An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
10 November, 2009
"The Butcher's Boy (The Railroad Boy)" - Buell Kazee
Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Six: "The Butcher's Boy (The Railroad Boy)" performed by Buell Kazee. "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo." Recorded in New York on January 16, 1928. Original issue Brunswick 213A (032).
Buell Kazee was born in Burton's Fork, Kentucky in 1900. Unlike most of the musicians whose recordings were included in the Anthology, Kazee had a formal education. He graduated high school and studied English, Greek, and Latin at Georgetown University. He also received formal musical instruction, which is evident in his precise clawhammer style on the banjo (see the entry on "The House Carpenter" for more information on the origin of the banjo).
"Clawhammer" picking is distinguished from other traditional finger-picking styles (such as the "Scruggs" style) in that it is primarily a down-picking style. The hand is formed in the shape of a claw with the strumming finger kept fairly stiff. The strings are stuck my the movement of the wrist or elbow. "In its most common form on the banjo, only the thumb and middle or index finger are used and the finger always downpicks, hitting the string with the back of the fingernail or a pick." (Wikipedia)
Kazee began recording for Brunswick in 1927, eventually recording 58 songs for the label over the next two years, including this version of "The Butcher's Boy." He ceased recording during the Depression, instead devoting himself to the ministry. The release of the Anthology in 1952 led to his eventual rediscovery and a second career in the late '50s and '60s. He recorded Buell Kazee Sings and Plays for Folkways in 1958. During the '60s, he made numerous appearances at folk festivals (including the Newport Folk Festival), often in the company of fellow Anthology artists like Clarence Ashley and Dock Boggs. In 1975, Kazee was recorded by folklorist Art Rosenbaum. A recording of Kazee performing an instrumental version of "Big Foot Feller" can be heard on the first volume of The Art of Field Recording. He died in 1976.
"The Butcher's Boy" is the first ballad to appear on this set not cataloged by Child. According Smith's notes, the song is an amalgam of "The Cruel Father" and "There Is An Alehouse in Yonder Town." Both songs date to 18th century Britain, but their combination into a single song seems to be a product of America. The song is typically known as a "Broadside ballad." Broadside ballads were popular songs printed on large sheets of paper, folded into pamphlets, and sold by street vendors. The earliest Broadsides did not feature musical notation, but often stated that the song could be sung to another popular tune. Since many early Broadsides were printed using Black Letter type, they are sometimes referred to as "Black Letter Ballads."
"The Butcher's Boy" is also the first ballad on the Anthology cataloged by George Malcolm Laws (b. 1919). Laws is the author of American Balladry from British Broadsides published in 1957. He cataloged a wide range of songs, including songs excluded by Child and those discovered after Child's death. Laws' system is a coded cataloging system which gives each selection a letter and a number. The letters separate the songs by category. A brief example follows:
* J War ballads * K Ballads of sailors and the sea * L Ballads of crime and criminals * M Ballads of family opposition to lovers * N Ballads of lovers' disguises and tricks * O Ballads of faithful lovers * P Unfaithful lovers * Q Humorous and miscellaneous
The letters A through H indicate ballads that have their origin in America, while J through Q indicate ballads taken from British Broadsides. "The Butcher's Boy" is Laws P24.
"The Butcher's Boy" tells the tragic tale of a young girl who commits suicide after being jilted by her lover. Her father finds her dead body, along with a note dictating her final wishes.
She went upstairs to make her bed, And not one word to her mother said. Her mother she went upstairs too, Says "Daughter, dear daughter, what troubles you?"
"Oh mother, oh mother, I cannot tell, That Railroad Boy I love so well. He's courted me my life away, and now at home he will not stay."
"There is a place in London town, Where that Railroad Boy goes and sits down. He takes that strange girl on his knee And he tells to her what he won’t tell me."
Her father he came in from work And says, "Where’s daughter? She seems so hurt." He went upstairs to give her hope But found her hanging on a rope.
He took his knife and cut her down, And in her bosom these words he found:
"Go dig my grave both wide and deep. Place a marble slab at my head and feet. And over my coffin place a snow white dove To warn this world that I died for love."
Unlike many of the other ballads on this set, Kazee sings in a highly sentimental style, underlining the tragic nature of the song. Note that while the song is titled "The Butcher's Boy," Kazee refers to the unnamed girl's lover as the "Railroad Boy." On the 1958 Folkways LP, Buell Kazee Sings and Plays, Kazee explains this in the spoken introduction to "The Butcher's Boy":
"The Butcher's Boy," of course, is the original ballad in England and that's the title that is known among people who deal in folk songs a good deal. But in this country, especially in the Kentucky mountains, it became "The Railroad Boy." Railroads, when the railroads began to go up the valley - the Sandy Valley - and east Virgina boarder and all that, became quite a romantic thing to the mountaineer's mind, y'know. They got to singing "railroad," and for instance in that song you have "there is a place in London town where the Butcher's Boy goes and sits down." Well, they sang it, "there is a place in Lebanon town where the Railroad Boy goes and sits down." Well, Lebanon is down here in Kentucky and happens to be a railroad junction, a place where two roads come together, a division is, you see. Well, that probably was known to somebody who sang the song and he got it in there. Well, it had such an influence on me, I sang it all my life as "railroad boy," and I heard my older sister sing that. And when I got to New York to record it, I knew we were going to record "The Butcher's Boy" and we wanted to record "The Butcher's Boy" because that was the way it was known in England, and that's the way its known in America a lot. But in spite of all I could do, even though we called it "The Butcher's Boy," when I got to the verse where it was supposed to be, I called it "the Railroad Boy." (Laughs)
The trope of the dead or dying dictating their last wishes (particularly their burial arrangements) was last heard on this set in "Fatal Flower Garden."
The other side of the Brunswick release of "The Butcher's Boy (The Railroad Boy)" was "The Wagoner's Lad (Loving Nancy)" which appears as the next selection on the Anthology.
I should note that the Anthology has inspired several tribute albums, including the recent Harry Smith Project. This set features a selection of highlights from several all-star concerts at which notable artists (Lou Reed, Beck, Steve Earl, etc.) perform songs from the Anthology. Particularly notable is Elvis Costello's performance of "The Butcher's Boy."