Archive for the ‘songs’ Category

Greenwood Sidey

March 23, 2015

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excerpt from interview of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle by Mason Adams (

Elizabeth:  The Greenwood Sidey is in the Child Ballads collection, from the big book of versions from England and Scotland published in the 19th century. In that book, which is sort of canonical, it’s known as “The Cruel Mother.” It’s very dark, one of the darkest songs that I know.

It’s obviously one of the more difficult-to-contemplate crimes, even today. I think the refrain is really poignant and illuminating, that’s she’s all alone and lonely in this situation. You know, there’s no one else: the father of these kids is not even mentioned.

It’s really kind of spooky imagining a woman who has just given birth to two new people, but she’s still alone and is making sure she’s going to remain that way, and I think she’s really haunted by that decision. Even when she gets to talk to those people, they’re imaginary. They’re ghosts, they’re not quite there, so she’s alone throughout.
Anna: It’s a horror story, but in some ways it can feel like a very feminist story. I remember I was learning that song and then watched this movie about the Magdalene Laundries, where people who had babies out of wedlock were shunned by their families and sent to be almost captives in these nunneries.

It went on until the 70s in Ireland. It made sense to me, that there was some sort of weird strength in this cruel mother character. She would escape society because there’s so much shame on her being pregnant out of wedlock. Somehow the forces outside the forest lead her into the forest to do this awful deed.

That’s really intriguing. I don’t know if I totally agree with that reading, but it is one interpretation. Another reading is that she’s totally crazy. I’d be curious to go back in time and interview ballad singers about what they thought about the song: ‘What do you think about the woman? is she a sinful woman and this is a lesson? Do you sympathize with her or not?’

A collection of 16 traditional songs thoughtfully gathered and interpreted, Anna & Elizabeth’s new, self-titled album (via Free Dirt Records) guides listeners through the duo’s intense personal connection with each song, for a warm and intimate experience. With minimal guests and arrangements, the focus remains on the rich and subtle interplay between Anna & Elizabeth’s own harmonies and instrumentation. Fiddle and banjo lines intertwine in an age-old dance, and Elizabeth’s powerful vocals are matched by Anna’s softer timbre in their remarkably rich harmonizing.

        Devon Léger


March 21, 2015

Manfila “Dabadou” Kanté was the lead singer of Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, from Guinea, and appears on all of their early Syliphone recordings.  He is not the same guitarist as Kante Manfila of Les Ambassadeurs.  This video is from the early 1990s.

“Toubaka” is a  West African love song of the Malinké people, traditionally played on the kora (harp) or balafon (marimba).

Radio Africa offers a large selection of Guinean music, including many more videos of Manfila “Dabadou” Kante.

View video here.


Touba ka literally means “a man from Touba”. He is the symbol of trust and he loves to travel. Anytime he arrives in a village it is an occasion to celebrate. But the village members are also eager to know when the Touba Ka will leave so that they can give him messages to bring to family members living far away.

“Toubaka stands apart from the bulk of the jeli’s (griot’s) repertory not only because it is a love song, but also because of its extended harmonic scheme of four chords that unfold over a relatively long stretch of time. It probably originated in Upper Guinea, perhaps from Kankan, on the guitar or accordion in the 1930s if not earlier. It is a favorite of guitarists from Upper Guinea, who excel in playing it.

Some verses of “Toubaka”:

The oldest word Is undoubtedly the word “love”, Forgive me, my beloved one, If I have hurt you.

I am coming to you, my beloved one. Not in order for you to give me anything, I am coming to you, my beloved one, Simply because I love you.

And may you know, o my beloved one, That the first characteristic Of nobility Is the respect for one’s pledge.

And since people are not all alike Do not rank me, o my love, With those who deny their promises.

Tou left. Oh, the Toubaka, living in Touba, Tou left.

Tou, I pray thee, I beg you, Take my letters to my children and parent.

Do everything to see me again. Do not go without me.

In the Pines

March 18, 2015


excerpt from Shaleane Gee (

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me —
Tell me where did you sleep last night?

As Norm Cohen notes in Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, the most frequently found elements in “In the Pines” are a verse about a long train, and a line or two about a decapitation. Sometimes there is an accident, sometimes not. Sometimes the accident involves a train, sometimes not.

Sometimes the pines become the central image, in various versions representing solace, pain, innocence, shame, life, death, taboo sex, or pious abstinence. Sometimes a specific crime is identified and the train serves as avenging angel, swooping down to decapitate the sinner. Sometimes the interrogator shifts from first to second or third person. Almost all versions do include some sort of interrogation, and the person being interrogated is always a woman.

That the dialogue takes the form of an interrogation, and begins by assuming a lie, suggests that something sinister as well as violent has happened here. But what? The dialogue hardly explains. The overall effect is one of stumbling onto haunted ground, or a crime scene, or both. Writing in the hefty Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, Alan Palmer puts it this way:

What was the girl doing in the pines? What’s the connection between her being in the pines and the death of her husband? The listener can either safely or tentatively attribute certain states of mind to the narrator (anxiety, possessiveness) and the girl (fear) and can guess at others (guilt)…Is she shivering in the pines because of the death of her husband?

If so, what is the nature of this causation? Is there some element of guilt involved on the part of the woman? It seems unlikely that she was in any way responsible for his death from a train crash, so the most satisfying explanation is that her sense of guilt arises from her being unfaithful to her husband, presumably with the narrator, at the time of his death. In turn, his anxiety may arise from his awareness of the depth of her feelings of guilt and his concern that she may harm herself.

After all, there’s not necessarily a train crash in this song — who is to say that the woman didn’t push her husband onto the tracks? Perhaps in self defense, or just to get rid of him? Perhaps she’s on the lam, literally or metaphorically or both, hiding out in a forest as well as in a spiritual wilderness.

If she is guilty, perhaps she is remorseful, but maybe she is defiant. Perhaps her husband was the adulterer. Perhaps she is a liar, even a murderer. Perhaps the narrator is a man of the law trying to find that out, or a man of God trying to do the same. Perhaps the interrogator is her husband, back from the dead to haunt her and get his ghostly revenge.

If you are a fan of mysteries and thrillers, then you are familiar with the moment when the detectives enter the suspect’s room.  Listening to “In the Pines” is a bit like peering into that room and lifting your foot to step across the threshold. You know you’ve found what you’ve been looking for, but you also know that you haven’t yet come close to knowing just what it is.

Hills of Mexico

January 18, 2015


Selling buffalo hides was for a short time a very lucrative business in the western frontier and countless hunters set out to get a slice of that cake. “Hills of Mexico”(or “Buffalo Skinners”) tells the adventurous story of a hunting party and their troubles. In the end the boss wants to deny his men their pay, so they kill him and leave his “bones to bleach on the range of the buffalo”.

“Buffalo Skinners” was first published by “Jack” Thorp in his Songs of the Cowboys (1908, as “Buffalo Range”, pp. 31-33).

N. Howard “Jack” Thorp (1867-1940) was originally from New York City but as a boy he used to spend the summers on a ranch in Nebraska. Later he moved to New Mexico to become a cowboy and he began learning their songs. In fact he soon was “a singing cowboy who carried his banjo-mandolin with him as he rode from cow camp to cow camp”. He started collecting songs in 1889. “His fifteen-hundred-mile horseback journey through New Mexico and Texas in 1889-90 was the first ballad-hunting adventure in the cowboy domain”. The first edition with 23 texts was privately published and only 1000 copies were printed.

Thorp’s book was the very first collection of cowboy songs and he was a pioneer in that field. But his efforts were quickly overshadowed by John A. Lomax from Texas whose Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads was published in 1910 and became much more influential, in fact it turned out to be the first stepping-stone towards that massive empire of Folk song he and later his son Alan were to erect in the following decades.

Lomax – at that time a professor for English at Texas A & M – had been interested in “frontier songs” for quite a long time.  He sent a circular to local newspapers and teachers and asked for songs. Most of what was included in Cowboy Songs was received from these kind of sources and there was not much real fieldwork. Some texts were even cribbed from Thorp’s book.

Nonetheless he managed to publish 112 songs, among them many that would become classics of that genre, for example “Home On The Range”, “Whopee-Ti-Yi-Yo, Git Along Little Dogies”, “The Old Chisholm Trail”, “Sweet Betsy From The Pike”, “Jesse James”, “The Days Of Forty-Nine”. “In canonizing cowboy songs instead of ancient ballads, Lomax changed the face of the folk, replacing the sturdy British peasant with the mythical western cowboy”

Gallow’s Pole

January 11, 2015

edited from Stephen Winick (Folklife Center News, vol. 33, #1-2):

The first song on side 2 of “Led Zeppelin III”, “Gallows Pole,” began with acoustic twelve-string guitar, banjo, and mandolin, instrumentation the band had never used before in such a stark, acoustic man­ner. The song did eventually employ electric guitar, bass, and drums, and approximate Led Zeppelin’s hard-driving approach to other material, but the arrangement built up to that gradually during the course of the song.

The lyrics, meanwhile, told a strange story in which the narrator, apparently a man about to be hanged, implores a hangman to “hold it a little while” until various family members arrive to save him. The narrator’s brother arrives with gold and silver to pay off the hangman.

Then his sister arrives, and the narrator implores her to lead the hangman to “some shady bower.” She does so, and “warms [the hangman’s] blood from cold,” whereupon the narrator asks to be set free. Instead, the Hangman replies, “Your brother brought me silver, your sister warmed my soul/ But now I laugh and pull so hard, see you swinging from the Gallows Pole.”

Few of Led Zeppelin’s fans would recognize this song as a version of the ancient ballad “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” which is number 95 in the clas­sic collection published in the late nineteenth century by Francis James Child. Indeed, Led Zep­pelin’s plot is quite different from most versions of this ballad. In most, each family member fails to arrive with gold or silver, until the narrator’s sweetheart arrives to save  the day. So where did they find this unusual song, and how did they adapt it?

Led Zeppelin’s ultimate source was Lead Belly. But according to lead guitarist Jimmy Page (quoted in Keith Shadwick’s 2005 book Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music), they originally heard the song from a California folksinger named Fred Gerlach, who adapted Lead Belly’s version for his 1962 Folkways LP Twelve-String Gui­tar: Folk Songs and Blues Sung and Played by Fred Gerlach.  Gerlach probably heard the commercial recording made by Lead Belly in 1939 for Musicraft, a small New York City record label; no other recording of Lead Belly singing this song was published prior to 1962.

According to Page, Led Zeppelin started with the Gerlach version. Robert Plant rewrote the verses to include the sister’s seduction of the hangman, the hangman’s betrayal, and the death of the narrator. Page and the other band members added the folk-rock arrangement. Because Page and John Paul Jones each overdubbed several instruments into the arrangement, Page alone playing six-string and twelve-string acoustic guitars, electric guitar, and banjo, the band was un­able to reproduce the arrangement live. They therefore played the song only a few times in concert, but it has lived on as a classic album track.

Home Sweet Home

October 27, 2014



Home Sweet Home 

This song comes from the opera, Clari or The Maid of Milan, which opened in London on May 8, 1823. The music was composed by Henry Bishop and the lyrics by John Howard Payne.

On the eve of the Battle of Murfreesboro/Stones River, the Federal and Confederate bands serenaded the troops. Each band strove to outdo the other. As remembered by Sam Seay of the 1st Tenn.: “Finally one of them struck up Home Sweet Home. As if by common consent all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies, as far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain.”

The soldiers of both sides lifted their voices and joined the bands. Some began to shed a tear as their thoughts turned to home. In a similar situation, a few weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, as the combatants encamped on opposite banks of the Rappahannock River, both Union and Confederate military bands took turns serenading the armies.

The impromptu concert ended when a Federal band struck up Home Sweet Home and thousands of Northerners and Southerners pondered if they would see their homes again. When the Federal band ended a Confederate band repeated the tune. Then one regimental band after the other in both armies joined in. Some soldiers began to sing the lyrics.

Leander Cogswell of the 11th New Hampshire wrote, “As the sweet sounds arose and fell on the evening air all listened intently, and I do not believe there was a dry eye in all those assembled thousands.” Confederate Joseph Brown pondered how “Men who faced each other but a few weeks ago in one of the bloodiest battles of the world could unite on a mere suggestion of a song.”

No More Cane on the Brazos

August 24, 2014

A 1902 political cartoon depicts an attempt by Cuban farmers to export sugar cane to the United States via a reciprocity agreement, rebuffed by tariff-wielding sugar growers. Though the gate to reciprocity is blocked, the doors to annexation swing open, and Puerto Rico, symbolized on the far right, has entered through them. / Udo J. Keppler, Library of Congress.

Excerpt from Ground Down to Molasses: The Making of an American Folk Song by David Byrne (

The Brazos River flows from Texas’s northern tier, at the confluence of the Salt Fork and Double Mountain Fork. It then flows south for 840 miles through east central Texas before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The story of “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” is a tale of confluence as well, with a mystifying series of tributaries. As it mutates, the song can be located at certain way stations, but the origin of “Ain’t No More Cane” is a grand vanishing act.

Here it is, 1933, almost 200 years to the day since the Molasses Act was passed. John and Alan Lomax are lugging their 315-pound disk recorder around Texas, talking their way onto prison plantations and making the first recordings of Texas work songs. The earliest known performance of “Ain’t No More Cane” is attributed to a group of prisoners at Central Unit on the Brazos—Ernest Williams, Iron Head Baker, and anonymous “others.”

