Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

Friday, October 22, 2010

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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



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

Monday, October 18, 2010

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Stand By Me" - Sister Clara Hudmon


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track Two: "Stand By Me" performed by Sister Clara Hudmon. Recorded in Atlanta on December 12, 1930.

There is little biographical information on Sister Clara Hudmon, at least pertaining to her early life. She was born in 1903 had been a member of J.M. Gates' Atlanta congregation. She made her first recordings for Okeh in 1930, including this version of "Stand By Me."

While still a teenager, Hudmon married Rev. T.T. Gholston shortly after the death of his first wife. The marriage caused a scandal and the couple relocated to New York City where Hudmon recorded a celebrated version of "When The Saints Go Marching In" in 1932. After divorcing Gholston, Hudmon left the Baptist church for a Pentecostal sect. Hudmon received a major break in her career when she headlined at Radio City Music Hall during a program of gospel music. She was nicknamed The Georgia Peach, a name under which she recorded during the 1940s and after. She became one of the foremost gospel singers of her generation, along with such figures as Mahalia Jackson and Sallie Martin. Hudmon died in 1966.

"Stand By Me" is a hymn written by the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley. Tindley was a Methodist minister and an influential composer of sacred songs in the early 20th century. Among his compositions are "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today," "We'll Understand It Better By and By" and "Take Your Burden to The Lord and Leave It There," all of which were recorded numerous times during the 1920s and '30s. Tindley also wrote "I'll Overcome Someday," which was later adapted into the Civil Rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." Tindley influenced a generation of Gospel songwriters, including Thomas A. Dorsey.

When the storm of life's a ragin',
Stand by me.
When the storm of life's a ragin',
Stand by me.
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship out on the sea,
Thou who rulest winds and waters
Stand by me.

In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me.
In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me.
When the hosts of hell assail
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou who never lost a battle
Stand by me.

[Hummed verse]

In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me.
In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me.
When my foes in battle array
Undertake to stop my way,
Thou who saved Paul and Silas
Stand by me.

When I'm growing old and feeble,
Stand by me.
When I'm growing old and feeble,
Stand by me.
When my life becomes a burden
And I'm nearing to the Jordan,
Oh the Lily of the Valley
Stand by me.


"Stand By Me" is the first real gospel song to appear on volume four of the Anthology ("Mean Old World," while recorded by a gospel quartet, makes no mention of God or Jesus and offers no comfort). It is a rollicking, uptempo number that would fit right in with the material found on the second disc of "Social Music." Hudmon is accompanied by a chorus consisting of Sisters Norman and Jordan and Deacon Leon Davis (who likely sings the wordless bass part here) and a piano played by an unknown hand. More than joining Hudmon in the singing, Norman and Jordan contribute spoken asides and shouts of encouragement, likely intended to recreate the church atmosphere.

I have read rumors to the effect that "Stand By Me" was performed by Bessie Smith under a pseudonym. Frankly, I've seen no evidence to support this theory. Hudmon doesn't sound a bit like Smith to my ears (their vocal styles are completely different). It was a common practice for black musicians of the 1920s and '30s to record both sacred and secular material, and such musicians did sometimes record religious material under an assumed name (on the theory that religious listeners would not approve of blues musicians, who played "the devil's music"). Both Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson participated in this practice. However, when Jefferson and Patton performed religious songs, they still sounded enough like themselves to make their true identities obvious. This theory sounds more like wishful thinking more than anything else...

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

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

Here's dwCrooner performing a version of "Stand By Me" in the style of Elvis Presley. He does a pretty good Elvis, too!



I've always resisted posting videos that don't include an actual live performance of a song, but I'll make an exception here. This is a version of "Stand By Me" performed by Elvis Presley himself. This recording was assembled by YouTube user navelstreng from unreleased takes and remixed. This is a gorgeous performance that deserves to be heard...



Download and listen to Sister Clara Hudmon - "Stand By Me"

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Hello, Stranger" - The Carter Family


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc Two; Track One: "Hello, Stranger" performed by The Carter Family. Recorded in New York on June 17, 1937.

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

"Hello, Stranger" is a basic 12-bar blues performed as a duet between Sara and Maybelle Carter, the two vocalists alternating overlapping lines.

Hello stranger, put your loving hand in mine.
Hello stranger, put your loving hand in mine.
You are a stranger, and you're a pal of mine.

Get up rounder, let a working man lay down.
Get up rounder, let a working man lay down.
You are a rounder, but you're all out and down.

Every time I ride Six and Fourth street car.
Oh, every time I ride Six and Fourth street car.
I can see my baby peeping through the bars.

She bowed her head, she waved both hands at me.
She bowed her head, she waved both hands at me.
I'm prison bound, I'm longing to be free.

