Buddy Holly opened shows on his final tour in 1959 with “Gotta Travel On” a song that was not one of his originals. Crickets drummer Jerry Allison once was asked why Holly performed the song so much. He explained, “Because Buddy liked it.”
I’ve laid around and played around,
This old town too long;
Summer’s almost gone,
Yes, winter’s comin’ on;
I’ve laid around and played around,
This old town too long,
And I feel like I gotta travel on.
Tommy Allsup, who played guitar for Holly on The Winter Dance Party Tour, also has noted that Holly liked “Gotta Travel On” as the opener on that tour. There are no recordings of Holly singing the song, but here the late Tommy Allsup plays the song in 2015 in tribute to Holly.
And, perhaps because as a 17-year-old he had seen Holly perform the song on The Winter Dance Party Tour, Dylan also often closed with the song during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1976. Additionally, The Seekers, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Dean, The Limeliters, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Boxcar Willie, and others have covered the song.
So, where did Buddy Holly’s opening song come from?
Origins of “Gotta Travel On”
“Gotta Travel On” is credited as being written by David Lazar, Larry Ehrlich, Paul Clayton and Tom Six. But the song goes back quite a ways.
The first time one hears the song, a listener may think the song is just about an adventurous person off to see the world. But upon closer listen, there is a darker undercurrent. There is a reason the person must be traveling on: The singer has been gambling (“played around too long”), perhaps fraudulently. And the singer also notes,”High sheriff and police riding after me.” And Johnnie (the singer’s brother?) has “been on the chain gang too long.”
The song has been traced to a song called “Yonder Comes the High Sherif” in 1891, although it also was called “I’ve Laid Around and Played Around.” Ollis Martin made the first official recording of the song in August 6, 1927, with his version called “Police & High Sheriff Come.”
The melody appears in different songs with different lyrics. One song that uses the same tune is “Long Journey Home,” as in this version by The Delmore Brothers.
A number of years passed before a variation of the original version of “Gotta Travel On” appeared through Sanga Music Inc. obtaining copyright in early 1959. The composers were listed as folksinger Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six.
Clayton was an important figure in the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to his work on writing “Gotta Travel On,” he was a fine singer and scholar of folk songs. He influenced a number of more famous artists, such as Bob Dylan, and also loosely inspired a character or characters in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. [Thanks to @ for the additional information on Clayton.]
The three latter names listed as writers were pseudonyms for members of The Weavers. Ehrlich was a pseudonym for Lee Hays, Six was a pseudonym for Fred Hellerman, and Lazar was a pseudonym for Pete Seeger.
On February 22, 1958, The Weavers performed the song with the title “Done Laid Around” live at Carnegie Hall (appearing on their album Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall).
But it would take another singer to make it a massive hit.
The Hit Recording of “Gotta Travel On”
Billy Grammer — who was born on August 28, 1925 — took “Gotta Travel On” to near the top of both the pop and country charts in 1959.
After the success of the song, Grammer became a regular member on the Grand Ole Opry. Regarding his recording career, Grammer is largely known for “Gotta Travel On,” his one big hit. But he had an interesting life.
Billy Grammer’s Life
In 1963, Grammer also was the first to chart with the “I Wanna Go Home.” The song later was a much bigger hit as “Detroit City” for Bobby Bare. Below is Grammer’s version.
In the 1960s, Grammer formed a guitar company, RG&G Company, which after a sale was renamed Grammer Guitar, Inc. Today, many collectors and musicians seek out Grammer guitars. The first one made is on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Grammer was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.
Finally, Grammer and his band, “The Travel On Boys,” attended an infamous event in American history. They performed at the rally in Laurel, Maryland where Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and paralyzed on May 15, 1972.
Grammer, who became blind in later life, passed away on August 10, 2011, after a long-term illness and an earlier heart attack. He was 85.
Although Grammer was not in the news toward the end of his life, many still remembered his work. The Grand Ole Opry honored Grammer for his 50 years of membership in February 27, 2009. He was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.
In this video from later in life with Grammer’s wife Ruth, Grammer tells the story behind another song of his and plays, “I’m Letting You Go, Goodbye.”
And that is the story behind the song.
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