‘Promenade In Green’

“Green, green rocky road,
Promenade in green…
Tell me who ya love
Tell me who ya love
See that crow up in the sky
He don’t walk no
He just fly
He don’t walk,
He don’t run
Keeps on flappin’ to the sun
Green, green rocky road”

These are opening lyrics as I remember them, as I hear this song played by my internal DJ, and as I sing it out loud. They may not be exact, but if I had a child, this would be the version I would pass down. Behind the lyrics, I hear Dave Van Ronk’s sweet guitar picking with his magical timing on chords and transitions.

This song is special to me. I cannot tell you why, it just is and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing or singing it. Green, Green, Rocky Road is one of those songs, when I hear the first few notes, I smile–no matter what mood the notes encountered when they tapped me on the soul.

If you are wondering where you may have heard this song, it is featured twice in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, first strummed and sung by Julliard graduate and actor Oscar Issac and finally, a version done by Dave Van Ronk runs during closing credits.

My love of this song and my curiosity about it led me to look up lyrics. I was not absolutely sure I was hearing or remembering the lyrics as sung. What I found when I began my search was that there are myriad versions out there. Beginning with simple contrasts to the version my internal disc jockey plays:

“Tell me who ya’ll love”


“Tell me who you love”

instead of “Tell me who ya love”

and the crow keeps:

“…on flappin’ ’til the sun”

or becomes:

“Black paint spattered on the sun”

instead of:

“Keeps on flappin’ to the sun”

Songs, tales and stories have long been handed down in the great oral tradition, sans writing. No Cuneiform, no Gutenberg, no internet. As I dug into it a bit more, I found that this song, as performed, has evolved like many traditional folk songs, tales, and legends via the oral tradition. Unlike the strictly oral tradition, we also have recordings and documentation, an oral history. There is even a copyrighted version. We can see how this song has evolved through time…its own “Promenade in Green”.

The song, as I know it, sung by Dave Van Ronk on And the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended, has a registered copyright. Both music and lyrics are the result of the great collaboration of Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman (1961). Len Chandler, speaking to Dan Kimpel for Music Connection, tells of the birth of this song written “on the bones” of a traditional folk song, thankfully recorded in Alabama by Harold Courlander in 1950 (in the tradition of John, and later, Alan Lomax for WPA, Works Progress Administration, of the 1930s–and what a brilliant idea that was, thank you Harry Hopkins, FDR, and the 1935 Congress!)

Chandler: “Kaufman was at my $34 a month New York apartment on Stanton Street for dinner. I had already put the music together. Kaufman said, ‘Dooka dooka soda cracker/Does your momma chew tobacco?’ and I said, ‘If your momma chews tobacco/ Dooka dooka soda cracker.’ We were just playing.”

Happily we go from written “on the bones” of a children’s game song, to written and copyrighted and performed at a time when it was heard and performed, not always exactly as copyrighted, but as remembered. Van Ronk was “given” the song by Robert Kaufman with an arrangement by Len Chandler in 1961 when he was performing in clubs in Greenwich Village. He also did a version of this song at a church in New York that was, again thankfully, recorded and broadcast by station WRVR on their “Saturday of Folk Music” program. It is highly probable that Karen Dalton heard Van Ronk do this song and she recorded it for its first “official” release. This version is worth a listen. Karen makes this song her own, she changes the melodic resolution sometimes giving it a bluesy tone and pace. Really fine.

It is likely the song has its roots in two traditional songs that were children’s game songs each of which, in turn, has their own various permutations. One game song, the one already mentioned, recorded at Lilly’s Chapel School in York Alabama provides the “Green rocky road” and the other, a traditional children’s game song from the UK, Icka Backa Soda Cracker, a skipping or ball bouncing and ball tossing game gives us “dooka dooka, soda cracker”:

“Acka backa soda cracker, acka backa boo.
Acka backa soda cracker, up goes you!
Acka backa soda cracker, acka backa boo.
Acka backa soda cracker, I love you!”

a permutation, also from the UK:

“My mother, your mother lived across the way,
Eighteen, nineteen East Broadway.
Every night, they’d have a fight
And this is what they’d say:
Acka-backa soda cracker
Acka-backa boo.
Acka-backa soda cracker
Out goes you!”