Oh, I'll see you, when your troubles are like mine.
Oh, I'll see you, when your troubles are like mine.
Oh, I'll see you, when you haven't got a dime.

Weeping like a willow and mourning like a dove.
Weeping like a willow and mourning like a dove.
There's a girl up the country that I really love.

Hello stranger, put your loving hand in mine.
Hello stranger, put your loving hand in mine.
You are a stranger, and you're a pal of mine.


"Hello, Stranger" marks the second appearance by the Carter Family on volume four and their sixth appearance overall on the Anthology. The Carter Family will turn up one last time on this disc.

"Hello, Stranger" tells the story of a man on his way to prison. The speaker never says what he's going to jail for, but we know that he's leaving his girl behind. The speaker appears to be addressing most of the song to a fellow convict.

A.P. Carter was a close friend and associate of African-American songster Leslie Riddle (1905-1980). Riddle frequently accompanied Carter on his "song collecting" trips and is frequently cited, along with Jimmie Rodgers, as a primary influence on the Carters when it came to recording blues songs.

"Hello, Stranger" went on to become one of the Carter Family's signature songs and is today regarded as a Country Music standard.

This track kicks off the last disc of the Anthology.

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

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

Here's a very dapper singer/guitarist who calls himself "The Rooster" performing a soulful version of "Hello, Stranger."



This is the Dry Bones Band performing a version of "Hello, Stranger" with two guitars and percussion.



Download and listen to The Carter Family - "Hello, Stranger"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Mean Old World" - Heavenly Gospel Singers


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Fourteen: "Mean Old World" performed by Heavenly Gospel Singers. Recorded in Atlanta on August 7, 1935.

The Heavenly Gospel Singers originally hailed from Spartanburg, South Carolina, but they first came together in Detroit, Michigan during the 1920s when tenor Fred Whitmore first organized a group of friends into a singing group called the Masonic Glee Club. They gradually grew in popularity, securing gigs as far away as Chicago. At some point, the group changed their name to the Heavenly Gospel Singers. By 1930, however, most of the original group was gone, leaving only Whitmore. In addition, the group consisted of lead singer Roosevelt Fenroy, baritone Henderson Massey, and bass Jimmy Bryant. The group was signed to Bluebird and, on August 7, 1935, made their first recordings. They recorded ten sides at their first session in Atlanta, Georgia, including this recording of "Mean Old World." They recorded a further ten songs at a second session in 1936.

By this point, the group was a successful recording and performing unit. The unexpected death of founder Fred Whitmore, however, put their future in jeopardy. Deciding to carry on with Arthur Lee "Bob" Beatty in Whitmore's place, the group made their most significant recording in February, 1937 when they became the first gospel quartet to record Thomas Dorsey's "Take My Hand Precious Lord."

In 1938, the group began to fragment. Dissent within the group caused bass singer Jimmy Bryant (arguably one of the most influential bass vocalists in the history of American music) to quit. He was replaced by William Bobo, who was also to become a legendary vocalist in his own right. Both Bryant and Bobo were to become, at different times, members of the seminal gospel group, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Eventually, the Heavenly Gospel Singers were reduced to Henderson Massey and shifting group of sidemen. They made their last recordings for Bluebird in 1941. By the end of World War II, the group had drifted into obscurity. A postwar group recorded under the name the Heavenly Gospel Singers, but this group was from Alabama and contained no members of the original group whatsoever.

The Heavenly Gospel Singers, with the prominent bass of Jimmy Bryant, were highly influential. Their style would inspire the Golden Gate Quartet and other groups, eventually influencing the first generation of Doo-Wop groups that emerged during the 1950s.

Biographical information, especially birth and death dates, for the individual members of the group appears to be unavailable at this time.

"Mean Old World" is a simple song that repeatedly points out the troubles of this mortal coil.

This is a mean,
This is a mean old world,
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

You got to walk,
You got to walk sometimes.
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

You got to pray,
You got to pray sometimes.
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

You got to pray,
You got to pray sometimes.
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

This is a mean,
This is a mean old world,
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Ain't got no mother,
Ain't got no father,
Ain't got no sister,
Lord, don't pray no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.


It is tempting to imagine that Smith chose "Mean Old World" because of its fatalistic message. While the song repeatedly states that "this is a mean old world...you try to live in...until you die," the song does not offer any comfort. While prayer is mentioned, there is no mention of God or of a personal savior. There is no promise of eternal salvation, nor even the threat of damnation. The song simply drums home the fact that life sucks and then you die. A cheerful note on which to end the first disc of this volume.

