29 December, 2009

"White House Blues" - Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Six: "White House Blues" performed by Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers. "Vocal solo with violin, banjo, guitar." Recorded in New York on September 20, 1926. Original issue Columbia 15099D (W142658).

Born in Spray, North Carolina on March 22, 1892, Charlie Poole is one of most influential early country musicians. He spent most of his 39 years playing baseball, working in textile mills, performing music, and drinking heavily. By May of 1931 Charlie Poole was dead, yet the amount of work produced in those 39 short years puts him in the same category as other great American musicians who lived fast and died young, including Bix Beiderbecke, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, among others. Poole is reknowned for his unique banjo-picking style, which evolved as a result of a baseball-related hand injury. Poole has made a lasting contribution to the development of country music thanks to the influence he had on such artists as Bill Monroe (who turned "White House Blues" into a Bluegrass standard) and Hank Williams.

In 1925, Poole and his brother-in-law Posey Rorer (who has already appeared on the Anthology on "A Lazy Farmer Boy" and "My Name Is John Johanna") formed the North Carolina Ramblers with guitarist Roy Harvey. Their first recordings produced a hit with "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," which has since been covered by the Grateful Dead, among others. The song is generally considered to be the first genuine country hit. "White House Blues" was recorded a year later. Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers had several successful recordings before the Depression took its toll on the music industry. Poole reportedly became depressed as a result of his change in fortunes and increased his drinking. In 1931, he was invited to Hollywood to provide background music for a film. Poole never made it to Hollywood. Instead, he died of heart failure following a thirteen week bender.

"White House Blues" provides a model for the way in which a topical song is often made up of the elements of other songs. The folk songs "Delia," "That Crazy War," "The Cannonball (Solid Gone)," "Cannonball Blues," "Battleship of Maine," and "Pig in a Pen" have all been cited as sources for or near relatives of "White House Blues." Following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, some enterprising songster borrowed elements from one or more songs to compose a topical song that captured the spirit of the moment. The song itself is quite irreverent. Most farmers and other country folk had supported McKinley's opponent William Jennings Bryan in 1896 (and again in 1900) and were not terribly saddened by McKinley's passing.

William McKinley was the 25th President of the United States and has the distinction of being the last Civil War veteran to hold the office. He was assassinated at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the abdomen, severely wounding him. McKinley was treated at the exhibition's emergency hospital, a facility so lacking that it didn't even have electric light. The doctors were able to easily locate and remove one of the bullets, but they were unable to find the other (the exhibition featured the first x-ray machine in one of its exhibits, but the doctors elected not to use it, not knowing what side-effects it might have). As with Garfield twenty years earlier, McKinley was killed by substandard medical care rather than by his assassin's bullet. Eight days after the shooting, McKinley died, making Theodore Roosevelt the youngest man ever to hold the office of President.

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled.
Doc said "McKinley I can't find that ball."
From Buffalo to Washington.

Roosevelt in the White House, he's doing his best.
McKinley's in the graveyard, he's taking his rest.
He is gone. A long, long time.

Hush up, little children. Now, don't you fret.
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death.
From Buffalo to Washington.

Roosevelt in the White House drinking out of the silver cup.
McKinley in the graveyard, he'll never wake up.
He is gone. A long old time.

Ain't but one thing that grieves my mind.
That is to die and leave my poor wife behind.
I am gone. Long, long time.

Lookee here little children [unintelligible].
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death.
From Buffalo to Washington.

Standing at the station, just lookin' at the time.
See if I could run it by half past nine.
From Buffalo to Washington.

[Unintelligible] the train, she's just on time.
She's running about a mile from eight o' clock til nine.
From Buffalo to Washington.

Yonder come the train, she's coming down the line.
Slow into the station, Mr. McKinley's a-dying.
It's hard times. Hard times.

Lookee here, you rascal, you see what you've done.
You shot my husband and I've got your gun.
Gave his badge to Washington.

Doc told the horse, he'd throw down his rein.
He said to the horse "You gotta outrun this train."
From Buffalo to Washington

The doc came a-running, he taked off his specs.
Said "Mr. McKinley, better cash in your checks
You're bound to die, you're bound to die."

Unlike "Charles Giteau," "White House Blues" is not about the Presidential Assassin, but about the assassinated President himself. While Kelly Harrell sings, "My name is Charles Guiteau, my name I'll never deny," Poole never even mentions the name of Leon Czolgosz. Instead, Poole sends up the poor medical treatment McKinley received and cracks some very grim jokes about McKinley "taking his rest." The instrumental performance perfectly mirrors the previous selection, "Stackalee," which also turns a real life tragedy into rousing free-for-all. This is something often seen on the Anthology; death, murder, suicide, and mayhem are - if not always a source of humor - at the very least treated as a simple fact of life. One wonders if this was because the artists didn't take the subject matter of the songs very seriously (and why should they?) or because of the commonplace reality of death that still held sway into the early part of the 20th century. Unlike today, where death is largely the abstract subject of newspaper headlines and government statistics, more often than not taking place behind hospital doors, most ordinary people in the 1920s had lost at least one close family member before reaching their teens and twenties. The undertaker was a familiar face in any community and cemeteries were often located in the center of town or next to the local church. Today we make sure that the cemetery is someplace far away, where most of us won't see it unless we have to go there for some specific purpose. We keep death at arms length and avoid thinking of it unless compelled by personal tragedy. Cataclysmic events and celebrity deaths serve as our memento mori, while our ancestors were reminded of their impending deaths several times a year thanks to relatively high infant mortality, workplace accidents, and other relatively commonplace demises.

