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"

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