Haunted Road Blues


Clarence Ashley

from notes to “Oh  My Little Darling,” (New World Records)

The word “blues” is believed to stem from the Elizabethan “blue devils,” and English-language culture owns a long heritage of lament and melancholy. The “graveyard” poetry of William Collins in the 1750s explored despair and near-morbid introspection as means of poetic creation. From Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of the nineteenth century stems a literary tradition of confronting the void that at one level of culture yields Poe’s gloomy stories and poems and at another popular nineteenth-century songs, both religious and secular, that look despair and death unflinchingly in the eye. The Protestant hymn “O Lovely Appearance of Death,” for example, yields a chill worthy of Poe’s most spine-tingling stories.


One of the finest white blues singers, the Kentucky coal miner Dock Boggs, spoke of his melancholy “graveyard songs” and of a mood he called “getting in the graveyard” that becomes indistinguishable from “having the blues,” demonstrating a link between Afro- American and Anglo-American streams of poetry and aesthetic experience.White blues performers often tend toward the contemplation of death rather than the troubles of life that mark black blues. Clarence Ashley’s “Haunted Road Blues” combines elements of white “graveyard” and black blues traditions to exemplify the blues as a type of American song whose function is to enable the performer to emulate Trueblood, Ralph Ellison’s black sharecropper in Invisible Man, who looked upon chaos and was not destroyed.


Tom Clarence Ashley, from Mountain City, Tennessee, carried the musical heritage of his family and his community into his career as a busker performing music and comedy for carnivals, medicine shows, dances, and occasionally on street corners. Ashley needed to add to his inherited stock of music songs his audience demanded, and it is likely that his mastery of the blues dates from his travels as a busker. Along with the North Carolina harmonica virtuoso Guinn (or Gwen) Foster, Ashley recorded several examples of blues and old-time songs, of which Ralph Rinzler has said, “Here the perfect blending of voice and harmonica is unique among the varied sounds to be heard in recorded American traditional music.”

“Haunted Road Blues,”
by Tom Clarence Ashley, vocal and guitar; Gwen Foster, harmonica and guitar.
Recorded December, 1931.



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