Jack of Diamonds? Hard card to play?

I’ve been listening to a lot of folk and blues music lately.
In a number of songs, the phrase “…the Jack of Diamonds is
a hard card to play…” appears. I play a lot of cards, and I’m not aware of any game where the Jack of Diamonds would be a ‘hard card to play’. Knowing this kind of music, I imagine the phrase is meant both literally and allegorically, but I can’t fathom the meaning of each.

As a reference, the songs I’m talking about are: “Jack O’ Diamonds” - Odetta, “Whoopie Ti Yi Yo, Get Along” - Woody Guthrie, “The Coo-Coo Bird” - Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley
I’m also heard that Bob Dylan has some poetry about the Jack of Diamonds.

Please help!

Boy am I impressed that you signed up just to ask a folk music question. And you mentioned Bob Dylan.

[sub]It’s not a tear, I just got some dust in my eye, that’s all. [/sub]

There are many phrases that make their way into lots of folk songs (e.g., rubber tired buggy, rubber tired hack, two went to the graveyard but only one came back). There are many reasons for this. Most repetition is due to the origins of the songs themselves. Many folk songs were written on the spot by songsters who knew many other songs. It is likely that they borrowed phrases.

Many songs were written as they were performed (e.g., barn dance songs). Let’s say that a group is playing a 5 verse song and everybody is dancing like they’re being ridden by witches. Of course, the group does not want to stop so they make up more verses. It’s easy to borrow from other songs.

Many folk songs (especially those of Appalachian origin) are derivitaves of Child ballads or Broadside ballads. This, too, explains revisited lyrics.

As to the actual significance of the Jack of diamonds (as opposed to the five of clubs)… I’ll have to get back to you. However, some cards do have significance… Queen of Spades (forgot why), and the Deadman’s Hand (forgot which cards, but it has something to do with Wild Bill Hickock [or some other dude] holding those cards in a poker game when he was shot.[sup]1[/sup]

[sup]1[/sup] I’m sure fellow dopers will provide correct information here; them be’s smart.

The Queen of spades is the death card in the game of Hearts. Winning that card raises your score 13 points. (the object of Hearts is to have the lowest score when one player breaks 100). In the same game, the Jack of diamonds is valued at minus 10, so is a nice card to win if you can. However I can attest that it is a tough card to play, because if you are the one playing it, it’s likely that somebody else will be the one winning it. Unless you have already seen the Q, K & A of diamonds fall.

Hickock’s “dead-man’s” hand was, of course, black aces and black eights. Cecil had a column on the fifth card, in which he claimed it was the deuce of spades. We had some discussion here on that as well.

Now as to cards mentioned in songs, you have me curious.

I have the olga database lying around. I’m going to grep it for king, ace, queen, and jack and see what turns up.

The “jack of diamonds” rule isn’t universal - it’s like the minus five for no tricks rule - some people complain it prolongs the game to much. In some circles, the 10 of diamonds is the minus 10 card according to “Hoyle’s Rules of Games”.

I would think most use of cards in song lyrics is purely for the poetic imagery, and not related to a real game. Particularly if the suit is “hearts”. “Jack” is an evocative word as well. Dylan also wrote “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”.

Yeah, I thought about Hearts, too. I like the jack rule, and often play with it but I don’t think the songs could possibly refer to Hearts. I say this because there are other lyrics like “Put your jack on the queen and turn your money green”, etc. etc. that refer to betting. Not only have I never seen Hearts played for money, but it’s also not the gritty sort of game that comes to mind when I think about the old west.

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts is my favorite Bob Dylan song and I was also wondering if he intended that connection. Hard to say when I don’t even know what the Jack of Diamonds aspect refers to.

What was said about folk music is definitely true. Lyrics get used over and over (due in part, I think, to the days before recorded music). However, I still suspect it refers to something (an allegory or at least a game).


My WAG is that since the Jack is the lowest of the face cards it is hard to play because for it to win all of the other face cards have to have been played and by then someone might have run out of diamonds and use the trump. So it is a card that looks important but has little real value. Also it is a one eyed jack. It seems the metaphor is of feeling of having something but of not having enough to make a difference.

Queen of spades + Jack of diamonds is also a pinochle, curiously enough. Or maybe not - there may be some reason why these cards are picked for special notice when card games are devised, which is also reflected by their use in songs. The queen of spades seems to create more evocative imagery than the queen of clubs. In general, clubs seems to be a less “poetic” suit and gets less mention.

I’m not sure I’m going to bet on it, though.

“Ace of spades behind his ear, and him not thinking twice”

-Styx, Queen of Spades (Album: Pieces of Eight)

I’m with puddleglum on this. The significance of the Jack of Diamonds is that it’s the lowest ranked face card, and therefore a tempting but lousy bet. Like the old song says:

Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds, well I know you of old
Robbed my poor pockets of silver and gold.
If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck
I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.
But the ocean ain’t whiskey and I ain’t a duck.
I play Jack of Diamonds and trust to my luck.