Sunday, January 31, 2010

"The Wild Wagoner" - J.W. Day (Jilson Setters)


Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track Two: "The Wild Wagoner (Frolic Tune)" performed by J.W. Day (Jilson Setters). "Violin solo with guitar." Recorded in New York on February 27, 1928. Original issue Victor 21353A (42485).

The story of James William Day, a.k.a. J.W. Day, a.k.a. Blind Bill Day, a.k.a. Jilson Setters is vague and littered with half-truths. Here are the facts that we know: Born in 1861, Day was a self-taught fiddler from Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Day was blind, although whether he was born blind or was blinded is not known. During his youth, Day performed locally at dances and parties. He also occasionally supported himself by begging on the street while performing. He was known as Blind Bill Day during this period. At some point around 1906, Day had an operation that restored his sight. In 1926, Day met Jean Thomas, a folklorist and impresario who later ran the American Folk Song Festival near Ashland, Kentucky from 1931 to 1972. Thomas was impressed with Day's skill as a fiddler and with his repertoire of English folk ballads. Moreover, Thomas was convinced that the rural folk of the American southeast possessed traits that had been passed down from their Elizabethan English forebears almost unaltered. Thomas decided to manage Day. She changed his name to Jilson Setters and presented him as an old man who had lived in isolation in the mountains. She also claimed that the eye surgery that restored Day's sight had been only recently performed and that Day (now Setters) had been shocked by the modern world. Day was taken to New York to perform and record. He made ten sides for Victor, including this recording of "The Wild Wagoner," a staple of the standard fiddle repertoire. Day was also taken to England where he performed at the Royal Albert Hall for the King and Queen. He continued to perform throughout the 1930s and into the '40s at folk festivals, as well as recording for the Library of Congress. Jean Thomas wrote a heavily fictionalized biography of Day titled The Singin' Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow. He died in 1942.

Here is a quote from a 1928 article written by Thomas about Day in which she provides a heavily romanticized picture of the man:

In a windowless cabin, hidden away in a high cranny of the Kentucky mountains, lived Jilson Setters, who, for all his sixty-five years, had never seen a railroad. Neither had he heard a phonograph nor a radio. His home-made fiddle and his ‘ballets’ were good enough for Jilson Setters and mountain folk.

from: “The Last Minstrel” by Jean Thomas, The English Journal, December, 1928

"The Wild Wagoner" is the second of seven tracks in a row that feature the fiddle, either solo or in combination with various instruments. As mentioned above, it is a standard part of the fiddle repertoire, most often performed at dances or "frolics." On this recording, the fiddle plays the melody line while a guitar (played by an unknown hand) keeps the rhythm. The song is in the key of C, a less common key for old time fiddle music than A, G, or D. The title of the song often varies according to the location of the musician playing it, e.g. "The Kentucky Wagoner" or "The Missouri Wagoner."

While it is tempting - especially on a set as laden with meaning as the Anthology - to search for some sort of sub-textual import for each song, not every song has to have a meaning. The purpose of the songs on this volume, after all, was to be played at social functions for dancing. That's all. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It is important to remember that none of the songs on the Anthology were thought of as "art" by the people who performed them. All of these songs had a function. The songs on the "Ballads" set told a story. The songs on the "Social Music" set are either songs for dancing or for worship. The songs on the "Songs" set are simply designed to amuse. It is only relatively recently that popular songs were supposed to do something more than act as diversions. It is therefore somewhat ironic when people complain that - for example - Lady Gaga's music is "just" music for dancing. While Uncle Bunt Stephens and J.W. Day would probably not responded to her music, I can't imagine that they would object to the message when Lady Gaga sings "It'll be okay...just dance."

The Shameless Plug Department - The Omen: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Who is mountnmonkey? Is it one guy? Is it the whole group? Who ARE these guys? Well, they're good, whoever they are! Here they are performing a variation of "The Wild Wagoner" titled "Tennessee Wagoner" on fiddle with mandolin and at least three guitars. Good stuff!



Download and listen to J.W. Day (Jilson Setters) - "The Wild Wagoner"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Sail Away Lady" - "Uncle Bunt" Stephens


Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track One: "Sail Away Lady (Fiddle Solo) Mountain Dance Music" performed by "Uncle Bunt" Stephens. "Unaccompanied violin solo." Recorded in New York on March 29, 1926. Original issue Columbia 15071D (W141876).

The second volume of the Anthology is titled "Social Music." As its name implies, the music on this set had a purpose beyond listening pleasure. The first disc of this set deals with dance music. The second disc deals entirely with religious music. To paraphrase Greil Marcus, the first disc is Saturday night. The second is Sunday morning.

This is easily the most misunderstood of the four volumes of the Anthology. Most of the attention and praise lavished upon the set is directed at the first and third volumes, "Ballads" and "Songs." These sets are indeed worthy of praise, but the second volume shouldn't be overlooked. The reason the "Social Music" volume is often overlooked is twofold: First, there is a perception that the set is made up largely of "instrumental music." It is true that the first disc contains a good deal of instrumental music. That is not all that it contains, however. There are several vocal selections. Even if there weren't, the fact that the set is downplayed or dismissed reflects a prejudice against instrumental music in American popular culture. It also reflects the prejudices and predilections of the original audience for the Anthology. As has often been noted, this set helped to spark a folk music revival in the United States during the fifties and early sixties. Many of the musicians who listened to and learned from the Anthology were singers who accompanied themselves on guitar, banjo or mandolin. They would have had little use for instrumental music and fiddle tunes. That is not to say that many did not learn from or play the music on this set, but the evidence suggests that more people covered songs from the "Ballads" and "Songs" sets.

The other reason for the diminished status of this volume is a general dismissal of religious music. Speaking for myself, I once held a similar view. Since I am not religious, I wasn't interested in listening to religious music. Point of fact, I was slightly afraid to do so. Eventually, I was exposed to the wonderful scope of religious (largely Christian) music recorded during the twenties and thirties (including music by both white and black artists) and I discovered that I could enjoy the music without sharing the faith of the people who made it.

I firmly believe that this volume is as important and as beautiful as the others in this set. For one thing, it is on this volume that the Cajun music is first heard. There are also several virtuoso performances on both discs that must be heard to be believed. I sincerely hope that those of you who have followed me this far will continue to do so and listen with an open mind.

