Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas To All!


In honor of the day, here's a recording of Bessie Smith performing "At The Christmas Ball."

Hey Bessie, it's Christmas here!
Yes, yes! Hurray for Christmas!

Christmas comes but once a year, and to me it brings good cheer,
and to everyone who likes wine and beer.

Happy New Year is after that. Happy I'll be, that is a fact.
That is why I like to hear, folks I say that Christmas is here.

Christmas bells will ring real soon, even in the afternoon.
There'll be no chimes shall ring at the Christmas Ball.

Everyone must watch their step, or they will lose their rep.
Everybody's full of pep at the Christmas Ball.

Grab your partner one an' all, keep on dancing 'round the hall.
And there's no one to fall, don't you dare to stall.

If your partner don't act fair, don't worry there's some more over there.
Seekin' a chance everywhere at the Christmas Ball.


A rollicking celebration of the earthy side of the Christmas season, "At the Christmas Ball" was recorded on November 18, 1925. Joining Bessie on this recording are Joe Smith (cornet), Charlie Green (trombone) and Fletcher Henderson (piano).

This recording is available on the excellent Dust-to-Digital collection Where Will You Be Christmas Day, a disc that comes highly recommended.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's a 1929 soundie featuring Bessie Smith performing "St. Louis Blues."



Download and listen to Bessie Smith - "At The Christmas Ball"

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two New Discs From Dust-to-Digital

I received an early Christmas/Birthday gift in the mail today from my good friend Henry, who will be spending the holiday in Virginia with his wife and daughter.

The gift consisted of two new releases from Dust-to-Digital, my favorite record label.

The first of the two releases is Baby, How Can It Be?, a three CD collection of old time music with a romantic theme.

The second item is called The Hurricane That Hit Atlanta which features Rev. Johnny L. Jones.

Both are superb. The Jones is his second release for D2D (the first is the LP-only Jesus Christ From A to Z). It contains songs and sermons, all recorded live at his Atlanta church. Whether you believe or not, listening to this collection is as close to truly "feeling the spirit" as anyone is likely to get.

Baby, How Can It Be? is an absolute delight. Each disc contains a theme (Love, Lust, and Contempt) which is amply expanded upon through the superb musical selection. Speaking personally, it's a fun set to listen to when you're going to through a divorce. Also contains liner notes by none other than Where Dead Voices Gather
(no relation) author Nick Toches, and an odd little graphic by 78 hound R. Crumb. Both are exceptional and well worth seeking out...



Tuesday, December 14, 2010

And In The End...


So, here we are. The final entry in this project. It's been an extraordinary journey that has taken me through hundreds of years of history and thousands of miles, all without leaving the chair in front of my speakers. I have listened closely to music I have heard thousands of times before, and in so doing I have heard that music afresh. I have listened to the music of the Anthology of American Folk Music one track at a time, the way it was heard by its original audience in the 1920s and 30s...and the way a young Harry Smith would have heard it, too. And after more than a year of listening to two sides a week, over and over again, until every pop and hiss was as familiar to me as the sound of my own heartbeat, what have I learned?

The first thing I did after writing the last entry was to listen to the entire Anthology straight through, in order to experience it once again as a whole. In so doing, I have drawn a few conclusions, which I will set down here:

1) The Anthology was compiled at the dawn of the LP era, which is a fact that should not be overlooked. Until the advent of the LP, there was only one way to listen to recorded music: One song at a time, one side at a time. A record was a short-lived pleasure. After a little more than three minutes, a side was finished. At that point, you had only a few options. You could play the side again, turn the record over and listen to the flip side, or you could put on another record. That was it. The LP changed the way people heard music. Suddenly, a side's worth of music wasn't a little over three minutes, but twenty minutes. Freed from the time constraint of the 78, artists could stretch in ways that hadn't been possible just a few years earlier. And it took a long time for the potential of the LP to be realized. But Harry Smith saw that the LP allowed music from the 78 era (which was already in danger of obsolescence) not only to be preserved, but to be reformed into something that commented on the music, its era, and on the present as well. One might argue that by compiling the Anthology, Harry Smith invented the mixtape, the bootleg, and the historical reissue as we know them. The historical reissue part speaks for itself. The Anthology was a mixtape in that Smith took the music created by others to make a unique personal statement. It was a bootleg in that almost all of the music included was under copyright to various extant record labels at the time. It is important to remember that prior to this moment in history, none of these things had been possible. Harry Smith was looking backwards in terms of the music he preserved, but he was looking forward in the way he preserved it. It's strange to think that Smith was on the cutting edge of technology as he was making available music that represented a lost part of America's cultural history. In that sense, a song like "Peg and Awl," a song about the industrial revolution, stands as an emblematic selection. "They've invented a new machine," the Carolina Tar Heels sing, "Prettiest thing you've ever seen." Indeed, they had invented a new machine. It spun at 33 1/3 RPM.

2) As I've noted before, much has been made of the sequencing on the Anthology and how Smith did not place the songs in a chronological sequence according to recording date. But as we've seen throughout this project, Smith did not sequence the songs randomly. Beginning with the "Ballads" volume and continuing at least through the two discs of the "Social Music" volume, the tracks are sequenced chronologically by the age of the song in question. On the "Songs" volume and the "Lost" volume, the songs are usually sequenced thematically. In many cases, Smith placed songs on similar subjects in sequence. In some cases, Smith chose songs that echoed one another lyrically or musically. This was, once again, something that could not have been done during the 78 era. The very idea of arranging songs on a recording in any kind of sequence was something unheard of, impossible, just a few years before.

3) I've tried to resist the temptation to romanticize the world described in the music heard on this collection. That it sounds so alien is one of the reasons it is tempting to imagine that this music represents a "simpler" time. I submit that when taken together, the world represented on the sixteen sides of Anthology is nearly baffling in its complexity. There's nothing simple about a world that demands a song like Rev. Sister Mary Nelson's "Judgment" or Bascomb Lamar Lunsford's "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground." Not because the pressures that led people in the 20s and 30s to wish for a just God's vengeance or for a sense of home were so alien to us today. Quite the opposite. These songs show that people then were just as lost in the world as we are today. We love and hate and die just as they did. We all know that the Titanic sank in 1912. We forget that it also sank in 1941. And in 1968. And it 2001. Because man never stops building "unsinkable" ships, and fate never fails to sink them.

What's left is the music, and in the end, that's all we need.

Thank you for following this blog and for your moral support of the last year. Enjoy the music, because the music is all that remains.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Aces' Breakdown" - The Four Aces




Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Fourteen: "Aces' Breakdown" performed by The Four Aces. Recorded in New Orleans on April 2, 1938. Original issue Bluebird 2045.

