In 1844 a blackface minstrel named John Hodges, who performed under the name “Cool White,” wrote and published a song titled “Lubly Fan.” Over the years it became quite popular throughout the country, and touring minstrels would often switch up the lyrics to appeal to wherever they were playing. Now considered a traditional American folk song, almost everybody knows the chorus.
Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight?
Come out tonight, Come out tonight?
Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight,
And dance by the light of the moon.
According to an article from the Library of Congress, the Ethiopian Serenaders, a white band who also performed in blackface, published sheet music for “Philadelphia Gals” with similar lyrics and no attribution for a composer in 1845, and then again in 1848 for “Buffalo Gals,” presumably for Buffalo, N.Y.
That’s a 1929 recording from The Pickard Family, which sounds pretty authentic to the times, but here’s a more homogenized version by Gene Autry that was used for the 1950 film Cow Town. It should be noted that Hollywood used “Buffalo Gals” quite often: It was featured prominently in High Noon, Texas, and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
Pete Seeger learned the song when he was recruited by Alan Lomax in 1939 to work on cataloging field recordings at the Library of Congress in Washington. This version was recorded for Moses Asch years later, and is still available on the Smithsonian Folkways set titled American Favorite Ballads.
In true folk tradition, the tune was appropriated and lyrics changed for rockabilly singer Ray Smith’s version, and he sold over a million copies in 1960 for Judd Records.
In 1958 a group called The Olympics had a top-ten single with “Western Movies,” which was written by Fred Smith and Cliff Goldsmith. Two years later, those two composers adapted “Buffalo Gals” in a completely different way:
Skipping ahead about 15 years, Malcolm McLaren was a British visual artist, performer, musician, clothing designer, and boutique owner. He supplied stage costumes to the New York Dolls and eventually became well known as the manager of the Sex Pistols. After they self-destructed he was involved with Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, The Slits, and Jimmy the Hoover.
In the early ’80s I managed a record store in Santa Monica, and an unlikely album captured my attention. McLaren had teamed up with producer Trevor Horn and a duo of radio disc jockeys – The World’s Famous Supreme Team – from New York City who hosted a hip-hop and classic R&B show on WHBI 105.9 FM and were among the first DJs to introduce the art of scratching to the world. Duck Rock was on my turntable almost every night in 1983, and it was this version of “Buffalo Gals” that is my hands-down favorite.
Somewhere along the way I lost the album, but 20 years later I found a used CD reissue at Amoeba Records. It always traveled with me in the car along with the twang stuff I listen to, and my kids – who were about ten and seven at the time – learned all the lyrics. Together we could all recite the spoken word interludes that were ripped from the radio shows of Sedivine the Mastermind and Just Allah the Superstar.
A few weeks ago my oldest son and I got to talking about that album, and he reminded me he wrote a paper in college about the evolution of “Buffalo Gals.” I asked him to send it to me, and while he might be disappointed that I strayed from his original narrative and main topic, I have to give him credit for prompting me to write this column. It’s just a great song and the perfect example of how a folk song will twist and turn, with each version presenting an “alternative fact” of the original.
Alright kids, I’ll leave you with my second-favorite version of the song. Play it through and play it loud. And thanks for the catchphrase, Kellyanne.
This was originally was published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression dot com.