Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Peg and Awl" - The Carolina Tar Heels



Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Twelve: "Peg and Awl" performed by The Carolina Tar Heels. "Vocal duet with harmonica, banjo, guitar." Recorded in Atlanta on October 14, 1928. Original issue Victor V-4007A.

The Carolina Tar Heels were a North Carolina based performing and recording entity founded by banjo picker Doc Walsh and guitarist Gwen Foster. They were fairly unusual for a string band in that they never included a fiddle player in their ranks. Clarence Ashley, who plays guitar and sings lead on this track, performed with the group between 1928 and 1929. In 1928, Gwen Foster was replaced by the similarly named Garley Foster (no relation). The Tar Heels continued to record for Victor until 1932. After the groups dissolution, Walsh worked in poultry and auto parts while Foster went into carpentry. The release of the Anthology led to their rediscovery in 1961 when the group reunited without Ashley. The Tar Heels recorded an album for the Folk Legacy label in 1964 with Walsh's son rounding out the group.

Doc Walsh died in 1967 and Garley Foster died in 1968. See Clarence Ashley's entry under "The House Carpenter" for his biographical information.

"Peg and Awl" is a song about industrial unemployment. The narrator is a shoemaker who is run out of business by a machine that does his job in less time. This same theme resurfaces in the "John Henry" family of folk songs (including "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand" which appears later on in the Anthology). The difference, of course, is that while John Henry famously died proving that he was the equal of the steam drill, the shoemaker in "Peg and Awl" simply surrenders.

In the days of eighteen and one
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and one
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and one
Peggin' shoes is all I done.
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

In the days of eighteen and two
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and two
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and two
Peggin' shoes is all I do.
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

In the days of eighteen and three
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and three
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and three
Peggin' shoes is all you'd see.
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

In the days of eighteen and four
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and four
Peg and awl.
In the days of eighteen and four
I said I'd peg them shoes no more.
Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

They've invented a new machine
Peg and awl.
They've invented a new machine
Peg and awl.
They've invented a new machine
Prettiest little thing you ever seen.
Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

Make one hundred pair to my one
Peg and awl.
Make one hundred pair to my one
Peg and awl.
Make one hundred pair to my one
Peggin' shoes it ain't no fun.
Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

Some shoemaker...


"Peg and Awl" is a good example of the way folk songs often play fast and loose with the facts. The song's lyrics place this song in the early 19th century, during the period of the British Industrial Revolution. There certainly was a lot of sudden unemployment as a result of labor saving inventions during that period, as well as a good deal of resistance against such changes (see the Luddite movement during the 1810s). However, the fact is that shoes were made by hand until about 1845. One possibility is that "Peg and Awl" might have descended from an earlier song written in the early 1800s. During the 1840s and '50s, when cobblers were suddenly finding their livelihood threatened by - among other things - Elias Howe's invention of the sewing machine in 1846, some musician may have substituted shoe making for an earlier industry. Nevertheless, the song has survived in its present form since the mid-19th century, at least.

The "peg" and "awl" of the title refer to the tools of the cobbler's trade. The pegs were made of wood, were 3/4 of an inch long and about the width of a match. Pegging shoes was the fastest way to attach the sole and heel to the shoe. The awl was a sharp instrument used to make or widen holes in the shoe leather.

Here are a couple of very different interpretations of "Peg and Awl." The first is performed by Lew Dite on the five-string banjo.



The second is by Mike McCann, performing on the acoustic guitar.



Update: "Where Dead Voices Gather" is now a podcast! You can go here to listen to the first episode!


Download and listen to The Carolina Tar Heels - "Peg and Awl"

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