The first disc of this set kicks off with a recording of "Sail Away Lady" by Uncle Bunt Stephens. Born John L. Stephens on February 2, 1879 in Bedford, Tennessee, Stephens was orphaned at an early age and raised by an aunt. A self-taught fiddler, Stephens began performing at local square-dances at the age of seventeen. In 1926, when he was almost fifty years old, Stephens participated in a fiddling contest at a Ford dealership in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The contest was part of a nationwide event sponsored by Henry Ford with the aim of promoting the old-time music of which Ford was a fan. Having won the contest in Lynchburg, Stephens went on to win at each successive level until he reached and won the national finals in Detroit. His prize was $1000, a new Lincoln automobile and a new suit.

After touring briefly, Stephens traveled to New York where he made his only known recordings, including this recording of "Sail Away Lady." He made several appearances on the Grand Old Opry, billed as the "World Champion Fiddler." Stephens died on July 25, 1951.

According to Smith's liner notes, this performance of "Sail Away Lady" is "probably similar to much American dance music in the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars." If this is true, it a truly remarkable how similar it is to modern dance music in rhythmic terms. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to hear a techno beat behind Stephens's playing (in fact, you can hear Stephens's foot keeping time as he plays, providing a rock steady beat). This performance is rough-hewn but virtuosic. Stephens never varies the tempo, and one can easily understand why this tune was so popular for dancing.

The song is a part of the standard repertoire for any country fiddler and is found in most collections of fiddle music. It is closely related to the songs "Sally Ann" and "Sandy Land." While this performance is entirely instrumental, there are several sets of lyrics that accompany this tune.

"Sail Away Lady" became popular in England during the skiffle craze of the 1950s when it was recorded by Lonnie Donegan under the title "Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O." Under this title, the song was included in the set list of the Quarrymen, the group that eventually became the Beatles.

Who's Afraid of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here's my younger brother, Jacob Stern, a professional fiddler and member of the New Hampshire based Crunchy Western Boys performing a version of "Sail Away Lady" with lyrics. This is a Where Dead Voices Gather exclusive recording!



Download and listen to Uncle Bunt Stephens - "Sail Away Lady"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Got The Farm Land Blues" - The Carolina Tar Heels


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Thirteen: "Got The Farm Land Blues" performed by The Carolina Tar Heels. "Vocal solo with harmonica, banjo, guitar." Recorded in Memphis on November 19, 1930. Original issue Victor 23611A.

The last track on the "Ballads" set is performed by the Carolina Tar Heels, minus Clarence Ashley. For information on the Carolina Tar Heels, see the entry for "Peg and Awl." This song features Garley Foster on vocal, harmonica and guitar and Doc Walsh on banjo.

"Got The Farm Land Blues" simply describes a series of travails that befall farmers; from thieves to natural disasters.

I woke up this morning
Between one and two.
Woke up this morning
Between one and two.
Heard a chicken squalling
Down at my chicken roost.

I rushed down there,
But a little too late.
I rushed down there,
But a little too late.
Thief has got my chickens
And made his getaway.

Went out to my corn crib
for to get some corn.
Went out to my corn crib
For to get some corn.
Thief had broke in my corn crib.
Took away every ear of my corn.

Went to get my car
For to go get the sheriff.
Went to get my car
For to go get the sheriff.
Thief had took every tire
Right off of my car.

Hard luck!

Well, along come a storm.
Tore down my corn.
Along come a storm.
Tore down my corn.
While the bean beetle in the bean patch,
Eatin' up the beans.
Boll weevil in the cotton.
He tearin' up the bolls.

Got the farm land blues.
Got the farm land blues right now.
Got the farm land blues.
Got the farm blues right now.
Not another fur a-will I found.

Gonna sell my farm.
Gonna move to town.
Gonna sell my farm.
Gonna move to town.
Got the farm land blues.
Right now.


"Got The Farm Land Blues" is a straightforward song, similar to "Down On Penny's Farm" and "Mississippi Boweavil Blues" in that it describes the tribulations of farmers. Unlike "Down On Penny's Farm," however, it lacks any political or social critique. In that regard, it is more like "Mississippi Boweavil Blues," although there are also some differences. Charlie Patton's song simply describes the effect of the boll weevil on cotton farmers in the south. It makes no value judgments. "Got The Farm Land Blues," however, is a lament. "Hard luck!" shouts Garley Foster after the fourth verse. And, indeed, the song is about "hard luck." It is more specifically about the "hard luck" of the Great Depression, which brings the Anthology (and the "Ballads" volume specifically) into the present tense of the performers. The Carolina Tar Heels are no longer singing about the "days of eighteen and one." Instead, they are singing about things happening right outside the recording studio.

The "Ballads" volume, from "Henry Lee" to "Got The Farm Land Blues," spans over four hundred years of history. Yet the songs remain and are specifically being sung in a very particular moment in time. All of the recordings on this volume were made between 1927 and 1932, when the Depression impacted the recording industry. I would argue, therefore, that the Anthology is in many ways about how the past and the present are continually intermingled. For whatever reason, these songs about events past have survived and they survived to be sung by these artists in this particular time period (regarded as many to be the most fertile in terms of the recording of American Folk Music). We must also recall that when Harry Smith was collecting these sides, he was doing so in the late 1940s and early 1950s; barely thirty years after the songs were recorded. The music of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles is older today than the music collected on the Anthology was when Smith was listening to it. Yet it already sounded ancient to the listeners of the early fiftes. Why? The answer is partly technological: The early fifties saw the emergence of the long playing record and the adoption of magnetic tape, putting an end to direct disc cutting. Recordings could be longer. It was possible to edit and to overdub (making possible such albums as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon). But that is only part of the story. Between the day that the Carolina Tar Heels sat down to record "Got The Farm Land Blues" and the day when Harry Smith listened to it, two catastrophic events had occurred that effectively destroyed the world preserved by the Anthology. The first of these was the Depression. Hard times drove Americans from the South to the North. African-Americans, in particular, made a great exodus from the Jim Crow South to the industrialized North, filling cities like Chicago and Detroit. With them came jazz and the blues, and these forms were changed by their new environment. McKinley Morganfeld left Mississippi. It was Muddy Waters who came to Chicago.

Similarly, the Dust Bowl drove many people to the West Coast. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were two transplanted Okies who helped develop what became known as the Bakersfield sound. We should remember that Chet Baker, too, was an Oklahoman who moved to California. The cultural map in America was forever changed.