But it ain’t no more cane on the Brazos
yeah yeah yeah
they done grind it all in molasses
oh, oh, oh.

This is generally regarded as the lyrical model for the versions to come, but it cannot be considered by itself. Another work gang singing the song “Go Down, Old Hannah” complicates things. There is no Brazos in it, but it is essential to understanding later renditions of “Ain’t No More Cane.”

As Alan Lomax wrote eloquently, “Go Down, Old Hannah” is strident and apocalyptic, a choral fury aimed upward at the unrelenting Texas sun—old Hannah—and downward at the circumstances that could trap a man in the hell of Brazoria County. You could force yourself to cut cane all day under the spell of this terrifying song. You could sing it, too, while driving a rusted stake into your oppressor’s heart. Here are the opening lyrics, with the choral phrases emphasized:

old Hannah / well, well, well / you’re turning red / you’re turning red / well I looked at old Hannah / it was turning red / well I looked at my partner / well, well, well / he was almost dead / he was almost dead.

Scores of online folklorists and living-room strummers attribute “Ain’t No More Cane” to Huddie Ledbetter—one gentleman sings a jumped-up version at Ledbetter’s gravesite—but Ledbetter never recorded it. What he did record was “Go Down, Old Hannah.” Ledbetter is associated more closely with Louisiana’s Angola prison, but he had also done time at Central State, the same Brazos prison farm where Iron Head Baker and Ernest Williams were locked up. He starts his version with the usual invocation of the sun:

Don’t you rise no more / and if you rise in the morning / bring judgment sure / it was soon one morning / when the sun did rise / and I was thinking ’bout my good-looking baby / I would hang my head and cry / go down old Hannah / please don’t rise no more / and if you do rise in the morning / set the world on fire.

Ledbetter is well into the song before the Brazos, unnamed, appears: “If you had been on the river / somewhere in 1910 / they was driving the woman / just as hard as they do the men.”

When Ledbetter is finished singing, the recording continues. Someone, I presume it is John Lomax, says to Ledbetter: “First time I ever heard you sing that many verses.” And Ledbetter replies, “Well, you can just put, you know, just make ’em right on up, you know.”

We should run from the notion of seminal documents in such settings. What we can say is that one recording introduces the disappearance of cane from the Brazos, one song laments the sun, one song laments the sun on the Brazos, and another introduces the Brazos in a lament of the sun. None of these recordings comes close to the original: they just happened to be what was voiced on particular days by particular men when happenstance arrived with a recording machine. Before that, and forever after, Old Rattler is shit out of luck: the trail is too old.

The origins of the specific words disappear along with the songs. Lomax continues the conversation with Ledbetter:

‘Old Hannah is the sun?’

‘Yeah, they call it Old Hannah ’cause it was hot, they just give it a name. . . . Boys talking about Old Hannah. I kept looking and I didn’t see no Hannah . . . but they looked up, said, that’s the sun, that’s all.’

The ancestors of slaves might have known where the name came from. In Hausa, a language widely spoken in areas of West Africa where the slave trade was common, the word for “sun” is “raanaa.”

That African music and oral tradition shaped this music is a truism. It is possible, though, that the language along the Brazos during these years maintained especially close ties to its African roots when compared to what was spoken in areas of the American South that had complied with restrictions on the slave trade.


Viola Lee Blues

August 10, 2014


Some thoughts on Noah Lewis’ song “Viola Lee Blues” by Fritz Richmond (
Noah  Lewis recorded “Viola Lee Blues” with his band in September 1928. He also recorded it with Gus Cannon’s band. It is one of the most beautiful of all the old jug band songs.
“The judge he pleaded, clerk he wrote it

Clerk he wrote it down indeedy

The judge he pleaded, the clerk he wrote it down

If you miss jail sentence you must be Nashville bound.”
In an American court the judge does not plead, the lawyers plead, and the court reporter writes everything down in shorthand with a steno machine. (Shorthand is a method of writing English as fast as a person can speak. It can be done either with paper and pencil or a machine.) The clerk has other duties in the courtroom. “Indeedy” is a way of saying “indeed” with extra emphasis.

At the end of a trial, if there is a jury, the jury will decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant. If there is no jury, the judge decides. The defendant, if found guilty, will then be sentenced by the judge. Depending on the type of case, the judge can issue a decree, an opinion, an order, or a ruling. In the verse here, maybe what Gus meant was: “The judge decreed it.” It sounds very similar to “The judge he pleaded” and makes better sense.

The last line, about going to Nashville, is the key to a sad episode in American justice. Black men arrested in the southern U.S. were sometimes not sentenced to jail for crimes, but were sent to places where they had to work very hard, such as turpentine camps and sugar cane farms. Turpentine is a solvent refined from pine trees. The workers were virtual slaves. It was a very bad thing to get sent there. The men were sent to Nashville to be taken to the work camps. I don’t think this happens any more.
“Some got six months, some got one solid

Some got one solid year indeed, Lord

Some got six months, some got one solid year

But me and my buddy both got lifetime here.”
To say “one solid year” sounds like a longer time than “a year.” He’s bragging that he and his friend are such bad men that they’ll be in prison for the rest of their lives, which is impressive, but not true. These guys were not criminals.
“Fix my supper, Mama, let me go to

Let me go to bed indeed, Lord

Fix my supper, let me go to bed

I been drinking white lightning, it’s gone to my head.”



White lightning is any sort of illegal liquor, especially corn whiskey. Manufacture of alcohol was illegal when this song was written, but every big city had its secret breweries and distilleries. However, the quality varied widely, as did the alcohol content of any white lightning one might find for sale.

When alcohol again became legal in 1933, most of the country rejoiced, but several factors kept some areas dry; that is, without legal alcohol. The constitutional amendment repealing prohibition gave the states complete power to regulate the manufacture, distribution, and sale of liquor. At the same time there was a nation-wide religious revival, spread by radio broadcasts and traveling tent shows, which was particularly popular in the South. These religious zealots and their followers were very critical of what they called “the evils of alcohol.”

This continuing climate of anti-alcohol was very favorable to the local bootleggers (sellers of illegal liquor) and moonshiners (operators of illegal distilleries) who were doing good business in the Great Depression and had money to influence local elections about liquor laws. They wanted to continue operating and did so. When I lived in Alabama in 1959, I was in a dry county. In order to get any booze, I had either to drive to the nearest wet county or buy moonshine or smuggled liquor.
“I wrote a letter, I mailed it in the

I mailed it in the air indeedy

I wrote a letter, I mailed it in the air

You know by that I have a friend somewhere.”
This is the most beautiful verse of the song. It is only on Noah Lewis’ version. How simple, how poignant it is. We know he has a friend, a very special friend, somewhere far away. Airmail was a new thing in 1928; it had only been available for a year or so before the song was recorded, and it was a big deal. It cost over ten times as much to send a letter by air than it cost to send it by regular mail. We also know from this verse that the man can write a letter. Not all blacks in the U.S. got much schooling in those days. He’s bragging again. He says: not only can I compose a letter, but I can spare the money that would buy lunch and dinner just to send it by airmail, and I know someone in a distant city who’ll be glad to hear from me.

John the Revelator

July 27, 2014



Maybe the greatest “guitar evangelist” of all time, Blind Willie Johnson remains quite a mysterious figure, with only a few biographical hints to help us understand his life and his music.Like many blind african-american in the 1920′s and 1930′s, music was one way to scratch a living, singing on street corners and maybe, if you had a special talent and a little luck, on a recording studio for a phonograph company. In fact, we can find many examples of Blues guitar players from this era who were blind, played on the streets and had many religious songs in their repertoire: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and Reverend Gary Davis being the most well known.

We don’t know if Blind Willie Johnson played secular songs as well, as all of his 30 recordings are religious pieces and even if his records sold well during his time, he had to rely on busking throughout all of his life to make a living. As a performer, he remains one of the most intense singer and guitar player ever recorded, influencing many others during his lifetime and ever since. His superb slide guitar playing and his powerful harsh voice are the most distinctive elements of his musicianship but he could also play some intricate guitar bass runs and sing with a warm tenor on some sides.

Son Lynch and Mara Eagle sing Blind Willie Johnson’s  “John the Revelator.”

The State of Arkansas

July 22, 2014



“The State of Arkansaw”

The ballad, or narrative folksong, usually titled “The State of Arkansaw” has been a principal exhibit in Arkansas’s recurrent laments about its disreputable image. It is a clear example of the expressive culture of the late nineteenth century that depicted Arkansas pejoratively.

The story, which the ballad relates in first person, has its protagonist—known by several names, including “Sanford Barnes” and “John Johanna”—leave his home, most frequently “Buffalo town” or “Nobleville town,” to seek employment. He hears of job opportunities in Arkansas, sets out by railway, and arrives in an Arkansas community, variously identified as Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Van Buren (Crawford County), Little Rock (Pulaski County), or Hot Springs (Garland County).

There he meets a “walking skeleton” who conducts the narrator to the state’s finest hotel. One night in these accommodations convinces him to leave Arkansas immediately. His host, though, persuades him to take a job draining some land. Several weeks of hard labor in an ague-producing climate subsisting on the poorest rations (“corndodgers” and “sassafras tea”) have the narrator claiming, “I never knew what misery was till I came to Arkansas,” a refrain for several of the ballad’s stanzas. In some versions, he prefers marriage to a “squaw” in Indian Territory to life in Arkansas.

The earliest printed text of this song may be that which E. C. Perrow published in Journal of American Folklore in 1913. The earliest sound recording is probably the one by Kelly Harrell and the Virginia String Band, done in a studio in Camden, New Jersey, in 1927. One of Vance Randolph’s Ozark consultants, however, suggested that he knew the song from the 1890s.

Writing in Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Robert Morris proposed an earlier origin date, in the 1870s. Several commentators, including Library of Congress folksong researcher Alan Lomax, hypothesized that the song was of Irish-American origin. It does bear some resemblance to “The Spalpeen’s Complaint to the Cranbally Farmer,” which Patrick Weston Joyce published in 1909. Ballad scholar D. K. Wilgus reported a text of the song from Ireland and proposed that it had originated there and was imported to the United States in the late nineteenth century.

When G. Malcolm Laws created his catalogue of what he called “native American ballads,” he included “The State of Arkansaw” as the first entry in his chapter “Ballads on Various Topics.” He also contributed to some confusion about the song by titling it “The Arkansas Traveler.” Though it has been reported under that name—along with “The Arkansas Navvy,” “A Hobo in Arkansas,” and “The Arkansas Emigrant,” among others—“The State of Arkansaw” has no connection with the skit and fiddle tune to which Laws’s title usually refers. It more likely derives from the tradition of complaint songs popular in the nineteenth century, which responded to the failure of westward migration to meet media-generated expectations. “The State of Arkansaw” joins “Michigan-I-O,” “The Dreary Black Hills,” “Nebraska Land,” and “The Lane County Bachelor” in a category of “folk dystopias,” hyperbolic descriptions of frontier disappointments.

Down South Blues, pt. 1

July 10, 2014
Clara Smith

Clara Smith

excerpt from “The Three Doc(k)s: White Blues in Appalachia,” by William E. Lightfoot:
When Dock Boggs was a small boy, he became fascinated with the music of a black man named “Go Lightening” (probably “Golightly”), who would walk along railroad tracks playing his guitar. Young Boggs would follow the man and beg him to play: “and I’d follow him … a lot of times to get to hear him play two, three, four pieces and I a lot of times heard him play ‘John Henry’ and I learnt it partly, learnt some of the words from him”.   This experience may have been Boggs’ first exposure to the open-tuned slide guitar style, the way in which “John Henry” is usually played; he would have been unable to apply the style to his music, however, because a slide implement does not work very well on a banjo.
Boggs did, however, learn his finger-picking banjo style from an African-American man. When he was twelve years old and already working full-time in the mines around Norton, Boggs attended a dance in Dorchester, a mostly black coal town. The all-black band consisted of a fiddler, a guitarist, a mandolin player, and most striking to young Boggs, a banjoist. Dock was much impressed with the banjoist’s finger-style technique: “I heard this fellow play the banjo …    [and] I said to myself, I want to learn how to play the banjo kinda like that fellow does. I don’t want to play like my sister and brother [who frailed in the old “clawhammer” or”knockdown” style]. I am gonna learn just how to pick with my fingers.”
What developed from this experience was Boggs’ personalized banjo style, which combined the minstrel thumb-lead clawhammer technique with up-picking: his thumb thumped melody notes down on the lower strings while his fingers sounded both melody and accompanying notes on the two upper ones, his index finger on the second string and his middle finger on the first, with both picking up. Although her fingers were doing different work (i.e., brushing down and up), it was this basic thumb-lead style that young Maybelle Addington was applying to her Stella guitar some twenty miles southeast of Norton in Nickelsville, Virginia.
Three of the four songs Boggs recorded that came close to the blues were learned from records made by African-American women. His best-known effort is “Down South Blues,” which he remembered hearing in the early 1920s and which featured a black woman vocalist with piano accompaniment. Alberta Hunter recorded the song twice in May 1923, once with Joe Smith on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano and once with Henderson only.
But Hunter could not have been Boggs’ source; although the melody is similar, her lyrics differ radically from
Boggs’. Tony Russell  believes that the singer was Clara Smith.
In Dock Boggs’ 1927 recording of “Down South Blues”he  punches out each note, both vocally and instrumentally, in an aggressive staccato attack. He clips off his words abruptly rather than playing around with them. Moreover, as Seeger points out, Boggs turns the “three-cornered” blues of the women into two-line stan- zas, about six bars each. He also rushes impatiently from line to line, cutting measures short, precluding any kind of call-and-response activity.
Boggs seems to want to get through the song as quickly as possible; the tempo hovers around 114 bpm, and the performance is intense. The most unsettling feature of Boggs’ blues, however, is the singer’s sense of time, which gets derailed right from the beginning and never gets back on track. Unlike the many blues and jazz musicians who play with meter like they play with melody notes, lagging a little here, anticipating there, or playing against the beat (e.g., three against two), Boggs plays apart from the beat as though it has no relevance in his song.
There is a huge difference between the controlled polyrhythms of black blues players and Boggs’ out-of-time music. These differences are due not so much to the latter’s misreading of the women’s performances as to a less-than-com- plete reading; certain important elements of the blues that Boggs heard simply did not register solidly in his consciousness. Boggs’ so-called receptive competence for African-American music, in other words, was compromised by culturally determined factors over which he had no control.
While he sang the song’s bluesy lyrics (which make little sense from a man’s perspective) and threw in a few scattered flatted thirds, Boggs clearly did not understand the blues that he had heard sung. On the other hand, Smith and Henderson would perhaps not have absorbed fully the grainy power and mystery and edginess of some of Boggs’ most artful songs, such as “Sugar Baby,” “Pretty Polly,” “Oh, Death,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Prayer of a Miner’s Child.”

