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Who Was “Old Joe Clark"?

Admittedly, I relied heavily on Wikipedia for the following article. I could have just given y’all the link and you could have read it yourself. But, what’s the fun in that?

I left in most of the links because it is fun to check the references in a Wikipedia article because they [shock!] contain more and corroborating information. For instance, the Lisa Clark article gives us a picture of the Kentucky State Historical marker in front of the Post Office at Sextons Creek where Old Joe Clark was murdered. The marker also tells us the Old Joe Clark was:

“a shiftless and rough mountaineer of that day. His enemies were

legion; he was murdered in 1885. In the monshining days of 1870's, he ran a government-supervised still.”

Old Joe Clark is a US folk song, a mountain ballad that was popular among soldiers from eastern Kentucky during World War I and afterwards.[1] Its lyrics refer to a real person named Joseph Clark, a Kentucky mountaineer who was born in 1839 and murdered in 1885.[1][2] The "playful and sometimes outlandish verses" have led to the conjecture that it first spread as a children's song and via play parties.[3] There are about 90 stanzas in various versions of the song.[1] The tune is in the Mixolydian mode.[4]

Although Old Joe Clark may have originated in the 19th century, no printed records are known from before 1900.[3] An early version was printed in 1918, as sung in Virginia at that time.[1]

Old Joe Clark has been described as "one of the most widely known of all Southern fiddle tunes [as of the late 20th century. ... It] has, to a degree, become part of the [United States] national repertory. One may hear it in bluegrass jam sessions, old-time fiddle sessions, and country dances throughout the United States."[3]

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.

"Fare Thee Well" by Russell May - a limited edition print of Joe Clark's two storey log cabin, which according to his great grandson Elijah Clark, is still standing today. [For details of Russell May's prints contact Kathy May]

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. Joe had a Spencer rifle which he carried across his lap when riding and is said to have used it to shoot the arm off one of his neighbors when they got into a fight. One story has it that Joe also lost an arm, but J.B. Weaver, who married Joe's great-granddaughter, claimed Joe lost some use of his left arm after he had a fight with the father of John Lucas, who slashed him across the collar bone with a knife.

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. © Lisa Clark


  1. "Old Joe Clark Ballad". Historical Marker #1382. Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky Department of Highways. 1970. Retrieved 2008-08-26.

  2. ^ Clark, Lisa. "Old Joe Clark Biography". The Rosinators. Retrieved 2008-08-26.

  3. ^ a b c alan, jabbour,; henry, reed,. "Old Joe Clark". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2017-06-03.

  4. ^ Anthony, Wendy (February 2007). "Building a Traditional Tune Repertoire: Old Joe Clark". Mandolin Sessions. Mel Bay Publications. Retrieved 2008-08-26.

  5. ^ Brody, David (1983). The Fiddler's Fake Book. New York: Oak Publications. p. 207. ISBN 978-0-8256-0238-2.

  6. ^ Building a Traditional Tune Repertoire by Wendy Anthony Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine.

  7. ^ Album: "Don Partridge", Columbia Records SCX 6280 (1968)

  8. ^ "TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: Outlawing Nashville". No Depression. 2011-09-16. Retrieved 2017-11-27.

  9. ^ Agay, Denes; Martin, Gerald (2011). The Joy of Boogie and Blues. Yorktown Music Press. ISBN 9781783231423.

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