The Four Aces were a Cajun group that began, in 1934, as a backing band for fiddler and Cajun music pioneer, Leo Soileau. The group originally consisted of Floyd Shreve and Dewey Landry on guitars and Tony Gonzales on bass and drums. Gonzales became the first drummer to appear on a Cajun recording when he performed on the Aces' debut session for Bluebird. The group moved to Decca the following year. After Soileau's departure in the late '30s, Floyd Shreve, who also recorded and performed with the Hackberry Ramblers, took over the group. Replacing Soileau on fiddle was Boyce Jones.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, no biographical information (including birth and death dates) was available on Shreve, Landry, Gonzales, or Jones. If anybody has any such information, please e-mail me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com or leave a comment.

"Aces' Breakdown" is the second of only two instrumental pieces on this volume of the Anthology. It was recorded in a makeshift studio at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans on April 2, 1938. A little over six months later, Floyd Shreve would return to the St. Charles Hotel, this time with the Hackberry Ramblers, to record "Dans Le Grand Bois." Like the previous selection, "Aces' Breakdown" is a hybrid of Cajun music and traditional country and string band music. It demonstrates the cross-pollination of styles that occurred between Louisiana and Texas.

The recording is spirited and would fit comfortably on the "Social Music" volume of the Anthology. Members of the Four Aces can be heard whooping and shouting throughout the record. The song itself is a medley of fiddle tunes, including the polka "Flop Eared Mule." The group is joined by a pianist on this recording, believed to be Robert Thibodeaux, who made his own recordings at the same session.

"Aces' Breakdown" is the second recording on the Anthology to include a drum. It is difficult to know whether this was intentional on Smith's part, but it seems fitting that he closes the Anthology with the appearance of an instrument that would come to define American music during the post-war era. Virtually all genres of American music today, including country, feature drums.

With this selection, we complete not only the "Lost" Volume of the Anthology, but the Anthology itself. In our next and final entry, we will look back at the Anthology and try to examine what we have learned.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's a clip from the film The Big Easy (1987) that features Cajun dancing...


Download and listen to The Four Aces - "Aces' Breakdown"

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Dans Le Grand Bois (In The Forest)" - Hackberry Ramblers


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Thirteen: "Dans Le Grand Bois (In The Forest)" performed by Hackberry Ramblers. Recorded in New Orleans on October 22, 1938. Original issue Bluebird 2059.

The Hackberry Ramblers are an influential Cajun group based in Hackberry, Louisiana, a small town in the southwestern portion of the state. The group was founded by fiddler Luderin Darbone (January 14, 1913 - November 21, 2008) and accordionist Edwin Duhon (June 11, 1910 - February 26, 2006) in 1933. While the group is famous for their interpretations of traditional Cajun music, they also perform western swing, blues, and rockabilly. Despite numerous changes in personnel over the years, the Hackberry Ramblers continue to perform to this day, surviving the passing of founding members Darbone and Duhon in 2008 and 2006, respectively.

"Dans Le Grand Bois" is a Cajun song that borrows the melody of "La Jolie Blonde," a song first recorded by Les Breaux Freres as "Ma Blonde Est Partie." The personnel of the Hackberry Ramblers on this recording is Luderin Darbone on fiddle, Floyd and Danny Shreve on guitars, and Pete Duhon on string bass and vocal. Whether Pete Duhon was a relative of Edwin Duhon or another name Edwin Duhon went by is not clear as of this writing. It is known that Edwin Duhon played guitar, bass, piano, and harmonica in addition to the accordion, so it is possible that Pete and Edwin Duhon are one and the same.

Moi, j'connais,
Ma 'tite fille.
T'es la bas dans l'grand bois tout seule.
Moi, j'm'en vas dans l'grand bois.
Moi, j'm'en vas dans l'grand bois.
Avec ma fille.

Moi, j'connais,
Ma 'tite fille.
T'es la bas dans l'grand bois tout seule.
Moi, j'm'en vas dans l'grand bois.
Moi, j'm'en vas dans l'grand bois.
Avec ma fille.


Many thanks to Neal Pomea for providing this transcription.

Unlike many of the Cajun selections on the original Anthology, which are primitive in the extreme, "Dans Le Grand Bois" reflects the influence of non-Cajun music, particularly country and western swing.

Pete/Edwin Duhon's lead vocal includes the distinctive vocal yelp towards the end of each line, so often associated with Cajun music.

According to Henry Wright, a fellow old time music enthusiast who also happens to be fluent in French (although admittedly not Cajun French),

The...lyrics seem to evoke a visit or a date in the woods. The parts I can make out, other than the title, which he repeats many times, are "la-bas" (over there), "ma petite fille" (my little girl) and "touts seuls" (all alone). To me this suggest the singer is telling us about a date or rendez-vous with a woman in a secluded spot, perhaps in or near the bayou, taking into account that it is a Cajun song.

Not having studied the language since high school, my French is extremely rusty. However, I do remember enough to recognize j'connais, which, as I recall, means I know; connais being the first person singular form of connaƮtre, meaning to know or to be familiar with. The expression to know in English can have a sexual connotation (albeit in a fairly archaic manner). It seems to me, then, that if j'connais has a similar sexual connotation in French, that Dans Le Grand Bois is nothing less than a song about having sexual relations in the woods.

If "Dans Le Grand Bois" had appeared on the original Anthology, it would have appeared on the "Songs" volume. It would certainly not be the first or only salacious song included in Smith's collection.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's some film footage of the Hackberry Ramblers performing and talking about their history in the 1991 documentary, Marc and Ann, a film about Marc and Ann Savoy.



Download and listen to Hackberry Ramblers - "Dans Le Grand Bois (In The Forest)"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Barbecue Bust" - Mississippi Jook Band


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Twelve: "Barbecue Bust" performed by Mississippi Jook Band. Recorded in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on July 20, 1936.

The Mississippi Jook Band was a one-off studio band consisting of Roosevelt Graves (guitar and kazoo), Uaroy Graves (tambourine) and Cooney Vaughn (piano). They recorded a handful of sides during this July, 1936 session, including this recording of "Barbecue Bust," recorded only thirteen days after "I'll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called" heard earlier on this disc.

For biographical information on Roosevelt and Uaroy Graves, see the entry for "I'll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called."

No biographical information is available on Cooney Vaughn. In his notes, Dick Spottswood quotes blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow, who notes that Vaughn is "remembered as a pop performer, not a blues entertainer."

The group's name is a reference to "jook joints" or "juke joints," informal establishments where ordinary people (usually African Americans in the Deep South) congregated to drink, dance, gamble, and otherwise socialize. The term "juke" is believed to derive from the Gullah word "joog," which means "rowdy" or "disorderly." Such establishments first appeared on plantations in the Antebellum South as a place where slaves could socialize and unwind after a long week of work. The practice carried over into the post-Civil War era, often appearing in labor camps, and continued into Prohibition. It has been argued that juke joints represented the first "private space" accorded to blacks in the United States.

Juke joints demanded music, of course. Solo musicians and small groups would provide music for all night dancing (musicians such as Son House and Charlie Patton were veterans of the juke joints). When mechanization and recorded music proved a cheaper way to provide music, the juke joints lent their name to the automatic record playing machines installed in bars and other such establishments, which came to be known as "juke boxes."

