The westward transatlantic flow of culture from the Basque Country to the United States was much on show at this year’s Jaialdi in Boise, where Old World Basque traditions took center-stage, but this cultural exchange works both ways. The Basque Country has also embraced major American cultural iconography, of course, from fast-food chains and rock n roll to Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the Guggenheim Museum (on the latter, see Learning from the Bilbao Guggenheim, edited by Anna Maria Guasch and Joseba Zulaika, available free to download here).
Yet there are more humble, although equally fascinating, examples of this transatlantic cultural exchange. Take the song “Old Joe Clark,” for example. This is a traditional American mountain ballad that, according to Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den, “originated in Irish Creek, on the Blue Ridge Parkway near South River Virginia in the early 1800s. Joe Clark had a daughter who jilted her lover. The young man is said to have written the song out of spite and jealousy.” Others, though, claim that Joe Clark may have been a moonshiner in the Virginia hills, a veteran of the War of 1812, or a banjo player from Clay County, Kentucky. It is, indeed, true that different lyrics have accompanied the song over time and it has been performed equally without any lyrics at all as an instrumental piece. Check out the versions by Cowan “Fiddlin'” Powers and his Family Band in 1924, Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, the Kingston Trio in 1962, and David “Stringbean” Akeman in the 1960s.
So what has all this got to do with the Basque Country? Well, in 2012 the group Mugaldekoak from Bera, Navarre released a fine album titled Begiak lekuko (As the eyes are witness). The album is made up of cover versions in Basque of various songs in the form of an homage to writers and songwriters from diverse cultural backgrounds. As regards the North American repertoire, these songs include versions of “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” by Bob Dylan, “Bird on a Wire” by Leonard Cohen, “Blues on a Ukulele” by Jumpin’ Jim Beloff, and a rollicking rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. Moreover, the album also pays tribute to other musical traditions such as English and Portuguese folk, the exuberant fusion of the ‘Marseilles sound’, and Mexican rancheras. The album also includes renditions of poems translated into Basque by Wislawa Szymborska, Margarita Robleda, and Nazim Hikmet as well as by the group’s own Edu Zelaieta.
And another of the songs covered on the album is a sublime version of “Old Joe Clark,” rendered here as “Zaku arra eta ehunzangoa” (The dog and the centipede). Just watching the accompanying video, I think you’ll get a pretty good idea of the story in this Basque version. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty quirky take on this most traditional of American folk songs. So, in short, this is a group that has fully embraced the American folk tradition and expresses its love of that tradition in Basque — a good example of how culture is created, recreated, reinterpreted, and passed on.