“Acka-backa” became “Dooka dooka” and in some Van Ronk versions that in turn became “Ooka dooka” or “ooka tooka”.

There is a story of Chicago children using Green, Green, Rocky Road to warn visitors to gambling joints and “houses of ill-repute” when police were in the neighborhood. Possibly due to the line “When I sing come runnin’ out”. There seems to be controversy about the plausibility of this story, however, it isn’t much of a stretch to see its use here as “cheese it, the cops!” code.

The children’s Lilly’s Chapel School version lines:

“Dear Miss Minnie your name’s been called
Come take a seat beside the wall
Give her a kiss and let her go
She’ll never sit in that chair no more.”

are gone in many renditions where we instead find:

“Little miss Jane runnin’ to the ball”
or sometimes: “Little miss Jane runnin’ to the wall”

“Don’t you stumble don’t you fall
Don’t you sing and don’t you shout
When I sing come runnin’ out”

Lyrics and stories passed down via the oral tradition are necessarily fluid. We sometimes hear things differently, certainly remember them differently. And sometimes a performer can have a brief ‘I forget’ moment, but a performer keeps on singing so will fill in the gap to keep the song going. Performers also play to an audience. Lyrics might be toned down or tuned up to suit the mood, culture, and type of entertainment for a given performance. Lyrics can be added to better fit a time, place and current events (dare I say politics?) or simply customize the song for the singer’s style. How often have we been to a concert where during a song that mentions a city, the performer replaces the ‘original’ city with the city he/she/they are performing in? This is a simplistic example, but it is a basic one many of us can remember experiencing.

Back to Green, Green, Rocky Road, as I’ve mentioned it is a particular Dave Van Ronk recording of this song I hear, found on And the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended. There are other recordings of him doing this song and in the great oral tradition, Van Ronk alters the lines himself, for example there is an earlier version without “Ooka tooka”.

I have found a variety of versions of this song with altered words, altered lines, and even whole new verses.

There is version out of County Down in Northern Ireland that begins with a totally new verse:

“I was born in Tennessee
I was born in Tennessee
Miss my friends and they miss me”

One can imagine the singer bringing the song from the USA, being from Tennessee and, yes, missing his friends throwing in that bit of personal history and tribute to those friends.

Peter, Paul and Mary create more of an original work of their own “on the bones of” the Chandler/Kaufman song:

“Red light, green light ’round the town
I found a penny on the ground
Met a friend I never know’d
Walkin’ down ol’ rocky road
Red, green ol’ rocky road, tell me what you see
Tell me inside out, tell me upside down
All around the block, all around the town
Red, green ol’ rocky road, tell me what you see”

and they reintroduce a verse dropped from the 1950 children’s chapel school version, still giving it their own twist:

“Dear Miss Minnie your name’s been called
Come take a seat beside the wall
Give her a kiss and let her go
She’ll never sit in that chair no more.”

and alter it to make it their own:

“Hey, Jimmy Huggins your name’s been called
Come and stand beside the wall
Pick a girl that you know well
You can kiss and you can tell
Red, green ol’ rocky road, tell me what you see
Tell me inside out, tell me upside down
All around the block, all around the town”


“Jenny, come out and play
Red light, green light and I’ll be it today
Red, green ol’ rocky road, tell me what you see
Little Miss Jenny, don’t you hide
Papa’s gonna take you for a pony ride
One potato, two potato, three potato, four
Cross the line and close the door”

Their repeat chorus is slightly different also:

“Red, green ol’ rocky road, tell me what you see”

I have to mention Chubby Checker! Yes, he does this song, centered on the “soda cracker” line. It was done as a B side but hit the top 20 in the charts. When I read about it, I didn’t recall it, when I heard it, of course! I remember Hooka Tooka.

I spent most of a day listening to different versions of this song. Some were excellent and performed in styles unique to the performers. I never tired of listening, but at the end of the day I went back to Dave Van Ronk on And the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended and as always, those first few notes made me smile and nod my head. Maybe that is no accident. According to friend, musician and author Elijah Wald, Green, Green Rocky Road was Van Ronk’s favorite song to play and sing. That sure comes through.

Check out Joop’s Musical Flowers, a musicological delight of a blog that nicely summarizes some of the permutations and versions of the song and, better still, provides links to available sound clips.

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