Charlie Poole is another vocalist who sounds considerably older than his thirty-four years. For whatever reason, the lyrics on this recording are difficult to make out at times. In those places where I honestly couldn't make out a word he was saying, I have simply written the world "unintelligible." If any of you have better luck, you can e-mail me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com.

"White House Blues" marks the first ballad on the Anthology whose subject was an event that took place during the life-time of most of the artists. We've reached the 20th century and we've reached events that many of these artists might have remembered happening. Charlie Poole was nine years old when McKinley was assassinated, certainly old enough to be aware that the President of the United States had been shot and killed. We've left history and myth behind and move a step closer to current events.

The Shameless Plug Department II: The Next Day: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

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

Here's Lew Dite again performing a version of "White House Blues."

Download and listen to Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers - "White House Blues"

27 December, 2009

"Stackalee" - Frank Hutchison

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Five: "Stackalee" performed by Frank Hutchison. "Vocal solo with harmonica, guitar." Recorded in New York on January 28, 1927. Original issue Okeh 45106 (W80-359A).

Frank Hutchison was born in West Virginia on March 20, 1897. He worked primarily as a coal miner, but for a period during the mid to late 1920s he was a professional musician, traveling with the medicine shows and recording. Living in close proximity to African-American musicians (particularly a man named Bill Hunt) allowed Hutchison to absorb the blues style emerging during the early part of the 20th century. Hutchison became one of the best white blues musicians of his day and was known as "the Pride of West Virginia." Although his recording career was short (barely three years) he managed to record over thirty songs. He was a neighbor of the Williamson Brothers and often performed with Dick Justice, both of whom also appear on the Anthology.

Hutchison played guitar, often laying the instrument in his lap and using a knife as a slide to change pitch. As noted in the entry on Nelstone's Hawaiians, this technique was a variation of the Hawaiian steel and slide guitar which gained tremendous popularity in the United States during the early 20th century, influencing both country music and blues. On this recording, however, Hutchison does not make use of the slide technique. Hutchison also played harmonica, which he hung from a rack around his neck in the style pioneered by Henry Whitter and made famous by later folk musicians, particularly Bob Dylan.

Following his music career, which ended with the coming of the Great Depression, Hutchison returned to mining and eventually saved enough money to buy a store in Lake, West Virigina, where he also served as postmaster. A fire led to the loss of his business and to the start of a drinking problem that would claim his life. He died in Dayton, Ohio on November 9, 1945 of an alcohol related liver ailment.

The harmonica is a free reed wind instrument primarily associated with folk, blues, and country music, although it is also used in jazz and rock and roll. According to the wikipedia entry on the instrument:

It is played by blowing air into it or drawing air out by placing lips over individual holes (reed chambers) or multiple holes. The pressure caused by blowing or drawing air into the reed chambers causes a reed or multiple reeds to vibrate up and down creating sound. Each chamber has multiple, variable-tuned brass or bronze reeds which are secured at one end and loose on the other end, with the loose end vibrating and creating sound.

Reeds are pre-tuned to individual tones, and each tone is determined according to the size of reed. Longer reeds make deep, low sounds and short reeds make higher-pitched sounds. On certain types of harmonica the pre-tuned reed can be changed (bending a note) to another note by redirecting air flow into the chamber. There are many types of harmonicas, including diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, orchestral, and bass versions.

The earliest harmonicas were sold in Vienna during the 1820s and became hugely popular in the late 19th century, thanks to its low price and portability. The harmonica emigrated to the United States in the 1850s where it rapidly caught on. President Abraham Lincoln was known to carry a harmonica in his pocket and the instrument was used by soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. The instrument proved extremely adaptable to various styles of music. The harmonica is also quite popular in Japan, where it was introduced in 1898, and in Hong Kong (introduced in the 1930s) and Taiwan (where it was introduced in 1945).

Like the legend of John Henry, the story of Stackalee (a.k.a. Stackolee, Stack-O-Lee, or Stagger Lee) is believed to be based on historical fact. Lee Shelton was an African American cab driver and pimp who was convicted of the murder of William Lyons on December 24, 1895 in St. Louis, Missouri. The story, as reported by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, is as follows:

William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee.

Shelton (note the misspelling of his name in the article) was known to be a member of a notorious St. Louis gang known as the Macks who trafficked in prostitution. Shelton was tried and convicted of shooting William Lyons and died in prison of tuberculosis in 1912.

This seemingly unremarkable act of drunken violence was immortalized in song shortly after the incident, making Shelton an archetype of the violent but streetwise black man. The Stagger Lee family of songs has become among the most sung and recorded American songs. One estimate places the number of recordings of this song at over four hundred, including recordings by Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, the Clash, the Grateful Dead, the Black Eyed Peas, and Lloyd Price, who had a hit with the song in 1959.

Some folklorists, however, claim that the song predates the 1895 shooting and that Lee Shelton's nickname (Stag) derived from the song, and not the other way around.

Hawlin Alley on a dark and drizzly night,
Billy Lyons and Stackalee had one terrible fight.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Stackalee walked to the bar-room, and he called for a glass of beer,
Turned around to Billy Lyons, said, "What are you doin' here?"
"Waitin' for a train, please bring my woman home."

"Stackalee, oh Stackalee. please don't take my life.
Got three little children and a-weepin', lovin' wife.
You're a bad man, bad man, Stackalee."

"God bless your children and I'll take care of your wife.
You stole my John B., now I'm bound to take your life."
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Stackalee turned to Billy Lyons and he shot him right through the head,
Only taking one shot to kill Billy Lyons dead.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Sent for the doctor, well the doctor he did come,
Just pointed out ol' Stackalee, said, "Now what have you done?"
You're a bad man, bad man, Stackalee."