Old Dan Tucker

June 7, 2014


from 100 Great Records Of The 1920s (
1843 is as good as any year for the invention of rock & roll, and better than some. That was the year that the Virginia Minstrels — Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower — gave their first performance on a stage in Brooklyn. Their instruments were the tambourine, the fiddle, the banjo, and the “bones” — three percussion instruments and the most expressive string instrument of the era, and contemporary descriptions of the physical frenzy they got into when they played their dirty-ass, low-class, irremediably vulgar, black-imitating (but filtered through a youthful, ignorant white sensibility) music sound like nothing else this side of the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols.

They sang “Old Dan Tucker” that night — Emmett claimed he wrote it, but nobody knows for sure — and they were a sensation. They were barely together for a year before falling out and each setting up their own minstrel troupes, consolidating the form that would dominate American entertainment for the next sixty years or so, but they were the first musical act to forge the link between mass popularity, socially threatening content, and an exciting new vernacular kind of music that has been the dominant ethos of American popular music ever since, from ragtime to jazz to swing to rock to hip-hop and whatever grown-up people are busy hating today.

Dave Macon was born only thirty years after the Virginia Minstrels played their last concert; he was fifty before he got into the entertainment business full-time in 1918, and was as conversant with the widespread forms and traditions of oral entertainment as a curious, sociable man who grew up in a well-liked inn and later owned a hauling business in the Appalachian heartland could be. This record, one of the first he laid down in a recording, radio, and screen career that lasted into the years when rock & roll is usually considered to have been invented, has him playing a chorus of folk song “Casey Jones” before he gets down to business on the old minstrel showcase “Old Dan Tucker.”

Listen to it carefully, and notice how naturally syncopated the tune is; the many so-called experts who say syncopation started with jazz or ragtime are talking through their unlearned asses. Then listen to how he delivers the lyric: sung-spoke, with a far greater emphasis on the rhythmic delivery of the words than on any particular melody. Folks, we’re halfway to rap and in the world of the song, Abraham Lincoln is still alive.

Uncle Dave Macon plays “Old Dan Tucker:


June 6, 2014

by Jon Pankake (from notes to “Out Standing In Their Field: NLCR 1963-1973″):

Songs of America

June 1, 2014


3b01290rDetail from Broadside of Revolutionary War period: Tea Destroyed by Indians. ca. 1773. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-53319 “Broadsides” or “song sheets” such as this were an inexpensive way to market the lyrics to songs, used extensively in the Americas beginning in the Colonial period. This example celebrates the Boston Tea Party.


Library of Congress Launches “Songs of America” Presentation

Year-long Celebration Includes Concerts, Special Events, Educational Opportunities

More than two years in the making, “Songs of America” ( brings forward 80,000 digitized, curated items including maps, recordings, videos, sheet music, essays, biographies, curator talks and more to explore America’s history through the prism of song.

The free online presentation lets visitors explore American history as documented in the work of some of our country’s greatest composers, poets, scholars and performers. Users can:

• Search by time period, location and format

• Listen to digitized recordings

• Watch performances of artists interpreting and commenting on American song

• View sheet music, manuscripts and historic copyright submissions

Over 80,000 digital items are available in the collection database along with articles, a timeline, and interactive maps. Video recordings present concerts, talks by Library of Congress curators, interviews with artists, and lectures by guest experts speaking at the Library. For added interest there are videos using photographs from the Library’s collections to illustrate individual songs, such as “God Moves on the Water,” a song about the sinking of the Titanic sung by Lightnin’ Washington and chorus and recorded by John Lomax in 1933. The presentation brings together collection items from several parts of the Library. For example, the Music Division provides sheet music, scores, and song books; the American Folklife Center provides ethnographic recordings; the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division provides published recordings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division presents song sheets from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – among other items. (See the Resource links below)

The broad range of materials presented together allows users to explore songs through American history.  Articles help to get this exploration started, and search tools are available to assist users in exploring on their own. For example the “African American Songs” article presents songs of various periods in history — popular, classical, and folk — as well as information on some of the different ethnic groups of peoples of African descent. A user can go from there to read more about “African American Gospel” or “Bahamian American Song,” read a biography of Vera Hall, view a talk by Stephen Winick about the song  “Kumbaya,” experience a concert by Reverb with songs from the Civil Rights Movement, or search the collection for more examples of the types of songs, concerts, composers, singers, and folksong collectors that interest them. (Follow this link for access to articles on various ethnic groups.)

Songs may tell stories about history, such as the ballad “Jesse James,” which presents a popular nineteenth century point of view about James as a hero. Songs may also play a part in making history, such as protest songs of the suffragist movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and songs for and against Prohibition.  The emergence of each new style of music, such as jazz, country, blues, and western and cowboy music, was an event in American history in itself, and can shed light on the social and historical changes going on at the time. Articles about various periods in American history discuss songs as both testaments to and catalysts in these periods.

Who Built the Ark?

April 20, 2014

Detail from: Design drawing for stained glass window with Old Testament figures: Noah, Abraham, and Moses for Old Mariners’ Church in Detroit, Michigan. Full catalog information is at the link.

Noah’s ark has inspired a virtual boatload of songs in the collections of the Library of Congress.  Since Noah is, after all, a Bible character, it’s only natural that most of the songs about him are spirituals expressing religion and morality. As an example, listen to the song “Who Built the Ark?” recorded by Alan Lomax from the Georgia singer Bessie Jones in 1962.

Find it at this link.

“Who Built the Ark?” teaches an important lesson, stressing Noah’s hard work and his steadfast obedience to God despite being considered a fool by his neighbors. It concludes with the moral:

Noah obeyed everything God said
And all his family was saved that day.

There are other lessons to be learned from the Noah story, too.  In another of Bessie Jones’s songs, “Old Ark’s A Moverin’,” life is likened to the ark, a moving ship on which our salvation depends. Walking on the ark is treacherous, and must be handled with care:

Mind, my sister, how you walk on across
Your feet may slip, and your soul get lost!

Hear it at this link.

Songs about Noah could also carry an apocalyptic message, predicting the destruction of the world by fire. On May 17, 1939, about thirteen miles outside Merryville, Louisiana, along the highway into DeRidder, John and Ruby Lomax stopped at the New Zion Baptist Church to record Deacon Sylvester Johnson and a group of singers including Rufus Spearman. One of the songs they recorded, “Home on the Rock,” ended with the lines:

God showed Noah by the rainbow sign
No more water but fire next time

Sadly, the Lomaxes ran out of disc space before this line was sung, as you can hear at this link. But they dutifully wrote out the lyrics in their fieldnotes on the trip, preserving the full song for the AFC’s archive.

It’s not the only time this couplet has been collected by the Library of Congress fieldworkers. In fact, the couplet transcends song genres: while it seems to have originated in spirituals like “Home on the Rock,” it also appears in secular songs, and even in work songs. As an example, listen to a track-lining song recorded by Herbert Halpert from railroad worker Henry Hankins in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1939.  (The song, which you can play in the player below, is numbered AFC 1939/005: AFS 02946 A1.)

The couplet “God showed Noah by the rainbow sign/ No more water but fire next time” is an interesting summary of, and commentary on, Genesis 9:9-17, in which God shows Noah the first rainbow and tells him it is the sign of a new covenant: God will never again destroy the earth by flood. In the Bible, God does not mention fire at all, which makes the song’s invocation of fire stand out, especially to alert and educated hearers. It has been seen as a reference to the Second Coming as described in the Second Epistle of Peter or in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.

More generally, though, it’s a sardonic acknowledgement that God only promised not to destroy the Earth by water, which leaves other possibilities open, and that there are still wicked people in the world to be punished “next time.” It leaves unsaid who those people might be, allowing African Americans in slavery and under Jim Crow laws to comment on the wickedness of their oppressors clandestinely, while on the surface they were just telling wholesome bible stories. Such eloquent but coded communication, transforming spirituals into hidden messages of protest, is a hallmark of African American folklore, a fact which has been recognized by black scholars for generations.

McTell, Puckett, and The Unfortunate Rake

July 21, 2013


edited from essay by Max Haymes (

The Unfortunate Rake is the Irish source of the Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, by Blind Willie McTell.  It crossed the Atlantic where it was ‘cleaned up’ by the cowboy fraternity and appeared as The Streets Of Laredo, while ‘respectable’ versions of St. James Hospital existed alongside it.

The first black recording of the latter title was by James ‘Iron Head’ Baker for the Library of Congress.  Together with St. James/Joe’s Infirmary and the more respectful Rake And Rambling Boy by Gid Tanner, the net result was the ‘unholy’ blues composition by Blind Willie McTell.

James ‘Iron Head’ Baker recorded his version in 1934  for the Library of Congress and was followed some two months later by another black singer, James Wadley who had his side titled St. James Infirmary, and was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia.  This was the first rural, solo example of this song by a black artist on record as far as we know.

Sometime between 1924 and 1934, a white hill-billy outfit going by the name of Gid Tannner and his Skillet Lickers recorded a song which had evolved out of The Flash Lad and The Wild and Wicked Youth, which they called Rake And Rambling Boy.  The title harking back to the beginning of this chronology, The Unfortunate Rake, would appear to have roots in the nineteenth century also, probably in the last decade.  The last verse closes with these lines:

“And on her breast he placed a dove,

To signify she died for love.”

Gid Tanner’s group were based in Atlanta amidst a strong white country music scene which rubbed shoulders with the equally strong black blues one.  Tony Russell quite rightly says that “Interaction between black and white musicians has been one of the most stimulating forces in American folk music.”, although Russell says this is not so common today because of “‘social reasons’’,… in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties they were frequent and fertile.”

Former Columbia Record A. & R.  man Frank Walker explained to Russell why this was so.  “In those days, in the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, we’ll say, you had your colored section…and you had your white, but they were right close to each other.  They might be swinging round in an arc, the colored people, being the left end of the arc and the white the right, but they would pass each other every dayAnd a little of the spiritualistic singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did, so that you got a little combination of the two things there…They (the hillbillies) adopted little things that a colored man might be playing on his guitar, but he (the colored man) heard the white fellow across the way…and he adopted a little of that.” .

Russell also notes that a black group of bluesmen sometimes known as ‘Peg Leg Howell And His Gang’ with a line-up of a fiddle and two guitars, was similar to Tanner’s group and they even sounded similar on occasion.  Further to this, Tanner’s excellent blind guitarist, Riley Puckett, declares a the beginning of his version of John Henry, which he called Darkey’s Wail, “I’m gonna play for you this time a little piece which an old southern darky I heard play, comin’ down Decatur Street the other day. ‘cause his good girl done throwed him down”.

In this cross-fertilization process, McTell could have got some inspiration for Crapshooter from Rake And Rambling Boy as he probably heard it in person as “Puckett for some years attended the State Blind School in Macon, Georgia, and while there he may have encountered the black singer Blind Willie McTell, who was a pupil from 1922 to 1925.  It may have even been McTell from whom he learned his interpretation of John Henry.”  Decatur Street, along with Auburn Avenue, as Paul Oliver says: “…were the ‘main stem’ in Atlanta’s Negro sector.”


Up Jumped the Devil

July 15, 2013

edited from Adriana C. Rissetto (

In Robert Johnson’s song, Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) the speaker personifies the blues as “walkin’ like a man.” Even though the blues are an intimate product of the speaker’s creativity as a musician, this line reveals that he still feels alienated from them, as if they are an external force acting on him.

Just as a disease is often perceived as something which has attacked patients’ immune systems instead of a bodily process instigated by certain conditions, so for the speaker the blues is an unsettling process which he cannot curb or control. Moreover, the disease imagery is made all the more poignant by the paradoxical synthesis of the “shakin’ chill,” referring to the dangerous immediacy of a fever, combined with the surreptitious fatality of heart disease and excruciating longevity of consumption.

The metaphor of the blues like “consumption/killing [the speaker] by degrees” is the most chilling of all the disease imagery that Robert Johnson employs in “Preaching Blues.”  At first, it seems superfluous to include this image, as the shakin’ chill and heart disease create a nice binary opposition.

