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.

The Shameless Plug Department: The sixth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all fiddle episode featuring fiddle tunes from both black and white artists, as well as three tracks from the Middle East! 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "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 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"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Sugar Baby" - "Dock" Boggs


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Six: "Sugar Baby" perfor1med by "Dock" Boggs. "Vocal solo and 5-string banjo, with guitar by Hub Mahaffy." Recorded in New York on March 9, 1927. Original issue Brunswick 118B(01).

Moran Lee Boggs was born in West Norton, Virgina on February 7, 1898, the youngest of ten children. His nickname, "Dock," was reportedly given to him because of his resemblance to the local physician. His father, a carpenter and blacksmith, taught his children music from an early age. As a small boy, Boggs came under the influence of an African-American guitarist known only as "Go Lightning." In interviews with Mike Seeger, Boggs recalled how he followed "Go Lightning" around, hoping he would stop and play for change. Boggs also recalled sneaking into the African-American mining settlements to listen to string-bands. He became enamored of the African-American style of banjo picking, which differed from the frailing style he had learned from his siblings.

As an adult, Boggs worked as a coal miner, but he continued to play the banjo, learning songs from his siblings, as well as from local musicians. Around 1918 he is believed to have started performing publicly at parties.

Around 1927, Boggs auditioned for Brunswick records. Although nervous enough to require whiskey to calm him down and performing on a borrowed instrument, Boggs passed the audition and traveled to New York to record eight sides, including "Sugar Baby" and "Country Blues," both of which appear on the Anthology. The success of the records allowed Boggs to quit mining and work exclusively as a musician, performing at parties and in mining camps.

In 1929, Boggs traveled to Chicago for a recording session for Lonesome Ace Records. The records failed to sell, however, and a subsequent audition for Okeh did not result in a contract. Between the Depression and the objection of Boggs' wife and neighbors, Boggs decided to pawn his banjo and give up music forever. He returned to coal mining, which he did until his retirement in 1952.

With the release of the Anthology, Boggs' music found a new audience, and in 1963 he was contacted by Mike Seeger. Coincidentally, Boggs had taken up the banjo again and had been practicing for several months before his rediscovery. Boggs went on to record three albums for Folkways Records and perform in clubs and at folk music festivals. He died on February 7, 1971, his 73rd birthday.

In 1968, Jack Wright, a protege of Boggs', started the Dock Boggs Festival which is held annually in Norton, Virginia.

Boggs' entire recorded output can be heard on just two CD collections: Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings on Revenant and Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years on Smithsonian-Folkways. Both are highly recommended.

Like "James Alley Blues," "Sugar Baby" is the lament of henpecked man.

Oh, I've got no sugar baby now.
All I can do for seek peace with you,
And I can't get along this a-way.
Can't get along this a-way.

All I can do, I've said all I can say.
I'll send it to your mama next payday.
Send you to your mama next payday.

Got no use for the red rockin' chair,
I've got no honey baby now.
Got no sugar baby now.

Who'll rock the cradle, who'll sing the song?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?

I'll rock the cradle, I'll sing the song.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.

It's all I can do, said all I can say.
I will send you to your mama next payday.

Laid her in the shade, give her every dime I made.
What more could a poor boy do?
What more could a poor boy do?

Oh, I've got no honey baby now.
Got no sugar baby now.

Said all I can say, I've done all I can do,
And I can't make a living with you.
Can't make a living with you.


Greil Marcus, in his Invisible Republic, makes much of this song and of Boggs. He describes Boggs as a man who "sounds like his bones are coming through his skin" when he sings. Marcus also makes "Sugar Baby" sound particularly sinister. At one point, Marcus singles out the following stanzas:

Who'll rock the cradle, who'll sing the song?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?

I'll rock the cradle, I'll sing the song.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.


To Marcus, the answering voice ("I'll rock the cradle") is terrifying and unearthly. It is at this point that Marcus's romanticism gets the better of him.

A close reading of the lyrics to "Sugar Baby" reveals nothing sinister or supernatural whatsoever. The song is told from the point of view of a man who has had enough of his wife. He describes how he "gave her every dime [he] made" and yet he "can't make a living with [her]". He plans to send his wife back to her mother "next payday."

The question about "rock[ing] the cradle" is asked by the wife when she is threatened with being sent away. "Who will look after the children?" she asks, to which the husband simply replies, "I will."

Marcus's supernatural reading of "Sugar Baby" is, in large measure, influenced by Boggs' performance. It is undeniable that Boggs has an unusual voice. He seems to strangle each word in his throat as he sings it. Yet when one listens to the recordings of Boggs from the early '60s, it becomes clear that Boggs' voice isn't so odd. Certain nuances of his voice are clearly absent from his 1927 recordings, likely due to the relatively primitive recording techniques. Captured on magnetic tape using more sensitive and sophisticated recording equipment, Boggs' voice loses much of its uncanny quality.

Like "The Coo Coo Bird" and "East Virginia," "Sugar Baby" seems creepy because it is performed on the banjo in a minor key. This quality is enhanced on this particular recording due to Boggs' unusual banjo technique. The style he played is called "up-picking," which involves picking upwards on the first two strings and playing one of the other three strings with the thumb.

Two interesting miscellaneous notes about "Sugar Baby": "Sugar Baby" was recorded on March 9, 1927, exactly two days before Rabbit Brown recorded "James Alley Blues."

"Sugar Baby's" label contains a rare instance of crediting a musician other than the recording artist. The label (and Smith's subsequent entry in the liner notes) credits one Hub Mahaffy as the guitar player on this recording. Who was Hub Mahaffy? Nothing is known of him, other than the fact that he accompanied Boggs on this session.

