An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
01 November, 2009
"The House Carpenter" - Clarence Ashley
Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Three: "The House Carpenter" performed by Clarence Ashley. "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo." Recorded in Atlanta on April 14, 1930. Original issue Columbia 15654D (W194982).
Born Clarence Earl McCurry in Bristol, Tennessee in 1895, Ashley (his mother's maiden name) was a veteran of the medicine shows that criss-crossed the American landscape in the late 19th and early 20th century. He began his recording career in the late '20s as a member of the Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers and later as a member of the Carolina Tar Heels (the Tar Heels will be heard later in this set performing "Peg and Awl"). He first recorded under his own name in 1929 (a session that yielded "The Coo Coo Bird," heard on volume three ("Songs") of this set). A hand injury sidelined Ashley's recording and performing career during the 1940s, forcing him into manual labor and farming as a means of support. The release of the Anthology in the early '50s eventually led to his rediscovery and a second career recording and performing at colleges, festivals and nightclubs. Ashley can be seen sharing the stage with a young Bob Dylan in footage of Dylan's 1963 Newport Folk Festival appearance taken by Murray Lerner. He died in 1967. Among his other accomplishment, Ashley is commonly cited as having made the very first recording of "The House of the Rising Sun" in 1933 and with popularizing the hymn "Amazing Grace" during his rediscovery in the '60s.
"The House Carpenter" is a version of Child 243, "James Harris (The Daemon Lover)," a cautionary tale in which the ghost of a dead sailor revenges himself on his unfaithful lover.
Well met, well met said an old true love. Well met, well met said he. I'm just returning from the salt salt sea and it's all for the love of thee.
Come in, come in my old true love, And have a seat with me. It's been three-fourths of a long long year since together we have been.
Well, I can't come in or I can't sit down, For I haven't but a moment's time. They say you're married to a house carpenter and your heart will never be mine.
Now it's I coulda married a king's daughter, dear. I'm sure she'da married me. But I've forsaken her crowns of gold and it's all for the love of thee.
Now will you forsaken your house carpenter And go along with me? I'll take you where the grass grows green on the banks of the deep blue sea.
She picked up here little babe And kisses gave him three. Says stay right here my little darling babe and keep your papa company.
Well they hadn't been on ship but about two weeks I'm sure it wasn't three. When his true love began to weep and mourn and she weeped most bitterly.
Says are you a-weepin' for my silver or my gold? Says are you weeping for my store? Are you weeping for that house carpenter whose face you'll never see any more?
No it's I'm not a-weepin' for your silver or your gold Or neither for your store. I am weeping for my darling little babe whose face I'll never see any more.
Well they hadn't been on ship but about three weeks I'm sure it wasn't four. 'Til they sprung a leak in the bottom of the ship and they sunk a-for to rise no more.
While Ashley's high voice and emotionless reading, together with his clawhammer banjo style, serve to create an eerie atmosphere in his recording of "The House Carpenter," the lyrics make no mention of ghosts. Indeed, in his liner notes Smith mentions that the "supernatural theme" in "The House Carpenter" has "disappeared almost completely in America."
When Bob Dylan recorded his version (simply titled "House Carpenter") for inclusion on his debut album (unissued until the 1993 release of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3), he included a spoken introduction which made the supernatural theme explicit: This is the story of a ghost come back from out at sea. Come to take his bride away from a house carpenter.
Dylan's version also includes two stanzas which are at least similar to some of the variations of "James Harris (The Daemon Lover)" cataloged by Child, again making the supernatural theme plain to the listener.
"Oh, what are those hills yonder, my love? They look as white as snow." "Those are the hills of heaven, my love, That you and I'll never know."
"Oh, what are those hills yonder, my love? They look as dark as night." "Those are the hills of hell-fire, my love, Where you and I will unite."
Absent these lines, the American version of "The House Carpenter" is merely a tragic tale of doomed love rather than a haunting story of revenge. One question that remains unanswered is this: Why has the ballad's title shifted from that of the ghost/lover (James Harris in most of Child's versions, unnamed in Ashley's recording) to the occupation of the husband, a character who never appears in this version of the ballad?
Good as Justice and Nelstone's Hawaiians were, Ashley's performance is the first truly great performance on the Anthology. Being a professional entertainer, Ashley brings a level of excellence to his music heretofore unheard on this set. It would not be the last time, however...
"The House Carpenter" marks the first appearance of the banjo on the Anthology. The banjo was developed by African slaves who fashioned gourd-bodied instruments similar to ones used in Africa. One of the most likely direct ancestors of the modern banjo is the akonting, found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. The name "banjo" is believed to be derived from the Kimbundu word mbanza, which may have referred to the bamboo stick used for the instrument's neck. Early observers transcribed the name of the instrument as bangie, banza, banjer and banjar.
While the banjo was originally associated with African-Americans, it soon found its way into the hands of American whites, originally through blackface minstrelsy, which was the first American mass entertainment. Through minstrelsy, the banjo was introduced to Britain where it became hugely popular. Minstrelsy eventually fed the various streams and tributaries of American music, contributing equally to the development of ragtime, jazz, blues and country music. That an instrument invented by African slaves eventually found its way into the hands of a white musician performing a version of an Anglo-Celtic folk song is therefore not surprising. Eventually, both the fiddle and the banjo (which had strong African American roots) became virtually the exclusive province of country and bluegrass.
Here's a cool version of "The House Carpenter" performed by the British folk-rock band Pentangle during a 1970 appearance on the BBC. Interesting use of both banjo and sitar (another gourd-bodied resonating instrument)!