Six big horses and a rubber-tired hack,
Taking him to the cemetery, buy they failed to bring him back.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Lookin' for ol' Stackalee, then!

Hawlin Alley, thought I heard the bulldogs bark.
It must have been old Stackalee stumbling in the dark.
He's a bad man, gonna land him right back in jail.

How'd they catch ol' Stackalee?

High police walked on to Stackalee, he was lying fast asleep.
High police walked on to Stackalee, and he jumped for forty feet.
He's a bad man, gonna land him right back in jail.

Well, they got old Stackalee and they laid him right back in jail.
Couldn't get a man around to go Stackalee's bail
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Stackalee said to the jailer, "Jailer, I can't sleep.
'Round my bedside Billy Lyons began to creep."
All about that John B. Stetson hat.

Frank Hutchison's performance of this song is raucus, matching the rowdy barroom setting. Hutchison's version of the song leaves out the political argument that lead to Lyons snatching Shelton's hat, as well as the fact that both Shelton and Lyons were drunk at the time. The song also has Lyons shot through the head rather than the stomach. The murder seems cold blooded and practically motiveless, while the constant repetition of the lines "all about that John B. Stetson hat" point up the trivial nature of the dispute. In this version, as in most versions of this song, Billy Lyons begs for his life in the name of his wife and children. Shelton's response, "I'll take care of your wife," could be read to mean that Shelton will support or otherwise remunerate Mrs. Lyons for the death of her husband, or it could be read as a threat to have sex with her.

My thanks to Charlie, a reader who hipped me to the book Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown. I definitely plan to check this out in the near future...

After the heroic tale of John Henry and his hammer, we return to songs about bad men (and one bad woman). "Stackalee" marks the first of three songs in a row to feature a shooting.

The Search for the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

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

Here's Nick Cave's extremely violent and profane version of "Stagger Lee" from his Murder Ballads album.

Here's a more traditional take on the song by a fellow who goes by the name of Woody.

Download and listen to Frank Hutchison - "Stackalee"

22 December, 2009

"Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand" - Williamson Brothers and Curry

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Four: "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand" performed by Williamson Brothers and Curry. "Vocal solo with duet chorus with violin and two guitars." Recorded in St. Louis, MO on April 26, 1927. Original issue Okeh 45127 (W80757).

Arnold and Irving Williamson were from Logan County, West Virginia. They recorded six sides for Okeh in 1927 before returning to the obscurity from whence they came. Arnold played fiddle and Irving played guitar. They are joined on this selection by a second guitarist known only as Curry, about whom absolutely nothing is known. Reportedly, the Williamson brothers traveled from their native West Virginia to Saint Louis, Missouri in the company of Frank Hutchison, who appears on the very next selection ("Stackalee"). While the Williamson brothers have always sounded African American to my ears, the available evidence would seem to suggest that they were white, but heavily influenced by African American music. Hutchison (who was white) was apparently a neighbor of theirs, and one would assume that the strict social conventions of the day would have discouraged integrated housing. This is far from conclusive, however. Elvis Presley grew up in integrated neighborhoods in both Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee during the 1930s and 40s. Poor whites and poor blacks were often forced to live in close proximity, so it may well have been that the Williamsons were African Americans, after all. If anyone has any more conclusive evidence on this matter, please contact me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com.

The legend of John Henry is an integral part of American folklore and it is reportedly based on fact. There was a John Henry employed by the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway during the 1870s and work was being done at the Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia. There are several scholars who dispute exactly where and under what circumstances the contest with the steam drill actually took place. One theory is that John Henry was a convict leased to the C&O Railway by the State of Virginia. Others maintain that John Henry and the steam drill actually had their race in Alabama. Most sources agree, however, that John Henry was a black man.

All versions of his story depict him as a railroad worker who wields a heavy (usually nine pound) hammer. John Henry is usually a spike driver, which is a man who drives steel spikes into sheer rock in order to dig a tunnel. This was exhausting and dangerous work. Even more dangerous was the profession of the "shaker," whose job it was to hold the steel spike steady while the spike driver drove it in, and then shake it around to loosen the rock. One badly aimed swing could cost the shaker his life. Little wonder, then, that the railroads sought to replace human workers with steam driven machines that could do the work faster and with much less risk. Nevertheless, this advance would cost a lot of men their jobs, and it was for this reason that John Henry sought to prove that human labor could compete with the steam drill.

Whether the race really took place in Virgina, West Virgina, or Alabama - or whether the race really happened at all - the story of John Henry, a man who challenged the technology meant to replace him and won, endures in American popular culture. His story survives in legend and in song. The "John Henry" song - also known as the "hammer" song - exists in countless variants and is arguably the most sung and most recorded folk song in American history. There are two types of "hammer" song. The first is the ballad (of which "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hands" is an example), which tells the story of John Henry. The second is exemplified by Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" (which will be heard in the third volume of the Anthology). This type of song is usually a protest. When John Henry is brought into this type of song, it is as an example of what the singer does not want to become. "This is the hammer that killed John Henry," Mississippi John Hurt sings in "Spike Driver Blues," "But it won't kill me." John Henry is a latter day Christ figure and the hammer is his crucifix. John Henry is martyred for all working men left behind by new technology. Unlike the resigned shoemaker of "Peg and Awl," John Henry attempts to resist, even if he dies in the attempt.

John Henry, he told his captain:
"A man ain't nothin' but a man.
Before I be beaten by this old steam drill,
I'm gonna die with my hammer in my hand.
Lord, lord!
Die with my hammer in my hand."