The Shameless Plug Department: The sixth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all fiddle episode featuring fiddle tunes from both black and white artists, as well as three tracks from the Middle East! 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "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 video of "Sugar Baby" performed on fiddle and (off camera) banjo. The fiddle and vocal are by the author of the wonderful Old Weird America blog!



Here's a more modern reading by the Indaba Harry Smith Project, featuring Dale Crowley on keyboards, Jussi Salminen on electric and acoustic guitar and banjo,
Scott Swatzell on drums and vocal, and Mike Tobin on bass.



Download and listen to Dock Boggs - "Sugar Baby"

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"James Alley Blues" - Richard (Rabbit) Brown


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Five: "James Alley Blues" performed by Richard (Rabbit) Brown. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in New Orleans on March 11, 1927. Original issue Victor 20578A.

Richard "Rabbit" Brown is believed to have been born in 1880 in or near New Orleans. He was raised in Jane Alley, part of the notorious "Battlefield," a neighborhood so dangerous the police reportedly refused to go there to quell disturbances after dark. A young Louis Armstrong was born and raised in the same neighborhood. There is speculation that the young Armstrong would have heard Brown perform, which seems likely given that the two lived in the same area.

Brown performed on street corners and in nightclubs, as well as working as a singing boatman on Lake Pontchartrain. He was reportedly a small man, which may account for his nickname, "Rabbit." He recorded six sides for Victor in 1927, including this recording of "James Alley Blues" ("James Alley" was a corruption of "Jane Alley," sometimes referred to by residents as "Jane's Alley"). According to Smith's notes, Brown was "one of the earliest musicians to learn the twelve bar 'blues' chord pattern" and was "the first and most important New Orleans folk singer to record." Nothing is known of Brown's life after 1930, except that he died in 1937.

Some well-written articles on Brown can be read at "The Blues Trail" and at "Blues World".

In 2003, the Dust-to-Digital box set Goodbye, Babylon was released. It included a track by a singer credited as Blind Willie Harris which was recorded in New Orleans in 1929. The liner notes point out striking similarities between Harris and Rabbit Brown, leading to some speculation that "Blind Willie Harris" might have been a pseudonym used by Brown. It was a fairly common practice for blues and other secular artists to employ a pseudonym when recording religious material (although this practice was actually imposed by the record labels, who feared that religious listeners would not buy records by blues artists).

"James Alley Blues" is a lament employing the twelve-bar blues form. In each stanza, a line is sung and repeated, followed by a third line which rhymes with the first. The relative simplicity of the lyric contrasts with Brown's strong instrumental accompaniment on the guitar. Brown performs a strong bass-line and delicate guitar figures on the higher strings simultaneously.


The times ain't now nothin' like they used to be.
Oh, times ain't now nothin' like they used to be.
And I'm tellin' you all the truth. Whoa, take it from me.

I done seen better days, but I'm puttin' up with these.
I done seen better days, but I'm puttin' up with these.
I could have much a better time with these girls down in New Orleans.

Cause I was born in the country, she thinks I'm easy to rule.
Cause I was born in the country, she thinks I'm easy to rule.
She try to hitch me to a wagon, she wanna drive me like a mule.

You know, I bought her the groceries and I pay the rent.
Yeah, I buy her the groceries and I paid the rent.
She try to make me to wash her clothes, but I got good common sense.

I said, if you don't want me, why don't you tell me so?
You know, if you don't want me, why don't you tell me so?
Cause it ain't like I'm a man that ain't got nowhere to go.

I been give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt.
I give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt.
And if you can't get 'long with me, we'll it's your own fault.

How you want me to love you, and treat me mean?
How do you want me to love you, you keep on treatin' me mean?
You're my daily thought and my nightly dream.

Sometime I think that you're too sweet to die.
Sometime I think that you're too sweet to die.
And another time I think you ought to be buried alive.


The lyric describes a contentious relationship between the speaker and his lover. After describing how times "ain't nothing like they used to be" and how he'd have a "much better time with these girls down in New Orleans," he goes on to complain of his treatment. His woman "drive[s] [him] like a mule" and tries to "make [him] wash [her] clothes." These are fairly common concerns in blues lyrics, complaining of a woman as a "mean mistreater." The lyric becomes chilling towards the end when he states that "sometime[s] [he] think[s] [his woman is] too sweet to die," but that "another time [he] think[s] [she] ought to be buried alive."

While Bob Dylan recorded an unreleased version of "The House Carpenter" and borrowed the melody of "A Lazy Farmer Boy" for his "Hard Times In New York," "James Alley Blues" contains a lyric that Dylan echoes in a completely original composition, "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)."

Well, it's sugar for sugar and salt for salt.
If you go down in the flood, it's gonna be your fault.


This is not the first time that a lyric from the Anthology is echoed in a Dylan lyric, as we will see in "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground."

"James Alley Blues" is the fourth song in a row to deal with romance and heartbreak. Smith appears to have placed this song in sequence with "I Woke Up One Morning In May" for both thematic reasons (both songs deal with bad relationships. One from the point of view of a woman, the other from that of a man) and because both songs were recorded in New Orleans by native Louisianians. In fact, "James Alley Blues" is the only track on the Anthology in which Smith includes the location of the recording in his notes. Why was this? Was it an error on Smith's part, or was he trying to draw the listener's attention to the connection between these two selections?

Thanks to Ian Nagoski for his input into the lyric.

