Little Sadie

imagesby Lyle Lofgren

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 2002)

Outlaw as Folk Hero is an old theme in the Anglo-American tradition, probably dating from before the Robin Hood stories. America developed a second idea, that of Outlaw as Psychopath, a truly Bad Man. Stagolee and John Hardy come to mind, as well as Lee Brown, the narrator of today’s story.

Versions of this song were found throughout the south, particularly in Appalachia and the Ozarks. The tunes vary, but the story is remarkably stable. Lee Brown shoots his woman, runs away, is caught, tried, and gets a long sentence. He has no remorse, other than that he is jailed. One writer says this song was very popular as early as 1885, but I couldn’t find the source of that claim.

There are lots of towns in America with the names given in the song, but Thomasville and Jericho, North Carolina are only 60 miles apart, which make them prime candidates for locale. There’s no reason to believe this song is literal history, though. A cursory search shows no information on a real Lee Brown, or any evidence that the song describes an actual murder.

Clarence Ashley, from East Tennessee, recorded his version in 1928, but a later recording is on Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF40029/30, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962. Ashley tuned his banjo to gDGCD (5th to 1st), sometimes called “mountain modal” tuning. He called it “sawmill tuning,” perhaps because the unfinished sound of the resulting open-string chord sounds like a large circular saw cutting through a log.

Classical European music concentrated on major and minor scales, because they were amenable to easy harmonies when used with orchestral instruments. Other scales, generically called “modal,” which were on an equal footing with the classical scales in early music (such as Gregorian chants), survived in the remote mountains of America.


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