The physical map was changed as well. The Depression brought the WPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority. These agencies helped to modernize the South, bringing electricity to millions of rural dwellers.

The second great calamity was the Second World War, which transformed America from a second-string World Power into one of the world's only Super Powers.

I'm not trying to argue that the changes wrought by these events were all negative. I'm simply observing that the world had gone through more changes in the thirty years since these records were originally recorded than it has - in many ways - since the Anthology was first released. We have all, after all, been a part of the Post-War Era, whether we were born in the forties, the sixties or the seventies. It is only in the last several years, with the popularity of the internet, that we have seen changes as rapid and as profound as the changes that occurred between 1929 and 1945.

When Harry Smith listened to these records during the late forties, he recognized that something of the world he heard had been lost and needed to be preserved. It is important to remember that the music recorded on these fragile shellac discs was regarded as hopelessly old fashioned. As artifacts, the records themselves were threatened by shellac drives during the war, and from simply being treated as trash by their owners. Collectors like Harry Smith (and, even more importantly, like Joe Bussard and Gayle Dean Wardlow) were instrumental in the preservation of Pre-War American culture in the Post-War era. Many of them performed this herculean labor one record at time, by canvassing flea markets, junk sales, and by going house to house. In this way a treasure trove of Americana was rescued, but it would have sat unheard in the record rooms of collectors if it hadn't been for Harry Smith and his Anthology.

This brings us to the end of the first volume of the Anthology. In our next entry, we will begin to explore the second volume, titled "Social Music."

On The Road to the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Amazingly, there doesn't seem to be any available video of a later performances of "Got The Farm Land Blues." If anyone knows of such a video, please email me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com.

Instead, here's some video of Harry Smith's hand-painted films. These were films made in the late forties and fifties, around the same time he was collecting the music that eventually wound up on the Anthology. According to Smith's recollections, he was interested in animation, but didn't have a camera. He began painting on blank strips of film. These "Early Abstractions" were the result. Several of his later films employ collage and stop animation. These are all very worth watching...











Download and listen to The Carolina Tar Heels - "Got The Farm Land Blues"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Mississippi Boweavil Blues" - The Masked Marvel (Charlie Patton)


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Twelve: "Mississippi Boweavil Blues" performed by The Masked Marvel. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Richmond, IN on June 14, 1929. Original issue Paramount 12805B (15211, P1337).

The Masked Marvel was a pseudonym for Charlie Patton (often credited on his records as "Charley" Patton), a Delta blues musician born near in Edwards, Mississippi. His exact birth date is unknown, the year of his birth is estimated to be between 1887 and 1891. Around 1900, Patton's family relocated to the Dockery Plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi, where Patton was to spend much of his life.

Patton's parentage was in some doubt. Patton was fair skinned and had "good" hair. He was also a slightly built man. His father - by contrast - was a large, dark skinned man. There were whispers that Charlie Patton was actually the son of Ezell Chatmon, the patriarch of the musical Chatmon family. Patton often performed with the Chatmons, which may have encouraged this rumor.

While Patton had started out playing with string bands, he eventually fell under the spell of the blues, a relatively new musical form around the turn of the 20th century. Reportedly, a musician named Henry Sloan was Patton's mentor. By the age of nineteen, Patton is said to have become an accomplished blues musician. He became a central figure in the emerging blues scene in the area around the Dockery Plantation, drawing several followers who were to become master bluesmen themselves, including Tommy Johnson, Son House, Booker Washington White, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnette, and Willie Brown. Patton also inspired members of the coming generation of blues musicians such as John Lee Hooker and - perhaps most famously - Robert Johnson. Patton was an enormously popular performer, known for his acrobatic guitar tricks. Patton was known to play his guitar behind his back, throw his guitar into the air and catch it between his legs, and perform other similar stunts (which call to mind a later guitarist named Jimi Hendrix).

While Patton had turned down an earlier offer to record, he was eventually recorded by Paramount Records, a label that had already become legendary for producing the records of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Patton's first session was in Richmond, Indiana in June of 1929. It was here that Patton recorded several of what were to become classic blues records such as "Pony Blues," "Screamin' and Hollerin' The Blues," "It Won't Be Long," "Pea Vine Blues," and "Mississippi Boweavil Blues." Upon the latter record's release, Paramount promoted the record with a contest: The record was released under the name "The Masked Marvel." Listeners were invited to guess who the artist really was and the winner would win the Paramount record of their choice. Whether anybody guessed correctly is unknown.

Charlie Patton went on to make many records over the next five years. During that time, he continued to live high. He drank heavily, had sexual liaisons with numerous women (a frequent subject in Patton's songs), and got into fights. By 1934, Patton's health was failing. He was tracked down for one last recording session for which Patton and his common-law wife, Bertha Lee, were transported to New York. During this session, Patton recorded the haunting "Poor Me" and "Oh Death." While Patton had lost much of his performing power by this point, these records are particularly affecting and rank among Patton's greatest recorded works. Not long after his last recording session, Patton died on April 28, 1934.

While Patton is among the most important early blues recording artists, the quality of the recordings (Paramount pressed their records on notoriously low-grade shellac), the popularity of the records (they were played to the point where the surviving records are extremely worn), and Patton's own idiosyncratic vocal style (even his contemporaries, such as Son House, admitted that they had difficulty understanding Patton's lyrics) mean that Patton is not as listened to as he otherwise might be. For many blues listeners, Patton remains an enigmatic figure, not as immediately accessible as the younger Robert Johnson.

In "Mississippi Boweavil Blues," Patton sings about the boll weevil, a beetle which feeds on cotton buds and flowers. The insect infested Mexico in the late 19th century and crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas in 1892. By 1915, it had spread as far as Alabama, and by the 1920s it had led to a blight that crippled the cotton industry and led to widespread unemployment and economic hardship the preceded the Great Depression. The boll weevil was the subject of numerous songs.

It's a little boweavil keeps movin' in the (guitar finishes phrase), Lordy!
You can plant your cotton and you won't get a half a bale, Lordy.
Boweavil, boweavil, where's your native home? Lordy.
"A-Louisiana raised in Texas, least is where I was bred and born, Lordy."
Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordy.
The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordy.
Boweavil left Texas, Lord, he bid me "fare ye well, Lordy."

(spoken: Where you goin' now?)