The Shameless Plug Department: The sixth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all fiddle episode featuring fiddle tunes from both black and white artists, as well as three tracks from the Middle East! 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "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 video of ex-Byrds frontman, Roger McGuinn performing a solo acoustic version of "James Alley Blues."



Here's an extremely faithful rendition of "James Alley Blues" performed on a steel bodied guitar by Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.



Finally, here's Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett of Wilco performing a version of "James Alley Blues" during a television appearance.



Download and listen to Richard "Rabbit" Brown - "James Alley Blues"

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"I Woke Up One Morning In May" - Didier Herbert


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Four: "I Woke Up One Morning In May" performed by Didier Hébert. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in New Orleans on December 10, 1929. Original issue Columbia 40517F (111390).

Almost nothing is known of guitarist Didier Hébert, other than the fact that he was blind and from Louisiana. He accompanied accordionist Dewey Segura on three selections recorded for Columbia in 1929. During that session, Hébert cut one solo recording, "I Woke Up One Morning In May." His birth and death dates are unknown.

Hébert's name is misspelled as "Herbert" in the original Anthology liner note and therefore, one presumes, on the original record label.

"I Woke Up One Morning In May" tells a story of a young woman's unhappy marriage to a man who abandons her and their young children to drink and gamble in the tavern.


Je me suis levé matin dans Mai
Mais bien de bon matin
C'était pour passer
Mais un beau jour dans ma vie.

Oh j'ai trouvé mon père en train de pleurer,
Ma mère qui pleurait dans ses bras.
C'est adieu pour longtemps,
Je me donnes à un jeune garçon.

Oh moi je l'aimais beaucoup,
Beaucoup plus que ma vie.
Il m'avait fait une promesse,
Et cette promesse c'est d'être sa femme

Oh j'ons ferait des enfants,
Il m'a quitté d'un abandon;
Moi bien malade dans mon lit,
Et mes enfants là crèvent de faim

Et mon mari à la table après gambler,
Et moi je ne souhaît que la mort;
C'est tous ces jeunes bébés, grand Dieu,
Dans les jambes de moi

Oh mettez-vous tous vous autres à méfier
De tous ces jeunes garçons;
Ça, ça conte autant de menteries
Qu'en a d'étoiles dans le ciel.

Oh depuis dans l'âge de quatorze ans
J'après misèré avec toi,
Et dès de jour en jour
Mais moi je m'en vas dans l'abandon.

Oh moi je connais je m'en vas dans ces grands chemins,
M'y serai moi toute seule,
Et dès je suis une délaissée
Mais que personne en veut de moi.



I woke up one morning in May, very early;
It was to spend a fine day of my life.

Oh I found my father crying, my mother crying in his arms.
Farewell for a long time, I'm giving myself to a young man.

Oh I loved him very much, much more than my life.
He made me a promise that I was his wife.

Oh we had children, he left me a year ago nevertheless.
Me sick in bed, and my children dying of hunger;

And my husband in the tavern gambling, and I just wish I was dead;
It's all those young babies, great God, around my legs.

All you girls, don't trust those young men --
They tell as many lies as there are stars in the sky.

When I was fourteen years old, I was always with you;
Since then, from day to day I'm left more alone.

Oh I know I'm going on the highways, I'll be there all alone,
And since I'm a deserted wife, I wish someone would make me a widow.


The lyric transcription and translation come from a conversation on the Mudcat Cafe message board. Unfortunately, the identities of the individuals who provided the transcription and translation are hidden behind screen names. I thank levanataylor@hotmail.com and mathias for their efforts.

The detail of the husband spending his time in a tavern rather than with his wife and family recalls the story of the female suicide in "The Butcher's Boy."

The warning to other young girls to avoid the same fate also recalls "The House of the Rising Sun," famously recorded by Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and the Animals.

Smith's notes mainly address the "almost conversational" and "restrained" performance of this song, noting that it is atypical of Acadian singing. While perhaps not as extreme as other Cajun singers, Hébert's voice is almost toneless to ears not accustomed to Acadian singing. I will freely admit that it took me a long time to even begin to appreciate Cajun music.

For more on the music of the Cajun people, see the entries for "La Danseuse," "Saut Crapaud,""Arcadian One Step," and "Home Sweet Home." "I Woke Up One Morning In May" is the fifth Cajun song to appear on the Anthology, and the first to appear on the "Songs" volume.

Smith's fondness for drawing parallels between songs is quite clear with this particular sequence of songs. "I Woke Up One Morning In May" is the third song in a row to feature unhappy lovers. While the speaker in "Minglewood Blues" is a rounder who boasts of his sexual exploits, especially with married women, the speaker in "I Woke Up One Morning In May" is the wronged wife. While the song itself is not set in any particular place, the very fact of it being sung in French (and the fact that it was recorded in New Orleans) suggests an Acadian setting. This will prove significant, as the next song in the sequence (Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues") is also set in New Orleans.

The Shameless Plug Department: The fifth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all jazz episode featuring early jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and a whole lot 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "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 any video of a modern interpretation of "I Woke Up One Morning In May," I present a clip of the legendary Ann Savoy and her family performing "The Separation Waltz," another Cajun song that fits thematically with Hébert's song of lost love and heartbreak. In his notes to the 1997 reissue of the Anthology, Jeff Place tells a brief story about how Hébert happened to get invited to his sole recording session. The source of this story is none other than Ann Savoy.



Download and listen to Didier Hébert - "I Woke Up One Morning In May"

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Minglewood Blues" - Cannon's Jug Stompers with Noah Lewis


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Three: "Minglewood Blues" performed by Cannon's Jug Stompers with Noah Lewis. "Vocal solo with harmonica, banjo, jug, guitar." Recorded in Memphis on January 30, 1928. Original issue Victor 21267A(41803).