However, consumption differs from both of these by combining the intense pain of the shakin’ chill with the longevity of the heart disease. When one had consumption in 1930’s America, one was cognizant of a mortality slowly creeping closer with each hacking cough. Here the speaker is intensely aware of what the blues is doing to him in minute detail, and how it forces his lifestyle that ends in abrupt and brutal fatality.

The speaker acknowledges the potency of the disease imagery in the song’s last stanza, in which he states that he can “study rain/oh, oh, drive, oh, oh, drive my blues” in the same way that a scientist would scrutinize a bacteria culture in order to ascertain a cure to the disease.

Here the rain resembles a vaccination in which a small amount of the virus is introduced into the patient’s blood in order to build up an immunity; the speaker studies the rain, a symbol of depression, to build up “an immunity” to the effect of the blues on him. However, eventually he rejects this in favor of the distillery, a quick and easy pain killer which offers immediate, albeit temporary, relief.

Willie Moore

July 5, 2013

edited from

Willie Moore is not royalty, he’s just a proper young man.  He’s likely not even wealthy, in that courting a country girl living in her parents’ cottage is not something you’d expect from such a man.  If he was wealthy, it’s hard to grasp why Annie’s parents would reject his perfectly respectful advances.

No, he’s a ‘king’ – a fine young man, a stand up guy who’s doing everything right.  He courts properly and does right by Annie and her parents.  I think that’s a key to the song, because it’s plain to see that this story isn’t really about Willie, and the moral wouldn’t work if Willie was anything but impeccable.

Annie is likewise upright.  She doesn’t simply give in to Willie – he has to court her “night and day” before she agrees to marry, though she presumably found him attractive from the start.  And, while the lyrics make clear that she spent a good deal of time in his arms, there is absolutely no intimation of physical impropriety.

Annie is as impeccable as Willie, and the narrative needs them to be that way.  There’s no premarital intimacy, and there will certainly be no running off together.  Willie doesn’t ask and Annie doesn’t suggest it.  The answer they get from her parents is clear – their marriage “never can be.”  Annie is who she is, a dutiful daughter; and so she does what she feels she must do in the face of what seems like the end of any chance for happiness in her life.

The last two verses of the full lyrics above tend not to appear together, though the penultimate one is more common today.  Willie takes to rambling and goes far away, given what seems to be the Appalachian origin of this song, then dies of a broken heart. There can be little doubt of the expected emotional evocation.  The listener is supposed to imagine Annie’s parents spending their remaining days in mourning, asking every day “Good Lord, what have we wrought?”

The earliest known instance of this song is a recording from November 3, 1927, cut in Atlanta for Columbia Records by the seminal Kentucky fiddle and banjo duo Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford.  While Burnett and Rutherford’s recorded and live performances gained them genuine regional popularity before World War II, it was this particular recording’s inclusion by Harry Smith on his watershed Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 that brought the ballad to the ears of a truly widespread American audience. (more…)

House Carpenter

June 21, 2013

edited from

The Demon Lover and the House Carpenter

Laurence Price receives the credit for the original song, published as a broadside in 1657, and entitled “James Harris (The Daemon Lover).”  It bears the somewhat more descriptive subtitle of:

A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit, the manner how shall be presently recited.”  

British and Irish versions tend to favor “The Demon Lover” as the title of choice, and American versions generally favor “House Carpenter.” Some British artists pick up “House Carpenter,” but these are often explicitly sourced to American artists.  All modern versions essentially agree on the core elements of the story, however much they together stray from the original.  The song as we have it today reliably dispenses with the initial courtship of James Harris and Jane Reynolds, his being pressed into ship’s service, and any details of the carpenter’s demise at the end of the song.

Depending on the goals of the singer, the remaining details are tweaked in the story.  There are some variables.  These include:

  • The length of the separation of the lovers. If it is specified, it is either seven years, as in the Price original, or “three-fourths of a long, long year.”
  • The number of children born to the carpenter’s wife
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife requires her old true lover to demonstrate his ability to support her
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife puts on a display of finery as she departs
  • Whether the lover who lures her away is a demon who kills her through supernatural means or her demise is depicted as accidental/natural.

Sometimes these options appear to be mixed and matched, unrelated to other elements or who is singing the song where.  Other options tend to correlate strongly with each other or other factors.  For one, basically all the Old World versions (regardless of which title they choose) invoke a supernatural agent; the lover reveals himself to be a demon.  In essentially all of the New World versions, there is no demon.  The only view of the supernatural, if any, is that our heroine views the hills of Heaven and of Hell, and learns which way she will go.

In Clarence Ashley’s version, initially recorded either in 1928 or 1930 (depending on your source) and released by Columbia Records, he accompanies himself on 5-string banjo.  Harry Smith  (in the Anthology of American Folk Music) summarized this version as follows:


Ashley’s version demonstrates another correlation among our variables.  If the length of the “true lovers'” separation is “three-fourths of a long, long year,” she has only one child.  This tie happens only in American versions of the song.  In versions where the time is not specified (American or Old World), or is specified as seven (Old World only), there may be two or three children.  The implication here has to be that the baby is either Harris’s, or that she was faithful to her vow to him for no more than a moment before wedding the house carpenter.  Either of these choices are significant departures from the original narrative.

In Price’s original, the only people we definitively know die are James Harris (whom the Spirit impersonates) and the carpenter.  Jane Reynolds is merely missing and reasonably presumed dead.  The original, therefore, accomplishes its work primarily on the basis of the destruction that Jane’s choice wreaks on others.  She is a somewhat more sympathetic character, having done her level best to be faithful.

In the more contemporary versions, both “The Demon Lover” and “House Carpenter” focus on the destruction it wreaks on Jane.  In the former, she is deceived by a supernatural trickster, in the latter, she meets her doom because of a leaky ship and her own bad judgment–natural causes, in more ways than one.

H. Wylie: “Come By Here”

June 3, 2013

from and

Regional Song Sampler: The Southeast

Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Nearing 40 and nearly broke, ousted from his last job as an English professor, a folklore buff named Robert Winslow Gordon set out in the spring of 1926 from his temporary home on the Georgia seacoast, lugging a hand-cranked cylinder recorder and searching for songs in the nearby black hamlets.

One particular day, Mr. Gordon captured the sound of someone identified only as H. Wylie, singing a lilting, swaying spiritual in the key of A. The lyrics told of people in despair and in trouble, calling on heaven for help, and beseeching God in the refrain, “Come by here.”

With that wax cylinder, the oldest known recording of a spiritual titled for its recurring plea, Mr. Gordon set into motion a strange and revealing process of cultural appropriation, popularization and desecration. “Come By Here,” a song deeply rooted in black Christianity’s vision of a God who intercedes to deliver both solace and justice, by the 1960s became the pallid pop-folk sing-along “Kumbaya.” Click below to listen.

  • Come by Here,” sung in Sea Islands Dialect (Gullah) by H. Wylie. Recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1926. This is the earliest known recording of the song that came to be known as “Kumbayah.” Noise on the wax cylinder recording obscures the song in the middle. No location given, but Wylie was probably from coastal South Carolina or Georgia. (audio)
  • The Southern Soldier,” a Civil War song sung by Minta Morgan. Recorded by John A. Lomax, 1937. (audio)
  • I Ain’t Got Nobody Much,” composed by Spencer Williams, sung by Marion Harris. Victor, 1916. Spencer Williams was a performer and composer born and educated in New Orleans, Louisiana. Like a number of African American artists of his era, he moved to Chicago to pursue his career. Better known today as “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” this was one of his most popular songs. (audio)
  • Are You from Dixie?” performed by Buster Ezell. Recorded by John Wesley Work, III, 1941. This song by New York composer George L. Cobb with lyrics by Polish-born Jack Yellen is one of many popular songs about “Dixie” written primarily for Northern and Midwestern stages in the early twentieth century (1916). Here, blues artist Buster Ezell, from Georgia gives his southern take on the song. (audio)
  • What a Time,” performed by the Golden Gate Quartet. Recorded by Willis James, Fort Valley Georgia, 1943. The singers were from the tidewater of Virginia. This song about World War II was performed during the war at the Fort Valley African American music festival. At this time during the war, German U boats were sinking vessels off of the United States coast, so the song ends with a verse about Hitler trying to rule the seas. Singers Willie Johnson and Orlandus Wilson both served in the Navy in the war in the Pacific. (audio)
  • Carrie,” performed by Vera Hall. Adell Hall Ward, known as Vera Hall, worked as a cook and laundress in Livingston, Alabama, but was sought after by folklorists because of her singing ability and repertoire of sacred and secular songs. This recording was made by John A. and Ruby Lomax in 1939. (audio)
  • Carolina,” by A.E. Blackmar, (no date, ca. 1865). A.E. Blackmar was a composer of patriotic music for the Confederacy during the Civil War. This song is about the destruction in South Carolina, and hope for a better future. (sheet music)
  • Hesitation Blues,” sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925. This blues song has many variations and was both published and performed by many artists. Folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford of North Carolina learned and documented folksongs throughout the Southeast. This song includes a verse about the boll weevil, which was causing widespread devastation to cotton crops in the early 1920s. (audio)
  • The Old Ninty Seven,” sung by Fred J. Lewey. Recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in Concord, North Carolina, 1925. The Southern Fast Mail train number 97 derailed near Danville, Virginia in 1903, falling from a trestle bridge. The song, with several people claiming authorship, became the first song copyright suit to be appealed before the Supreme Court. Folklorist Gordon testified during the initial litigation. (audio)
  • Dale Jett and the Carter Singers perform a Carter Family Tribute, performed at the Library of Congress, 2005. Dale Jett is the son of Janette Carter and the grandson of A.P and Sara Carter of the Carter Family performers. (webcast)
  • Little David,” performed by the Halloway High School Quartet of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Recorded by John Wesley Work, III, 1940. (audio)
  • Roll on Buddy,” performed by Aunt Molly Jackson. The singer is from Clay County, Kentucky. Recorded by Alan Lomax, 1939. (audio)
  • Gandydancer: String Band Music from West Virginia, performance at the Library of Congress, 2007. (webcast)
  • Sprinkle Coal Dust on my Grave,” performed by Orville J. Jenks. Recorded by George Korson in in Welch, West Virginia, 1940. (audio)(this is the audio link. Use the montage if it is available).
  • Hunting Song,” sung by John Josh, Richard Osceola, Robert Osceola, and Barfield Johns. Seminole song recorded by Corita Doggett Corse and Robert Cornwall, July 25, 1940. (audio)
  • First Time I Come Into This Countree,” sung by an unidentified Bahamian American quartet. Recorded by Stetson Kennedy, in Key West, Florida, January 23, 1940. Bahamian American settlers of southern Florida formed the largest population of free African Americans in the United States before emancipation. (audio)
  • Duermate mi niño,” a Cuban lullaby sung by Zenaida Beuron. Recorded by Stetson Kennedy in Tampa, Florida, August 23, 1939. (audio)
  • Merce,” sung in Spanish by Adela Martinez with band. A Cuban dance song. Recorded by Herbert Halpert in Tampa, Florida, June 21, 1939. (audio)
  • Misirlou,” a traditional love song sung in Greek by Jennie Castrounis. Recorded by Alton Morris and Carita Doggett Corse in Tarpon Springs, Florida, October 4,1939. (audio)
  • Halimuhfack,” sung by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. She describes to folklorist Herbert Halpert how she learned the song and how she collected songs. Hurston was born in Alabama and grew up in Florida. She documented African American songs, stories, and lore throughout the south and in the Caribbean. Recorded by Herbert Halpert and Stetson Kennedy in Florida, June 18, 1939.
  • My Old Kentucky Home,” sung by Edward Favor. E. Berliner’s Gramophone recording, 1897. This song by Stephen Foster is the state song of Kentucky, famously sung at the opening of the Kentucky Derby. In 1986 the Kentucky Legislature officially changed the offensive word “darkies” to “people.”

Little Sadie

June 2, 2013
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.

“Mary Ann”

April 28, 2013

John Specker of Andover, VT plays Roaring Lion’s “Mary Ann”:

edited from Kaiso Newsletter No. 25 – July 14, 1999:

Mary Ann was composed by Roaring Lion (born Rafael de Leon, 22 February 1908 – 11 July 1999).   Roaring Lion was a  calypsonian from Trinidad whose 65-year career began in the early 1930s. Lion stated that he composed the song during an all day party on Carenage Beach on St Peter’s Day in 1941 but that it only came to light in 1945.

In Trinidad, Mary Ann was especially popular for VE and VJ Day celebrations where Carnival, which had been banned during the war years, was suddenly given free reign.  Mary Ann went on to become one of the most well known of all calypsos and the folk group Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders had a popular hit in the United States with their ‘adaption’ of it in 1957.

The Roaring Lion started appearing in the calypso tents in Port-of-Spain in the late Twenties, although the exact year is not clear. He was always impeccably dressed and known for his lion headed cane, he was a strong singer, and was recognized as a composer of all the major styles of calypso. Respected as an ‘experimentalist’ in calypso, he could write calypsos on any theme and while never crowned a calypso monarch, he was one of its greatest practitioners.   He was originally known as Lion Flaps but that was dropped as he found more success and he became Roaring Lion.