John Henry, he told his captain:
"Captain, how can it be?
The Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O Road
Is gonna be the death of me.
Lord, lord!
Gonna be the death of me."

John Henry had a little hammer.
Handle was made of bone.
Every he hit the drill on the head
Hammer reaches down and groans.
Lord, lord!
Hammer reaches down and groans.

John Henry, he told his shaker:
"Shaker, you better pray.
For if I miss this six foot steel,
Tomorrow be your burying day.
Lord, lord!
Tomorrow be your burying day."

John Henry had but one only son.
Sat in the palm of your hand.
The very last words John Henry said:
"Son, don't be a steel driving man.
Lord, lord!
Son don't be a steel driving man."

John Henry had a little woman.
Her name was Sally Ann.
John Henry got sick and he could not work.
Sally drove her steel like a man.
Lord, lord!
Sally drove her steel like a man.

The Williamson Brothers and Curry turn in a whirlwind of a performance on this record. The fiddle and two guitars blaze through the instrumental passages. Their reading of John Henry's story is not particularly coherent. The verses are tossed off, almost as an afterthought. They never even get to the race with the steam drill. Instead, a series of vignettes are described: John Henry addressing his captain; a description of his hammer and its bone handle; John Henry's final advice to his son; and a description of John Henry's "little woman," Sally Ann. No story is actually told in this song, not that it particularly matters. The Williamson Brothers and Curry churn the song out at breakneck speed, almost as though they were racing for their lives.

Here and in the previous song, Smith juxtaposes two songs about black railroad workers associated with West Virgina, both named John. Both men go to their deaths bravely, both men address their final words to their children. Indeed, there was often confusion between the two, and some have even claimed that they were the same person. The Williamson Brothers and Curry with their wild instrumental performance and spirited choruses - punctuated with cries of "Lord, lord!" - are a marked contrast with Sara Carter's deadpan account of John Hardy's deeds.

The Wrath of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

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

Bruce Springsteen captures a good deal of the wildness of the Williamson Brothers and Curry in this live performance of "John Henry" recorded while he was promoting his album, The Seeger Sessions.

A completely different version of the John Henry legend, rich in detail, is performed Johnny Cash during a episode of his 1969-1970 television series.

Download and listen to the Williamson Brothers and Curry - "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand"

20 December, 2009

"John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" - The Carter Family

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Three: "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" performed by The Carter Family. "Vocal solo (by Sara Carter) with autoharp, guitar." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on May 10, 1928. Original issue Victor 40190A.

The Carter Family consisted of A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Delaney Carter, his wife Sara Dougherty Carter and sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter. All three were born and raised in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. The group was formed in 1927 when A.P. convinced Sara and Maybelle to make the trip to Bristol, Tennessee in order to audition for Ralph Peer of Victor Records. Peer recorded the Carters (along with Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers and Eck Dunford) and their first release (including the song "Single Girl, Married Girl", which appears later on the Anthology) was an immediate success. Peer then brought the Carter Family to Camden, New Jersey in May, 1928 for a follow up session which produced what became several of the Carters' signature recordings, including "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man." The Carter Family went on to become one of the leading lights of Country music. The group disbanded in 1936 when Sara (who has been estranged from A.P. for several years by this point) remarried and moved to California. Maybelle would later reform the Carter Family around herself and her three daughters, Anita, June, and Helen. June Carter would - of course - go on to marry and perform with Johnny Cash. Their son, John Carter Cash, continues to work as a musician and producer, making the Carter Family the single most enduring musical dynasty in American history.

A.P. Carter (1891-1960) sang harmony and occasional lead vocals and was the group's principle songwriter (although many of the songs A.P. "wrote" were actually folk songs collected by him and Lesley Riddle, an African-American guitar player). Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) was the group's principle guitarist, although she also played autoharp and banjo. Maybelle was a hugely influential guitarist thanks to her "scratch" style, also known as "Carter Family picking":

Perhaps the most remarkable of Maybelle's many talents was her skill as a guitarist. She revolutionized the instrument's role by developing a style in which she played melody lines on the bass strings with her thumb while rhythmically strumming with her fingers. Her innovative technique, to this day known as the Carter Scratch, influenced the guitar's shift from rhythm to lead instrument.
- Holly George-Warren.

Sara Carter (1898-1979) was the group's lead singer and autoharpist. Sara's deadpan vocal style epitomized the stoicism of the poor whites of the American southeast. Her primary instrument was the autoharp, a chorded zither which has a series of bars attached to dampers. When depressed, the dampers mute all but the desired strings. The autoharp was invented in the late 19th century, either by Charles Zimmerman or by Karl August Gütter (there is dispute over the true origin of the instrument). Whether invented by Zimmerman or Gütter, it was Zimmerman who started manufacturing the instrument in 1885 to great success.

The real John Hardy was an African-American working in the railroad tunnels of West Virginia. He murdered a co-worker during a crap game and was sentenced to hang on January 19, 1894. In his liner notes, Smith reproduces the order of execution:

State of West Virginia vs. John Hardy. Felony. This day came again the State by her attorney and the prisoner who stands convicted of murder in the first degree.... The prisoner saying nothing why such sentence should be passed.... It is therefore considered by the court that the prisoner, John Hardy, is guilty... and that the said John Hardy be hanged by the neck until dead... on Friday the 19th day of January 1894.

Alan Lomax provides the following additional information:

His white captors protected him from a lynch mob that came to take him out of jail and hang him. When the lynch fever subsided, Hardy was tried during the July term of the McDowell County Criminal Court, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. While awaiting execution in jail, he is said to have composed this ballad, which he later sang on the scaffold. He also confessed his sins to a minister, became very religious, and advised all young men, as he stood beneath the gallows, to shun liquor, gambling and bad company. The order for his execution shows that he was hanged near the courthouse in McDowell County, January 19, 1894. His ballad appears to have been based upon certain formulae stanzas from the Anglo-Saxon ballad stock....