"I'm goin' down the Mississippi, gonna give Louisiana hell, Lordy."
Boweavil said to the farmer, "I ain't gotta treat you fair, Lordy."

(spoken: How is that, boy?)

Suck all the blossoms and he leave your hedges square, Lordy.
The next time I seed you, you know you had your family there, Lordy.
Boweavil meet his wife, "We can sit down on the hill, Lordy."
Boweavil told his wife, "Let's trade this forty in, Lordy."
Boweavil told his wife, says, "I believe I may go north, Lordy."

(spoken: Hold on, I'm gonna tell all about that)

"Let's leave Louisiana, we can go to Arkansas, Lordy."
Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordy.
Next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordy.
Boweavil told the farmer that "I 'tain't got ticket fare, Lordy."
Sucks all the blossom and leave your hedges square, Lordy.
Boweavil, boweavil, where your native home, Lordy?
"Most anywhere they raise cotton and corn, Lordy."
Boweavil, boweavil, oughta treat me fair, Lordy.
The next time I did you had your family there, Lordy.


Although this is one of Patton's earliest recordings, it is also one of his most intelligible. The pressing used on the Anthology is in unusually fine condition, with very little surface noise. Even so, Patton's lyrics are still difficult to make out at times and the lyrics listed above are conjectural.

While most of the ballads concerning the boll weevil tend to be satirical in nature, wryly noting that the insect is "looking for a home," Patton's song is largely a dialogue between a farmer and the boll weevil. The insect's rapid proliferation is noted in the line, "Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordy / The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordy." The song also lists the boll weevil's travels from Texas to Arkansas and beyond. Patton himself rarely engaged in any honest labor, preferring to move around and living off women. Nonetheless, raised as he was on a plantation, Patton could not have failed to see the devastation the boll weevil wreaked on the sharecropper's cotton harvest. Patton would have known first hand how much suffering and hardship this little beetle had caused. Although there is nothing political about "Mississippi Boweavil Blues," it shares with "Down On Penny's Farm" its sympathy for the plight of the sharecropper and the tenant farmer.

"Mississippi Boweavil Blues" is extremely simple, structurally. Patton repeats the same musical phrase over and over again throughout the song, becoming more and more insistent as Patton speeds up the tempo. During the first verse, Patton allows the slide guitar to finish his phrase, a technique Patton would use more often in later compositions (particularly in "Spoonful Blues"). The song's simplicity and use of repetition adds to its effectiveness, ultimately.

The House of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

This is Reverend Goob performing a song about the boll weevil on the five-string banjo.



Download and listen to The Masked Marvel - "Mississippi Boweavil Blues"

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Down On Penny's Farm" - The Bently Boys


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Eleven: "Down On Penny's Farm" performed by The Bently Boys. "Vocal solo with banjo, guitar." Recorded in Johnson City, TN on October 23, 1929. Original issue Columbia 15565D (W149254).

Nothing is known about the Bently Boys. They were possibly from North Carolina.

The song "Penny's Farm" deals with sharecroppers. Although it had existed earlier, sharecropping emerged in the southern United States following the Civil War and emancipation as a way for plantation owners to get cheap labor. It also emerged as a legal means of perpetuating the iniquities of slavery.

Under the sharecropping system, farm owners assigned or "rented" a plot of land to the sharecropper who worked and lived on the land. The owner provided seed and tools and collected a share of the harvested crop, usually half. The sharecropper was also allowed to plant their own produce for food. The larger farm owners often set up a miniature economy on their land, with stores and services provided for a price. Some plantations, like the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, even printed their own currency. Since the renters usually had little or no money of their own, they were allowed to buy necessities from the plantation store on credit, which was then deducted from the renter's share of the harvest at the end of the year. This often kept the sharecroppers in a state of constant crippling debt, unable to earn enough money to leave the plantation and barely able to earn a living. In essence, the sharecropping system was a feudal system.

This system is admirably described in "Penny's Farm." According to Harry Smith's liner notes, the song is a "renationalized recasting of an earlier song 'Hard Times'." The song was also recorded by Gid Tanner and The Skillet Lickers as "Tanner's Farm." The melody and first few lines were borrowed by Bob Dylan for his song "Hard Times In New York Town," a song recorded for his first album, but left unreleased in until 1993's The Bootleg Series, 1-3. The first verse of the Dylan song is as follows:

Come you ladies and you gentlemen, a-listen to my song.
Sing it to you right, but you might think it's wrong.
Just a little glimpse of a story I'll tell,
'Bout an East Coast city that you all know well.
It's hard times in the city,
Livin' down in New York town.


Bob Dylan also alludes to "Penny's Farm" in his 1965 song, "Maggie's Farm," released on Bringing It All Back Home.

"Penny's Farm" is the first song on the Anthology that can be genuinely called a "protest" song. The song's speaker exposes the abuses of the sharecropping system, while at the same time poking sly fun at them. Former 10,000 Maniacs singer, Natalie Merchant, recorded a version of this song for her 1993 album, The House Carpenter's Daughter.

Come you ladies and you gentlemen and listen to my song.
Sing it to you right, but you might think it's wrong.
May make you mad, but I mean no harm.
It's just about the renters on Penny's farm.

It's hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

You move out on Penny's farm.
Plant a little crop of 'bacco and a little crop of corn.
Come around to see you gonna flit and plot,
Till he gets himself a mortgage
On everything you got.

It's hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

Hasn't George Penny got a flattering mouth?
Move you to the country in a little log house.
Got nothing it but the cracks in the wall.
He'll work you in the summer and rob you in the fall.

It's hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

You go in the fields and you work all day.
Till way after night, but you get no pay.
Promise you meat or a little lard,
It's hard to be a renter on Penny's farm.

It's hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

Here's George Penny, he'll come into town,
With his wagon-load of peaches, not one of them is sound.
He's got to have his money or somebody's check.
You pay him for a bushel and you don't get a peck.

It's hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

George Penny's renters, they'll come into town,
With their hands in their pockets, and their head a-hanging down.
Go in the store and the merchant will say:
"Your mortgage is due and I'm looking for my pay."

It's hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

Down in his pocket with a trembling hand,
"Can't pay you all, but I'll pay you what I can."
Then to the telephone the merchant make a call.
They'll put you on the chain gang don't pay it all.

It's hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.