Cannon's Jug Stompers was a Memphis based jug band. For more information on the jug as a musical instrument, see the entry for "Newport Blues" by the Cincinnati Jug Band.

Cannon's Jug Stompers was initially formed in response to the success of Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band, which appears later on this disc. "Minglewood Blues" was recorded at the Jug Stomper's first recording session in January of 1928.

The Jug Stompers consisted of Gus Cannon on banjo and jug, Ashley Thompson on guitar, and Noah Lewis on harmonica.

Gus Cannon was born on September 12, 1883 in Red Banks, Mississippi, but was largely raised in Clarksdale. Cannon was an entirely self-taught musician, teaching himself on a banjo that he made out of a raccoon skin stretched across as frying pan. He was greatly influenced by two members of W.C. Handy's group, which was based in Clarksdale at the time. Fiddle player Jim Turner inspired Cannon to learn the fiddle, while guitarist Alex Lee taught Cannon the blues song "Poor Boy Long Way From Home" (which appears later on the "Songs" set as "Poor Boy Blues"), teaching Cannon to use a knife as a slide. Cannon picked up the slide technique, utilizing it in his banjo playing.

Cannon moved to Memphis around 1907, where he met and began performing with Jim Jackson. Around this time, he met Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson, both of whom would later become members of Cannon's Jug Stompers. They would form their first band in 1914, playing at parties and dances. Cannon made his first recordings for Paramount Records in 1927, credited as "Banjo Joe" and performing with Blind Blake. The following year, he made his first recordings with the newly formed Jug Stompers. Not long after, a fourth member of the group, Hosea Woods, was added contributing guitar, banjo, kazoo, and vocals.

The Jug Stompers became one of Memphis's most popular jug bands during the 1930s. Among the songs recorded by the group were "Viola Lee Blues," "Big Railroad Blues," and "Walk Right In." Cannon also appeared in the 1929 King Vidor film Hallelujah!

Following the release of the Anthology, Cannon was rediscovered. He made records for Folkways and performed at colleges and coffee houses. His song "Walk Right In" was successfully covered by the Rooftop Singers. Cannon sued for royalties and was able to live out the rest of his life in relative comfort. In 1963, he recorded an album for Stax Records in the company of Will Shade, Sam Lindsay, and Milton Roby.

Cannon died on October 15, 1979.

Harmonica player Noah Lewis, the composer of "Minglewood Blues," was born on September 3, 1895 in Henning, Tennessee. He was best known for his trick of playing two harmonicas simultaneously, one with his mouth and the other with his nose (which calls to mind a similar trick in which reed player Rahsaan Roland Kirk would play the flute with his nose). Although Lewis was best known for his work with Cannon, he did form his own jug band in 1930 with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachel (both of whom appear later on the "Songs" volume, performing "Expressman Blues"). The Noah Lewis Jug Band recorded a revised version of "Minglewood Blues," with new lyrics, under the title "New Minglewood Blues." It was this version of the song which was covered by the Grateful Dead on their first album as "New New Minglewood Blues."

Lewis died on February 7, 1961 of gangrene brought on by frostbite.

Little is known about Ashley Thompson, who plays guitar and sings lead vocal on this recording. His birth and death dates, along with the details of his life outside of his association with Cannon, are completely unknown.

Don't you never let one woman rule your mind.
Don't you never let one woman rule your mind.
Said she keep you worried, troubled all the time.

Don't you think your fairer was li'l and cute like mine.
Don't you wish your fairer was li'l and cute like mine.
She's a mar- She's a married woman,
But she comes to see me all the time.

Don't you never let a woman rule your mind.
Don't you never let one woman rule your mind.
Said she keep you worried, troubled all the time.

Well I got a letter mama and you ought to heard it read.
Well I got a letter Lord and you ought to heard it read.
If you comin' back baby now be on your way.


"Minglewood Blues" both a cautionary song and a boast. The speaker warns men against "let[ting] one woman rule [their] mind[s]," stating that she will "keep you worried, troubled all the time." The speaker then boasts of his sexual conquests, particularly with married women. Lewis's lyrics go into greater detail in his "New Minglewood Blues," in which he claims that "stealin' women from their monkey men" is his "number one occupation":

I was born in the desert, raised in a lion's den.
I was born in the desert, raised in a lion's den.
My number one occupation, stealin' women from their monkey men.

If you're ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood.
If you're ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood.
The women down there, they don't mean a man no good.

I was born in the desert, raised in a lion's den.
I was born in the desert, raised in a lion's den.
My number one occupation, stealin' women from their monkey men.


Minglewood was a lumber camp near the Mississippi. As with many labor camps and plantations, Minglewood hired musicians to perform at parties and danced on the weekends. Noah Lewis was hired to perform at Minglewood and reportedly wrote this song afterward.

In his notes, Smith points out that Thompson's vocal style, which consists of a "buzzing vibrato and relatively small intervals" is typical of Memphis singers. Smith made a similar observation in his notes to "He Got Better Things For You."

The notes to "Minglewood Blues" contain an uncharacteristic error on Smith's part. The name of the artist is curiously omitted from its customary place immediately under the song title.

"Minglewood Blues" is the first track on the "Songs" volume to feature African American musicians, and the first since "Newport Blues" to feature a jug band. It is the second song in a row to deal with heartache related to women.

It has been brought to my attention that a documentary film on Gus Cannon has been recently released titled Chasin' Gus's Ghost. It looks intriguing to say the least. Thanks to Hans Eichinger for hipping me to this film...

