SongNotes: Vinegar Man & Silver Pennies

Jamie O’Reilly
Vinegar Man
Legacy, 2023 & Jamie O’Reilly & Friends, 2009

Edgewood Road

There was a rule in our house, though a ramshackle place with
children running in and out the doors, and broken window panes:
“Take care with the books”, my mother taught us.
We knew to not scribble on the pages or leave them piled on the floor.
(Notes on Silver Pennies)

Legacy album, back cover, Nia O’Reilly-Amandes, 2023
Listen to Version 2, Jamie sings Vinegar Man, with John  Erickson, piano

With Christopher O’Reilly, Victor Holstein, Judi Heikes on chorus
Recorded live at WFMT Folkstage, Legacy album 

Silver Pennies

Silver Pennies, a Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson, was gifted to us from our Aunt Dottie. Published in 1925, and illustrated in black and white by Winifred Bromhall, Silver Pennies was often my mom’s choice of for our bedtime reading.

The Potatoes Dance poem by Vachel Lindsay

I was enchanted by the little book. I poured over pictures of elves and fairies, read classic poems of the era, like Vachel Lindsay’s The Potatoes Dance, The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cookie, Oliver Herford’s The Elf and the Doormouse, and Joyce Kilmer’s The House with Nobody in It.

“I cannot see fairies, I dream them.”

In the late 80s, Tom Amandes set The Vinegar Man poem to music for our band Jamie O’Reilly & the Rogues. In 2009, as a gift to Tom, we recorded the song with me singing lead, and my sisters Beth Ann, Kate and Bridget singing harmony, along with my daughter Meg Broz.

Aunt Dottie with Jamie and her sisters

With our sister Beth Ann’s painful passing from cancer in 2019, and the loss of my musical partner Michael Smith in 2020 during the pandemic, I started thinking of the things we leave behind. Of their sentiment and meaning. The unique and tragic reality of the Covid deaths meant many people had no time to prepare for end of life, or to organize treasured things for their loved ones to sift through. In time, locked down at home, we had no choice but to take stock of our “things” – surrounded by the lives we had lived. The books we’d read. The art on the walls. Shelves cluttered with ephemera and photographs. Closets and dresser drawers bulging with clothing we’d long ago stopped wearing.

Our copy

“If you die tomorrow,” I asked myself. “What will your children and grandchildren learn about you?”

And so I launched what became the Legacy project – looking back at the roots of artistry in my family of origin, reacquainting myself with the writings, objects, stories and songs. I began the SongNotes Blog.

I was reminded of the Vinegar Man song. Tom Amandes’ musical setting of Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s compelling poem from Silver Pennies. The story of a recluse who was subjected to the taunts of neighborhood children – “face us and chase us, catch if you can,” and whose personal love story was revealed after his death, as strangers rifled through the objects he left behind. Objects that told the story of acute loneliness and a broken heart.

The Vinegar Man song is part of most concerts now, as I tell the story and talk with audiences about considering what we will leave behind.

Jamie O’Reilly & Friends sing Vinegar Man

Jamie O’Reilly & Friends, cover Illustration by Meg Broz, 2009

Vocals with Beth Ann, Kate, Bridget & Meg Broz
Peter Swenson, Paul Amandes, guitars; Josh Lava, piano; Stuart Rosenberg, mandolin; John Floeter, double bass. Recorded at S. P. A. C. E. studio 2009, Jamie O’Reilly & Friends album

Version 1. Jamie sings Tom Amandes’ Vinegar Man

Vinegar Man lyrics
The crazy old vinegar man is dead
He never has missed a day before
Somebody went to the tumble down shed
By the haunted house and forced the door
And there in the middle of his pungent pans
The murky mess of his mixing place
Deep sticky spiders and empty cans
And the same old frown on his sour old face

Ch 1.
Vinegar, vinegar, vinegar man
Face us and chase us and catch if you can
Pepper for a tongue Pickle for a nose
Stick a pin in him and vinegar flows
Glare at us. Swear at us. Catch if you can.
Ketchup and chow-chow and vinegar man

Vs 2.
Nothin but recipes and worthless junk
Greasy old ledgers of paid and due
And down in the depths of his battered old trunk
A queer, quaint valentine torn in two
Red hearts and arrows and silver lace
And a prim, dim ladylike script that read:
To Vinegar Man with the sour old face
With dearest love, from Ellen to Ned

Ch 2
Steal us and peel us and drown us in brine
He pickled his heart in a Valentine
Vinegar for blood Pepper for a tongue
Stick a pin in him and once he was young
Glare at us. Swear at us. Catch if you can
With dearest love, to the Vinegar man.

Vs 3.
Dingy little books of profit and loss
Died about Saturday, so they say
And a queer, quaint valentine
Torn across. Torn but it never was thrown away
With dearest love, from Ellen to Ned
Old Pepper tongue pickled his heart in brine
The Vinegar man is a long time dead
He died when he tore up his valentine

Ch 3) Vinegar, vinegar, vinegar man
Face us and chase us and catch if you can
Pepper for a tongue Pickle for a nose
Stick a pin in him and vinegar flows
Glare at us. Swear at us. Catch if you can.
Ketchup and chow-chow and vinegar man

Copyright Jamie O’Reilly 2023
Photo on Legacy album by Monica Rogers