"Barbecue Bust" is an almost entirely instrumental piece and is one of the only instrumental performances on the fourth volume of the Anthology. Had it appeared on the original three-volume Anthology, "Barbecue Bust" would have undoubtedly been featured on the first disc of the "Social Music" volume, along with other examples of dance music.

"Barbecue Bust" is an uptempo number, with strong ties to jazz and boogie woogie. The music is occasionally punctuated with cries and exhortations (at a couple of points, Cooney Vaughn is called upon by name). During the last verse, Roosevelt Graves engages in some scat singing. By 1936, scat singing could hardly be called "new," but it serves to solidly place this recording during the jazz age. In addition, Roosevelt Graves plays the kazoo during the first few verses, clearly emulating a jazz cornet. Cooney Vaughn's barrel-house piano ploughs a path through the song, despite being under-miked. Uaroy Graves, while not as prominent in this recording as he had been in "I'll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called", nevertheless lays down a driving rhythm that keeps this recording rolling straight through to the final bar.

"Barbecue Bust" gives us a glimpse of something close to the contemporary black music of the rural south during the late '30s. It is raucous and strident and anything but polite. It is also thoroughly of its time, which further serves to distinguish this volume from the rest of the Anthology.

"Barbecue Bust," like the previous entry, was recorded in Mississippi.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Speaking of boogie woogie piano, here's one of the grand masters, Meade Lux Lewis, in a "soundie" likely made during the 1940s...



Download and listen to Mississippi Jook Band - "Barbecue Bust"

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Cockeyed World" - Minnie Wallace


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Eleven: "The Cockeyed World" performed by Minnie Wallace. Recorded in Jackson, Mississippi on October 12, 1935.

No biographical information on Minnie Wallace was available as of this writing. If anyone has any information to share, please leave a comment or e-mail me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com.

Minnie Wallace was a known associate of the Memphis Jug Band, so it may be presumed that she lived and worked in Memphis, Tennessee for at least part of her career.

"The Cockeyed World" is a blues that makes reference to the Italian invasion of the Ethiopian Empire on October 3, 1935, just nine days before this recording was made.

Italian Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini wanted to establish an Italian Empire to rival that of the Romans. He also sought to avenge the defeat the Italians suffered at the Battle of Adowa, which had ended the first Italo-Abyssinian War in 1896. In 1935, Ethiopia was one of only two independent nations in Africa. Subduing Ethiopia would strengthen Italy's imperialist presence on the continent.

The Italian invasion was brutal. The Ethiopian army, while larger than the invading Italian force, was armed with antique rifles (capable of firing only one shot), swords, knives, and spears. Many Ethiopian soldiers fought barefoot. The Italian forces consisted of approximately 595 planes and 795 tanks. The Ethiopian army, by contrast, had approximately three planes and as many tanks. Most controversially, on December 26, 1935, the Italian generals in charge of the invasion received permission to use mustard gas and other chemical warfare agents. The war was one-sided and extremely short. By the time Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I had fled to British Palestine on May 4, 1936, approximately 275,000 Ethiopians were dead and more than 500,000 wounded.

On June 30th, Selassie addressed the League of Nations, asking for them to condemn the Italian invasion and support a resistance movement. He concluded by warning, "It is us today. It will be you tomorrow." The speech was a memorable one, and was viewed around the world via newsreel. But it failed to motivate the League of Nations to action. The League recognized Italy's sovereignty over Ethiopia, as did Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Great Britain and France. Only the United States, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, Mexico, and New Zealand refused to recognize the legitimacy of Italy's invasion.

Italy occupied Ethiopia until 1941, when British forces retook Addis Ababa. Ethiopia was formally recognized as an independent nation in 1947 with the signing of the Treaty of Peace with Italy, and Emperor Selassie was restored as its ruler.

In the Americas, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia had a profound affect on people of African descent. As mentioned above, Ethiopia was one of only two independent nations in Africa. The invasion inspired strong feelings among black Americans as well as West Indians. Many black Americans volunteered to fight for Ethiopia, although few made it over there. In addition, it was during this period that the Rastafarian movement was born in Jamaica.

I woke up this morning feeling mighty bad.
I woke up this morning feeling mighty bad.
'Twas the worst old feeling that I ever had.

It's war on Ethiopia and mama's feeling blue.
It's war on Ethiopia, mama's feeling blue.
I tell the cockeyed world, I don't know what to do.

They say that Ethiopia is a long ways from here.
They say that Ethiopia's a long ways from here.
They're trying to steal my man and carry him over there.

I love my man, tell the cockeyed world I do.
I love my man, tell the cockeyed world I do.
It's coming up tight but he sure loves me too.

This old cockeyed world will make a good man treat you mean.
This old [cock]eyed world will make a good man treat you mean.
He will treat you just like a poor girl he's never seen.

It's war on Ethiopia and the man overhead.
It's war on Ethiopia and the man overhead.
I tell the cockeyed world the things my baby said.

It's war on Ethiopia. Baby, please, please behave.
It's war on Ethiopia. Please, please behave.
I'll tell the cockeyed world, I'll follow you to your grave.

That's right.


"The Cockeyed World" is likely the most topical song on this already fairly topical volume of the Anthology, commenting as it does on world events that were transpiring even as the music was being committed to wax. It also points ahead to an event that was to come: The Second World War, an event that, along with the Great Depression, would effectively end the world of the Anthology. The United States would emerge from the crucible of war and economic turmoil an entirely different nation; a nation that would dominate the world as one of only two Super Powers; a nation that possessed the power to destroy all life on earth; a nation that would wield unprecedented political and economic influence over the globe, an influence that only today is beginning to recede.

The recording itself is ebullient, in stark contrast with the heavy lyrical content. Minnie Wallace's vocal is strong and rough, and is definitely of a piece with that of Memphis Minnie. Joining Wallace on this recording are Will Shade on harmonica, Ernest Lawlers on guitar, Robert "Tim" Wilkins on second guitar, Kid Stormy Weather on piano and "Spoons" on the spoons.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's a short video that describes the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the galvanizing affect it had on American and West Indian blacks.



Download and listen to Minnie Wallace - "The Cockeyed World"

Monday, November 15, 2010

"He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing)" - Memphis Minnie


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Ten: "He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing)" performed by Memphis Minnie. Recorded in Chicago on August 22, 1935.

Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana on June 3, 1897. She was the oldest of thirteen children born to Abe and Gertrude Douglas, both of whom earned a living as sharecroppers. In 1904, Douglas's family relocated to Walls, Mississippi. Around the same time, she received her first guitar as a gift and she began playing around the neighborhood. She would also sneak into nearby Memphis, Tennessee where she would play on the street and in public parks.

Around 1910, Douglas joined the Ringling Brothers Circus as a musician. She traveled all over the south with the circus before moving to the Bedford Plantation in Mississippi where she played with Willie Brown, a colleague and occasional performing partner of Charlie Patton's. During this period, Douglas began to establish a reputation as a first class blues performer, one of the few female blues musicians considered to be equal to (or even better than) the best male performers.

