)
Like all good folk songs, it then led a wild and varied life. It seems next to have become a cowboy song, variously called "Buffalo Skinners", or "The Hills of Mexico", first penned in about 1878: Humming a Different Tune
Arlo wasn't the only singer to take Woody's version and run with it. Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Bob Dylan each had their own versions. Dylan never formally recoded it, though there is a fragment on a sort of bootleg called the Basement Tapes. He started singing, but then he forgot the words, and launched into another song. Dylan did record the sailing ballad version of Canada-I-O, though.
Talkeetna bush-pilot Doug Geeting took Elliot's version and changed it a little, and called it "The Trail of the Buffalo". Another group of variants are called "The Hills of Mexico". Elizabeth LaPrelle sings a fine version, taken from the singing of Roscoe Holcomb. Curt Bouterse, who plays the song on a gourd banjo that he built, sings a slightly different version, and uses that title. I tend to like those versions best, since I can look out my window as I type this and see the Hills of Mexico. I live south of Tombstone, and the "outlaws waiting to pick us off" has direct ties to an ambush of the Clanton Family in nearby Skeleton Canyon.
After spending some time on the buffalo range, the song headed back east, to become a story of a hapless traveler looking for work in Arkansas. First written record of "The State of Arkansas" is in 1891. Various singers included different names for the characters, so there are versions called "Sanford Barnes" and "My Name is John Johanna", which was recorded in 1926, and immortalized by Harry Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. In all versions, the employer is not to be trusted, provides lousy food, and falls short on the pay. Many of the Arkansas versions (and a related diversion to Texas called "Diamond Joe") include an impossible-to-eat foodstuff called corn dodgers. Naturally, I knew exactly what those were because Rooster Cogburn took a sack of the things, cooked by Chin Lee, into Oklahoma Territory (from Arkansas, of course) to search for Ned Pepper and Tom Chaney. I saw it all, larger than life, at the Alvarado Drive In in 1969.
The song eventually returned to the hills of Mexico, and then right here to Bisbee. Local artist Becky Reyes has taken the song, and reworded it to become The Ballad of Ben Johnson. True to the story of less-than-trustworthy employers treating their employees to harsh conditions, poor food, and possible starvation in the desert, it tells the tale of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, where almost 1200 striking (or potentially striking) miners were rounded up, loaded in cattle cars at the Warren Ballpark (right outside my window...closer than the hills), and left out in the New Mexico desert near Hachita (named after "Little Hatchet Mountain", little brother to Big Hatchet Mountain, a pretty big hill across the border in Mexico.
There is no video of Becky singing the song, but there is a video from neighboring Sierra Vista, filmed from the audience at a pageant there. Becky likes the performance, and so do I, so I hope that you enjoy it as well.