In his notes to the previous track, "Charles Giteau," Smith notes that that song was also allegedly composed by the song's subject.

Whether actually composed by Hardy or not, "John Hardy" became a popular song and has since been performed by numerous artists. It was first recorded in 1924 by Eva Davis. It has since been performed by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, Bill Frissell, Petra Haden, Uncle Tupelo, and others.

John Hardy, he was a desperate little man,
He carried two guns every day.
He shot a man on the West Virginia line,
And you ought seen John Hardy getting away.

John Hardy, he got to the Keystone Bridge,
He thought that he would be free.
And up stepped a man and took him by his arm,
Says, "Johnny, walk along with me."

He sent for his poppy and his mommy, too,
To come and go his bail.
But money won't go a murdering case;
They locked John Hardy back in jail.

John Hardy, he had a pretty little girl,
That dress that she wore was blue.
As she came skipping through the old jail hall,
Saying, "Poppy, I've been true to you."

John Hardy, he had another little girl,
That dress that she wore was red.
She followed John Hardy to his hanging ground,
Saying, "Poppy, I would rather be dead."

"I been to the East and I been to the West,
I been this wide world around.
I been to the river and I been baptized,
And now I'm on my hanging ground."

John Hardy walked out on his scaffold high,
With his loving little wife by his side.
And the last words she heard poor John-O say,
"I'll meet you in that sweet bye-and-bye."

This recording marks the first appearance of a female vocalist on the Anthology. It is a magnificent performance. Maybelle's guitar playing is strong and confident, while Sara's vocals are youthful, yet resigned. This song also marks the first of seven recordings by the Carter Family that Smith included in the Anthology, counting the originally unpublished fourth volume; more than any other single artist. This is fitting, as the Carters certainly rank as one of the single most important popular American musicians.

"John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" rounds out a rogues gallery of three tracks in a row about notorious badmen (along with "Bandit Cole Younger" and "Charles Giteau").

Revenge of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

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

Here's a short film of Roscoe Holcomb performing "John Hardy."

Here's a wonderful performance by Maybelle and Sara Carter in a 1970s television appearance performing "While The Band Plays Dixie."

Download and listen to The Carter Family - "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man"

15 December, 2009

"Charles Giteau" - Kelly Harrell

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Two: "Charles Giteau" performed by Kelly Harrell. "Vocal with Virginia String Band (violin, banjo, guitar)." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on March 23, 1927. Original issue Victor 207978.

For biographical information on Kelly Harrell, see the entry for "My Name Is John Johanna."

Recorded at the same session as "My Name is John Johanna," "Charles Giteau" tells the story of Charles Guiteau (pictured above), the assassin of James A. Garfield. Certainly, Guiteau is probably the most colorful of the presidential assassins. Born in Freeport, Illinois, Charles J. Guiteau (his name is misspelled on the record label) was a failed lawyer (he only argued one case in court) and writer (his book, The Truth, was plagiarized from John Humphrey Noyse, founder of the utopian Oneida Colony from which Guiteau was twice ejected). Guiteau then turned to politics. He supported James A. Garfield in 1880 with a speech he had written titled "Garfield vs. Hancock." The speech was delivered, at most, twice during the 1880 presidential campaign, but Guiteau was convinced that he was responsible for Garfield's election. He sought an ambassadorship (to Vienna at first, and later to Paris) in recognition for his service, but he was roundly rejected by Garfield's staff. Upon his rejection, Guiteau decided that God wanted Garfield killed and he purchased a revolver with the intention of assassinating the ungrateful President.

On July 2, 1881 he approached Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station and shot him twice in the back, piercing Garfield's lumbar vertebra but missing his spinal cord. After more than two months, Garfield died - not from his injuries, but from infection brought on by doctors probing his wounds with unwashed hands. Most physicians today familiar with the case agree that Garfield would have survived with the medical care available twenty years later.

During his trial, Guiteau's eccentric behavior made him a media sensation. He cursed the judge, jury and witnesses. He framed his testimony in epic verse, which he read at length during the trial. He also passed notes to spectators soliciting legal advice and publicly feuded with his lawyers. Guiteau was thoroughly convinced that he would be found not guilty and made elaborate plans for his career after his release (including a speaking tour and a possible run for the Presidency himself). After being found guilty and condemned to death, Guiteau wrote a poem titled "I Am Going To The Lordy" which he recited on the scaffold. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

It is no wonder that such a character would become the subject of a popular song. As we have seen in a number of ballads collected thus far on the Anthology, balladry was often a way of disseminating news in an era before broadcasting. As reviled as he was, Guiteau managed to capture the public imagination and so gained a kind of immorality. Along with John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Leon Czolgosz and everybody else who took a shot at an American president, Charles Guiteau was included in Stephen Sondhiem's 1990 musical Assassins.

Come all you tender Christians
Wherever you may be
And likewise pay attention
From these few lines from me.
I was down at the depot
To make my getaway
And Providence being against me,
It proved to be too late.

I tried to play off insane
But found it would not do;
The people all against me,
It proved to make no show.
Judge Cox he passed the sentence,
The clerk he wrote it down,
On the thirtieth day of June
To die I was condemned.

My name is Charles Guiteau,
My name I'll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I'd be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.

My sister came in prison
To bid her last farewell.
She threw her arms around me;
She wept most bitterly.
She said, "My loving brother,
Today you must die;
For the murder of James A. Garfield
Upon the scaffold high."