Before too long, however, Douglas returned to Memphis and began performing in the notorious Beale Street district. She had already proven herself a masterful blues musician, but living and working on Beale Street proved her toughness. She developed a reputation for hard drinking and gambling, and supplemented her income by working as a prostitute (charging the relatively exorbitant fee of $12 for her services, reportedly). Douglas also performed with the Memphis Jug Band during this period.

In 1929, Douglas made her first recordings for Columbia Records. Her first recording, "Bumble Bee" became a hit. It was on her first records that she was first credited as "Memphis Minnie," a name she continued to use for the rest of her career. She later recorded for other labels, including Decca and Bluebird, under the supervision of Lester Melrose. Among her other major contributions to the blues cannon, Minnie wrote "When The Levee Breaks" which was later recorded by Led Zeppelin.

Minnie was among the first generation of blues musicians to embrace the electric guitar, forming one of the first "classic" electric blues bands (consisting of electric guitar, bass, and drums). The sound Minnie helped pioneer lead the way for the Chicago blues musicians of the later '40s, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, and Jimmy Rogers.

By the end of the 1950s, however, Minnie's music was considered unfashionable. Despite her use of electric instruments in performance, the more conservative record companies insisted that she record in her earlier style. She returned to Memphis in 1957. During this period, her health began to fail and she retired from performing. She spent the remainder of her life in a nursing home where she died from a stroke in 1973. She was buried in the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls. Mississippi. A headstone was erected for her in 1996, largely paid for by guitarist Bonnie Raitt.

"He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing)" is an ode to the boxer Joe Louis (born Joseph Louis Barrow, 1914-1981). Joe Louis is widely considered to be one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Louis held the heavyweight title from 1937 to 1949, a total of 140 consecutive months. Recorded in 1935, "He's In The Ring" stems from relatively early in Louis's career, two years before he would win the heavyweight championship. Louis was a hero to African-Americans in the 1930s and 40s. While Louis defended his title numerous times during his long reign (more than any other champion since the bare-knuckle era), no fight of Louis's was as emblematic as his two bouts against the German fighter Max Schmeling. Louis and Schmeling fought on June 19, 1936 and again on June 22, 1938. Schmeling was held up as proof of Aryan superiority by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. When Louis's first fight against Schmeling ended with Louis knocked out in the twelfth round. This was Louis only defeat by knockout during his prime. Poet Langston Hughes described the mood in Harlem following Louis's defeat:

I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting in the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried.


Louis met Schmeling a second time in 1938, after Louis had won the heavyweight championship. This time, Louis defeated Schmeling by a knockout in the first round. It was a major triumph for American blacks as well as a major setback for the Nazi image (the second such setback since Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games). Louis's victory helped to gradually defeat the myth of black inferiority.


Hey, you people going out tonight.
Let's go to see Joe Louis fight.
And if you ain't got no money,
Buddy (?), go tomorrow night.
'Cause he's in the ring doing the same old thing.

Well, he even carries a mean left.
You know he do!
And he carries a mean right.
And if he hit you with either one,
Sends the charge from a dynamite.
He's in the ring, boys, doing the same old thing.

I'm a-tell all of you prize fighters
Don't play Joe for no fool.
After he hits you with that left duke,
Same as a kick from a Texas mule.
He's in the ring, boys, doing the same old thing.

Joe Louis is a two-fist fighter.
And he stands six feet tall.
And the bigger they come,
He says, the harder they fall.
He's in the ring, oh! Doing the same old thing.

I'd chance my money with 'im!

For if I only had ten hundred dollars
And I laid up on my shelf.
I bet everybody passed my house
In one round Joe would knock 'em out.
He's in the ring, mmmmmmmmmmm! Doing the same old thing.

I wouldn't even pay my house rent.
I wouldn't buy me nothing to eat.
Joe Louis says, "Take a chance with me,
I'm gonna put (unintelligible) on your feet."
In the ring. He's still fightin'! Doing the same old thing!


"He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing)" is a blues masterpiece. Ably accompanied by Black Bob on piano and Bill Settles on bass, Memphis Minnie turns in a performance as powerful as one of Joe Louis's punches. Her voice is powerful, yet sensual, caressing the lyrics and lagging behind the beat. She makes frequent use of asides and exclamations, which add to the spontaneous feel of the recording. It is a highlight of the fourth volume in particular and of the Anthology as a whole.

This is also a performance that could not have appeared on the original three-volume Anthology. Like many of the ballads on volume one, "He's In The Ring" immortalizes a heroic figure in song. But unlike such figures as John Henry, Cole Younger, or Stackalee, Joe Louis is a figure set firmly in the present tense. All of the legendary figures on the original Anthology were dead and gone, but Joe Louis was somebody that a listener to this record could go see that very night. Blacks, as well as boxing fans of all colors, thrilled to Louis's exploits through newspaper reports and newsreels. Not only was Louis not dead, but his greatest deeds were yet to come.

Memphis Minnie was also far too contemporary a performer for the original Anthology. Her style was not only rooted in the classic country blues of the '20s, but it pointed towards the urban blues of the coming decade and rock and roll beyond.

"He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing)" is the first of two songs in a row that comment on current events that have nothing to do with the Depression and the first of two songs by a singer named "Minnie."

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Unable to find a recent video of "He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing)" (always a risk with topical songs), we present a performance of a different Memphis Minnie tune. This is "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" performed by the East River String Band.



Download and listen to Memphis Minnie - "He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing)"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"I'll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)" - Roosevelt Graves and Brother



Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Nine: "I'll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)" performed by Roosevelt Graves and Brother. Recorded in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on July 7, 1936.

Roosevelt Graves was born in Meridian, Mississippi on December 9, 1909. Other than the fact that he was blind, nothing is known of his life before he began recording. Graves played guitar and usually performed with his brother, Uaroy, who played tambourine and is widely considered to be one of the greatest tambourine players of all time. If little is known of Roosevelt Graves, absolutely nothing is known of his brother. There is no recorded birth or death date for Uaroy Graves. Until recently, even Uaroy's name was in dispute. He has often been miscredited as either "Aaron" or "Leroy" (in fact, he is credited as "Aaron" in Dick Spottswood's notes) on the assumption that "Uaroy" must have been a transcription error or a typo. In 2004, some Paramount Records documents were scanned and posted on the internet (sadly, I cannot find an active link) which clearly showed that Graves' brother was, indeed, named "Uaroy." Uaroy was partially sighted and served as a guide for his blind brother.

The Graves brothers made their first recordings for Paramount Records in 1929. A second session was recorded in July of 1936 through the agency of H.C. Speir. Some histories have this session taking place in a train station, although Speir reported to blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that the session, in fact, took place in the Hotel Hattiesburg. Although only Graves and his brother appear on this recording, several other recordings were made during this session under the name The Mississippi Jook Band which included pianist Cooney Vaughn.

The Graves brothers did not record again. Roosevelt Graves died in Summerland, Mississippi on December 30, 1962. Uaroy's death date is unknown.

"I'll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)" is a spiritual that celebrates the life to come. It is the second of two religious songs in a row.

