Monday, May 31, 2010

"I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" - Bascom Lamar Lunsford, "The Minstrel of the Appalachians"


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Seven: "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" perfor1med by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, "The Minstrel of the Appalachians". "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo." Recorded in Ashland, Kentucky on April, 1928. Original issue Brunswick 219B(132).

For biographical information on Bascom Lamar Lunsford, see the entry for "Dry Bones."

Bascom Lamar Lunsford on "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground":

The title of this mountain banjo song is "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground." I've known it since 1901 when I heard Fred Moody, then a high school boy, sing it down in Burke County. Fred lives in Haywood County, North Carolina, and the footnote to the song is that the "bend" referred to is the bend of the Pigeon River in Haywood County, North Carolinia. I played it as a request of my mother back in 1902. It was the last request she ever made of me. I was teaching that time at Doggett's Gap at public school in Madison County, and returned to my school on Sunday evening. She was interested in my picking the banjo, and she asked me to get the five-string banjo down and play "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground." I went away, and she grew sick and passed away and that was the last request she ever made of me.

In contrast to Lunsford's statement that the "bend" in the song refers to "the bend in the Pigeon River," Smith's notes claim that it refers to "the Big Bend Penitentiary." This makes more sense, in the context of the song, than Lunsford's interpretation. However, I have been unable to find any information on such a penitentiary, or indeed to confirm that it ever existed.


I wish I was a mole in the ground.
Yes, I wish I was a mole in the ground.
'F I'se a mole in the ground, I'd root that mountain down,
And I wish I was a mole in the ground.

Oh, Kimpy wants a nine-dollar shawl.
Yes, Kimpy wants a nine-dollar shawl.
When I come o'er the hill with a forty-dollar bill,
'Tis, "Baby, where you been so long?"

I been in the Bend so long.
Yes, I been in the Bend so long.
I been in the Bend with the rough and rowdy men.
'Tis, "Baby, where you been so long?"

I don't like a railroad man.
No, I don't like a railroad man.
'Cause a railroad man, they'll kill you when he can,
And drink up your blood like wine.

Oh, I wish I was a lizard in the spring.
Yes, I wish I was a lizard in the spring.
'F I'se a lizard in the spring, I'd hear my darlin' sing,
An' I wish I was a lizard in the spring.

Come, Kimpy, let your hair roll down.
Kimpy let your hair roll down.
Let your hair roll down and your bangs curl around.
Oh, Kimpy, let your hair roll down.

I wish I was a mole in the ground.
Yes, I wish I was a mole in the ground.
'F I'se a mole in the ground, I'd root that mountain down,
An'I wish I was a mole in the ground.


Like "Sugar Baby," "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" is a song that Greil Marcus makes much of. In his book, Lipstick Traces, he writes:



I disagree with Marcus's reading of "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground." Burrowing creatures, such as moles, take physical comfort from being in enclosed spaces. If you've ever had a hamster, you've probably observed it sleeping or just hanging out in those clear plastic tunnels take make up their habitats. Rather than wishing for "negation," it seems to me that the speaker in the song is wishing for the comfort of home.

This is further supported by the interpretation of "bend" (which is sometimes sung as "pen") as the Big Bend Penitentiary (where the speaker has been "so long" with "the rough and rowdy men"). After a long incarceration, it seems only natural that the speaker wishes to be someplace he feels he belongs. A mole certainly is at home in the ground.

In other versions of this song, "Kimpy" is sung as "Tempe" or "Tempy."

Bob Dylan appears to reference this song in his "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" in the line

Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line.
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine.


The "railroad men" who "drink up your blood like wine" are likely not simply railroad employees (such as engineers or conductors) but rather the owners of the railroads, such as Jay Gould (1836-1892), who were known for their ruthless business practices.

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Here is Matt Costa performing a version of "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" on the acoustic guitar.



This is the East River String Band (with cartoonist R. Crumb on mandolin!) performing a version of the song.



Download and listen to Bascom Lamar Lunsford - "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground"

5 comments:

  1. The finest version of this song, in my opinion, was done by Jackson C. Frank, and he called it "Kimbie". The word bend is pen, as in penitentiary. Jackson Franks verse goes thusly: "I ve been in that state pen, with those rough and rowdy rough and rowdy, rough and rowdy men . Ive been in your state pen and I gotta go back again
    Kimbie where you been so long?

    You might find his version on youtube somewhere....

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  2. Great post & (as always) fascinating discussion of an old song's mysterious lyrics. Though of course it's futile, it's still always fun to wonder. One speculation I have is that the "mole in the ground" reference might also relate to mining. Alexander, I also agree with you and Marcus at the same time. I feel like there's simultaneously comfort & negation in that verse, just as a mole's digging (like mining) is both destructive & constructive. Ever disappear into your own work? Manual labor can be demeaning & crush a person's spirit, yet it can also be a source of great pride & strength & an outlet for one's frustrations--like John Henry, work can destroy a man and make him immortal at the same time. I think the author of this song was a laborer who already knew what it was like to be "a creature insignificant and despised" who could nonetheless uproot a mountain.

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  3. thanks for a good prod
    i heard mr lunsford play this, and speak of it, in his living room in 1963. mr. marcus is wrong, you and ms.hamilton are closer to the truth

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  4. Thanks for the comment! It's pretty amazing that you got to hear Mr. Lunsford in person (much less in his own home). For a lot of us, these performers are just names or voices on scratchy old records. It's important to occasionally remind ourselves that these where living human beings who - for the time they existed on this Earth - served as a living conduit to the past.

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  5. Hi,just found this site.Looks good.Lots to read.
    Personally,I think that when a tune has obscure lyrics,it is because it is taken out of context.For example,it was originally put together for local people,and they would know the slang or double meaning of words or phrases. But more often verses,are plucked from different tunes because people can't remember or got confused.I think this would explain why so many similar verses turn up in so many different tunes.I myself,can't remember verses to tunes I've heard hundreds of times,over the last few decades,scale this up to tunes that are hundreds of years old and spread over different continents and different cultures,and it seems very plausable.

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