St. James Infirmary

April 9, 2013


edited from

“I Went Down to St. James Infirmary,” by Robert W. Harwood (Harland Press)

Infused with humor and supported by meticulous research, this ground breaking book explores the turbulent and mysterious history of one of the most important and influential songs of the twentieth century.

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary looks at the people and the times in which “St. James Infirmary” achieved its initial popularity and explores what happens to a traditional song when it becomes a piece of merchandise.

Saturated with ego-driven angst and once considered obscene because of the song’s stark depiction of death and the portrayal of a seedy underworld inhabited by gamblers, pimps, “loose” women, and every sort of rounder, it has been adapted, rewritten, borrowed, stolen, attacked, revered, and cherished.

The song has been shrouded in mystery as well as scandal. Who is the woman stretched out on a long white table? Who is the narrator and why is he, robust and vain, more concerned about his own funeral arrangements than with hers?

And there are the questions about the song itself. Where did it come from? To what lineage does it belong? Who was Joe Primrose and how did he gain copyright to a song that had been circulating the country for decades?  Driven to solve these and other puzzles about “St. James Infirmary,” author Robert W. Harwood toiled for years researching the song, the singers, and the times before and after its stunning success as a jazz hit in 1929.

“Chasing the Rising Sun”

March 19, 2013


“Chasing the Rising Sun” by Ted Anthony (Simon & Schuster)


After years of intense research which took Ted Anthony from one mountain range to another, then to New Orleans, he has determined that Lomax’s acetate disc of Georgia Turner, a 16-year old coal miner’s daughter from Middlesex, Kentucky, singing “The Rising Sun Blues,” is the first of what would be hundreds of recordings of the cautionary tale.

In his well-documented book, Anthony traces the various permutations of “House of the Rising Sun,” some of them told from a male perspective, and some like Turner’s, from a woman’s. To a core set of verses, singers and interpreters have added a variety of new words, giving rise to arguments about whether the eponymous “house” was a jail, brothel, card room, roadhouse, or workhouse.

Anthony’s journey brings him in contact with fascinating characters like Joe Bussard, a record collector from Maryland who spins his tens of thousands of 78-rpm records for anyone who cares to listen, just to share the joy, and Homer Callahan, who learned “House of the Rising Sun” during a corn shucking in North Carolina. (“They’d bury a five-gallon jug of corn whiskey in an enormous pile of corn and the first neighbor to reach the bottom got the liquor.”)

In relating the culture of people that many consider “hillbillies” or “hicks,” Anthony shows no condescension — only compassion and affection for hard-working people scratching a living out of the hill country and creating music to ease the pain of it all. His admiration for Georgia Turner, who he figures was cheated out of years of royalty payments, is evident in passages like this one, describing the Lomax recording session:

Sometimes pivot points in culture happen quickly and pass unnoticed at first. I have no reason to believe that this moment was any different. The ripples that this particular recording of this particular song would make were still in the future. It was nothing but an unknown song about a girl with a hard life behind her, sung from the heart by an unknown girl with a hard life ahead of her.

“Stagolee Shot Billy”

March 13, 2013


edited from “Stagolee Shot Billy,” by Cecil Brown (Harvard University Press):

There was indeed a real Stagolee, Lee Shelton, a thirty-one-year-old well-known figure in St. Louis’s red-light district during the 189os, a pimp who, when he shot and killed William Lyons, was the president of a “Colored Four Hundred Club,” a political and social organization.

Charles Haffer, of Coahama Counry Mississippi, recalled having first heard of a Stagolee ballad in 1895.  As a ballad, Stagolee evolved from then to the 1970s, when it was appropriated by black revolutionaries like Bobby Seale, who used it as a symbol of the enduring black male struggle against white oppression and racism. Seale not only named his son Stagolee but used the narrative toast version as a recruiting device to get young black men into the Black Panther party.

The first Stagolee ballad ever collected consisted of eight stanzas sent to John Lomax in February 191o by Miss Ella Scott Fisher of San Angelo, Texas, with the following note:

“This is all the verses I remember. The origin of this ballad, I have been told, was the shooting of Billy Lyons in a barroom on the Memphis levee by Stack Lee. The song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters, the words being composed by the singers. The characters were prominently known in Memphis, I was told, the unfortunate Stagalee belonging to the family of the owners of the Lee line of steamers, which are known on the Mississippi River from Cairo to the Gulf. I give all this to you as it was given to me.”


To listen to music, you will need the Realplayer Plugin   

Taj Mahal - Berkeley, California, (London, England), 2002, and 1988 Toast - New York, 1967 Bob Dylan - Los Angeles, 1993 Dave Van Ronk - New York City, 1966 Papa Harvey Hull and the Down Home Boys - Memphis, Tenn., 1927 Unidentified Negro convict - Arkansas, Gould, 1934 Duke Ellington - Washington DC, 1929 Stagger Lee&, Nick Cave - Melbourne, Australia, 1997 Fruit Jar Guzzlers - North Carolina, 1927 Lucious Curtis - Mississippi, Natchez, Oct. 19, 1940 Bill hunt and Frank Hutchinson - West Virginia, 1927 Ma Rainey - Georgia, 1927 Hogman Maxey - Louisiana, 1959. Angola State Penitentiary Mississippi John Hurt - Mississippi, 1927 Sidney Bechet - New Orleans, 1934 Lomax, Pianist, (700 AFC) - New Orleans, 1937 Buena Flynn, female inmate - Florida, Raiford., may, 1936 The Clash - London, England Bully of the Town, Sid Harkreader and Grady Moore - St. Louis, 1895 Albert Jackson, convict - Alabama, State Farm Prison Oct 1937 Furry Lewis - Mississippi, 1928 Lloyd Price - New Orleans, 1959 Bama, a Black convict - Parchmen Prison Farm, Mississippi, 1947

“Bully of the Town,” Sid Harkreader & Grady Moore – St. Louis, 1895
Papa Harvey Hull and the Down Home Boys – Memphis, Tenn., 1927
Fruit Jar Guzzlers – North Carolina, 1927
Ma Rainey – Georgia, 1927
Bill hunt and Frank Hutchinson – West Virginia, 1927
Mississippi John Hurt – Mississippi, 1927
Furry Lewis – Mississippi, 1928
Duke Ellington – Washington, D.C., 1929
Unidentified Negro convict – Arkansas, Gould, 1934
Sidney Bechet – New Orleans, 1934
Buena Flynn, female inmate – Florida, Raiford., may, 1936
Albert Jackson, convict – Alabama, State Farm Prison., Oct. 1937
Lomax, Pianist, (700 AFC) – New Orleans, 1937
Lucious Curtis – Mississippi, Natchez, Oct. 19, 1940
“Bama”, a Black convict – Parchman Prison Farm, Mississippi, 1947
Hogman Maxey – Louisiana, 1959. Angola State Penitentiary
Lloyd Price – New Orleans, 1959
Dave Van Ronk – New York City, 1966
Toast – New York, 1967
Bob Dylan – Los Angeles, 1993
Taj Mahal – Berkeley, California, (London, England), 2002, and 1988
“Stagger Lee”, Nick Cave – Melbourne, Australia, 1997
The Clash – London, England

Love Henry

February 15, 2013



by Bob Dylan:

LOVE HENRY is a “traditionalist” ballad.

Tom Paley used to do it.

A perverse tale.

Henry — modern corporate man off some foreign boat,

Unable to handle his “psychosis” responsible for organizing the Intelligentsia,

Disarming the people, an infantile sensualist — white teeth, wide smile, lotza money, kowtow to fairy queen exploiters & corrupt religious establishments, career minded, limousine double parked, imposing his will & dishonest garbage in popular magazines.

He lays his head on a pillow of down & falls asleep.

He shoulda known better, he must’ve had a hearing problem.

Banjo Bill Cornett sings “Love Henry”:

Lord Bateman

February 6, 2013

Quotes about Anna and Elizabeth and the crankies:
“That looks…uh…interesting” -Security Guard at the Smithsonian Museum;
“In all my eighty-four years, I’ve never seen such talent!” -resident at Warm Hearth retirement home;
“Anna and Elizabeth are blazing a trail of exciting, community-building Folk Music. They’ve found a way to make these songs come to life for young folks, old folks, and medium folks. I doubt there’s a more creative, vibrant, passionate duo sharing their joy with the world right now.”
Caleb Stine, Baltimore Songwriter & Actor



February 2, 2013



by Bob Dylan:

DELIA is one sad tale—two or more versions mixed into one.

The song has no middle range, comes whipping around the corner, seems to be about counterfeit loyalty.

Delia herself, no Queen Gertrude, Elizabeth I or even Evita Peron, doesn’t ride a Harley Davidson across the desert highway, doesn’t need a blood change & would never go on a shopping spree.

The guy in the courthouse sounds like a pimp in primary colors.

He’s not interested in mosques on the temple mount, armageddon or world war III, doesn’t put his face in his knees & weep & wears no dunce hat, makes no apology & is doomed to obscurity.

Does this song have rectitude?

You bet.

Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.

The singer’s not talking from a head full of booze.



“Delia’s Gone,” sung by Pat Conte (from “American Songs with Fiddle and Banjo”):

All Night Long Blues

January 20, 2013


Burnett & Rutherford
“All Night Long Blues” (Columbia 15314-D, 1928)

Guitarist and banjoist Dick Burnett became a professional musician around the age of 25 after being blinded during a robbery by a gunshot wound. A few years later, he took teenage fiddler Leonard Rutherford under his wing and the two Kentuckians became one of the most prolific and highly regarded country acts of the 1920s.

“All Night Long Blues” is a particularly good showcase for Burnett’s fantastic vocal delivery and the duo’s expert musicianship. Burnett’s down-home voice takes a number of different shapes on the record, and all of them are interesting. He leads with a clear mountain cry, transitions to a low, earthy moan, and then to a heartfelt, tremor-filled plea. Every time he sings, “All night long,” he lays his soul bare, his voice dripping with raw feeling.

As powerful as Burnett’s singing is, though, it is not the only thing on display here. With Burnett keeping a simple, pleasant rhythm on guitar, Rutherford is simply masterful on the fiddle. He never overpowers the vocals, keeping them the main focal point of the song, but he fills the spaces around the vocals with a sweet, pure sound that makes the record all the more gripping. Rutherford’s playing is some of the smoothest country fiddling you’ll ever hear, and a good reason to seek out more of his recordings with Burnett.

W.L. Gregory: “The first time I saw Leonard Rutherford was in 1923. He was sure a better fiddler than I was – – I was young, and he had me worsted by 7-8 years. When I got in with him, got to playing, me with the fiddle and him with the bow, playing tunes together on the fiddle, that’s the way I began. I began to step it up, stepped it up in his style.

I learned most of my style from him. Then I met Dick [Burnett] and travelled with him for a while about 1929-1930, sometimes sort of replacing Leonard; Dick would play banjo, I played violin. We would go out 75-80 miles, be gone a week at at time. We’d set up shows, sell tickets back at the door in those days; didn’t hand out bills, just advertised maybe in stores and restaurants.

Once I remember we was playing in King Mountain and they called out from the audience and asked up to play LADIES ON THE STEAMBOAT and we did, and Dick got in a big way, and slapping the hide you know and playing his juice harp (NOTE: Dick Burnett did and uncanny imitation of a juice harp with his throat). And he knocked the thumb screw out of the neck and hit the string loose and it wound around the neck and Dick, he just kept going through it on four strings and finally wound it up and he laughed real big and said, ‘Folks, I knocked my thumb screw out but I finished for you on four strings’, and the house, well, it went wild.

Dick was a showman, a real comic in his younger days. He was a great entertainer. And he’d fiddle ever once in awhile. He could play good breakdowns, but was a little rough. BUCKIN MULE, stuff like that. TRAIN 45. When me and Leonard played with him, out somewhere, we would always give him the fiddle on those number cause he’d cut up with it, you know, but come to a slick one that had to be slicked up, he’d hand it back to us then. But he could always attract a crowd.”

Old Dog Blue

January 16, 2013


When I first heard Jim Jackson sing Old Dog Blue, my reaction was to regret its sexism. In the first verse, the singer off-handedly mentions the recent death of his wife, and then goes on to mourn the death of his dog, movingly, in verse after verse after verse:

I’m going back where I come
I’m going back where I come
I’m going back to Giles County
My wife died and left me a bounty
Me and them pretty girls ganged around
That’s the reason I’m going to Giles County

Had an old dog whose name was Blue
You know Blue was mighty true
You know Blue was a good old dog
Blue treed a possum in a hollow log
You know from that he’s a good old dog

Do we take this as a joke about the relative importance of wives and dogs?

I’ve seen (can’t remember where) the explanation that the song is hard to sort out because it’s really two or more songs spliced together. The line mentioning his wife is like a vestigial organ, left over from some previous stage in the song’s evolution. There’s some support for this view. Later, in the middle of everything, we get this strange non-sequitur:

Blue treed a possum out on a limb
Blue looked at me and I looked at him
Grabbed that possum, put him in a sack
Don’t move, Blue, ’til I get back.

It rained, it rained, yeah
It rained, it rained, yeah

Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on
Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on

Is the dog wearing a dress? No, this verse about a girl in a red dress waiting for the singer appears often in old folk and blues songs — so, it’s what’s called a “floating stanza.”

But I think it’s slightly condescending, a little dismissive of Jim Jackson’s artistry, to think as if he’s just a passive antenna through which floating stanzas appear and disappear without rhyme or reason. I trust my own aesthetics here — this performance of this text is heartbreaking, and increasingly so each time I hear it, year after year. Jackson chose his words to move us, and it works.