I'll be rested when the roll is called.
I'll be rested when the roll is called.
I'll be rested in the Kingdom of Heaven,
I'll be rested when the roll is called.

No more shoutin' when the roll is called.
No more shoutin' when the roll is called.
I'll be rested in the Kingdom of Heaven,
I'll be rested when the roll is called.

No more sorrows when the roll is called.
No more sorrows when the roll is called.
I'll be rested in the Kingdom of Heaven,
I'll be rested when the roll is called.

Meet my mother when the roll is called.
Meet my mother when the roll is called.
I'll be rested in the Kingdom of Heaven,
I'll be rested when the roll is called.

I'll be rested when the roll is called.
I'll be rested when the roll is called.
I'll be rested in the Kingdom of Heaven,
I'll be rested when the roll is called.

Meet my elders when the roll is called.
Meet my elders when the roll is called.
Meet my elders in the Kingdom of Heaven,
Meet my elders when the roll is called.


A simple, repetitive song, "I'll Be Rested" is as spirited and uplifting as "No Depression In Heaven" is downbeat. Graves and his brother perform the song with vigor, particularly Uaroy, whose tambourine sets an irresistible rhythm. Both brothers sing, with Uaroy's bass vocal employing a technique that sounds similar to the Kargyraa style of Tuvan throat singing. The brothers alternate unison and harmony vocals, with Uaroy occasionally interjecting asides such as "My lord" or "yes sir."

Some observers have noted how the heavily rhythmic nature of this recording seems to point forward towards rock and roll, with some hyperbolicly declaring "I'll Be Rested" to be the first rock and roll record. While it may not really be the first rock and roll record, it certainly does seem to point forward stylistically, which is in keeping with the tone of this set.

It is impossible for words to do justice to the simple brilliance of this recording. You have to hear it to believe it.

"I'll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)" is probably the most popular recording by Roosevelt and Uaroy Graves. It has been anthologized numerous times and can be heard on Dust-to-Digital's excellent Goodbye Babylon set. The song also appears on Revanant Records collection American Primitive, Vol I. The song has also been covered several times by such artists as Mavis Staples and the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's a bluegrass version of "I'll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)" performed by bluegrassgod. Not sure if that's the name of the group or if one member posts in YouTube under that name.



Here's a lovely solo guitar version performed by jessewva.



Download and listen to Roosevelt Graves and Brother - "I'll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"No Depression In Heaven" - The Carter Family


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Eight: "No Depression In Heaven" performed by The Carter Family. Recorded in New York on June 9, 1936. Original issue Decca 5242.

For biographical information on the Carter Family, see the entry for "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man."

"No Depression In Heaven" was written by gospel songwriter and publisher James D. Vaughan, who was born in Giles County, Tennessee on December 14, 1864. This is one of those coincidences/connections that would have delighted Smith, since Giles County is the place that Jim Jackson intends to "go back" to in "Old Dog Blue."

In addition to his contributions as a songwriter, Vaughan also founded WOAN, one of the first radio stations in Tennessee. He also started Vaughan Phonographic Records, the first record company based in the South. He was a great influence on A.P. Carter, who recorded several of Vaughan's compositions. James D. Vaughan died on February 9, 1941. He would be inducted into the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame in 1997.

"No Depression In Heaven" has been covered numerous times by artists ranging from the New Lost City Ramblers to Sheryl Crow. The song was perhaps most famously recorded as the title track to alternative country pioneers Uncle Tupelo's debut album, No Depression. It became so identified by the alternative country music that it inspired the title of No Depression,
the most prominent alt country magazine. The alternative country music is sometimes called the "No Depression" movement.


For fear the hearts of men are failing,
For these are latter days we know.
The Great Depression now is spreading,
God's word declared it would be so.

I'm going where there's no Depression,
To the lovely land that's free from care.
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble,
My home's in Heaven, I'm going there.

In that bright land, there'll be no hunger.
No orphan children cryin' for bread.
No weeping widows, toil or struggle.
No shrouds, no coffins, and no death.

I'm going where there's no Depression,
To the lovely land that's free from care.
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble,
My home's in Heaven, I'm going there.

This dark hour of midnight nearing,
Tribulation time will come.
The storms will hurl in midnight fear
And sweep lost millions to their doom.

I'm going where there's no Depression,
To the lovely land that's free from care.
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble,
My home's in Heaven, I'm going there.


Despite the speculation in Spottswood's notes that this song should have traded places with "Milk Cow Blues" in order to be part of the sequence of topical songs that began with "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?", "No Depression In Heaven" isn't really a "topical song." The song does make reference to then-current events, but unlike "How Can A Poor Man..." or either of Uncle Dave Macon's songs on this volume, "No Depression In Heaven" isn't so much about the events of the 1930s as it is about transcending those events. "No Depression In Heaven" is a song about how ultimately unimportant the circumstances of this world are, when compared with the life to come.

Had it appeared on the original Anthology, there is no doubt that "No Depression In Heaven" would have appeared on the religious disc of the "Social Music" volume. This is a song that promises eternal salvation and liberation from the travails of the material world. The Great Depression is simply the latest of a growing litany of miseries that will be eventually relieved in death.

Vaughan's lyric also makes reference of the end of the world. The speaker in the song refers to 1930s as the "latter days" and speaks, in the last verse, of the "tribulation time" that will come. This refers to the events foretold in the revelation of St. John the Divine. Of course, the world did not end in Vaughan's lifetime, nor in the lifetime of any members of the original Carter Family. People have been predicting the end of the world, based on the prophesies of the New Testament, since the words of St. John were written down (indeed, these events were supposedly going to happen within the lifetime of the Apostles). Despite their perfect record of being wrong, Christians continue to predict that we are living in the last days. Most recently, this type of thinking has made the fortune of author and huckster Tim LaHaye, whose bestselling Left Behind books purport to give an "authentic" and "scholarly" glimpse of the tribulation to come, all dressed up in paranoia and superstition. Get ready for the rapture, but be sure to give Mr. LaHaye your money in the meanwhile.

The Carter Family's reading of this allegedly uplifting song is fascinating. Featuring dual guitars played by Sara and Maybelle Carter, along with the supporting vocal of A.P. Carter (who hasn't been heard on the Anthology in some time), "No Depression In Heaven" has become one of the definitive Carter Family records. The odd thing is that for all comfort Sara is supposedly bringing through the lyric, Sara herself doesn't sound very happy about the whole thing. Her somber, deadpan reading cuts against the triumphant tone of the lyric. Perhaps there is no Depression in Heaven, but Sara doesn't make heaven sound very inviting.

"No Depression In Heaven" is the last of four songs in a row by artists who appeared on the original Anthology. It is also the last song on the Anthology by the Carter Family, who contribute a whopping seven tracks to the set. Not only are there more songs by the Carter Family than any other artist, but the Carters are the only artist to appear on all four volumes. As was mentioned in the entry for "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man," it is only fitting that Smith gave over so much space to the Carter Family, as it can easily be argued that they are among the most important musicians in American history.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's Uncle Tupelo (the band that would later give the world Wilco and Son Volt) performing "No Depression In Heaven" during a 1992 appearance in Chicago.