The Bently Boys performance is good humored, but pointed. The singer sounds - at times - like he can barely keep from laughing. Yet the song sets the template for the more politically charged folk music of later performers such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. The sympathy expressed in the song for the underdog is also a feature of the left-wing politics later associated with folk music. For the most part, Smith avoids politics on the Anthology, although a few overtly political songs will be heard on volume four.

"Down On Penny's Farm" is thematically related to Kelly Harrell's "My Name Is John Johanna." Both songs deal with the exploitation of farm labor in a humorous fashion.

"Down On Penny's Farm" is the first of three songs in a row describing the hard times of farmers. These songs bring the "Ballads" volume into the era of the Great Depression, making these the first songs on the Anthology to describe conditions the musicians themselves were facing.


The Curse of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Raymond Crooke is back, performing a version of "Down On Penny's Farm" that hews closely to the Bently Boys recording, although with some lyrical variations.




Download and listen to The Bently Boys - "Down On Penny's Farm"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Kassie Jones" - Furry Lewis


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Ten: "Kassie Jones" performed by Furry Lewis. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Memphis on August 28, 1928. Original issue Victor 21664A&B.

Walter E. Lewis was born in Greenwood, Mississippi on March 6, 1893. His family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when he was seven years old. He acquired the nickname "Furry" as a child, but by the time of his rediscovery in the 1950s, he could no longer remember how or why. By the age of fifteen, Lewis was performing at parties and as a street musician. He also performed with W.C. Handy's Orchestra. He lost a leg in a 1917 railroad accident and became a professional musician in order to earn a living. He performed with medicine shows and with jug bands, including those led by Will Shade and Gus Cannon, both of whom appear on the Anthology. In 1922, tired of traveling, Lewis took a job as a Memphis street sweeper, a job he held until his retirement in 1966. Nevertheless, Lewis remained active in the Memphis music scene.

In 1927, Lewis traveled to Chicago to record for the Vocalion label. A year later, he recorded several sides for Victor, including the two-part "Kassie Jones," a variation of "Casey Jones" (the name was deliberately misspelled to avoid a copyright violation).

Following the release of the Anthology in 1952, Lewis was rediscovered and launched upon a second career. Highlights include opening for the Rolling Stones (twice), appearing on the Tonight Show, acting in a Burt Reynolds film (1975's W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings), and being profiled in Playboy magazine. Lewis was also the subject of Joni Mitchell's song, "Furry Sings The Blues," from her 1976 Hejira album. The song was based on Mitchell's meeting Lewis in a Memphis boarding house. Lewis hated the song and demanded that Mitchell pay him royalties for the use of his name.

Furry Lewis died on September 14, 1981. He is buried in the Hollywood Cemetery in South Memphis. His grave is marked by two stones, the second of which was purchased by fans.

John Luther "Casey" Jones was a railroad engineer who worked on the Illinois Central Railroad. He was killed on April 30, 1900 when the passenger train he was driving collided with a stalled freight train at Vaughn, Mississippi.

The south-bound passenger train No. 1 was running under a full head of steam when it crashed into the rear end of a caboose and three freight cars which were standing on the main track, the other portion of the train being on a sidetrack. The caboose and two of the cars were smashed to pieces, the engine left the rails and plowed into an embankment, where it overturned and was completely wrecked, the baggage and mail coaches also being thrown from the track and badly damaged. The engineer was killed outright by the concussion. His body was found lying under the cab, with his skull crushed and right arm torn from its socket. The fireman jumped just in time to save his life. The express messenger was thrown against the side of the car, having two of his ribs broken by the blow, but his condition is not considered dangerous. - From a Jackson, Mississippi newspaper account of the accident.

Jones was hailed as a hero for his self-sacrifice and for the fact that he prevented any further fatalities by managing to slow his train in time.

The ballad commemorating Jones's death was reportedly written only days afterward by Wallace Saunders, a black railroad worker and a friend of Jones. The song has been recorded numerous times and in numerous variations. The story has also inspired other unrelated songs, such as the song "Casey Jones" by the Grateful Dead.

Lewis's version differs significantly with Saunders' original, being apparently adapted from the African-American railroad song "Charley Snyder" and the hobo song "Jay Gould's Daughter."

I woke up this mornin', four o'clock.
Mister Casey told his fireman, get his boiler hot.
Put on your water, put on your coal.
Put your head out of the window, see my drivers roll.
See my driver roll.
Put your head out of the window, see my driver roll.

Lord, some people say that Mister Casey couldn't run.
Let me just tell you what Mister Casey done.
He left Memphis, it was quarter to nine.
Got to Newport News, it was dinnertime.
It was dinnertime.
Got to Newport News, it was dinnertime.

I've sold my gin, I've sold it straight.
Police run me to my woman's gate.
She comes to the door, she nod her head.
She made me welcome to the foldin' bed.
To the foldin' bed.
Made me welcome to the foldin' bed.

Lord, the people said to Casey "You're runnin' over time."
"You'll have another loser with the one-o-nine."
Casey said, "This ain't in mind.
I'll run it in close just to make my time."
Said to all the passengers, "Better keep yourself hid
Naturally gonna shake it like Chainey did."
Like Chainey did.
Naturally gonna shake it like Chainey did.

Mister Casey run his engine within a mile of the place.
Number four stared him in the face.
The depot told Casey, "Well, you must leave town."
"Believe to my soul I'm Alabama bound."
"Alabama bound."
"Believe to my soul I'm Alabama bound."

Missus Casey said she dreamt a dream,
The night she bought her sewin' machine.
The needle got broke, she could not sew.
She loved Mister Casey, 'cause she told me so.
Told me so.
Loved Mister Casey, 'cause she told me so.

There was a woman name Miss Alice Fry.
Said, "I'm gonna ride with Mister Casey 'fore I die.
I ain't good looking but I take my time.
A rambling woman with a rambling mind.
Got a rambling mind."

Casey looked at his water, water was low.
Looked at his watch, his watch was slow.

On the road again.
Natural born Eastman on the road again.

Lord, there's people tell by the throttle moan,
The man at the fire's Mister Casey Jones.
Mister Casey Jones.

Mister Casey said, before he died,
One more road that he wants to ride.
People tells Casey, "Which road is he?"
"The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.
Santa Fe."

This mornin' I heard someone was dyin'.
Missus Casey's children on the doorstep cryin'.
Mama, mama, I can't keep from cryin',
Papa got killed on the Southern line.
On the Southern line.
Papa got killed on the Southern line.