Once you accept that the text is very deliberate, the song comes into focus as brilliant psychological observation. It’s a study of grief, the way it really works in a real brain. It hits with the force it does because it mirrors sorrow as we actually experience it. Do we really always mourn the most obvious things, or do we sometimes focus on proxies, fetishes, or symbols instead?

Jackson’s character’s wife has just died, so he’s decided to go back to a place of his youth, before he was married, to relive happier days. It seems rather optimistic, even desperate — Jackson’s character doesn’t sound so young now.

Blue, too, seems to have been gone for a long time — so long that you’d expect a grown man to have gotten over it a bit. And I suspect he has. What I hear is a mind returning to everything its ever lost, trying to reconnect with it all both physically and emotionally.

By so vividly recalling this dog, by revisiting that intense ENCOUNTER between species (“Blue looked at me and I looked at him”), the singer is tracing his own edges, the limits and contours of his own identity. He is refamiliarizing himself with his manhood and his humanity, through memory.

In this way, Jackson’s character is like the later folk revivalists of the 1950’s and after, about whom Cantwell writes so beautifully. They renounced their identities, abandoned all hope, denied their inheritances, and then — through song — rebuilt themselves. They invented themselves as a new cast of characters meant to inhabit a new world, which they then also built, on a foundation of reinvented memories.

Santa Anna and The Yellow Rose of Texas

January 6, 2013


“The Yellow Rose of Texas” took on a new and entirely different meaning in 1961 when the song was first publicly linked to an anecdote about the battle of San Jacinto. This anecdote, recorded by Englishman William Bollaert during a trip to Texas (1842–44), stated that the 1836 battle was lost to the Mexicans because a mulatto girl named Emily, who belonged to Col. James Morgan, was closeted in Santa Anna’s tent at the time the battle commenced.

According to this account, Emily detained Santa Anna so long that he was unable to restore order as the Texans attacked the Mexican camp. The story would have been unknown today except that Bollaert’s papers from his Texas trip, including the anecdote buried in an unpublished essay, were acquired by the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1911.

The story was discovered from those papers and initially appeared in print as a footnote by Joe Frantz in his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Texas (1946) and subsequently in the published version of his dissertation, entitled Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation (1951). W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth Lapham Butler, in William Bollaert’s Texas (1956), transcribed Bollaert’s papers and mentioned the story again, also in a footnote.

The mulatto girl, known in this anecdote only as “Emily” who belonged to James Morgan, was referred to during the 1960s and 1970s as Emily Morgan under the belief she was Morgan’s slave, but a passport record in the Texas State Library in Austin, first associated with Emily’s story in 1976, and an employment contract found in 1991 in a private collection and held since 2004 at the University of Texas at Arlington Library Special Collections, substantiated that she was a free woman named Emily D. West. She was hired by Morgan in New York City in 1835 to work for him for one year at his place called New Washington (now Morgan’s Point). Both names are often conflated today, as evidenced by the inaptly-named Emily Morgan Hotel which opened in 1985 across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio.

In the late 1950s R. Henderson Shuffler, head of the Texas A&M office of information and publication and subsequently the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures, was bothered that this “unsung” heroine of Texas was not better-known or appreciated. Shuffler was determined to associate her with a song and initially felt that Emily should be connected with “Will You Come to the Bower?”—a bawdy tune that was played at the battle of San Jacinto.

But by July 1959 he focused his attention on “The Yellow Rose of Texas” instead. He wrote to folklore singer John A. Lomax, Jr., the oldest son of famed folklorist John A. Lomax, seeking confirmation of his latest “hunch” that this song “grew up around the stories of Emily.” Shuffler later wrote Lomax in February 1960: “if there is not, as I still suspect, a remote connection between the story of Emily and the original folk song version of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ there should be.” (more…)

“Down the Dirt Road”

December 29, 2012

Charley Patton and Bertha Lee by Robert Crumb

edited from “Charley Patton: Folksinger,” by Elijah Wald

Patton’s way with pre-blues, “songster” material is even more interesting, and it is not a stretch to say that, had things worked out differently, he could have appealed to the same audience that made Leadbelly a folk icon. Admittedly, his recordings do not include a “Goodnight Irene” or “Midnight Special,” but it is worth remembering that Leadbelly only learned the latter song after being taken up by John Lomax as a folksong demonstrator.

We have no idea how much more “folk” material Patton might have known, or how he might have adapted his formidable skills to suit a Greenwich Village audience. He was a notably versatile performer and musician and, unlike virtually any major blues singer besides Leadbelly, he was given to composing lengthy ballads about current events in his world, just the sort of thing the New York crowd would have prized and encouraged.

Patton’s masterpiece is “Down the Dirt Road,” which for sheer rhythmic complexity is the most striking performance in the whole of blues. At times, Patton seems to be singing one rhythm, tapping another on the top his guitar, and playing a third on the strings, all without the slightest sense of effort. This is the work that distinguishes him from his peers, and that sets his circle of Mississippians aside from all the other players in the early blues pantheon. While no other player equalled his abilities, Mississippi consistently produced the most rhythmically sophisticated players in early blues. Perhaps this was due to the regional survival of African tradition exemplified by the “fife and drum” bands of the hill country to the Delta’s east, perhaps to the proximity of New Orleans and the Caribbean, perhaps in a large degree to the influence of Patton himself. 

His rhythms are a world–or at least a continent–away from the straight-ahead, 4/4 sound that defines virtually all modern blues. That is why so few contemporary players can capture anything of his greatness. There is the tendency to play his tunes for driving power, missing the ease, the relaxed subtlety that underly all of his work. It is a control born of playing this music in eight or ten-hour sessions, week after week and year after year, for an audience of extremely demanding dancers, and of remembering centuries of previous dance rhythms–not only the complex polyrhythms of West Africa, but also slow drags, cakewalks, hoedowns, and waltzes.

Charley Patton plays “Down the Dirt Road”:

Yellow Rose of Texas

December 20, 2012

edited from

 “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” one of the iconic songs of modern Texas and a popular traditional American tune, has experienced several transformations of its lyrics and periodic revivals in popularity since its appearance in the 1850s. The earliest published lyrics to surface to date are found in Christy’s Plantation Melodies. No. 2, a songbook published under the authority of Edwin P. Christy in Philadelphia in 1853. Christy was the founder of the blackface minstrel group known as the Christy’s Minstrels. Their shows were a popular form of American entertainment featuring white performers with burnt cork makeup portraying caricatures of blacks in comic acts, dances, and songs.

The plaintive courtship-themed 1853 lyrics of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” fit the minstrel genre by depicting an African-American singer, who refers to himself as a “darkey,” longing to return to “a yellow girl,” a term used to describe a mulatto, or mixed-race female born of African-American and white progenitors. The songbook does not identify the author or include a musical score to accompany the lyrics:

There’s a yellow girl in Texas
That I’m going down to see;
No other darkies know her,
No darkey, only me;
She cried so when I left her
That it like to broke my heart,
And if I only find her,
We never more will part.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour
That this darkey ever knew;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds,
And sparkle like the dew.
You may talk about your Dearest Mae,
And sing of Rosa Lee,
But the yellow Rose of Texas
Beats the belles of Tennessee.

Where the Rio Grande is flowing,
And the starry skies are bright,
Oh, she walks along the river
In the quiet summer night;
And she thinks if I remember
When we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again,
And not to leave her so.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour, &c

Oh, I’m going now to find her,
For my heart is full of woe,
And we’ll sing the songs together
That we sang so long ago.
We’ll play the banjo gaily,
And we’ll sing our sorrows o’er,
And the yellow Rose of Texas
Shall be mine forever more.

Chorus: She’s the sweetest girl of colour, &c.

“Dearest Mae” and “Rosa Lee,” the only named females in the song, are the titles of two songs also appearing in Christy’s Minstrels songbooks. These songs were published earlier (1847–48) and are similar in style. Both are sung by a black man in a courtship setting with lyrics similar to those found in “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Dearest Mae, who was from “old Carolina state,” was described as follows: “Her eyes dey sparkle like de stars, Her lips are red as beet,” and “She cried when boff [both] we parted.” Rosa Lee lived in Tennessee and had “Eyes as dark as winter night, Lips as red as berry bright.”

The Christy’s Minstrels also included in their repertoire three other songs that reference attractive black women as “roses” who are associated with geographic places. These were “The Virginia Rose-Bud,” “The Rose of Alabama,” and “The Rose of Baltimore.” As such, the original lyrics of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” indicate that the song can best be understood in the context of its fictional minstrelsy genre and not for any incident authentically associated with the state of Texas.

The earliest stand-alone sheet music for “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was copyrighted in 1858 and published by the Firth, Pond & Company, a music store located at 547 Broadway in New York City. This company, owned by John Firth and William A. Pond, Jr., had published twenty-two of Christy’s songs by 1858. Mark Camann (2010) contended that Edwin Christy himself may have been involved in publishing the song sheet.

The cover of the sheet music states that the song was “composed and arranged expressly for Charles H. Brown by J.K.” Brown, who is identified on the cover as a resident of Jackson, Tennessee, appears in the 1860 U.S. census for that town as a twenty-six-year-old bookseller with a wife and two young children. No sources have surfaced to date to indicate Brown’s relationship with the composer or why the song was composed for him.

Ebenezer Calendar

December 7, 2012


Ebenezer Calendar sings “Nobody’s Business But My Own”:

by Ward Rien (OTP roving correspondent):

“If I drink my palm wine..If I smoke my cigarette…”

Straight from Freetown, Sierra Leone, we find the first man to record a calypso in Africa,

We find an old tune written by Bessie Smith’s old piano player in an old style

Derived from old slaves who were mostly brought across the ocean from the old place, the greater West African coast,

Yeah like in and around a place that would someday be called Free Town.  Sierra Leone.

But still, there as here it is nobody’s business if i dodoodoo.

edited from


Ebenezer Calendar was a cultural musician, historian and social commentator who used his popular maringa music to entertain and  educate his fellow countrymen.

He was born in Freetown on November 19, 1912 of a Jamaican father and a Sierra Leonean mother.  By 1930, he had become a qualified carpenter, and he was employed by Pa Alimamy Boungie, an undertaker at Kissy Street. Pa Boungie’s undertaker shop used to conduct wake-keeping ceremonies for bereaved families. Thus Calendar would learn coffin-making during the day, and at night he would be among the men Pa Boungie would send to sing at wake-keeping ceremonies.

About this time, Calendar and two of his friends formed a small musical group. They practiced on open grounds, and on-lookers would sometimes give them money. Later, they began getting invitations to perform at weddings, parties and other festive occasions. All this was just part-time, reserved for evenings, as Calendar continued working for Pa Boungie. Before finally embarking on a full-time musical career, Calendar worked for some time with the Sierra Leone Railway, opened and ran an undertaker shop, and then was employed as cabinet-maker for the United African Company Limited (U.A.C.).

A versatile musician, Calendar learnt to play several different musical instruments, including the mandolin, the cornet, rhythm guitar and the trumpet. Calendar’s group in the 1940s and 1950s relied upon a combination of locally-produced instruments like the bata (hand drum) and the triangle, and Western instruments like the guitar and the tambourine to produce his distinctive maringa rhythm.

Calendar’s early songs formed part of the dance music of the fifties and sixties, and most of his compatriots will remember the swinging  rhythm of the hit song “Fire, Fire.” As he grew older, his music became more philosophical, and he began to consider himself more as a teacher with the responsibility of imparting the lessons he gained from life to a younger generation.

When he died in 1985, music groups from all over Freetown converged on his home at the foot of Mt. Aureol and played his songs continuously for twenty-four hours. Thousands gathered  to remember the man they all loved and admired.


African Elegant (Original Music 1995)

John Henry (#2)

December 4, 2012

edited excerpt fromEvidence for John Henry in Alabama,” by John Garst (click here for pdf of entire article):

Doesn’t the fact that John Henry is legendary imply that he is fictional? No. Many real people have gained legendary status. Here are four legendary Americans.

(1) Casey Jones. He was a locomotive engineer who died in 1900 in a wreck at Vaughan, Mississippi.

(2) Lee Shelton. In 1895 he killed Billy Lyons in a St. Louis bar during some horseplay over a hat. His nickname was “Stack,” so he was “Stack” Lee. He became known in legend as “Stagolee.”

(3) Frankie Baker. In 1899 St. Louis, she killed her man, Allen Britt. She is the “Frankie” of “Frankie and Johnny.” In tradition, “Allen Britt” became “Al Britt” and then “Albert.” Later, in a tin-pan alley rewrite, “Albert” became “Johnny.”

(4) Delia Green. She was a 14-year-old Savannah girl who was shot and killed by her boyfriend at a Christmas-eve gathering in 1900. She is remembered in the ballad “Delia,” which is known in the Bahamas, in the popular American folksong craze of the 1950s and ‘60s, and to Johnny Cash fans as “Delia’s Gone.”
Don’t most folk ballads tell fictional stories? No. In 1964 folklorist G. Malcolm Law listed 256 native American ballads that were active in tradition. Laws groups “John Henry” with nineteen others that he considers to be “Ballads of the Negro.” Of these nineteen, eleven are based on historic events and the other eight could be.  Real events are common triggers for ballad composition. The majority of Laws’ 256 native American ballads have historic roots. On this basis alone, it is more probable than not that John Henry’s contest with a steam drill was real.

