Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Old Lady and the Devil" - Bill and Belle Reed



Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Five: "Old Lady and the Devil" performed by Bill and Belle Reed. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Johnson City, TN on October 17, 1928. Original issue Columbia 15336D (W147211).

Another mystery. Bill and Belle Reed made just three recordings at their sole recording session in Johnson City, Tennessee during the fall of 1928. Almost nothing else is known of them. Some scholars theorize that they came from Virgina or Kentucky. Much more is known of the October, 1928 session at which they recorded. The session was supervised by Frank Buckley Walker, who headed Columbia Records' "hillbilly" division. Like Ralph Peer at Victor, Walker was an early proponent of major record companies doing "field recordings," rather than bringing talent back to major cities to record. The Johnson City sessions captured a number of talented artists who might otherwise have never had the opportunity to record, such as the Shell Creek Quartet, the Grant Brothers, the Roane County Ramblers, Renus Rich and Charles Bradshaw, Clarence Greene, the Wise Brothers, Ira Yates, Uncle Nick Decker, the Proximity String Quartet, Hardin and Grindstaff, the Greensboro Boys Quartet, Richard Harold, Charlie Bowman and His Brothers, the Bowman Sisters, the Hodges Brothers, the Hodges Quartet, Bailey Briscoe, Robert Hoke and Vernal Vest, McVay and Johnson, Earl Shipley and Roy Harper, George Roark, the Ed Helton Singers, the Garland Brothers and Grindstaff, Dewey Golden and His Kentucky Buzzards, the Holiness Singers, Frank Shelton and the McCartt Brothers/Patterson.

A follow up to this session held in Johnson City in 1929 yielded Clarence Ashley's recording of "The Coo Coo Bird," which appears later on this set.

Since both Bill and Belle Reed are credited, it can be assumed that both performed on this recording. Bill sings, which implies (since only one guitar is audible) that Belle played guitar. Belle Reed is often confused with Ola Belle Reed who made several later recordings.

"Old Lady and the Devil" is a version of Child 278, "The Farmer's Curst Wife," two versions of which were cataloged by Child. Like "Drunkard's Special," "Old Lady and the Devil" is a comic piece which tells the story of a farmer's wife who is abducted by Satan with humorous consequences.

There was an old man lived at the foot of the hill, if he ain't moved way he's a living there still. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

He hitched up his hogs(!) and went out to plow, and how he got around we never knew how. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Old Devil come to him in the field one day, saying one or your family I'm a gonna take a away. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Take her home take her home with the joy of my heart. I hope by Golly, you'll never part. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Old Devil got her all up on his back. He looked like a peddler with a hump on this back. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Old Devil got to the forks of the road. He said, old lady you're a hell of a load. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Old Devil got to the gates of hell, said punch the fire up we'll scorch her well. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Out come a little devil a dragging a chain, she picked up a hatchet and split out his brain. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Out come a little devil skating on a wall, said take her back daddy she's a murdering us all. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Little devil was a-peeping out the crack said take her home daddy, don't you bring he back. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

The old man was peeping out the crack he seen the old Devil come wagging her back. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

The old man lay sick in the bed. She upped with a butter stick and paddled his head. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Old lady went whistlin' over the hill, said the Devil won't have me and I don't know who will. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Now you see what a woman can do. She can out do the Devil and the old man too. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Old lady went whistlin' over the hill, said the Devil won't have me and I don't know who will. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

The old man was peeping out the crack he seen the old Devil come wagging her back. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

The old man lay sick in the bed. She upped with a butter stick and paddled his head. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.

Now you see what a woman can do. She can out do the Devil and the old man too. Singing Faaa-diddle-diddle-a-Faaa-diddle-a-diddle-a-daaay.


The henpecked husband of this story gives his shrewish wife to the Devil, who arbitrarily shows up to abduct a member of the household. The Devil quickly discovers that the Old Woman is too much for him to handle, and he returns her to her chagrined husband. There are several images in this version of the song that I quite like: The "little devils" who bear the brunt of the Old Woman's rage; the fact that both the the Old Man and the little devils are depicted as "peeping"; I also enjoy the fact that Reed keeps singing the song for several verses after the story has been told. This makes the story almost incidental to the performance. As in many other performances by poor whites during this period, the signing style is unemotional to the point where you begin to question whether the singer had ever given any thought to the words he sings. Belle Reed's guitar playing is rough and primitive, which makes this performance even more enjoyable.

"Old Lady and the Devil", along with "Drunkard's Special", is the second of two comic songs in a row. Both songs feature put-upon husbands with cruel or misbehaving wives. Both songs depict the wives getting the better of their husbands, despite the husbands' best efforts to the contrary. As much as Smith enjoyed placing songs with similar themes side by side, he also juxtaposed songs with contrasting themes. Following this two-song break, Smith returns to tragedy with the next selection, "The Butcher's Boy."

Looking around online, I found this excellent performance of "Old Lady and the Devil" performed on a Gold Tone MM150 long neck banjo. The performer is only identified as mrpedersen9. Whoever he is, he's wonderful and I wanted to share his performance...



Quick personal note: As I listened to this song again today (a song I've listened to literally hundreds of times), I began to realize that the story seemed more than a bit familiar to me. It hit me that I had read a children's book on this very subject as a kid. Searching a bit online, I found the book: It's called Even the Devil is Afraid of a Shrew. It was "retold by Valerie Stalder, adapted by Ray Broekel and illustrated by Richard Brown. Published 1972 by Addison-Wesley." An illustration from the book can be seen here.

Download and listen to Bill and Belle Reed - Old Lady and the Devil

2 comments:

  1. Where does this notion that Bill & Belle Reed recorded three songs come from? Allmusic.com makes the same assertion, which is perhaps where this trail of incorrect information began. The Reeds recorded only "Old Lady and the Devil" (discussed above) and "You Shall Be Free" (see Russell, "Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942"). TR

    ReplyDelete
  2. There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell
    (whistling)
    And he'd a bad wife, as many could tell.
    With me fol-de-rol-diddle-i-day
    . . . .
    Now you see that the women are better than men
    Send them to hell, they can get out again.

    The song comes from the English version; the old idea was that Hob, Old Nick, the Old Bugger, the Devil, could be called up by whistling.

    A.L. Llod has a good version but without whistling, which you can find:
    http://archive.org/details/A.L.Lloyd-TheDevilAndThePloughman

    A friend, a passionate feminist loved this song, claiming that the farmer was, likely as not, a lazy drunkard who deserved his over-worked wife's scolding.

    ReplyDelete