by Robert A. Waters
Okay, I realize there’s a limited audience for this story.
I grew up listening to country music when I was a boy. Back then it was called hillbilly music, and it wasn’t always pretty. But the lyrics were real and genuine, unlike today’s pseudo-country garbage. This song, “The Great Philadelphia Lawyer,” pokes fun at shysters—the term itself, Philadelphia Lawyer, is a “disparaging label for an attorney who is skillful in the manipulation of the technicalities and intricacies of the law to the advantage of his or her client, although the spirit of the law might be violated.” (The Free Dictionary)
The words of the song were penned by Woody Guthrie. The tune mimicked an old murder ballad called “The Jealous Lover.” Rose Maddox first recorded “The Great Philadelphia Lawyer,” and, in my opinion, her version is the best.
The Maddox family had been sharecroppers in Boaz, Alabama during the Depression. Rose was eleven when the family packed up and moved to California. In a radio interview, she described the journey: “Cotton prices failed in Alabama. So we left for California, the Land of Milk and Honey... We only had $35 when we left there, and a dream of going to California. That was my mother’s dream. Hitchhiking. All of us. Five kids.... The brakemen helped us get on the right trains and they got us food from the caboose. Sometimes the brakemen locked us in the boxcars and told us to be quiet.... We got to Los Angeles, California, in 1933.”
Rose’s father found work in Modesto, and the family settled there. With her brothers, Rose began playing music on local radio stations. Eventually, they landed a recording contract. Because of their success in hillbilly music, the Maddox family was able to rise from the grinding poverty they’d experienced for much of their lives.
The “Great Philadelphia Lawyer” tells the story of a great man who falls in love with a married woman. The lyrics drip with dead-pan humor, as well as dark, raw, emotions. The climax is understated to the extreme.
If you like this sort of thing the way I do, enjoy!
The Great Philadelphia Lawyer
Lyrics by Woodie Guthrie
(Original Title: Reno Blues)
Was in love with a Hollywood maid.
I’ll win you a divorce from your husband
And we can get married tonight.”
And all the boys around Reno
Left Wild Bill’s maiden alone.
He dreamed of his Hollywood sweetheart
Whose love was as lasting as gold.
It was the great Philadelphia lawyer
Makin’ love to Bill’s Hollywood maid.
Bill listened awhile through the window
He could hear every word that he said
Come go with me to the city
And leave this wild cowboy behind.”
There’s one less Philadelphia lawyer
In old Philadelphia tonight.