"Mama, mama, how can it be?
Killed my father and you weren't the first to grieve?"
"Children, children want you to hold your breath.
Draw another pension from your father's death.
From your father's death."

On the road again.
I'm a natural born Eastman on the road again.

Tuesday mornin', it looked like rain.
Around the curve came a passenger train.
Under the boiler lay Mister Casey Jones.
Good old engineer, but he's dead and gone.
Dead and gone.

On the road again.
I'm a natural born Eastman on the road again.

I left Memphis to spread the news.
Memphis women don't wear no shoes.
Had it written in the back of my shirt,
Natural born Eastmen don't have to work.
Don't have to work.
I'm a natural born Eastman, don't have to work.


Lewis's version of this song is curious for a number of reasons. For one thing, the viewpoint character of the song is apparently unconnected to the events surrounding the death of Casey Jones. Not only is the speaker unconnected to Jones and his death, he also appears entirely unconcerned. The song alternates between snapshots of Jones in his engine or of Jones's family with completely unrelated material, such as the revelation that "Memphis women don't wear no shoes." The speaker also declares himself a "natural born Eastman" a number of times (one assumes that Lewis means that the speaker - like himself - was born in the eastern United States. Although why this should mean that he "don't have to work" is unclear), which has no clear connection to the story of Casey Jones. In fact, the most significant event in Jones's story - his death - happens "off stage" in Lewis's song. We only hear of Jones's death in the second part of the song from one of Jones's children. This rambling narrative, peppered as it is with non sequiturs, and sung in a laconic tone contrasts sharply with the moralizing tone of "Engine One-Forty-Three." Unlike that train-disaster song, there is no moral to the death of Casey Jones. But while the song omits a moral, it also makes no mention of Jones's heroism. It is much closer, then, in spirit to "When That Great Ship Went Down", suggesting that blacks felt that these tragedies were not THEIR tragedies (unlike the death of John Henry or the crimes of Stackalee and Frankie).

"Kassie Jones" contains lyrical connections to several other ballads heard as part of this collection. Mrs. Jones's callous comment to her children that they will "draw another pension from [their] father's death" echoes a similar line in "White House Blues." There is also the curious appearance of Alice Fry from "Frankie."

The line "Mister Casey said, before he died / One more road that he wants to ride" is similar to a line from "The Rock Island Line":

Well, the engineer said, before he died
There's two more drinks that he'd like to try.
Conductor said, "What can they be?"
A hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea.


"Kassie Jones" is the last of three songs in a row dealing with man-made or transportation related disasters. The last three songs on the "Ballads" set deal with natural disasters and the hard times of farmers.

The Shameless Plug Department: Rise of the Machines: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here's Furry Lewis himself in 1968 performing "Kassie Jones" in a television appearance.


Download and listen to Furry Lewis - "Kassie Jones"

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Engine One-Forty-Three" - The Carter Family


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Nine: "Engine One-Forty-Three" performed by The Carter Family. "Vocal solo (by Sara Carter) with autoharp, guitar." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 15, 1929. Original issue Victor 400989B.

This is the second recording by the Carter Family to appear on the Anthology. For biographical information, and for information on the autoharp, see the entry for "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man."

"Engine One-Forty-Three" (hereafter "Engine 143") tells the true story of George Alley, an engineer on the C&O Railroad (the same railroad on which both John Henry and John Hardy were employed), who was killed when his train was derailed.

The report reached the city this morning that train No. 4, (the vestibuled) had been derailed a short distance east of Hinton, and the investigation by the ADVERTISER shows that there was an accident to this train, but not so bad as at first rumored.

At about 5 o’clock this morning the train ran into a rock, which had rolled on the track from the mountain above, two miles east of Hinton. The train was running at good speed, and the collision caused the engine and express and postal cars to be derailed. The engine was badly damaged, and in overturning caught the engineer, George Alley, of Clifton Forge, well known here, in some of the machinery, breaking his right arm and scalding him so severely that he died six hours after the accident occurred.

Two firemen, who were on the engine were also scalded but sustained no other injuries. No one else, either of the crew or passengers, was injured, though all of them had a shaking up and a bad scare. No particular damage was done to the passenger cars and at 9:30 the track was cleared and the train started east.
- Huntington Daily Advertiser
October 23, 1890

According to Smith's notes, the song was likely composed by a worker in the round house at Hinton, West Virginia.

Along came the F15, the swiftest on the line.
Running o’er the C&O road just twenty minutes behind.
Running into Cevile, head porters on the line,
Receiving their strict orders from a station just behind.

Georgie’s mother came to him with a bucket on her arm.
Saying, "My darling son, be careful how you run.
For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time.
And if you run your engine right, you’ll get there just on time."

Up the road he darted, against the rocks he crushed.
Upside down the engine turned and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high.
"I’m glad I was born for an engineer to die on the C&O road."

The doctor said to Georgie, "My darling boy, be still.
Your life may yet be saved, if it is God’s blessed will."
"Oh no," said George, "That will not do, I want to die so free.
I want to die for the engine I love, one hundred and forty three."

The doctor said to Georgie, "Your life cannot be saved.
Murdered upon a railroad and laid in a lonesome grave."
His face was covered up with blood, his eyes they could not see.
And the very last words poor Georgie said,
Was, "Nearer, my God, to Thee."


The song as sung by the Carter Family focuses on Alley's heroic death, but also acts as a cautionary tale. In what is likely an ahistorical addition to the song, George Alley's mother (with "a bucket on her arm") warns him against speeding in order to make up lost time. At the beginning of the song, the speaker notes that the train is "just twenty minutes behind" and then flashes back to the warning, clearly not heeded. Like the story of the Titanic, then, this is a story of man's hubris resulting in disaster. If Georgie had just listened to his mother, none of this would have happened.

Although it is never mentioned in "When That Great Ship Went Down," "Nearer My God To Thee" was - of course - the hymn played by the orchestra while the Titanic sank. "Engine 143" makes "nearer my God to thee" George Alley's last words, creating a link between the two songs (and undoubtedly the reason that Smith chose to put the songs in sequence).