My conclusion is that it is beyond reasonable doubt that John Henry was an ex- slave from Mississippi who died at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887 or 1888, probably on September 20, 1887.   I choose the wording, “beyond reasonable doubt,” carefully. This is the standard of evidence for conviction in a criminal case. Direct evidence is not required – circumstantial evidence is sufficient. The evidence for John Henry at Dunnavant is circumstantial. “Beyond reasonable doubt” does not mean that there can be no doubt at all – it means that doubt is not reasonable.

The Masked Marvel

November 21, 2012

Paramount promoted Charley Patton’s second release (12805) with a contest. The initial pressing run of 10,000 copies was issued under the pseudonym “The Masked Marvel,” and customers were encouraged to guess the actual artist’s identity on cards like the one above. Winners could pick a free record of their choice. (from

from “Charley Patton and his Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” by Robert K. D. Peterson:


“Ayeko, Ayeko”

November 7, 2012

Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton play “Iko, Iko”: 

According to linguist Geoffrey D. Kimball, the lyrics of the song are derived in part from Mobilian Jargon, an extinct Native American trade language consisting mostly of Choctaw and Chickasaw words and once used by Southeastern Indians, African Americans, and European settlers and their descendants in the Gulf Coast Region. In Mobilian Jargon, čokəma fehna (interpreted as “jockomo feeno”) was a commonly used phrase, meaning “very good.”

Louisiana creole lingua specialists believe now that the words originated as:

Ena! Ena!
Akout, Akout an deye
Chaque amoor fi nou wa na né
Chaque amoor fi na né

In English, this equates to:

Hey now! Hey now!
Listen, listen at the back
All the love made our king be born
All the love made it happen.

In a 2009 Offbeat article, however, the Ghanaian social linguist Dr. Evershed Amuzu said the chorus was “definitely West African,” reflecting West African tonal patterns. The article also notes that the phrase ayeko—often doubled as ayeko, ayeko—is a popular chant meaning “well done, or congratulations” among the Akan and Ewe people in modern-day Togo, Ghana, and Benin. 

Both groups were heavily traded during the slave trade, often to Haiti, which served as a way station for Louisiana. (Ewes in particular are credited with bringing West African cultural influences like Voudou rites from West Africa to Haiti and on to New Orleans.)

(edited from

Casey Jones

November 6, 2012


“FATAL WRECK – Engineer Casey Jones, of This City, Killed Near Canton, Miss. – DENSE FOG THE DIRECT CAUSE – Of a Rear End Collision on the Illinois Central. – Fireman and Messenger Injured – Passenger Train Crashed Into a Local Freight Partly on the Siding-Several Cars Demolished.”  (From the Jackson, Tennessee Sun newspaper, April 30, 1900)

Soon after the fatal train collision that killed engineer John Luther Jones (he was nicknamed “Casey” because he was from the town of “Cayce”, Kentucky) on April 30, 1900, heroic tales of his death started to be told across the South. When he was living, Jones already had a growing reputation among railroad folks for his trademark whistle (every engineer at this time could make his own whistle) and for his aptitude at being always on time.

After his death, he became a real heroic figure and the song about him helped to carry his memory over the years.Like “Frankie and Albert”, the story of the Casey Jones ballad goes back and forth between the folk and popular music worlds. It originally started with Wallace Saunders, a black engine wiper who worked on a railroad shop in Canton. Saunders was known for his ability to make songs about people and singing or whistling them as he was working. The song he made up about Casey Jones, derived from an older African-American “Blues ballad” called “Jimmy Jones”. It had a very catchy tune and people along the railroad line started to sing it.

Illinois Central Engineer William Leighton loved the song so much that he told about it to his two brothers Frank and Bert, who were vaudeville performers. The Leighton brothers re-arranged the song with a chorus they added and sang it in theaters around the country. Finally two other vaudeville performers Lawrence Seibert, singer and Eddie Newton, composer, took the credit for the song and published it in 1909 under the title “Casey Jones , the Brave Engineer”. From then it became a very popular piece and although it described a tragedy, the song had a humorous feel and a catchy melody that pleased everyone. Recordings were made of the “vaudeville” Casey Jones” and this version entered as well the oral folk tradition where it could be mixed with older songs.

“Stack a Lee”

October 27, 2012

Bob Dylan’s liner notes to “Stack a Lee” on his album “World Gone Wrong”:

What does the song say exactly?

It says no man gains immortality thru public acclaim.

Truth is shadowy.

In the pre-postindustrial age, victims of violence were allowed (in fact it was their duty) to be judge over their offenders- parents were punished for their children’s crimes (we’ve come a long way since then).

The song says that a man’s hat is his crown.

Futurologists would insist it’s a matter of taste.
They say “let’s sleep on it” but they’re already living in the sanatorium.

No Rights Without Duty is the name of the game & fame is a trick.

Playing for time is only horsing around.

Stack’s in the cell,

No wall phone.

He is not some egotistical degraded existentialist dionysian idiot, neither does he represent any alternative lifestyle scam (give me a thousand acres of tractable land & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one).

Billy didn’t have an insurance plan, didn’t get airsick, yet his ghost is more real & genuine than all the dead souls on the boob tube- a monumental epic of blunder & misunderstanding. A romance tale without the cupidity.


John Henry

October 19, 2012

In the following interview, Scott Nelson, associate professor of history, discusses his discovery of the real John Henry, the subject of his book “Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.”

W&M News: How did you “find” the real John Henry?

Nelson: John Henry is the most researched folk hero around. I came about my study in a completely different way than most researchers: I wasn’t so interested in the song. I had heard it, but the descriptions of John Henry being this black man who was, in the 1870s, a highly paid worker who was renowned throughout the South and who could earn any amount of money struck me as odd. I knew a whole lot about black railroad workers in the South, and it didn’t fit with anything I knew. It’s not that black railroad workers’ lives were terrible—they weren’t awful, but these men were not highly paid, highly respected people. The social history sort of told me that there was something wrong with these accounts.

So, I was looking at the song and thinking about how to parse it and analyze it. I had that picture of the Virginia penitentiary as my background screen on my computer because I was working on hammer songs. It’s mostly prisoners who have these hammer songs. These songs are sung to hammer blows. I was looking through the song and the last lyric: “They took John Henry to the White House, and they buried him in the sand, and every locomotive comes roarin by says there lies a steel drivin’ man.” The standard account of that, when scholars looked at it, was “well, isn’t it funny that he was brought to the White House, where there isn’t any railroad and there is no sand.”

Actually, the term “White House” wasn’t used for the executive office until Teddy Roosevelt was president in 1901, so there wasn’t the White House. I’m looking at the penitentiary on my computer screen, and there is a white house, there is a railroad running by and there is sand all around. Suddenly—well, it was one of those moments … .

W&M News: Why did other historians fail?

Nelson: When you start with the penitentiary, instead of starting with the Big Bend Tunnel, everything sort of comes together. You find someone named John Henry; you find that all these convicts had been shipped up to do construction for the railroad; you find steam drills side by side with these convicts and you find that the tunnel they worked on primarily was the Lewis Tunnel. It was because I started searching the names of the contractors—of the C&O officials who were working on the line—that I found all of those things that everyone said were missing.

People had said that you can never know what happened on the C&O railroad because all of the engineering records were destroyed in a fire. I found that the papers of the contractors were available at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio. They describe construction of the C&O railroad tunnels. Taken together, they are the smoking gun. (more…)

Engine 143

October 8, 2012



The Wreck of the FFV

“The report reached the city this morning that train No. 4, (the vestibuled) had been derailed a short distance east of Hinton, and the investigation by the ADVERTISER shows that there was an accident to this train, but not so bad as at first rumored.

At about 5 o’clock this morning the train ran into a rock, which had rolled on the track from the mountain above, two miles east of Hinton. The train was running at good speed, and the collision caused the engine and express and postal cars to be derailed. The engine was badly damaged, and in overturning caught the engineer, George Alley, of Clifton Forge, well known here, in some of the machinery, breaking his right arm and scalding him so severely that he died six hours after the accident occurred.

Two firemen, who were on the engine were also scalded but sustained no other injuries. No one else, either of the crew or passengers, was injured, though all of them had a shaking up and a bad scare. No particular damage was done to the passenger cars and at 9:30 the track was cleared and the train started east.”

Since the end of the 19th century, the themes of railroads and trains became a important part of American folk songs, particularly songs about train wrecks. The most famous of them all would be “The wreck of the old 97″, thanks to his numerous  recordings by popular and hillbilly musicians in the 1920′s and 1930′s. “Engine 143″ (also called “The Wreck on the C & O” or “The FFV”) was also a popular “train wreck” song, one that was part of the oral tradition and continued to live through recordings, particularly the one by The Carter Family, which became the most well-known version of the song until today.

It seems that this ballad, that carried the memory of the tragic death of engineer George Alley, was full of little details that were not true at all to the real story. In his study of American railroad songs, “Long Steel Rail”, Norm Cohen enumerates them: “George Alley’s mother did not come to him with a basket on her arm, as she had died years before; George’s hair was straight and black, not golden or curly; Jack Dickenson was not on the engine at the time (and it has not been explained who he was and how he became implicated in the ballad; the engine was numbered 134, not 143; George’s fireman did not have time to wave goodbye to him, nor did he jumped into the river…; George’s mother did not come to his side as he was dying; his last words were very likely “Are they coming?” rather than “Nearer my God to Thee”. The Carter Family’s version, in fact did not carry all the details of the longer ballad but focused more on the heroic death of the engineer.

John Hardy

October 4, 2012

Leadbelly plays “John Hardy”on the diatonic accordion:


by John Harrington Cox  (From Journal of American Folk-Lore, Volume 32, No. 126, October-December 1919, pp.505-520)

The following statement was made to me in person in the summer of 1918 by Mr. James Knox Smith, a Negro lawyer of Keystone, McDowell County, who was present at the trial and also at the execution of John Hardy:—

“Hardy worked for the Shawnee Coal Company, and one pay-day night he killed a man in a crap game over a dispute of twenty-five cents. Before the game began, he laid his pistol on the table, saying to it, ‘Now I want you to lay here; and the first nigger that steals money from me, I mean to kill him.’ About midnight he began to lose, and claimed that one of the Negroes had taken twenty-five cents of his money. The man denied the charge, but gave him the amount; whereupon he said, ‘Don’t you know that I won’t lie to my gun?’ Thereupon he seized his pistol and shot the man dead.

“After the crime he hid around the Negro shanties and in the mountains a few days, until John Effler (the sheriff) and John Campbell (a deputy) caught him. Some of the Negroes told them where Hardy was, and, slipping into the shanty where he was asleep, they first took his shotgun and pistol, then they wakcd him up and put the cuffs on him. Effler handcuffed Hardy to himself, and took the train at Eckman for Welch. Just as the train aas passing through a tunnel, and Effler was taking his prisoner from one car to another, Hardy jumped, and took Effler with him. He tried to get hold of Effler’s pistol; and the sheriff struck him over the head with it, and almost killed him. Then he unhandcuffed himself from Hardy, tied him securely with ropes, took him to Welch, and put him in jail.

“While in jail after his conviction, he could look out and see the men building his scaffold; and he walked up and down his cell, telling the rest of the prisoners that he would never be hung on that scaffold. Judge H. H. Christian, who had defended Hardy, heard of this, visited him in jail, advised him not to kill himself or compel the officers to kill him, but to prepare to die. Hardy began to sing and pray, and finally sent for the Reverend Lex Evans, a white Baptist preacher, told him he had made his peace with God, and asked to be baptized. Evans said he would as soon baptize him as he would a white man. Then they let him put on a new suit of clothes, the guards led him down to the Tug River, and Evans baptized him. On the scaffold he begged the sheriff’s pardon for the way he had treated him, said that he had intended to fight to the death and not be hung, but that after he got religion he did not feel like fighting. He confessed that he had done wrong, killed a man under the influence of whiskey, and advised all young men to avoid gambling and drink. A great throng witnessed the hanging.

“Hardy was black as a crow, over six feet tall, weighed about two hundred pounds, raw-boned, and had unusually long arms. He came originally from down eastern Virginia, and had no family. He had formerly been a steel-driver, and was about forty years old, or more.”

“Mouse/Frog Nuptials”

October 1, 2012

edited from David Highland (

This site contains over 170 verses of Froggy Went a Courtin’ compiled from 29 sources (including the ubiquitus ‘anonymous’). Not all verses from all sources are reproduced here, as some are essentially redundant of versions already included. The ballad is found under many titles, primarily variations of: A Moste Strange Weddinge of the Ffrogge and the Mowse (1580), The Marriage of the Frogge and the Mouse (1611), Mr. Frog Went a-Courting, Frog Went a- Courting, Froggy Went a-Courtin’, A Frog He Would a-Wooing Go, and The Frog and the Mouse. The compiled verses are arranged somewhat in the order in which the story unfolds, and grouped somewhat by subject matter.

I have presented the text from the oldest known publication of the ballad (1611) along with the associated tune (for more on this source, click). One of the earliest known references to its existence is the entry in the register of the London Company of Stationers. It was so registered by Edward White in 1580 as “A Moste Strange Weddinge of the Ffrogge and the Mowse.” Patricia Hackett reports (The Melody Book, Prentice Hall, 1983) that this song was originally a satire of Queen Elizabeth’s habit of referring to her ministers by animal nicknames. She called Sir Walter Raleigh her “fish,” the French Ambassador Simier her “ape,” and the Duc d’Alencon her “frog.”

