Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Charles Giteau" - Kelly Harrell


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Two: "Charles Giteau" performed by Kelly Harrell. "Vocal with Virginia String Band (violin, banjo, guitar)." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on March 23, 1927. Original issue Victor 207978.

For biographical information on Kelly Harrell, see the entry for "My Name Is John Johanna."

Recorded at the same session as "My Name is John Johanna," "Charles Giteau" tells the story of Charles Guiteau (pictured above), the assassin of James A. Garfield. Certainly, Guiteau is probably the most colorful of the presidential assassins. Born in Freeport, Illinois, Charles J. Guiteau (his name is misspelled on the record label) was a failed lawyer (he only argued one case in court) and writer (his book, The Truth, was plagiarized from John Humphrey Noyse, founder of the utopian Oneida Colony from which Guiteau was twice ejected). Guiteau then turned to politics. He supported James A. Garfield in 1880 with a speech he had written titled "Garfield vs. Hancock." The speech was delivered, at most, twice during the 1880 presidential campaign, but Guiteau was convinced that he was responsible for Garfield's election. He sought an ambassadorship (to Vienna at first, and later to Paris) in recognition for his service, but he was roundly rejected by Garfield's staff. Upon his rejection, Guiteau decided that God wanted Garfield killed and he purchased a revolver with the intention of assassinating the ungrateful President.

On July 2, 1881 he approached Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station and shot him twice in the back, piercing Garfield's lumbar vertebra but missing his spinal cord. After more than two months, Garfield died - not from his injuries, but from infection brought on by doctors probing his wounds with unwashed hands. Most physicians today familiar with the case agree that Garfield would have survived with the medical care available twenty years later.

During his trial, Guiteau's eccentric behavior made him a media sensation. He cursed the judge, jury and witnesses. He framed his testimony in epic verse, which he read at length during the trial. He also passed notes to spectators soliciting legal advice and publicly feuded with his lawyers. Guiteau was thoroughly convinced that he would be found not guilty and made elaborate plans for his career after his release (including a speaking tour and a possible run for the Presidency himself). After being found guilty and condemned to death, Guiteau wrote a poem titled "I Am Going To The Lordy" which he recited on the scaffold. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

It is no wonder that such a character would become the subject of a popular song. As we have seen in a number of ballads collected thus far on the Anthology, balladry was often a way of disseminating news in an era before broadcasting. As reviled as he was, Guiteau managed to capture the public imagination and so gained a kind of immorality. Along with John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Leon Czolgosz and everybody else who took a shot at an American president, Charles Guiteau was included in Stephen Sondhiem's 1990 musical Assassins.

Come all you tender Christians
Wherever you may be
And likewise pay attention
From these few lines from me.
I was down at the depot
To make my getaway
And Providence being against me,
It proved to be too late.

I tried to play off insane
But found it would not do;
The people all against me,
It proved to make no show.
Judge Cox he passed the sentence,
The clerk he wrote it down,
On the thirtieth day of June
To die I was condemned.

My name is Charles Guiteau,
My name I'll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I'd be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.

My sister came in prison
To bid her last farewell.
She threw her arms around me;
She wept most bitterly.
She said, "My loving brother,
Today you must die;
For the murder of James A. Garfield
Upon the scaffold high."

My name is Charles Guiteau,
My name I'll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I'd be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.

And now I mount the scaffold
To bid you all adieu,
The hangman now is waiting,
It's a quarter after two.
The black cap is o'er my face,
No longer can I see.
But when I'm dead and buried,
Dear Lord, remember me.

My name is Charles Guiteau,
My name I'll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I'd be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.


The second of three songs in a row concerning real-life villains, "Charles Giteau" is also the third of three songs in a row (along with "My Name Is John Johanna" and "Bandit Cole Younger") that tells its story in the first person. John Johanna, Cole Younger and Charles Giteau tell their stories directly to the listener, allowing us to empathize with a dupe, a bandit, and a presidential assassin. All three songs also contain lyrics that echo one another. John Johanna begins his tale with the words, "My name is John Johanna." Cole Younger introduces himself with, "I am a noted highway man / Cole Younger is my name," while Charles Guiteau directly echoes John Johanna by declaring "My name is Charles Guiteau" at the top of the chorus. Similarly, Guiteau affirms that "my name I'll never deny," while Cole Younger declares that "the robbing of the Northfield bank is a thing I'll never deny."

Harrell sings the chorus with his band-mates in a rousing singalong that fits the real Guiteau's outsized personality and cockeyed optimism. The song also contains a rare guitar solo before the final verse, showcasing Alfred Steagall.

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Here's Lew Dite performing a meditative version of "Charles Giteau" on the acoustic guitar.



This is Dan Samples performing a self-penned song about Guiteau titled "Going to the Lordy."



Download and listen to "Kelly Harrell - "Charles Giteau"

1 comment:

  1. How grateful I am you have the full lyrics and the splendid recording of the Charles Guiteau song! My Dad - who has been dead over 40 years - used to sing this song when I was a child; I could recall the chorus but only pieces of the rest. Once the 1927 video started - I recalled all of it! During the Depression, my Grandparents had a Victrola for entertainment. This song was one of the 78RPM records. All the household knew the song, the history and sorrow by heart. This has awakened precious memories. I am more pleased and humbled than words can explain at getting to hear this outstanding, historic recording. THANK YOU KINDLY.

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