An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
24 November, 2009
"Willie Moore" - Burnett and Rutherford
Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Ten: "Willie Moore" performed by Burnett and Rutherford. "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo and violin." Recorded in Atlanta on November 3, 1927. Original issue Columbia 15314D (W145086).
Richard Burnett (vocal and banjo) and Leonard Rutherford (fiddle) were both born in Monticello, Kentucky (Burnett in 1883, Rutherford around 1900). Burnett started playing music as a child, eventually learning to play banjo, guitar, fiddle and dulcimer. Blinded during a botched hold-up in 1907, Burnett turned to music professionally in order to support his wife and small child. In 1914 he began performing with teenage fiddler Rutherford. They made their first recordings in 1926. Burnett is sometimes credited with writing "Farewell Song," better known today as "Man of Constant Sorrow," although this is conjectural. Both men spent most of their lives performing in and around Monticello. Rutherford died in 1954 from complications connected to epilepsy. Burnett died in 1977.
All of the ballads featured thus far have had their origin in the British Isles. "Willie Moore" is the first track on the Anthology to originate in the United States. Burnett later recalled having learned the song from a printed broadside in his native Kentucky. According to Smith's liner notes, a Mr. Paul Wilson of Farmington, Aarkansas reported meeting a Rev. William Moore in Dallas, Texas, who claimed to be the inspiration for the song (reported in Vance Randolph's Ozark Folk Songs, published in four volumes between 1946 and 1950 by the State Historical Society of Missouri). Little else is known about the origin of the song.
The song tells a rather typical tragic tale of star-crossed lovers whose romance ends in death.
Willie Moore was a king, his age twenty-one, He courted a damsels fair; O, her eyes was as bright as the diamonds after night, And wavy black was her hair.
He courted her both night and day, 'Til to marry they did agree; But when he came to get her parents consent, They said it could never be.
She threw herself in Willie Moore's arms, As oftime had done before; But little did he think when they parted that night, Sweet Anna he would see no more.
It was about the tenth of May, The time I remember well; That very same night, her body disappeared In a way no tongue could tell.
Sweet Annie was loved both far and near, Had friends most all around; And in a little brook before the cottage door, The body of sweet Anna was found.
She was taken by her weeping friends, And carried to her parent's room, And there she was dressed in a shroud of snowy white, And laid in a lonely tomb.
Her parents now are left alone, One mourns while the other one weeps; And in a grassy mound before the cottage door, The body of sweet Anna still sleeps.
This song was composed in the flowery West By a man you may never have seen; O, I tell you his name, but 'tis not in full, His initials are J.R.D.
Like "Old Shoes and Leggins" and "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O," "Willie Moore" is a story of courtship. Unlike the previous two songs, however, "Willie Moore" is a tragic tale of heartbreak and suicide. Sweet Anna takes her own life when her parents refuse to let her marry Willie Moore. Curiously, although the song is titled "Willie Moore" and despite his description as a "king" in the first verse, the song really isn't about him at all. Some published versions of the song include a verse missing from Burnett and Rutherford's version. It reads as follows:
Willie Moore never spoke that anyone heard, And at length from his friends did part, And the last heard from him, he'd gone to Montreal, Where he died of a broken heart.
When Paul Wilson reported having met the historical Willie Moore, Moore reportedly stated that "I didn't go to Montreal and die, though, like the song says, I just went to East Texas an' took up preachin' the word."
One of the most curious details of this song is the final verse which gives the initials of the ballad's composer. According to some sources, the initials are "J.R.G." rather than "J.R.D." What the initials stand for, of course, is unknown.
Burnett and Rutherford's recording is particularly notable for the combination of banjo and fiddle, the first time these two instruments have been heard as a duo on the Anthology. Rutherford's performance is particularly excellent, lending the song a pathos lacking in Burnett's declamatory vocals. See the entry for "Old Shoes and Leggins" for more on the fiddle. See the entries for "The House Carpenter" and "The Butcher's Boy" for more on the banjo. This is the second of three songs in a row to feature the fiddle in combination with other instruments. It will not be until "Ommie Wise" that the violin is heard as a solo instrument.
A wonderful version of "Willie Moore" was performed on Elvis Costello's television program, Spectacle, performed by Rufus Wainright and his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, with Costello and Bill Frisell joining in on guitar.
Here is a version of "Willie Moore" performed on a five-string banjo by Roger McGuinn. His version includes the verse relating how Willie Moore died in Montreal, as well as a verse in which Annie is given a chance to speak for herself. He omits the final verse, however.