This a version of "No Depression" performed by Sheryl Crow. The video makes explicit tribute to the Carter Family, and to American Folk Music in general.



Here's a version performed by Jeff Crane, Terry Dignon & Anthony Tino live at the Rosendale Cafe, April 28, 2009.



Download and listen to The Carter Family - "No Depression In Heaven"

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Milk Cow Blues" - John Estes


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Seven: "Milk Cow Blues" performed by John Estes. Recorded in Memphis on May 13, 1930. Original issue Victor 59918-2.

For biographical information on "Sleepy" John Estes and Yank Rachel, see the entry for "Expressman Blues."

John Estes and Yank Rachel return with this ribald song of adultery, drunkenness and disease.

Now, asks sweet mama,
Lemme be her kid.
She says, "I might get boogied
Like to keep it hid."

Well, she looked at me,
She begin to smile.
Says, "I thought I would use you
For my man a while."

"That you just don't let my husband
Catch you there.
Now, just - just don't let my
Husband catch you there."

Now, went upstairs
To pack my leavin' trunk.
I never saw no whiskey.
The blues done made me sloppy drunk.

Say, I never saw no whiskey.
Blues done made me sloppy drunk.
Now, I never saw no whiskey,
But the blues done made me sloppy drunk.

Now some said, disease
Some said it was [unintelligible]
But it's the slow consumption
Killin' you by degrees.

Lord, it's the slow consumption
Killin' you by degrees.
Now, it's a slow consumption
And it's killin' you by degrees.


"Milk Cow Blues" was recorded four days before the version of "Expressman Blues" that appears on volume three of the Anthology and features the same instrumental line-up (Estes on guitar, Rachel on mandolin and vocal, and Jab Jones on piano). The song has nothing whatever to do with its title, instead it concerns a man having an affair with a married woman (becoming her "kid" or "kid man"). The speaker declares that, not having imbibed any whiskey, it is "the blues" that have made him "sloppy drunk" (a dubious claim, to say the least). In the last verse, the speaker addresses someone whose identity is unclear (it could be the woman from the first verse, although in that verse the woman is addressed as "she." In this verse, the speaker addresses a "you"). The speaker declares that a "slow consumption" is killing the addressee "by degrees." Consumption, of course, was another name for tuberculosis, an infectious disease that often affects the lungs, although it can affect other body parts including the spine. Notable victims of tuberculosis include Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Vivian Leigh, Charles Bukowski, Dashiell Hammett, Maxim Gorkey, Albert Camus, and - of course - Jimmie Rodgers.

This song is unrelated to the Kokomo Arnold song by the same title. It was the Arnold song that Elvis Presley famously covered during his Sun Sessions.

"Milk Cow Blues" has been covered by Taj Mahal as well as the Derek Trucks Band.

This is the third track in a row of four that feature artists who appeared on the original three-volume Anthology.


The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

This is a clip of the Kinks performing a song called "Milk Cow Blues" that has nothing to do with Estes and Rachel's song OR the Kokomo Arnold song. Nevertheless, it rocks and its worth seeing. This performance features Dave Davies on lead vocal.



Download and listen to John Estes - "Milk Cow Blues"

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Governor Al Smith" - Uncle Dave Macon


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Six: "Governor Al Smith" performed by Uncle Dave Macon. Recorded in Chicago on July 26, 1928.

For biographical information on Uncle Dave Macon, see the entry on "Way Down The Old Plank Road."

Alfred Emmanuel Smith (December 30, 1873-October 4, 1944) was the four-time Governor of the State of New York who ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States in 1928. His opponent was Herbert Hoover, who had served as Secretary of Commerce in the Calvin Coolidge administration. In 1928, the United States was experiencing an unprecedented economic boom, for which the administrations of Coolidge and Harding had taken credit. This unprecedented boom was to end with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which would lead to an equally unprecedented economic crisis. The nation's prosperity in 1928, coupled with anti-Catholic sentiments aimed at Smith, ensured that Hoover would defeat Smith in the general election. One of the planks in Smith's platform was the repeal of prohibition. Smith was succeeded as Governor of New York by future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"Governor Al Smith" is a direct endorsement of Smith by Uncle Dave Macon, a remarkable thing considering that Smith was both a northerner and a Catholic.

Gettin' right now.

Al Smith nominated for president, darlin'.
Al Smith nominated for president, darlin'.
Al Smith nominated for president,
My vote to him I'm a-gonna present, darlin'.

Al Smith is a mighty fine man, darlin'.
Al Smith is a mighty fine man, darlin'.
Al Smith is a mighty fine man,
He wants to be president of our land, darlin'.

Hot dog! In Chicago, just from Tennessee, and here's what the people say:

Al Smith is a-gettin' on a boom, darlin'.
Al Smith is a-gettin' on a boom, darlin'.
Al Smith is a-gettin' on a boom, darlin.'
Al Smith is a-gettin' on a boom.
He don't favor the open saloon, darlin'.

Smith wants everything to be just right, darlin'.
Smith wants everything to be just right, darlin'.
Smith wants everything to be just right.
The law's gonna get you if you get tight, darlin'.

I'm gonna buy my little camphor gum, darlin'.
I'm gonna buy my little camphor gum, darlin'.
I'm gonna buy my little camphor gum,
For then I think I can buy a little rum, darlin'.

Moonshine's been here long enough, darlin'.
Moonshine's been here long enough, darlin'.
Moonshine's been here long enough,
Let's all vote right and get a-rid of this stuff, darlin'.

Many a good man's been poisoned to death, darlin'.
Many a good man's been poisoned to death, darlin.'
Many a good man's been poisoned to death,
And a-with real drink was never blessed, darlin'.

There's a-four dollar bills and a bottle of beer, darlin'.
Four dollar bills and a bottle of beer, darlin'.
Four dollar bills and a bottle of beer,
Wish to the lord my honey was here, darlin'.


Macon's performance of "Governor Al Smith," which likely recycles the melody of an old folk tune, is more subdued than the other tracks of his that have appeared on the Anthology. Even his characteristic opening remark seems relatively understated. As for Macon's endorsement of Smith, he seems primarily interested in Smith's desire to overturn prohibition. Six of the eight verses deal with alcohol. It is clear that, more than anything else, Macon wants a drink.

Is it too much to suppose that Harry Smith chose to include this track, in part, because it concerns a namesake of his?

"Governor Al Smith," which once again features the guitar of Sam McGee, is the type of song that Harry Smith would never have used on the original three-volume Anthology. While many of the songs on the original three volumes could be described as "topical," none of them describe a current event. Although things like the sinking of the Titanic or the assassination of William McKinley were relatively recent history to the artists on the Anthology - many of these events happening within the artist's lifetime - the two Uncle Dave Macon tracks presented on "Volume Four" represent something completely different. The previous selection, "The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train," commented on a current event. But "Governor Al Smith" goes that track one further: It actually attempts to influence the outcome of a future event. That it was unsuccessful is unimportant. What is important is that the difference of these tracks further underlines the distinction of "Volume Four" from the first three volumes of the set. Once again, the music of "Volume Four" concerns itself with the present and future rather than the past.