It has long been a theme of Christianity that the material world is one of hardship and suffering, but there is usually the promise of something better after death. The salvation not explicitly mentioned in this song may have been assumed on the part of the song's writer, and so it was not deemed necessary to state outright that death brings relief from the sufferings of earthly existence. The song might have been intended as a momento mori, a simple reminder that we are all mortal and must eventually pass from the earth.

"Mean Old World" follows five blues recordings in a row, and may have been intended to augment the theme of hard times that often accompany blues recordings, or to offer a different take on "the blues."

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

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

This is a video of gospel singer Marion Williams performing a song called "Mean Old World" which probably has nothing to do with the song sung by the Heavenly Gospel Singers. However, it's interesting to compare this example of post-war gospel singing with the rawer pre-war spirituals...



Download and listen to the Heavenly Gospel Singers - "Mean Old World"

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Parchman Farm Blues" - Bukka White


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Thirteen: "Parchman Farm Blues" performed by Bukka White. Recorded in Chicago on March 7, 1940. Original issue OKeh 05683.

Booker T. Washington White was born between Aberdeen and Houston, Mississippi on November 12, 1906. His first instrument was the fiddle, which he played at local dances. Later, White took up the piano and the guitar, which White played with a slide and became his primary instrument. White later claimed to have met Charlie Patton early in his career, although this claim has since been disputed. In any case, Patton was a major influence on White.

White made his first recordings for Victor in 1930, which included several gospel numbers performed in the style of Blind Willie Johnson. In 1937, White was arrested for assault and was sentenced to the Mississippi State Penitentiary a.k.a. Parchman Farm. While in prison, White met and was recorded by John Lomax, who had already made a recording sensation of a Lead Belly, another former convict. Lomax recorded several of White's songs for the Library of Congress. White also recorded commercially while still in prison. One of his most famous songs, "Shake 'em On Down," was recorded during this period. It was during this period that White was given his notoriously condescending nickname. Vocalion, the record label that released the recordings White recorded while incarcerated, phonetically rendered White's given name as "Bukka" (one assumes this was because that is the way White himself pronounced the name "Booker"). White himself hated the nickname and insisted that his name be spelled correctly, but it stuck and was appended to all of his subsequent recordings.

Following his release in 1940, White traveled to Chicago where he recorded for Lester Melrose. Among the sides made for Melrose is this recording of "Parchman Farm Blues."

During the 1950s, White was musically inactive. He worked as a laborer for Newberry Equipment in Memphis, Tennessee. He was rediscovered in 1963 by guitarist John Fahey and Ed Dawson. That same year, White appeared at a Folk Festival at UC Berkley. White toured Europe and even performed at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. White also rerecorded many of his classic sides.

In the mid-1970s, White's health began to decline. He died on February 26, 1977.

White's music has been covered by such artists as Bob Dylan (who included White's "Fixin' To Die" on his first LP) to Led Zeppelin (who recorded White's "Shake 'em On Down"). White's first cousin is B.B. King, who got his first guitar from White and counts White as an early mentor.

Parchman Farm is another name for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the oldest Federal prison in the state of Mississippi. The facility was built in 1901 and occupies roughly 18,000 acres. It holds 4,840 inmates at the minimum, medium, and maximum security levels. It holds only male offenders. Inmates work on the prison farm and in manufacturing workshops. Notable inmates include Vernon Presley (the father of Elvis Presley), Son House, and Stokely Carmichael.


Judge give me life this mornin'
Down on Parchman farm.
Judge give me life this mornin'
Down on Parchman farm.
I wouldn't hate it so bad
But I left my wife in mourn.

Oh, goodbye wife.
All you have done gone.
Oh, goodbye wife.
All you have done gone.
But I hope some day,
You will hear my lonesome song.

Oh, listen you men,
I don't mean no harm.
Oh, listen you men,
I don't mean no harm.
If you wanna do good,
You better stay off old Parchman farm.

We got to work in the mornin'
Just at dawn of day.
We got to work in the mornin'
Just at dawn of day.
Just at the settin' of the sun
That's when the work is done.

I'm down on ol' Parchman farm.
I sho' wanna go back home.
I'm down on ol' Parchman farm.
But I sho' wanna go back home.
But I hope some day
I will overcome.


"Parchman Farm Blues" features White's exquisite slide guitar as well has his deeply expressive vocals (note how White twists and elongates his vowel sounds at the beginning of each line). The recording also features Robert Brown, a.k.a. Washboard Sam on washboard, providing the track's driving rhythm.

"Parchman Farm Blues" is the last of four blues recordings in a row.

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

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

Here's Scott Ainslie performing "Parchman Farm Blues" on the diddley bow, a single string instrument with roots in sub-Saharan Africa. The song is preceded by an interesting discussion of the instrument and how it is played.



Download and listen to Bukka White - "Parchman Farm Blues"