The Shameless Plug Department: The fifth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all jazz episode featuring early jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and a whole lot 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "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 is a version of "Minglewood Blues" performed by the Old Crow Medicine Show in a live appearance at the late lamented Tower Records.



Here is a version of "New Minglewood Blues" performed by the Grateful Dead in 1994.



Download and listen to Cannon's Jug Stompers - "Minglewood Blues"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"East Virginia" - Buell Kazee


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Two: "East Virginia" performed by Buell Kazee. "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo." Recorded in New York on April 20, 1927. Original issue Brunswick 154B (35).

For biographical information on Buell Kazee, see the entry on "The Butcher's Boy (The Railroad Boy)"

Recorded during Buell Kazee's first recording sessions in the spring of 1927, "East Virginia" tells more of a story than Clarence Ashley's "The Coo Coo Bird" which precedes it on this set. As with the preceding song, there is evidence that "East Virginia" might have evolved from a ballad.

Oh, when I left old East Virginia,
North Carolina I did roam.
There I courted a fair young lady.
What was her name I did not know.

Her hair it was all a-dark brown curly.
Her cheeks they were a rosie red.
Upon on her breast she wore a ribbon.
Oh, don't I wish that I was dead.

Her poppa said that we might marry.
Her momma said it would not do.
Oh, come here dear and I will tell you.
I will tell you what I'll do.
Some dark night we'll take a ramble.
I will run away with you.

For I'd rather be in some dark holler,
Where the sun refused to shine,
As for you to be some other man's woman.
Never on earth to call you mine.


It is clear right from the first note that Smith chose to place this in sequence with "The Coo Coo Bird" because both songs are played in a similar minor mode, using a similar banjo picking style. Like "The Coo Coo Bird," "East Virginia" has an uncanny sound, making for an unsettling atmosphere. Just by listening to the first (entirely instrumental) verse, the listener can tell that something disturbing is in the offing. Similarly, Kazee's mournful vocals indicate that something tragic is afoot.

The lyric, by contrast, is (as with the preceding song) fairly innocuous. The speaker begins by declaring that "when [he] left old East Virginia," he traveled in North Carolina. That's striking right there. The song is titled "East Virginia" (or "East Virginia Blues" in some variants), yet the first thing the speaker tells us is that he has left East Virgina. The action of the song takes place in North Carolina.

The speaker then states that he "courted a fair young lady" who's name he doesn't know. More specifically, the speaker declares that he "did not know" the young lady's name, implying that he learned her name at a later time. This is never explicitly said, however.

So a young man from East Virginia (which really means that he comes from the state of Virginia. West Virginia was established as a state only after the start of the Civil War), visiting North Carolina, sees a young woman whose beauty so overwhelms him that he "court[s]" her without bothering to learn her name.

We then get a physical description of the girl ("dark brown curly" hair and "rosie red" cheeks). We are also told that she wears a ribbon upon her breast. It is at this point that the speaker declares his wish that he "[was] dead."

Why does he wish that he was dead? Is it because he lost the girl? Because the ribbon on her breast indicated that she was taken? Or simply because she was so beautiful?

We learn that her father has given his consent to a possible marriage, but that her mother opposes it. We are not told why the mother opposes the match (at least in "The Wagoner's Lad" we learn that the parents disdain the speaker because he is poor).

In the last two verses, the speaker proposes to the girl that they run off together, declaring that he would "rather be in some dark holler, where the sun refused to shine" than to see her with another man. We never hear the girl's answer, but we can infer from the way the story is told (and the fact that the speaker never learns the girl's name) that it does not end well. This seems to confirm the listener's initial impression, based upon the eerie music, that this isn't a happy story.

Once again, not enough information is conveyed by this song in order for it to count as a ballad. It tells only half of a story, if that. As we hear more songs on the "Songs" volume, we will hear material that approaches the "story-song," but that is cut short before the story can be completed.

As with "The Coo Coo Bird," we should also be wary of trying to force a narrative on these songs. We should try to accept these songs for what they are. Some make more sense than others.

The Shameless Plug Department: The fifth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all jazz episode featuring early jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and a whole lot 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "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 is another video of singer and guitar player Raymond Crooke, this time performing a version of "East Virginia."



Download and listen to Buell Kazee - "East Virgina"

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The Coo Coo Bird" - Clarence Ashley


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track One: "The Coo Coo Bird" performed by Clarence Ashley. "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo." Recorded in Johnson City, Tennessee on November 23, 1929. Original issue Columbia 15489D (W149251).

The third volume of the Anthology is titled
"Songs." The music included in this set is distinguished from the music on the "Social Music" set because it serves no social purpose. It is not music for dancing or for religious worship, but simply music to be listened to and enjoyed. It is "art for art's sake," intended to amuse rather than to uplift, educate, or provide a background for social interaction. It is distinguished from the music on the "Ballads" set in that these songs do not contain a narrative, although a few do tell a rudimentary story (some, like "The Mountaineer's Courtship" and "The Spanish Merchant's Daughter," both recorded by Ernest Stoneman, play more like skits or jokes). The songs on the third volume are "folk songs" in the literal sense.

The term "folk song" is an extension of the term "folk lore." The term "folk lore" was coined in 1846 by antiquarian William Thoms to describe "the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes." The word "folk" derives from the German "volk," which refers to "the people as a whole," an expression that found great popularity in the early 19th century as a part of the German Romantic movement.