My name is Charles Guiteau,
My name I'll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I'd be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.

And now I mount the scaffold
To bid you all adieu,
The hangman now is waiting,
It's a quarter after two.
The black cap is o'er my face,
No longer can I see.
But when I'm dead and buried,
Dear Lord, remember me.

My name is Charles Guiteau,
My name I'll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I'd be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.

The second of three songs in a row concerning real-life villains, "Charles Giteau" is also the third of three songs in a row (along with "My Name Is John Johanna" and "Bandit Cole Younger") that tells its story in the first person. John Johanna, Cole Younger and Charles Giteau tell their stories directly to the listener, allowing us to empathize with a dupe, a bandit, and a presidential assassin. All three songs also contain lyrics that echo one another. John Johanna begins his tale with the words, "My name is John Johanna." Cole Younger introduces himself with, "I am a noted highway man / Cole Younger is my name," while Charles Guiteau directly echoes John Johanna by declaring "My name is Charles Guiteau" at the top of the chorus. Similarly, Guiteau affirms that "my name I'll never deny," while Cole Younger declares that "the robbing of the Northfield bank is a thing I'll never deny."

Harrell sings the chorus with his band-mates in a rousing singalong that fits the real Guiteau's outsized personality and cockeyed optimism. The song also contains a rare guitar solo before the final verse, showcasing Alfred Steagall.

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Here's Lew Dite performing a meditative version of "Charles Giteau" on the acoustic guitar.

This is Dan Samples performing a self-penned song about Guiteau titled "Going to the Lordy."

Download and listen to "Kelly Harrell - "Charles Giteau"

13 December, 2009

"Bandit Cole Younger" - Edward L. Crain (The Texas Cowboy)

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track One: "Bandit Cole Younger" performed by Edward L. Crain (The Texas Cowboy). "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in New York on August 17, 1931. Original issue Columbia 15710D (W151731).

Born in Texas in 1901, Edward L. Crain worked as a cowboy on ranches and in cattle drives. He played guitar, mandolin and fiddle and performed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, occasionally appearing on radio. He recorded "Bandit Cole Younger" twice in 1931, once for Columbia and again for the American Record Corporation. Smith included the Columbia version on the Anthology. According to Mark Wilson, who interviewed Crain, Crain was raised on a ranch in Longview, Texas where he learned music from fellow ranch hands. Crain claimed that it was Jimmie Rodgers who encouraged him to go into music when asthma put an end to his career as a cowboy. Crain also recalled being booked on a tour with Jean Harlow and Bing Crosby, and that it was Harlow who told him to "stick to the cowboy stuff" when he attempted to modernize his repertoire. By 1970, Crain had moved to Ashland, Oregon. No death date is recorded.

The subject of this ballad is Thomas Coleman Younger (1844-1916), pictured above in a mugshot following his 1876 arrest. Cole Younger was born in Missouri and served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, as well as being a member of Quantrell's Guerrillas. After the war, Younger and his brothers turned outlaw, as did many former Confederates, including Younger's sometime cohorts Frank and Jesse James. It was as a member of the James Gang that Younger was captured robbing a bank in Northfield, Minnesota and was convicted of the murder of the bank's cashier. Younger was paroled in 1901 and spent his later years performing along with Frank James as a member of a Wild West Show. He wrote an autobiography that portrayed himself as a Confederate avenger rather than a criminal. He died in his home town of Lee's Summit, Missouri after finding religion and repenting of his criminal past.

I am a noted highwayman, Cole Younger is my name;
with deeds and desperation that brought my name to shame.

Robbing of the Northfield bank is a thing I'll never deny,
But which I will be sorry of until the day I die.

We started for old Texas, that grand old Lone Star State;
'Twas there on Nebraska prairies the James Boys we did meet.

With knives, gun, and revolvers, we all sit down to play
A game of good old poker to pass the time away.

Across the 'Braska prairies a Denver train we spy.
I says to Bob, "We'll rob her as she goes rolling by."

We saddled up our horses, northwestward we did go,
To the godforsaken country called Minnie-soh-tee-oh.

I had my eye on the Northfield bank when brother Bob did say,
"Cole, if you under-to-take the job, you'll always curse the day."

We stationed out our pickets, up to the bank did go,
'Twas there upon the counter, boys, we struck our fatal blow.

Saying, "Hand us out your money, sir, and make no long delay.
We are the noted Younger boys, and spend no time in play."

The cashier, being as true as steel, refused our noted band.
'Twas Jesse James that pulled the trigger that killed this noble man.

We run for life, for death was near, four hundred on our trail.
We soon was overtaken and landed safe in jail.

'Twas there in the Stillwater jail we lay, a-wearing our lives away.
Two James boys left to tell the tale of the sad and fateful day.

Crain's voice contrasts sharply with the subject matter. His voice is soft and gentle, even while he sings about murder and robbery. His performance on the guitar is simple and effective, evoking mental images of Crain singing this song around the bunk house stove for his fellow ranch hands.

As with "My Name is John Johanna," "Bandit Cole Younger" is a first person narrative that tells a tale of personal misfortune. Unlike the previous song, however, "Bandit Cole Younger" is based on a real person and real events. In that it has more in common with "Ommie Wise" and with "Charles Giteau," which is to follow...

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Here's a short instrumental version of "Cole Younger" performed by mahoney2100 on banjo.

Download and listen to Edward L. Crain - "Bandit Cole Younger"

08 December, 2009

"My Name Is John Johanna" - Kelly Harrell (Virginia String Band)

Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Fourteen: "My Name Is John Johanna" performed by Kelly Harrell (Virginia String Band). "Vocal solo with violin, banjo, two guitars." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on March 23, 1927. Original issue Victor 21520A (38235).