Macon would refer to Al Smith's defeat in a later song titled "Nashville."

"Governor Al Smith" is the third of three topical songs in a row and the second of two songs by Uncle Dave Macon (as on the third volume, Uncle Dave's songs are sequenced back to back). It is also the second of four songs in a row that feature artists from the original three-volume Anthology.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's some footage of Al Smith commenting on the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933.



Download and listen to Uncle Dave Macon - "Governor Al Smith"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" - Uncle Dave Macon


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Five: "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train?" performed by Uncle Dave Macon. Recorded in Jackson, Mississippi on December 17, 1930. Original issue Okeh 45507.

For biographical information on Uncle Dave Macon, see the entry on "Way Down The Old Plank Road."

"Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" is a topical song referring to a banking and financial scandal that embroiled the state of Tennessee during the early years of the Depression. Dick Spottswood (who wrote the notes to Volume Four) summarizes the situation thus:

Charles Wolfe told me that when Tennessee governor Austin Peay died in office in 1927, his replacement was Henry Horton who, with good intentions, sold bonds to complete school & road projects. He trusted one Henry Lea, who instituted a corrupt patronage system, putting state money in banks & trusts controlled by Rogers Caldwell in Nashville. One of his enterprises was Kyrock Construction Co. It received road contracts without bidding for them and this became an issue in the 1930 gubernatorial election. Horton won, but the stock market crashed shortly thereafter, taking down the Bank of Tennessee, with $3.5 million in state funds raised from bonds. Tennessee ultimately was $6 million in debt. Horton was impeached, but the House supported him 58-41, leavng him in office. (As related to Rick Lee)

Macon is joined on this track by his usual accompanist, Sam McGee, who plays the banjo-guitar. The banjo-guitar is a six string banjo with the neck of a guitar. It is also sometimes known as the guitar banjo, guitjo, banjitar or ganjo. I have not been able to find any specific history of the banjo-guitar, but it was popular in the 1920s, suggesting that it probably evolved during the previous decade or so. The guitar-banjo was the instrument of Johnny St. Cyr, and has also been played by such musicians as Django Reinhardt, Papa Charley Jackson, the Reverend Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal, Rod Stewart, David Hidalgo, Joe Satriani, and Keith Urban.

The people of Tennessee want to know who wrecked our gravy train.
The one we thought was run so well and now who can we blame?
They want to know who greased the track and start them down the road?
This same ol' train contained our money to build our highway roads.

But now we're up against it and no use to raise a row.
But of all the times I've ever seen, we're sure up against it now.
The only thing that we can do is to do the best we can.
Follow me, good people, I'm bound for the promised land.

Now, I could be a banker without the least excuse.
But look at the treasurer of Tennessee and tell me what's the use?
We lately bonded Tennessee for just five million bucks.
The bonds were issued and the money tied up and now we're in tough luck.

But now we're up against it and no use to raise a row.
But of all the times I've ever seen, we're sure up against it now.
The only thing that we can do is to do the best we can.
Follow me, good people, I'm bound for the promised land.

Some lay it all on parties, some lay it on others you see.
But now that you can plainly see what happened to Tennessee.
For the engineer pulled the throttle, conductor rang the bell,
The brakeman hollered 'all aboard' and the banks all went to hell.

But now we're up against it and no use to raise a row.
But of all the times I've ever seen, we're sure up against it now.
The only thing that we can do is to do the best we can.
Follow me, good people, I'm bound for the promised land.


Another spirited social commentary by Uncle Dave, who keeps the mood light despite the grim subject matter. Uncle Dave ends the chorus with the promise of better things to come (he is "bound for the promised land"). Nevertheless, Uncle Dave uncharacteristically utters the word "hell" instead of substituting another word (such as "hallelujah," as he does in "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line"), indicating just how serious this situation is.

"Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" is the second of three topical songs in a row and the first of two songs by Uncle Dave Macon (as on the third volume, Uncle Dave's songs are sequenced back to back).

As with the previous song, "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" seems to eerily mirror current events, although it merely goes to show that there is truly nothing new under the sun...

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

Here's broonkind performing a version of "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train."



Download and listen to Uncle Dave Macon - "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train"

Friday, October 22, 2010

"How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" - Blind Alfred Reed


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Four: "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" performed by Blind Alfred Reed. Recorded in New York on December 4, 1929. Original issue Victor V-40236.

Alfred Reed was born in Floyd, Virgina on June 15, 1880. Other than the fact that he was born blind, little is known of Reed's early life. He reportedly began playing violin at an early age. He played locally, performing at fairs, church functions, political rallies, and on street corners. He was discovered in 1927 by Ralph Peer while performing at a fiddle convention. Peer invited Reed to record at the historic Bristol Sessions where Reed recorded four titles. He recorded a further five titles at a session in December, 1927. His last recordings were made in New York City in on December 3rd and 4th, 1929, less than two months after the Stock Market Crash. He recorded twelve titles over the course of two days, including "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?"

Following his 1929 recording session, Reed never recorded again. He lived the rest of his life in Mercer County, West Virginia. He continued to perform locally until a 1937 statute banned blind street musicians in his community. Reed also served as a lay Methodist minister. Reed died, allegedly of starvation, on January 17, 1956.

"How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" is a song protesting high prices, high taxes, government mandated education, trigger happy policemen, greedy preachers, and the high cost of medical care. Heard in 2010, the song sounds curiously like an anthem for the Tea Party, proving (if proof were needed)that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

There was once a time when everything was cheap,
But now prices almost puts a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill,
We just feel like makin' our will.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

I remember when dry goods were cheap as dirt.
We could take two bits and buy a dandy shirt.
Now we pay three bucks or more,
Maybe get a shirt that another man's wore.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Well, I used to trade with a man by the name of Gray.
Flour was fifty cents for a twenty-four pound bag.
Now it's a dollar and a half beside,
Just like skinning a flea for the hide.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Oh, the schools we have today ain't worth a cent.
But they see to it that every child is sent.
If we don't send everyday,
We have a heavy fine to pay.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Prohibition's good if 'tis conducted right.
There's no sense in shootin' a man 'til he shows flight.
Officers kill without a cause,
Then complain about funny laws.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Most all preachers preach for dough and not the soul.
That's what keeps a poor man always in a hole.
We can hardly get our breath,
Taxed and schooled and preached to death.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Oh, it's time for every man to be awake.
We pay fifty cents a pound when we ask for steak.
When we get our package home,
Got a little wad of paper with gristle and a bone.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Well, the doctor comes around with a face so bright.
And he says in a little while you'll be all right.
All he gives is a humbug pill,
A dose of dope and a great big bill.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?


"How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" is the first of three topical songs in a row, and the first of six such songs to appear on this disc.