"Folk songs" are the musical coin of the realm. Unlike ballads, which are often based on specific incidents and are therefore historically traceable, songs are difficult to trace to a specific date or place. They belong to everyone and no one. Folk songs are made up of lyric "clusters" which are liberally mixed and matched. A folk singer might take some or all of the lyrics from one song and put them to the tune of another song. The folk lyrics also change over time, like an enormous game of telephone, in which a misheard lyric can lead to something entirely new. In the entry on "Shine On Me", I mentioned anthropologist, ethnologist, and semiotician Claude Lévi-Strauss and his theory of the bricoler. Folk songs are constructed in just this way and by many hands. It seems strange to us in this age of intellectual property to think of music as something that is simply "in the air" and the property of everyone who performs it. Yet that is the case here.

Smith kicks off the first disc of "Songs" with "The Coo Coo Bird" performed by Clarence Ashley. For biographical information on Clarence Ashley, see the entry for "The House Carpenter." Ashley can also be heard performing with the Carolina Tar Heels on "Peg and Awl."

"The Coo Coo Bird" or "The Cuckoo," is an old song that originated in England. Parts of the lyric exist as a nursery rhyme, possibly dating back as far as the Middle Ages. In his notes, Smtih points out that the first verse of the song "is also heard on "Way Down The Old Plank Road" by Dave Macon," heard later on this volume.

Gonna build me
Log cabin
On a mountain
So high
So I can
See Willie
As he goes
On by

Oh the coo-coo
Is a pretty bird
She warbles
As she flies
She never
Hollers coo-coo
'Til the fourth day
July

I've played cards
In England
I've played cards
In Spain
I'll bet you
Ten dollars
I'll beat you
Next game

Jack a-diamonds
Jack a-diamonds
I've known you
From old
Now you've robbed my
Poor pocket
Of my silver
And my gold

I've played cards
In England
I've played cards
In Spain
I'll bet you
Ten dollars
I beat you
This game

Oh the coo-coo
Is a pretty bird
She warbles
As she flies
She never
Hollers coo-coo
'Til the fourth day
July


This is a magnificent performance. Purely from a musical perspective, it is as close to perfection as anything gets. Ashley's five-string banjo is played in a modal tuning, which provides a musical background that is as repetitive and as inscrutable as the words themselves. Ashley sings the song in a deadpan style, singing for all the world like it all makes perfect sense.

The words provide a mystery that can never be unlocked. The first verse has the speaker declare the he is going to build a log cabin on a mountain top. Why? So he can "see Willie has he goes on by." Who is Willie? Why does the speaker want to see him go by? Between verses, Ashley hums almost mockingly, possibly because he knows that his humming makes no more or less sense than the words he sings.

The chorus declares that "the coo coo is a pretty bird" and that "she warbles as she flies." Some transcriptions of these lyrics say that the coo coo "wobbles" as she flies, but it sounds to me as though Ashley is singing the word "warbles." This is consistent with other versions of the lyric, such as the one sung in "My Mind Is To Marry" by Grayson and Whitter: "Oh the coo coo is a fine bird, she sings as she flies. She brings us glad tidings and tells us no lies." The coo coo, or cuckoo, refers to one of any number of birds of the family Cuculidae, in the order Cuculiformes. They are wide ranging, inhabiting every continent on earth except Antarctica. Many species of cuckoo are brood parasites, raising their eggs in the nests of other birds.

Much could be made of the fact that, in this version of the song, the coo coo is said not to "holler" until the "fourth day" of "July." Given that the song originated in England, it's possible that this is not a reference to the American Independence Day. It is likely, if this is the case, that the "fourth day of July" was simply meant to convey that the coo coo does not begin his song until the arrival of summer. However, it is also possible that this line was not added to the song until after it migrated (like the bird) to the United States.

The second verse declares that the speaker has "played cards in England and Spain," wagering "ten dollars" that he will "beat you next game." It is both a boast and a challenge. The next verse is more rueful, however. It is addressed to the "Jack a-Diamonds," whom the speaker has known "of old" and who robs his "poor pocket" of its "silver and gold."

Is the song, then, about a gambling addiction? On the one hand, the speaker boasts of having played cards all over the world and that he will beat "you" in the next game. His focus then switches to the "silver and gold" he has lost to "the Jack a-Diamonds." Nevertheless, the speaker is reading to gamble again at the end of the song, declaring his intention to "beat you this game."

What, if anything, does all of this have to do with the desire to build a cabin (or a castle, in some versions) on a mountain, allowing the speaker to "see Willie as he goes on by"?

All of these questions, I think, reflect our desire to impose meaning on something that is inherently meaningless. While there is speculation that "The Coo Coo Bird" may have started as a ballad, by the time of Ashley's recording, the song is just a jumble of unrelated verses. This does not make the song any less compelling. There is certainly something about it that excites the imagination.

"The Coo Coo" has been covered numerous times over the years by artists including Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Taj Mahal, Townes Van Zant, and Joan Baez.

The Shameless Plug Department: The fifth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all jazz episode featuring early jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and a whole lot 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!

I would like to announce that beginning May 9, 2010, I will be hosting "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 film of Clarence Ashley being interviewed during his rediscovery in the '60s. Towards the end, Ashley performs "The Coo Coo Bird." Although his vocal delivery is as deadpan as on the original recording, it's wonderful to see the slight smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye as he performs.



Here's a version of "The Coo Coo Bird" performed by Oliver Swain, Adam Dobres and Kendel Carson.