As we have seen throughout the "Ballads" set, the songs have been placed in a rough chronology, taking us from the events of the Middle Ages in "Henry Lee" up through the first decades of the twentieth century. For some reason, however, Smith's chronology deviates slightly around this point in the "Ballads" set. The events described in the last five songs are all based on verifiable historical fact. "Stackalee" is based on a shooting that took place in 1895. "White House Blues" is based on the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. "Frankie" is based on events from 1899. "When That Great Ship Went Down" is based on the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. "Engine 143" takes us back to 1890, five years before Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons. Why? Why not sequence the songs in strict chronological order? Clearly, Smith had reasons beyond chronology for placing songs in a certain sequence.

One reason is that Smith sequenced songs thematically as well as chronologically. With "Stackalee," "White House Blues," and "Frankie," Smith gives us three songs about shootings. But why place "Frankie" after "White House Blues" instead of after "Stackalee"? It is possible that Smith was also concerned with the feel or mood of the specific songs. "Frankie" is sung quietly, contrasting it with both the song before it ("White House Blues") and the song after it ("When That Great Ship Went Down"). It is also possible that Smith had reasons beyond any we can hope to fathom. We can only listen and wonder.

With the exception of Versey Smith's contribution to "When That Great Ship Went Down," this is the first female vocal on the Anthology since Sara Carter's previous appearance on "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man."


The Shameless Plug Department Takes Manhattan: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here's a performance of "Engine 143" by Greg Reish, recorded live in Chicago on February 20, 2009.



Download and listen to The Carter Family - "Engine One-Forty-Three"

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"When That Great Ship Went Down" - William and Versey Smith


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Eight: "When That Great Ship Went Down" performed by William and Versey Smith. "Vocal duet with tambourine, guitar." Recorded in Chicago in August, 1927. Original issue Paramount 12505B (4685-728).

Much is unknown about William and Versey Smith. There is even contention over their place of origin. Some maintain that they came from Texas (based largely on their sanctified performance style, one assumes). Others maintain that the Smiths came from the Carolinas, based on a printed ballad with lyrics similar to those heard on this recording, credited to a W.O. Smith, a cab driver who worked in Durham between 1912 and 1915. What is known is that the Smiths, a husband and wife team who were said to be street singers, recorded four songs during a visit to Chicago in August of 1927, including "When The Great Ship Went Down." William Smith sings the lead vocal and plays guitar, while Versey Smith sings counterpoint and plays the tambourine. The other three songs they recorded include "I Believe I'll Go Back Home," "Everybody Help The Boys Come Home" and "Sinner, You'll Need King Jesus."

The tambourine is a musical instrument of the percussion family. It consists of a frame into which several pairs of cymbals, called zills, are set. The term "tambourine" specifically refers to instruments with a drum-head, although some varieties have no head at all. Although tambourines come in a variety of shapes and sizes, the most common shape is circular. The instrument was common to most ancient civilizations such as Persia, India, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. The word "tambourine" is derived from the Persian "tambūr", meaning "lute" or "drum." The tambourine was brought to the Americas by European settlers. The instrument became associated with African Americans in the south, who often included the tambourine in their religious music. The tambourine (along with the fiddle, the banjo, and bone castanets) became a major part of the Blackface Minstrel stage. Often the two "end men" were the tambourine and the bones players.

"When That Great Ship Went Down" recounts the sinking of the RMS Titanic, an Olympic class ocean liner owned by the White Star Shipping Line. On April 15 ,1912, Four days into its maiden voyage, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank two hours and forty minutes later. The sinking of the ship was considered to be particularly ironic, given that the White Star company had boasted that the ship was "unsinkable." The very name Titanic has become synonymous with hubris. For African Americans, the sinking of the unsinkable ship was doubly ironic, given that the White Star Line refused to allow blacks on board. By 1915, the story of the Titanic had been made the subject of at least one popular song, with other versions and variations appearing by 1920. Ernest Stoneman, Charlie Patton and Frank Hutchison, all of whom appear on the Anthology, recorded versions of the song.

The story of the Titanic has been retold countless times over the years, most notably in Walter Lord's 1955 book, A Night To Remember and in James Cameron's multi-Oscar-winning 1997 film, Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

On a Monday morning, just about nine o'clock.
Great Titanic began to reel and rock;
Children weepin' and cry,
"Yes, I'm going to die!"

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

When that ship left England, making for the shore,
The rich had declared that they would not ride with the poor.
Put the poor below,
Where first they had to go.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

When that ship left England, making for the shore,
The rich had declared that they would not ride with the poor.
Put the poor below,
Where first he had to go.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

People on that ship, long ways from home.
Friends all around, didn't know the time had come.
Death come riding by,
Sixteen hundred had to die.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

People on that ship, long ways from home.
Friends all around, didn't know the time had come.
Death come riding by,
Sixteen hundred had to die.

Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?
Sad when that great ship went down.
Sad when that great ship went down.
Husbands and wives. Children lost their lives.
Wasn't it sad when that great ship went down?

While they was building, said what they would do.
Now they would build a ship that water can't come through.
(Unintelligible)
Wasn't it sad when that great ship when down?


The repeated phrase, "Wasn't sad when that great ship went down" is ironic considering the almost celebratory mood of the recording. Neither of the Smiths seem to find the sinking of the Titanic (which had only happened fifteen years earlier) to be particularly tragic. Versey Smith's effusive shouts and spirited tambourine accompaniment imbue the song with a sanctified mood. It certainly would not have sounded out of place as a part of the disc of religious music which appears as the second part of the "Social Music" volume. This is not surprising considering that at least two of the four songs recorded by the Smiths during their sole session were gospel numbers, and their sound is firmly rooted in the ecstatic music of the Holiness Church.

"When That Great Ship Went Down" is the first of three songs in a row to feature disasters.

Blah blah blah the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. An all blues New Years edition of the podcast is currently in the planning stages and hopefully will be up by the end of the week. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here's Raymond Crooke performing a version of "The Titanic" which is much closer to the version we used to sing at summer camp when I was a kid, yet is clearly related lyrically to "When That Great Ship Went Down."



Download and listen to William and Versey Smith - "When That Great Ship Went Down"

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Frankie" - Mississippi John Hurt


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Seven: "Frankie" performed by Mississippi John Hurt. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Memphis on February 14, 1928. Original issue Okeh 8560 (W400221).