Born in Draper's Valley, Virginia on September 13, 1889, Crockett Kelly Harrell grew up working in textile mills. In 1925, when Harrell was in his mid-30s, he traveled to New York City to record four songs for Victor Records. The records were clearly successful, for he recorded several more songs for Okeh later that same year, and was brought back for several follow up sessions over the next few years by Victor, including the 1927 session that yielded this recording of "My Name Is John Johanna," also known as "The State of Arkansas."

Although a successful singer, Harrell did not play an instrument and relied on hired backup bands for his sessions. When the Depression hit, Victor informed Harrell that he would have to learn an instrument since they could no longer afford to pay hired musicians. Harrell refused and his recording career came to an end.

Harrell continued to work in the textile mills, living until 1942 when an asthma attack at work prematurely ended his life.

Although the record label indicates that two guitars were used on this session, company records only show one guitar, played by Alfred Steagall. The personnel on the session was rounded out by Raymond D. Hundly on banjo and Posey Rorer, who has already appeared on the Anthology on "A Lazy Farmer Boy," on fiddle. "My Name Is John Johanna" is the first of two performances by Harrell and the Virginia String Band on the Anthology. The second is a performance of "Charles Giteau," recorded the same day as "My Name Is John Johanna," which appears on the second "Ballads" disc.

"My Name Is John Johanna" aka "The State of Arkansas" is a humorous song which comes from the minstrel stage, likely dating the song between the 1820s and the 1840s, during which blackface minstrelsy was at its height. The song tells the story of an unfortunate young man who finds himself appalled at the living and working conditions in Arkansas. The state of Arkansas was admitted to the Union in 1836. This song draws on fairly typical frontier stereotypes, Arkansas being largely untamed wilderness during the mid-19th century.

My name is John Johanna, I came from Buffalo town.
For nine long years I’ve traveled this wide wide world around.
Through ups and downs and miseries and some good days I saw,
But I never knew what misery was ’til I went to Arkansas.

I went up to the station the operator to find.
Told him my situation and where I wanted to ride.
Said, "Hand me down five dollars, lad, a ticket you shall draw.
That’ll land you safely railway in the state of Arkansas."

I rode up to the station then chanced to meet a friend.
Alan Catcher was his name, although they called him Cain.
His hair hung down in rat tails below his under jaw.
He said he run the best hotel in the state of Arkansas.

I followed my companion to his respected place.
Saw pity and starvation was pictured on his face.
His bread was old corn dodgers, his beef I could not chaw.
He charged me fifty cents a day in the state of Arkansas.

I got up that next morning to catch that early train.
He said "Don’t be in a hurry lad, I have some land to drain.
You’ll get your fifty cents a day and all that you can chaw.
You’ll find yourself a different lad when you leave old Arkansas."

I worked six weeks for the son of a gun, Alan Catcher was his name.
He stood seven feet, two inches, as tall as any crane.
I got so thin on sassafras tea I could hide behind a straw.
You bet I was a different lad when I left old Arkansas.

Farewell you old swamp rabbits, also you dodger pills.
Likewise you walking skeletons, you old sassafras hills.
If you ever see my face again I’ll hand you down my paw.
I’ll be lookin’ through a telescope from home to Arkansas.

Although he was only 38 at the time of this recording, Harrell sounds considerably older, possibly due to missing teeth. He believably inhabits the character of John Johanna, a wide-eyed naif who allows himself to be deceived by his companion, Alan Catcher, into draining swampland. A few references in the song deserve explanation for the edification of Yankees (such as myself): "Corn Dodgers" (or "Dodger Pills") are deep fried balls of cornmeal, water, lard, and sugar. These are also known as "Johnny Cakes" and date from the Colonial era. That Alan Catcher serves them would seem to indicate that they are fairly inexpensive to make. Sassafras tea is made from the root of the sassafras tree. The FDA banned the use of sassafras root as a flavoring in root beer because of certain health risks associated with its consumption (including cancer and liver damage), but it is unlikely that such health problems have anything to do with the bad reputation sassafras tea receives in this song. "Swamp rabbits" are simply a kind of rabbit that lives in swamps. One of them became quite famous for chasing Jimmy Carter in 1979.

"My Name Is John Johanna" is the last track on the first disc of the "Ballads" set.

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Here's a fine version of "The State of Arkansas" performed by Professor Gene Bluestein on vocal and banjo, with Evo Bluestein on guitar. This version differs lyrically from Kelly Harrell's "My Name Is John Johanna," right down to the name of both the protagonist and the antagonist. The professor slips a joke into the song which is quite similar to one told by Bob Dylan about East Orange, New Jersey on the Great White Wonder bootleg LP.

Download and listen to Kelly Harrell - "My Name Is John Johanna"

06 December, 2009

"Ommie Wise" - G.B. Grayson

Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Thirteen: "Ommie Wise" performed by G.B. Grayson. "Vocal solo with violin." Recorded in Atlanta on October 18, 1927. Original issue Victor 21625B (40306).