It is commonly accepted that the earliest mention of the frog/mouse ballad is in The Complaynt of Scotland (1549 – see the Oxford Text Archive at, where it is referred to as “The Frog Cam to the Myl Dur”. In the liner notes of the LP Brave Boys; New England traditions in folk music (New World Records 239, 1977), Evelyn K. Wells reports that the 1580 version recorded with the London Company of Stationers may have been revised from the older song, at the time of the proposed (unpopular) marriage of Queen Elizabeth I to the Duc d’Alencon.

Second, I have assembled many of the verses from the compilation into a single presentation of the ballad. These verses are assembled into a form which gives the reader a feel for the general ballad narrative, and how the ballad might be sung today (though probably not with so many verses).

As you will note when reading through the various verses and versions of this ancient tale, one fact becomes evident. The wedding turned into a pretty wild party! In most cases, the conflicting statements by the various witnesses (as evidenced by the verses presented herein) do not affect the key facts of the event. However, it is clear that, after over 400 years, the mystery of the ultimate fate of Mr. Frog and Miss Mousie remains unsolved. Did they, as reported by some witnesses, die a slow death in the distended belly of the “big black snake”? Or did they come to an even more unbearable end – forced to live out their last days in France? With so many generations between the actual witnesses and ourselves, we may never know the truth.

Peg and Awl

September 28, 2012


Carolina Tar Heels
“Peg and Awl” (Victor V-40007, 1928)

“Peg and Awl” is a song about making shoes, and while that may seem like a mundane subject, it is executed in a way that is marvelously entertaining. The song is sung from the perspective of a shoemaker who toils away year after year making shoes by hand with the tools of the day: peg and awl. When a new machine is invented that makes it possible to make shoes much faster and easier, the shoemaker rejoices, because “Peggin’ shoes it ain’t no fun.”

Historically, the song gets the timing wrong: shoemaking machines weren’t in use until the late 19th century, not the beginning. But that’s really not the point; the real strength of the song is its presentation, which is catchy and subtly comical. The song is played on guitar and banjo, with harmonica added at the beginning and end. A rustic, nasal voice sings the verses, while another voice periodically interjects, “Peg and awl!” The word “awl” is always stretched out into an almost hound-dog like howl. At the end of the song, it is a howl of triumph when that second voice finally says, “Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!”


The song itself is what I would consider an example of Deep Craft. Though presumably written by an anonymous cobbler almost two hundred years ago, its message remains relevant, like an early 19th century version of Moore’s Law, and the song’s survival both transcends and acknowledges the passing from a craft-based to an industrial production paradigm. Yet it manages to romanticize neither.

The origin of the word ‘toil’ has two Latin derivations. As a verb, it derives from ‘tudes’, to hammer; as a noun it derives from ‘tela’, a web.

As illustrated by the song ‘Peg and Awl’, making things offers an opportunity to elevate the ‘toil’ of handwork into something more timeless, like a memorable song, which might outlive any of the practical products of artisanry (shoes?). The cadence of the song and collaborative exchange of its interlocking parts hints at a kind of pre-machine logic. The low-energy instrumentation and light-hearted delivery captures a comic ambivalence and reluctant enthusiasm for the dawning Industrial Revolution. More so than shoes, ‘Peg and Awl’ is the exalted product of tireless handwork, and sounds like its authors knew exactly what they were doing.

The Chain Store Blues

September 8, 2012


An energetic, if short-lived, protest movement of the late 1920s and early ‘30s flexed against the encroachment of chain-stores — evidence that the “buy local” concept is of some vintage. Although several chain-store blues were recorded in the pre-war recording era, however, only the Allen Brothers’ 1930 plea for support of independent “home stores,” entitled “I Got the Chain Store Blues,” was released.

Perhaps the labels assumed that the chains, many of which sold their records, wouldn’t take kindly to such sentiments. By 1930, Chattanooga, Tennessee — then the base of operations for the Sewanee-born Lee and Austin Allen — was home to a Sears Roebuck, a Montgomery Ward, and a McLellan’s five-and-dime. Other stores like Woolworth’s, J.C. Penney, and the A&P (“Where Economy Rules”) had infiltrated many smaller towns, prompting “trade-at-home” campaigns and legislation to limit what the chains sold and where they sold it.

W.K. Henderson, the sensational personality behind Shreveport’s radio-powerhouse WKHK, threw his considerable weight behind the movement: “We have attempted to bring to light the ruinous and devastating effect of sending the profits of business out of our local communities to a common center, Wall Street…. appealed to the fathers and mothers — who entertain the fond hope of their children becoming prosperous business leaders—to awaken to a realization of the dangers of the chain stores‘ closing this door of opportunity…. insisted that the payment of starvation wages such as the chain-store system fosters, must be eradicated.”

Allen Bros. play “I Got the Chain Store Blues”:

Barbary Ellen

July 24, 2012

 from Charles Seeger’s notes to “Versions and Variants of the Tunes of ‘Barbara Allen'”(AFS L 54) and Alan Lomax’s “Folk Songs of North America”:

A girl refuses a man who says he is dying for love of her.  He expires when she turns from him; then she, too, dies of remorse.  Barbara is glad to see her Willie dying because of a small misunderstanding which could have been cleared up in a moment.  Her remorselessness and Willie’s extraordinary demise are not really explained, but represent an undercurrent of powerful feelings which it is assumed the audience understands.  In fact, the song is the vehicle for the fantasies of woman and the frustrations of men, of which both the ballad singers and their listeners are unconsciously aware.

To investigate the problem of the identity of the ballad tune, it is necessary to select a ballad for which there is available for exam­ination a large number of specimens that are representative of the main stream of oral transmission as well in the British Isles as in North America.    For as far as this kind of material is concerned, the two areas have formed one sing­ing community for more than three centuries, maintained since 1620 by con­stant westward migration and now, by the eastward migration of the folk­ music revival movement.    The ballad of “Barbara Allen,” as it is known in the United States, seems to fulfill the conditions set forth above. Folk­lorists have frequently attested to the fact of its being the best and most widely known of all the “Child” ballads on both sides of the Atlantic.

The holdings of the Archive of American Folk Song (AAFS) in the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. are eminently suited to use for such a purpose. Of the total of seventy-six dubbings made available for the present study, most were recorded at or near the residences of the informants during the years 1933 to 1940 with what must be considered, at this writing, primitive equipment. For the most part, recording was made on aluminum blanks. Collectors were rarely experienced in field collection and few had had special training.    Few could make the adjustments and repairs of the machines inci­dent to wear and tear, rough handling, variation of electrical current, and obsolescence.    Some of the original discs show blemishes of such basic cha­racter that subsequent sound-engineering could not modify them without loss of essential features of the singing.    In spite of these hazards, some of the sound-tracks still project a luminous quality through the veil of imperfections. Recordings not only of exceptionally talented but even of ordinary carriers of the tradition often possess this quality, though to varying degrees.

Listen to Bill Cornett sing “Barbara Allen” in previous post.

High Water Everywhere

July 17, 2012

High Water Everywhere

by Charley Patton

Well, backwater done rose all around Sumner now,
drove me down the line
Backwater done rose at Sumner,
drove poor Charley down the line
Lord, I’ll tell the world the water,
done crept through this town

Lord, the whole round country,
Lord, river has overflowed
Lord, the whole round country,
man, is overflowed
You know I can’t stay here,
I’ll go where it’s high, boy

I would go to the hilly country,
but, they got me barred
Now, look-a here now at Leland
river was risin’ high
Look-a here boys around Leland tell me,
river was raisin’ high

Boy, it’s risin’ over there, yeah
I’m gonna move to Greenville
fore I leave, goodbye
Look-a here the water now, Lordy,
Levee broke, rose most everywhere
The water at Greenville and Leland,
Lord, it done rose everywhere

Boy, you can’t never stay here
I would go down to Rosedale
but, they tell me there’s water there
Now, the water now, mama,
done took Charley’s town

Well, they tell me the water,
done took Charley’s town
Boy, I’m goin’ to Vicksburg
Well, I’m goin’ to Vicksburg,
for that high of mine
I am goin’ up that water,
where lands don’t never flow

Well, I’m goin’ over the hill where,
water, oh don’t ever flow
Boy, hit Sharkey County and everything was down in Stovall
But, that whole county was leavin’,
over that Tallahatchie shore Boy,
went to Tallahatchie and got it over there

Lord, the water done rushed all over,
down old Jackson road
Lord, the water done raised,
over the Jackson road
Boy, it starched my clothes
I’m goin’ back to the hilly country,
won’t be worried no more

Charley Patton sings “High Water Everywhere, pt. 1″:

Adieu, False Heart

July 9, 2012

Arthur smith
Fiddling Arthur Smith


Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers recorded Adieu False Heart on January 26, 1938 in Charleston. Readers of The Celestial Monochord will recognize Adieu False Heart, of course, as one of the few pre-War hillbilly recordings about astronomy and cosmology.

It’s a “heart song” — a very sentimental parlor song. You might dismiss it entirely, until you actually bid adieu to an actual false-hearted lover, at which point you think, “Now, how did that old song go again?”

I’ve always thought the last line of the third verse should be “It’s every night it changes.” After all, the moon’s phases change from night to night — from month to month, they’re pretty much the same.

But that third verse is great. For one thing, its astronomical imagery sets up the final verse’s mention of a fairly technical idea in cosmology — the speed of time. Coming after the previous verse, it gives a touching sense of the singer caught up in nature’s relentless, remorseless clockwork — he’s as much a victim of Isaac Newton’s conception of time as of a lousy girlfriend.

That theme is emphasized by the recording’s pace, which is set by a firm, metronome-like guitar. As Arthur Smith sings the very last line (“Just as fast as time can take me”), the clockwork rhythm … gradually … slows … to a … halt.

I’ve mentioned before, in the context of Tom Waits and Stephen Foster, that people who are grieving often become morbidly fixated on nature’s small details. Think also of Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d. In a sense, Adieu False Heart gives us yet another person in deep emotional pain who becomes acutely aware of the natural world — and in this case, the “nature” that the mourner struggles to come to grips with is the very character of space-time itself.

By the way, both Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers were members of the Grand Ol’ Opry around the time of this recording. Smith’s fiddling (along with that of Clayton McMichen and Curly Fox) was hugely influential to Bill Monroe as he was inventing bluegrass. You can maybe hear a hint of this in the solid, driving 4/4 time of the Delmore Brother’s guitars and in the novel, extended use of the “five chord.” About Adieu False Heart, John Fahey writes:

Most songs go to the four chord and then the five chord and quickly back to home base. This construction is quite rare and makes for an unusually beautiful ballad.

You can find the song on the “lost” fourth volume of Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music,” released on Revenant in 2000 for the first time.

Here are the lyrics, near as I can tell:


Adieu false heart, since we must part
May the joys of the world go with you
I’ve loved you long with a faithful heart
but I never anymore can a-b’lieve you

I’ve seen the time I’d-a married you
And been your constant lover
But now I gladly give you up
For one whose heart’s more truer.

My mind is like the constant sun
From the east to the west it ranges
Yours is like unto the moon
It’s every month it changes

When I lay down to take my rest
No scornful one to wake me
I’ll go straight ways unto my grave
Just as fast as time can take me

Row Us Over the Tide

July 1, 2012

Kelly Harrell


Kelly Harrell, a Virginia textile factory worker, never learned to play an instrument. But when he heard Charlie Poole’s popular stringband records of 1925, Harrell decided he could sing better than Poole. He took some musicians with him to audition for the Victor label.

The resulting 43 records over the next 4 years are wildly uneven. As I hear them, two-thirds just don’t stand up over time — not well chosen, awkwardly arranged, listlessly sung. But sometimes … sometimes something magical happens in the recording room. Everything comes together, and those recordings are some of the best ever recorded. It is a mysterious and wonderous thing.

On July 9, 1942, to show his co-workers how fit he was despite being 52 years old, Harrell hopped out of the first-story window of the textile factory where he worked onto the sidewalk below. He took a couple steps, collapsed, and died. According to his wife, Lula, “He never was a farsighted man.”

On August 12, 1927, Harrell recorded “Row Us Over The Tide” as a duet with Henry Norton, a tenor he had never met before and would never meet again. They’re accompanied by banjo, guitar, and the strange and beautiful fiddling of Lonnie Austin. The vocals are corny and maudlin, even humorous. But I also find them uncannily moving.

The song seems to have been a widely-known gospel tune, dating from around the Civil War. In it, two children beg a mysterious boatman to row them over a mysterious tide. It’s hard to avoid the interepretation that the exhausted Orphans are begging to be taken to Heaven — that is, they’re begging to die:

Two little children were strolling one day
Down by the river side.
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
“Row us over the tide.”

“Row us over the tide,
Row us over the tide,”
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
“Row us over the tide.”

“Be kind to us, mister, dear Mother is dead;
We have no place to abide.
Our father’s a gambler and cares not for us,
Please row us over the tide.”

“The angels took Mother to her heavenly home,
There with the saints to abide.
Our father’s forsaken us, he’s left us alone,
Please row us over the tide.”

“Mama and Papa told Willie one day,
Jesus would come for their child.
We are so tired of waiting so long,
Row us over the tide.”

Thinking of this song, with its dream-like detachment from any specific time and place, I’m often reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s recurring dream. He talked about it at his last cabinet meeting, only hours before he was shot at Ford’s Theater. In the dream, according to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, “he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore.”


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