Mississippi John Hurt was born in Avalon, Mississippi on July 3, 1893. He learned to play the guitar by the age of nine and spent his childhood and early adulthood playing for local dances and working as a farm hand. In 1923, at the age of thirty, Hurt began performing with fiddler Willie Namour. In 1928, Namour won a recording contract with Okeh Records in a fiddling contest and recommended Hurt to producer Tommy Rockwell. Rockwell auditioned Hurt and on the strength of that audition, Hurt was scheduled for a recording session in Memphis, Tennessee. Hurt cut two songs at that first session, including "Frankie." A second session was scheduled for December, 1928 in New York city, where Hurt recorded eleven songs, including "Spike Driver Blues," also included on the Anthology. The records failed to sell and Okeh went out of business due to the Depression. Hurt went back to sharecropping and performing locally. It wasn't until the early 1960s that Hurt was rediscovered by musicologist Tom Hoskins. Hoskins convinced Hurt to move to Washington, D.C. and to perform at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Hurt's performance at Newport propelled him to stardom among the folk revival audience. Hurt spent his remaining years performing and recording. He is one of only two performers on the Anthology to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He died on November 2, 1966 of a heart attack in Grenada, Mississippi.

Like the story of Stackalee, "Frankie" is based on a documented real-life incident:

Allen Britt, colored, was shot and badly wounded shortly after 2 o’clock yesterday morning by Frankie Baker, also colored. The shooting occurred in Britt’s room at 212 Targee Street, and was the culmination of a quarrel. The woman claimed that Britt had been paying attentions to another woman. The bullet entered Britt’s abdomen, penetrating the intestines. The woman escaped after the shooting. - St Louis Globe-Democrat, October 16, 1899

Somehow, this minor incident of domestic violence caught the public imagination and was immortalized in song. The first published version of the song appeared in 1904 and was copyrighted by Hughie Cannon. Another version was copyrighted by Frank and Bert Leighton in 1908, under the title "Bill, You Done Me Wrong." It was republished in 1912 under the title "Frankie and Johnny." Exactly when and how Albert (Al Britt) morphed into "Johnny" is unknown. It was in the 1912 version by the Leighton brothers, however, that Alice Frye turned into "Nellie Bly." The now familiar melody of the song (not used in Hurt's version) was derived from an unrelated song (also published in 1912) titled "You're My Baby," written by Nat Ayer. The song has been recorded at least 256 times over the years. It has been performed by Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Lena Horne, Lonnie Donegan, Bob Dylan, Joe and Eddie, Taj Mahal, Charlie Patton, Charlie Poole, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley (who also starred in a film version), Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Vincent, Fats Waller, Van Morrison, Michael Pappas, Brook Benton, Stevie Wonder, Jack Johnson, Michelle Shocked, and Lindsay Lohan, just to name a few. The story has also been translated to the big screen on a number of occasions, beginning in 1930 with Her Man starring Helen Twelvetrees.

Frankie was a good girl, everybody knows.
She paid a hundred dollars for Albert one suit of clothes.
He's her man, and he done her wrong.

Frankie went down to the corner saloon, she didn't go to be gone long.
She peeked through keyhole in the door, spied Albert in Alice's arms.
"He's my man, and he done me wrong."

Frankie called Albert. Albert says, "I don't hear."
"If don't come to the woman you love, gonna haul you outta here.
You my man, and you done me wrong."

Frankie shot ol' Albert, and she shot him three or four times.
Says, "Stroll back, out smokin' my gun. Let me see is Albert dyin'.
He's my man, and he done me wrong."

Frankie and the judge walked down the stand, and walked out side to side.
The judge says to Frankie, "You're gonna be justified.
Killin' a man, and he did you wrong"

Dark was the night, cold was on the ground.
The last word I heard Frankie say, "I done laid ol' Albert down.
He's my man, and he done me wrong."

I ain't gonna tell no story, and I ain't gonna tell no lie.
Well, Albert passed 'bout an hour ago, with a girl you call Alice Frye.
He's your man, and he's done you wrong.


Mississippi John Hurt is only the second African American performer to appear on the "Ballads" volume of the Anthology. As has been mentioned before, Harry Smith was careful not to identify the performers by race and was particularly proud that "for years, people thought that Mississippi John Hurt was a hillbilly." To modern ears, this seems a bit hard to believe. Hurt's accent and speech pattern (not to mention his thorough grounding in the blues idiom) certainly make him sound "blacker" to the modern listener than - say - Frank Hutchison or Charlie Poole (both of whom could make a legitimate claim to being called "hillbillies"). Similarly, I've always had trouble believing the reports that listeners had difficulty distinguishing the race of performers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. If these reports (as well as Smith's claim regarding Hurt) are true, then perhaps they hearken back to a more innocent time, or at least a time before mass media had inundated us with voices to the point where we know what everybody sounds like.

Hurt's performance stands in stark contrast to the rowdy performances of the last three selections. His finger picking style and his voice are both gentle (indeed, Hurt's vocal style has been characterized as a "whisper" by more than one observer), almost conversational. Hurt's version of the familiar story omits some details (there is usually a scene where a bartender tells Frankie about Alice Frye/Nellie Bly) and adds others (I don't believe that any other version of the song includes the lyric "Dark was the night, cold was on the ground" - a line which seems to relate to Blind Willie Johnson's similarly titled recording). The speaker in Hurt's version also inserts himself into the story at the end of the song, saying that "the last word [he] heard Frankie say, "I done laid ol' Albert down." Hurt also takes the lyric usually spoken by the bartender and moves it to the end of the song, putting those words in the mouth of the speaker. Hurt also omits a lyric usually found in versions of "Frankie/Frankie and Albert/Frankie and Johnny":

Bring out your rubber tired carriages, bring out your rubber tired hacks.
There's twelve men going to that graveyard. There's eleven men coming back.


This blackly humorous lyric - had it been used here - would have been echoed by a similar line in Frank Hutchison's version of "Stackalee," thus depriving Smith of one of those connections between songs of which he was so fond.

"Frankie" is the last of three songs in a row concerning violence, particularly shootings. The next three songs all concern man-made disasters...

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Here's a version of "Frankie" based on Mississippi John Hurt's version performed in 1976 by Paul Brady and Artie McGlynn.



Here's Beth Orton from The Harry Smith Project performing "Frankie."



As a bonus, here's Elvis Presley and Donna Douglas performing a version of "Frankie and Johnny" from the film of the same title. There's a bit of the film before hand, featuring Harry "Sherman T. Potter" Morgan!




Download and listen to Mississippi John Hurt - "Frankie"