Reed's song laments the hard times that were only just beginning in 1929. In addition to singing, Reed plays the violin on this track and is accompanied by his son, Arville Reed, on guitar. The musical performances on this track are crude and Reed's vocal style is flat and emotionless. Nevertheless, the song strikes chord in the listener. We can identify with Reed's bewilderment as the world changes rapidly, and not always for the better. Because he recorded a few topical songs, Reed is sometimes viewed as an early protest singer. Mostly, however, Reed recorded religious songs and ballads. "How Can A Poor Man..." has had considerable influence over the years, however. The song was recorded by Ry Cooder in 1970, and was famously rewritten by Bruce Springsteen in 2006. Springsteen's version only uses the last verse of Reed's song, the rest being a protest of the Bush Administration's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

Well the doctor comes 'round here with his face all bright.
And he says "in a little while you'll be alright."
All he gives is a humbug pill, a dose of dope and a great big bill.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

"Me and my old school pals had some mighty high times down here.
And what happened to you poor black folks, well it just ain't fair."
He took a look around, gave a little pep talk,
Said "I'm with you" then he took a little walk.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

There's bodies floatin' on Canal and the levees gone to Hell.
Martha, get me my sixteen gauge and some dry shells.
Them who's got got out of town and them who ain't got left to drown.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Got family scattered from Texas all the way to Baltimore.
Yeah and I ain't got no home in this world no more.
Gonna be a judgment that's a fact, a righteous train rollin' down this track.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?


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Here's Ry Cooder performing a version of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" from a 1987 performance.



This is Bruce Springsteen performing his version of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?"



Download and listen to Blind Alfred Reed - "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?"

Monday, October 18, 2010

"West Virgina Gals" - Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Three: "West Virginia Gals" performed by Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters. Recorded in New York on December 20, 1928.

Born in Watauga County, North Carolina in 1889, Albert Green Hopkins was one of the first true country musicians and one of the originators of "hillbilly" music. Hopkins was born to John Benjamin Hopkins, a state legislator, and Celia Isabel Green Hopkins. Both parents were musical. Hopkins' father repaired organs as a hobby and played fiddle, piano and organ. His mother sang ballads and church music. Hopkins primarily played piano.

The Hopkins family relocated to Washington D.C. in 1904 when Hopkins was fifteen. In 1910, he and his brothers Joe, Elmer, and John formed the Old Mohawk Quartet, a group that played around D.C., frequently appearing at the Majestic Theater. In the early 1920s, Hopkins moved to Galax, Virgina where he worked for his older brother, Jacob, was a doctor with an established practice. He also entertained his brother's patients. In 1924, Hopkins and his brother Joe formed a band with fiddler Alonzo Elvis "Tony" Alderman and banjo player John Rector. After an aborted recording session in 1924, the group recorded six selections for Ralph Peer in New York City on January 15, 1925. At that session, Peer asked the still-unnamed band what they were called. Hopkins modestly replied that they were "just a bunch of hillbillies." Peer named their group "The Hill Billies," much to the musicians' consternation (none of the members of the group conformed to the "hillbilly" stereotype). Alderman would later say that to them the word "hillbilly" was a "fighting word." Nevertheless, Hopkins and his group were associated with the word hillbilly and they tried for a time to control the word's use, at least as far as it was applied to music. Eventually, they were forced to accept that hillbilly had become a genre of music.

Recording alternately as the Hill Billies and as the Buckle Busters, Hopkins and his band (which went through varying line-ups) were the first country band to perform in New York City, the first to perform for an American President (Calvin Coolidge), and the first to appear in a film. Hopkins recorded the song "West Virginia Gals" in New York City during a 1928 session. While the group was credited as the Buckle Busters, none of Hopkins regular musicians appear on the recording, nor does Hopkins play piano.

Hopkins was killed in a car accident in Winchester, Virginia on October 21, 1932. His group disbanded upon his death.

"West Virginia Gals" is a variation of a minstrel song published under the title "Free Nigger" in 1841. "Free Nigger" was published without a composer credit. The tune is similar to that of "A Lazy Farmer Boy" and is likely related to that song.

Come all you West Virginia gals and listen to my noise.
Don't you court these West Virginia boys.
If you do, your fortune will be
Corn bread and bacon you will see.
Corn bread and bacon you will see.

When you go a courtin' they will set you a chair.
The first thing they say is, "My daddy killed a deer!"
The next thing they say when you set down,
"Mammy, ain't you bakin' your Johnny Cakes brown!
Mammy, ain't you bakin' your Johnny Cakes brown!"

When they go to meetin' I'll tell you what to wear:
Scissor tail coat all ready to tear,
Old leather boots with the top turned down,
Pair of cotton socks that they wear year round.
Pair of cotton socks that they wear year round.

When they go to store, they take a turn of corn,
Pat of salty butter right fresh from the churn.
Store keeper says, "You haven't got enough
For a plug of tobaccer and a bail of snuff.
For a plug of tobaccer and a bail of snuff."

When they bottle 'lasses I'll tell you what to do.
Build a rock furnace without any flue.
Grind their cane around and around.
Stop the 'lasses boiler and they set it on the ground.
Stop the 'lasses boiler and they set in on the ground.

They build their houses with log walls.
Don't have winders, none at all.
Clapboard roof and old slab door.
Sandstone chimbley and a puncheon floor.
Sandstone chimbley and a puncheon floor.

Take you away to the blackjack hills.
There to live and make your will.
There you stay and starve in space.
That is the way of the West Virginia race.
That is the way of the West Virginia race.


Given Hopkins relatively middle class background, it is likely that the extremely primitive style of "West Virginia Gals," a song that pokes fun at the poor rural folk of that state, is satirical.

The song, of course, warns West Virginia girls not to court the boys of that state ("Free Nigger," the song "West Virginia Gals" derives from, warns Virginia girls not to marry Carolina boys). The song indulges in the most extreme stereotypes of "hillbillies" or "white trash" (this is ironic given the offense that Hopkins and the members of his group took at being called hillbillies themselves). Extremely politically incorrect by today's standards as this song is, it is worth remembering that racial, ethnic, and regional humor were commonplace and acceptable forms of entertainment during the 1920s. And as much as "West Virginia Gals" might offend our sensibilities today, it is still possible to enjoy the song based purely on its musical merits.

While the primitiveness of the performance is likely a pose, it nevertheless gives the song a raw excitement. Hopkins sings the song with an exaggerated yelp at the end of most of the lines. The song also parodies the rural pronunciation of such words as "tobacco," "chimney," and "molasses." If the song is not authentically rural, it is (at the very least) authentically weird, which makes it a candidate for inclusion in Smith's survey.

The other musicians featured on this recording are Ed Belcher on fiddle and Walter Hughes on guitar.

The Shameless Plug Department: You can still become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook, however, and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Remember that I still host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!

I can't seem to find a version of the "West Virginia Gals" performed here by Hopkins. Most of the videos I've seen are an instrumental banjo tune, which is quite lovely. Here's one of the best versions I've seen, performed by Bfeito.



Download and listen to Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters - "West Virginia Gals"