Old Joe Clark

It ain’t true, none of it. The yellow cat, the buck-toothed mule, the sixteen stories — all whoppers. When a man gets too big in the world, everybody tries to bring him down, that’s all. Success ain’t a crime.

Sure, I like a card game, and women, and no shame in that, unless you listen to my pa. Bastard son of a circuit preacher, that’s me. And I got the law on my side, too, because I went and bought a license for my distillery, and I sell corn cheap and in broad daylight. A lot of them moonshine boys don’t like that. My next-door neighbor’s missing an arm, and you can ask him why if you want to sing about something that’s true and packs a lesson. But if you sing about the ladies you’d best be careful, or I’ll shoot off something you’ll miss more’n an arm.

I ain’t no different than anybody else, except when I go for something, I aim to get it. Every man has a shadow as long as the sun shines. And 46 ain’t old.


There are several stories surrounding his death. J.B. Weaver gave this account, as told to him by Joe’s son. Clark 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 Clark 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.

Clark is buried in the family cemetery on a hill overlooking the farm at Sextons Creek.
–Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives

Old Joe Clark Ballad
Mountain ballad, about 90 stanzas, sung during World War I, and later wars by soldiers from eastern Kentucky. Early version, as sung in Virginia, printed in 1918. Joe Clark, born 1839, lived here; shiftless and rough mountaineer of that day. His enemies were legion; he was murdered in 1885. In the moonshining days of 1870s, he ran government-supervised still.
roadside historical marker, Jct. KY 577 & 1350

15 Replies to “Old Joe Clark”

  1. Probably not. You’ve gotta be a real sonofabitch to make it into the folk song canon, and for politicians, I think, they set the bar higher than they do for your garden-variety sociopaths. Amusing to think how many people will probably come here looking for information on that other Joe Clark, though.

  2. Thanks for this one, Dave. We (Emma & I) play ‘Old Joe Clark’ as a jig in our ceilidh band, Fishing for Eels. I’ve often wondered about its provenance but never got aroud to looking it up.

  3. Wow, I didn’t know it had jumped the Atlantic! That’s cool.

    I do wish you’d put recordings of yourselves up on the web. Maybe with your littlest wailing in harmony?

  4. Joe Clark, you run your mouth right good.

    Great name, “Fishing for Eels”!

    I guess we’re finally old enough to have our folk materials fly away like dandelion seed and take root.

  5. In our neck of the woods, we play “Old Joe Clark” in A. There is a big divide, locally, between bluegrass and Old-Time musicians on the chord progression. The way I learned it on banjo is not Hammons Family-Approved , so I play the concertina on this one. I can join the fiddlers, saying “What chord progression?”

    It’s good to learn “Ol’ Joe Clark” was named for a real person. I wonder if he really “stubbed his toe on the table leg/ And stuck his nose in the butter.”

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    I probably would’ve played it in A if my A harmonica wasn’t worn out. I have a G harmonica now, so that’s what I play it in.

    Interesing to learn about the divide between bluegrass and old-timey. You can probably guess which side I’d come down on – though I do like some newgrass stuff.

  7. It’s news to me that there really was an Old Joe Clark! I’ve played the tune many a time, though it’s not one of my favorites. The tune is one of those which most acoustic musicians are familiar with, a tune I’ll play with a musician I’ve just met, before we find the inevitable esoteric tune intersections.

  8. Dave – been enjoying your singing and blowing. On the constructive criticism side, to my ear you are consistently hurrying things. Slow it all down a bit I’d say.

  9. my mother her maiden name clark I just found out that joe is her great grandfather my god she was born in sexton creek ky. she now is dying of a brain tumer my ant is still alive we are looking to find the name of joe clarks son we think link we are the last relatives alive today

  10. If anyone know any more about Joe Clark please send me an e-mail to contact you, I grew up in Indiana but now live in Texas, and tracing some family roots, it has lead me to Joe Clark and I need some more information to continue my search. Thank you, if you can help me out.

    1. arron clark, of kingman indiana,, if you our i am your second cousin. Jean wheatley, and mildred kelly both have good histories and more of old joe clark, their grandfather…..

      larry w. Kelly

  11. Hi Aaron – This is a pretty old post, so I’m not sure how many people will see your query. Thanks for stopping by, though, and good luck on your search.

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