DOWNLOAD THE SONGSHEET
The "playful and sometimes outlandish verses" have led to the conjecture that it first spread as a children's song and via play parties. There are about 90 stanzas in various versions of the song. I've selected a few for the songsheet and recorded some additional verses on a separate sheet. You can play in the same key as the Skillet Lickers!
Although "Old Joe Clark" may have originated in the 19th century, no printed records are known from before 1900. An early version was printed in 1918, as sung in Virginia at that time. A substantial claim about the song origin is that the song is named for Joe Clark of Clay County, Kentucky, born in 1839. During the Civil War Clark enlisted in the Union Army and served for about six months before receiving a disability discharge in 1862, after which he farmed. Later he ran a general store and had a state-licensed moonshine still. Clark, however, was a womanizer, and this probably led to his murder in 1886, when he was shot and killed near the back porch of his store. The photo above is a Kentucky State historical marker in front of the U.S. Post Office at Sexton's Creek.
The tune was recorded for the Library of Congress by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph from Ozarks Mountains fiddlers in the early 1940's. Virginia family band "Fiddlin'" Cowan Powers and Family's recording of the piece was the third best-selling country music record of 1924, while the Skillet Lickers (north Georgia) 1926 recording was the fourth best-selling for that year.
According to Lisa Clark's research, Joseph Clark was born in Clay County, Kentucky on September 18, 1839. He was raised on the family farm at Sextons Creek, and married Elizabeth (Betty) Sandlin on January 12, 1857, when he was 17 and she was 15.
When the Civil War began, Joe was one of the first to enlist, even though he was married and had three children. He was 22 years old, stood 5 feet 8 inches, had a fair complexion, with light hair and blue eyes. He became ill during the winter months and was given a Disability Discharge in 1862.
Joe returned to Clay County and resumed farming. He bought 700 acres of land from his father in 1868, and lived in the log house on Sextons Creek that had been built by the Clark pioneers. Joe began earning a reputation in the local area, and Betty left him around 1864. He lived with several different women and had more children which he raised. There was a popular break-down tune at the time that did not have lyrics, so some of Joe's friends started making up rhymes to be sung with the tune. From this originated the ballad of "OLD JOE CLARK." Joe is said to have liked the song until some of the more fun loving souls started making up rhymes that were not very complimentary.
He operated a country store near his house and also ran a moonshine still, under license from the state. The still was located in the bottom near his house, and Joe had orchards from which to gather the fruit for brandy and other drinks. He would load an ox cart with whiskey and take it to the round bottoms as well as selling it from his store. There are several stories surrounding his death. J.B. Weaver gave this account, as told to him by Joe's son. Joe was living with a woman named Chris Leger and they split up. He then began living with a McKenney woman in his store, renting his house to Chris and her new friend, the brother of Old Jim Howard. Leger and Howard then devised a plan whereby they would kill Joe and she would claim he had left the farm to her. Howard shot and killed Joe on April 22, 1886, near the back porch of the store. Howard then fled to Beattyville, where a few days later while crossing a bridge, he was stabbed to death by two men from Clay County.
Joe is buried in the Clark Cemetery on a hill overlooking the farm at Sextons Creek.