Gilliam Banmon Grayson was born in Ashe County, North Carolina on November 11, 1887, but was raised in Laurel Bloomery, an East Tennessee town on the North Carolina border. Blinded in infancy, Grayson turned to music as a livelihood, as did so many visually handicapped individuals during the early 20th century (including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Richard Burnett, and Blind Willie Johnson, all of whom appear on the Anthology). Studying music from an early age, Grayson became proficient on both banjo and fiddle. In 1927, Grayson met Henry Whitter (who does not appear on this recording) at a fiddlers' convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, and the two men formed a musical partnership that was to last until Grayson's untimely death in 1930. Together, Grayson and Whitter made a string of recordings for Victor that have become country music standards, including "Nine Pound Hammer," "The Banks of the Ohio," "Little Maggie, "Handsome Molly," "Going Down the Lee Highway," and "Tom Dula," better known as "Tom Dooley" in the version recorded by the Kingston Trio. "Tom Dula" must have held particular significance for Grayson, as it was his uncle who captured the real Tom Dula in 1866. Grayson was killed in an automobile accident on August 16, 1930 while riding on the running board of a neighbor's car.

"Ommie Wise" marks the first song on the Anthology based on a verifiable historical event. In 1807, Naomi Wise was drowned by her lover Jonathan Lewis in Asheboro, North Carolina. An autopsy at the time revealed that Wise was several months pregnant at the time of her death. Lewis was arrested and indicted for the murder, but escaped on October 9th of that year and fled for parts unknown. Lewis was recaptured in 1811, and finally went to trial on October 4, 1813. He was not tried for the murder of Naomi Wise, however, but for escaping jail. The jury returned the following verdict: The Defendant [Found] Guilty of breaking Jail & rescuing himself as charged in the bill of Indictment, but Not guilty as to the rescuing of Moses Smith (a fellow prisoner) from legal confinement: Judgment of the Court that the Defendant pay a fine of Ten Pounds and costs & be imprisoned thirty days. Lewis was unable to pay the fine and court costs and was confined for a further 47 days before being declared insolvent and set free.

Recent research has shown that Naomi Wise was several years older than Jonathan Lewis and that she had two out-of-wedlock children by other men, making her ineligible for marriage by the mores of the time. Bastardy laws, however, made the man responsible for her pregnancy financially liable, providing a possible motive for the murder.

John Lewis was married to Sarah McCain on March 30, 1811 in Clark County, Indiana. They had two children. Lewis died of unknown causes on April 25, 1817.

"Ommie Wise" is a slightly fictionalized account of the murder, reportedly written shortly after the event itself. An early 19th century version of the text has been discovered. Grayson made the first recorded version of the song, which has been performed by many others, including Clarence Ashley.

I'll tell you all a story about Ommie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis's lies.

He told her to meet him at Adams's spring;
He'd bring her some money and some other fine things.

He brought her no money nor no other fine things,
But "Get up behind Naomi, to squire else we'll go."

She got up behind him so carefully we'll go.
They rode till they came where deep waters did flow.

John Lewis he concluded to tell her his mind;
John Lewis he concluded to leave her behind.

She threw her arms around him, "John spare me my life.
And I'll go distracted and never be your wife."

He threw her arms from 'round him and into the water she plunged.
John Lewis, he turned 'round and rode back to Adams's Hall.

He went inquiring for Ommie, but "Ommie, she is not here.
She's gone to some neighbor's house and won't be gone very long."

John Lewis was took a prisoner and locked up in the jail.
Was locked up in the jail around, was there to remain awhile.

John Lewis, he stayed there for six months or maybe more.
Until he broke jail, into the army he did go.

Grayson's performance of the song is powerful. His singing is strong and firm, and his fiddle is played in an archaic and extremely effective manner. The song has a very strong rhythm, despite the lack of any rhythmic instrumentation. It is one of the most remarkable performances on the first volume of the Anthology.

"Ommie Wise" continues the theme of the woman as victim, first seen in "The Butcher's Boy" and "The Wagoner's Lad." This is the first time on the Anthology, however, that a woman is the victim of deliberate violence. The murder of a scorned woman and the disposal of her body in water is a fairly common trope in this type of ballad, commonly known as "Murder Ballads," appearing in "The Banks of the Ohio" and "The Knoxville Girl."

When he performed with the McGarrigle Sisters as a part of The Harry Smith Project, Elvis Costello wrote his own sequel to "Ommie Wise" titled "What Lewis Did Last." You can go here to watch the video, since I can't figure out how to embed it.

The smoke from the battlefield drifted away
as Corporal J. Lewis deserted the fray.

He ran from the bullets, evaded arrest.
He told his companions, "I must get my rest."

He told his companions, "I dream every night.
The faces of men I've dispatched in the fight."

"Their shades will approach me as I lie so still.
They offer their hand but they wish me no ill."

"They're shakin' their heads now, there's something they know.
For there is another who still haunts me so."

"Her name was Naomi, her life it was brief.
She was plain, she was homely and destined for grief."

"She coveted riches, believed in my prize.
She fell to her end. In the water she lies."

"There were no farewell kisses, no tender embrace.
She was guilty of something beyond avarice."

"She entered the waters and down she did float.
But they gathered her up and it troubles me."

"It's not the account of her pitiful death.
It's not her last pleading or her final breath."

"But when I consider how she last beseached me,
her face has no features her tongue has no speech."

So I'm here to tell you what Lewis did last,
ahead of the firing squad and trumpet blast.

He broke through the glass for a lock of her hair.
He dug up her grave but the coffin was bare.

Lyrics © Elvis Costello

Personal Note: When I appeared as a guest DJ on WEXT's "My Exit" last December, I programed my show around the theme of crime and punishment. G.B. Grayson's recording of "Ommie Wise" was the second selection played on that broadcast.

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When interviewed about the Anthology, Harry Smith often expressed his wish that current singers and musicians would perform their own versions of the songs contained therein. I think Smith would have approved of Rattlesnake Daddy's club version of "Ommie Wise"...

For the more traditional folkies, here's TheMankyProfessor in his Mao hat performing a version on acoustic guitar.

Download and listen to G.B. Grayson - "Ommie Wise"