Download and listen to Clarence Ashley - "The Coo Coo Bird"

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"I'm In The Battle Field For My Lord" - Rev. D.C. Rice and his Sanctified Congregation


Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Fifteen: "I'm In The Battle Field For My Lord" performed by Rev. D.C. Rice. "Vocal group with piano, trumpet, trombone, string bass, drums and triangle." Recorded in Chicago on February 22, 1929. Original issue Vocalion 1262.

Born in Barbour County, Alabama in 1888, D.C. Rice was raised in the Baptist Church. Around 1916, Rice moved to Chicago where he joined Bishop Hill's Pentecostal Church of the Living God. Following Hill's death in 1920, Rice became the leader of his own congregation. Rice was a fiery preacher who attracted a large following during the early part of the '20s. At some point, Rice was exposed to the recordings of Rev. J.M. Gates and Rev. F.W. McGee, which inspired Rice to do likewise he pursue a career as a recording artist. Rice contacted producer Jack Kapp, then of Vocalion Records. After hearing Rice's congregation, Kapp initially passed on recording Rice, but then inexplicably changed his mind a few days later. Over the next two years, Kapp would record twenty-eight recordings by Rice and his group, sometimes featuring both preaching and singing, often accompanied by a jazz ensemble. In February of 1929, Rice recorded "I'm In The Battle Field For My Lord," which quickly became one of his most popular recordings. Not satisfied to stay with Vocalion (which paid him $75 a record, but no royalties), Rice attempted to record for Paramount (which had recorded a good deal of religious material, including sides by fellow Anthology artists Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton), but was unable to secure a contract. Rice meanwhile continued recording for Vocalion through 1930.

Once the Depression had put an end to his recording career, Rice moved back to Alabama where he preached at the Oak Street Holiness Church in Montgomery. He was later made a Bishop of the Apostolistic Overcoming Holy Church of God, overseeing dioceses in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Rice reportedly made recordings later in life, but these have either been lost or were never released. He died in 1973.

"I'm In The Battle Field For My Lord" is a perfect example of Rice's enthusiastic leadership. Easily one of the most exciting recordings on the religious disc of "Social Music" (if not the whole Anthology). It features the great Bill Johnson on bass, Punch Miller on trumpet, the otherwise unknown Mr. Hunter, Sr. on triangle, along with anonymous trombone and piano players. In a word, this band cooks. It is the first track on the Anthology that could be truly said to swing. It comes as no surprise to learn that Bill Johnson was a top flight jazz bassist, having worked as a member of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (featuring a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong). Johnson's bass is almost the whole show on this recording. It should be borne in mind that during this period, the string-bass was only beginning to become a fixture in jazz bands. Why? Largely because of the advent of electronic (as opposed to acoustic) recording techniques. Prior to this, the more primitive acoustic recording process demanded a bass instrument that had greater projecting power, and the tuba (or brass bass) was usually used. During the late '20s, many tuba players found themselves switching to the bass violin, and Bill Johnson was the best of the bunch. "I'm In The Battlefield For My Lord" is included on an all-Johnson disc as part of Dust-to-Digital's How Low Can You Go: Anthology of the String Bass three-disc set, which is highly recommended to fans of early jazz (and other music which featured the "bull fiddle").

[Spoken] "I'm On The Battlefield For My Lord." [Unintelligible] too church.

Once I was in the lowlands,
And I was just like you.
I heard a voice from heaven saying,
"Arise, there's work to do!"
So I offered God this hand,
And I joined His heavenly band.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.

I am on the battlefield for my Lord.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.
I promised the Lord that I will serve Him till I die.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.

I left my friends and kindred
Down [unintelligible] land.
The grace of God was in my soul
The fire was in my hand
And everywhere I go, I'm crying
"Sinner, come back home."
I am on the battlefield for my Lord.

I am on the battlefield for my Lord. (Hallelujah!)
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.
I promised the Lord that I will serve Him till I die.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.

At times I was discouraged, along the rocky way.
The [unintelligible] depressed me, and I would often pray.
But soon the sun was shining in this weary soul of mine.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.

I am on the battlefield for my Lord.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.
I promised the Lord that I will serve Him till I die.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.

And when I see my Savior, I'll greet Him with a smile.
He'll heal the wounded spirit and only as a child.
And around the throne of grace He'll appoint my soul a place.
When I'm done on the battlefield for my Lord.

I am on the battlefield for my Lord.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.
I promised the Lord that I will serve Him till I die.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.

I am on the battlefield for my Lord.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.
I promised the Lord that I will serve Him till I die.
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord.


A rollicking testament to faith, and employing a war metaphor, "I'm In The Battle Field For My Lord" is sung by an anonymous member of Rice's congregation. Rice's voice is heard throughout, exhorting the lead vocalist and the chorus (at one point he can be heard shouting "Hallelujah!" in the background). The voice of Bill Johnson (who often shouts throughout other records on which he appears) is audible as well. Punch Miller's cornet and Johnson's bass solidly place this recording in the jazz age, an interesting tactic on Rice's (or Kapp's) part. While there were certainly people who associated jazz with whorehouses and saloons during this period, the use of jazz as a setting for religious music demonstrates a real effort to try to reach a wider listening audience. This might be viewed as a precursor to acoustic guitar wielding nuns during the early '60s, or even Christian rock in the present day.

At the beginning of the recording, Rev. Rice announces the title of the song, followed by something I can't make out. It sounds like he's addressing the congregation (calling them "church," as in "Get Right Church And Let's Go Home"), but I can't understand the first part of the statement.

Some of the lyrics in my transcription are conjectural and others were so hard to make out I simply dubbed them "unintelligible." Although easier to understand than "Shine On Me" (which really gave me a headache) and "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," this is still a pretty tough song to make out at times.

