Old Joe Clark Biography and Lyrics
Genealogical research © Lisa Clark
Below the hill and in front of the US Post Office at Sextons Creek, Kentucky, stands a State Historical Marker (#1382), listing this bit of Mountain History:
OLD "JOE CLARK "BALLAD
Mountain ballad, about 90 stanzas,
sung during World War 1 and later
wars by soldiers from eastern
Kentucky. Early version, as sung
in Virginia, printed in 1918.
Joe Clark, born 1839, lived here;
a shiftless and rough mountaineer
of that day. His enemies were
legion; he was murdered in 1885.
In the moonshining days of 1870's,
he ran a government-supervised still.
1970 Kentucky Historical Society
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. [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 collarbone 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.
Old Joe Clark Lyrics
(as sung by The Rosinators)
1. Old Joe Clark, the preacher's son
Preached all over the plain
The only text he ever knew
Was high low jack and the game
Fare thee well Old Joe Clark
Fare thee well I'm bound
Fare thee well Old Joe Clark
Goodbye Betsy Brown
2. Old Joe Clark had a mule
His name was Morgan Brown
And every tooth in that mule's head
Was sixteen inches round
3. Old Joe Clark had a yellow cat
She would neither sing nor pray
Stuck her head in a buttermilk jar
And washed her sins away
4. Old Joe Clark had a house
Fifteen stories high
And every story in that house
Was filled with chicken pie
5. I went down to Old Joe's house
He invited me to supper
I stumped my toe on the table leg
And stuck my nose in the butter
6. Wished I had a sweetheart
Put her on the shelf
And every time she'd smile at me
I'd get up there myself