"I'm In The Battle Field For My Lord" marks the last of three songs in a row to feature group singing and large instrumental groups. It also is the last song on the "Social Music" volume.

As with the "Ballads" volume, the songs on the "Social Music" set are clearly sequenced in chronological order, not of the recordings themselves, but of the styles of Social Music. The first disc takes us from the reels and jigs that came over to the Americas from England and Ireland, through the African American songsters and jug bands, through the music of Louisiana and French speaking Americans, to the jazz inspired "Moonshiner's Dance." The second disc takes us from the two earliest examples of (unaccompanied) religious singing: The lined-out hymns of the African American church and Anglo-American Sacred Harp singing, through the holy roar of Memphis based sacred singers, through songsters, country singers, and finally to the introduction of jazz elements, bringing this sequence of songs into the "modern" age in which the performers were living and working.

In our next entry, we will begin the third and final volume of the original Anthology set, "Songs."

The Shameless Plug Department: The fifth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all jazz episode featuring early jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and a whole lot 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 brief solo rendition of "I'm On The Battlefield For My Lord" performed on the acoustic guitar by musicman0671.



Download and listen to Rev. D.C. Rice and his Sanctified Congregation - "I'm In The Battle Field For My Lord"

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" - Rev. F.W. McGee



Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Fourteen: "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" performed by Rev. F.W. McGee. "Vocal group with piano, trumpet, guitar and clapping." Recorded in New York on June 16, 1930. Original issue Victor 23680B.

Ford Washington McGee was born in Winchester, Tennessee on October 5, 1890 and was raised in Hillsboro, Texas. Married at 20, McGee embarked on a teaching career in Oklahoma. In 1918, he joined Rev. Charles H. Mason's Memphis-based Church of God in Christ and had completely abandoned teaching in favor of preaching by 1920, leading revival meetings in Kansas and Iowa. He built a congregation in Oklahoma City with the help of blind singer/pianist Arizona Dranes. By 1925, McGee had established congregations in Chicago.

In 1926, Arizona Dranes made her first recordings for Okeh Records. Needing backup singers for the date, she recruited McGee and his Jubilee Singers. The following year, McGee (mistakenly credited as "F.N. McGee") made his debut recordings as a leader, recording both songs and sermons. A few months later, McGee switched to Victor where he recorded several big selling records (one title selling an estimated 100,000 copies). With his increasing fame as a recording artist, McGee's congregation grew and he was able to build his own church in Chicago. With the coming of the Depression, McGee's recording career was cut short, his last recording date being held in New York City on June 16, 1930. It was at this session that he recorded "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room."

His recording career behind him, McGee concentrated on his preaching and remained an active member of his church communities in both Chicago and New York until his death in 1971.

"Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" is a song that makes lavish promises about the world to come.


When the gates swing wide on the other side,
Just beyond the sunset sea.
There'll be room to spare as we enter there.
Room for you and room for me.
For the gates are wide on the other side,
Where the flowers ever bloom.
On the right hand and on the left hand,
Fifty miles of elbow room.

Twelve hundred miles its length and breadth,
The four-square city stands.
Its gem-set walls of jasper shine
Not made with human hands.
One hundred miles its gates are wide.
Abundant entrance there.
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare.

When the gates swing wide on the other side,
Just beyond the sunset sea.
There'll be room to spare as we enter there.
Room for you and room for me.
For the gates are wide on the other side,
Where the flowers ever bloom.
On the right hand and on the left hand,
Fifty miles of elbow room.

A sinner saved by grace may leave
His trunks of inner shame,
Upon the ship his [unintelligible]
By faith in Jesus name.
Well, [unintelligible]
Into the city fair.
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare.

When the gates swing wide on the other side,
Just beyond the sunset sea.
There'll be room to spare as we enter there.
Room for you and room for me.
For the gates are wide on the other side,
Where the flowers ever bloom.
On the right hand and on the left hand,
Fifty miles of elbow room.


"Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" is based on the description of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. It describes a lavish city, "twelve hundred miles" in "length and breadth," with "gem set walls of jasper." More important than the material glory of the heavily kingdom is the fact that it contains room enough for everybody, promising "fifty miles of elbow room" on either side.

It has long been a practice of religion to promise a better life after death. It prevents those people who lack material comforts (and even basic necessities) from demanding fair treatment in this life.

Like Ernest Phipps' "Shine On Me," "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" is a raucous celebration of faith. Beginning with a march-time piano and the jazzy blast of a trumpet (reportedly played by Henry "Red" Allen), the song bursts forth with voices and hand claps. Rev. McGee (joined by an anonymous female voice on the verses) leads his congregation in joyful polyphony.

The lyrics of "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," as found on-line, conform to the 1941 recording of the song by the Carter Family (with composition credited to A.P. Carter, although the song had already been recorded nearly a decade before). The second verse, as heard on this recording, is not found on the Carter Family version, and there are a few lines that are difficult to make out. The last verse of the Carter Family version, which also makes mention of a "city fair" does not appear in this version. The Carter Family version has been the inspiration for several cover version, most notably by country singer Hank Locklin and by singer-songwriter Iris Dement, who recorded the song on her 1995 album Infamous Angel.

"Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" is the second of three tracks in a row that feature group singing with large instrumental accompaniment. It is the second to last track on the "Social Music" volume of the Anthology.

The Shameless Plug Department: The fifth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all jazz episode featuring early jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and a whole lot 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 a beautiful rendition of "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" (clearly inspired by the Carter Family version) performed on autoharp.



Download and listen to Rev. F.W. McGee - "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room"