24 August, 2010

"Down on the Banks of the Ohio" - The Blue Sky Boys

Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Four: "Down on the Banks of the Ohio" performed by The Blue Sky Boys. Recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 16, 1936.

The Blue Sky Boys were an American country music act consisting of Earl and Bill Bolick. Bill Bolick was born on October 28, 1917 in East Hickory, North Carolina. Earl Bolick was born a little over two years later, on November 16, 1919. Earl and Bill were the fourth and fifth out of six children born to the Bolicks. Their religious parents taught them to sing hymns, likely teaching them to sing in the close harmonies that characterized their sound. As children, Bill and Earl both learned to play guitar, with Bill doubling on banjo and Earl doubling on mandolin. Later on, Bill took up the mandolin, making it his primary instrument, and Earl concentrated on guitar.

In 1935, the Bolick brothers began performing on WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina as members of the Crazy Hickory Nuts, changing their name to the Good Coffee Boys later on that same year (the band's personnel, which included fiddler Homer Sherrill, was unchanged. The program's sponsorship changed, however, which necessitated the name change). The Bolicks and Sherrill relocated to Atlanta, Georgia in 1936, where they performed on WGST as the Blue Ridge Hillbillies. The Bolicks left the group soon after, however, and Sherrill carried on under the Blue Ridge Hillbillies name.

While in Atlanta, the Bolicks auditioned for RCA, where they were initially turned down for being too similar to the Monroe Brothers. The A&R man, Eli Oberstein, finally agreed to hear them and, having done so, signed them on the spot. The Bolicks adopted the name The Blue Sky Boys, taking their name from "the Land of the Blue Sky," a term often used to describe western North Carolina.

At their first recording date for RCA, on June 16, 1936, the Blue Sky Boys recorded several sides, including "Down on the Banks of the Ohio." Their first coupling, "Sunny Side of Life" b/w "Where The Soul Never Dies" was an immediate hit. Between 1937 and 1941, the Blue Sky Boys recorded more than 100 sides for RCA, to considerable success. During the second World War, both Bolicks served in the military, returning to recording after the war's end.

Changing musical tastes, and the Bolicks reluctance to keep up with them, led to the Blue Sky Boys retiring in 1951. Bill returned to North Carolina and took a job as a postal clerk. Earl stayed in Atlanta and worked for Lockheed Aircraft. In the early '60s, a reissue of their early material led to a revival of interest in the Blue Sky Boys and the Bolicks made a brief comeback, releasing two LPs of new studio recordings (one secular and one religious), as well as making numerous festival appearances. By the end of the '60s, however, the Blue Sky Boys retired from music for a second time.

Their second retirement lasted until 1975, when the Blue Sky Boys recorded a final record for Rounder, followed by more live appearances. After their final tour, the Bolicks called it quits for good. Bill retired to Longview, North Carolina and Earl to Tucker, Georgia. Earl died on April 19, 1998. Bill died on March 13, 2008.

"Down on the Banks of the Ohio," sometimes simply titled "Banks of the Ohio," is a murder ballad that originated in the United States during the 19th century. It is believed to be related to "Pretty Polly," owing to the similarities in subject matter and mood. It also bears a resemblance to "Ommie Wise," in that both songs have the tragic heroine drowned by her lover. "Down on the Banks of the Ohio" was cataloged by George Malcolm Laws as F5. Laws ballads with the "F" designation are murder ballads.

Come my love, let's take a walk.
Just a little way away.
While we walk along we'll talk,
Talk about our wedding day.

Only say that you'll be mine,
And in our home we'll happy be.
Down beside where the waters flow.
Down on the banks of the Ohio.

I drew my knife across her throat,
And to my breast she gently pressed.
"Oh please, oh please, don't murder me,
For I'm unprepared to die you see."

I taken her by her lily white hand.
I let her down and I bade her stand.
There I plunged her in to drown,
And watched her as she floated down.

Returning home 'tween twelve and one.
Thinking of the deed done.
I murdered a girl I love you see,
Because she would not marry me.

Only say that you'll be mine,
And in our home we'll happy be.
Down beside where the waters flow.
Down on the banks of the Ohio.

Next day as I returning home,
I met the sheriff standing in the door.
He said young man come with me and go,
Down to the banks of the Ohio.

Only say that you'll be mine,
And in our home we'll happy be.
Down beside where the waters flow.
Down on the banks of the Ohio.

A highlight of this volume, the Blue Sky Boys' performance of "Down on the Banks of the Ohio" is magnificent. The Bolicks' close harmonies are soothing, except when they lapse into momentary (intentional) dissonance. Their voices are eerily calm, especially when the narrator relates how he "drew [his} knife across her throat," and how the girl pleads for her life. This flatness of affect perfectly embodies the soulless killer, who continually replays his declaration of love over and over again, even after the sheriff arrives to take him away. It's a beautiful and terrifying performance, even more impressive when one considers that it was recorded at their first professional recording session when the two singers were still in their late teens.

Earl sings lead vocal on this track, with Bill providing the tenor part. The Bolicks accompany themselves on guitar (Earl) and mandolin (Bill).

As with Bradley Kincaid, the Blue Sky Boys represented the dominance of the radio during the Depression. They were also considerably younger than most of performers on the original Anthology, even the youngest of whom were born around the turn of the 20th century. When the Bolicks were born, jazz and blues music had already been around for nearly two decades. Recorded music was common and available during the Bolicks' childhood as well. The Bolicks also point forward, to the close harmonies of the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers, and thence to the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. While the Bolicks found themselves eclipsed by the Honky Tonk country music that came to dominate in the late forties and early fifties, their style would echo as far, if not farther, than even the greatest of the Honky Tonk exponents, including Hank Williams. While Williams influenced a generation of male country singers (including George Jones, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard), the Blue Sky Boys (along with the Monroe Brothers and other close harmony acts of the era) would influence singers who would cross over into the world of Rock and Roll, and later Rock music. If the Blue Sky Boys indirectly influenced the Beatles, it is safe to say that their linage extends very far indeed...

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Before Xanadu and Grease, even before "Have You Never Been Mellow" and "I Honestly Love You," Olivia Newton John recorded a version of "Down on the Banks of the Ohio" (she was also named the CMA's "Female Artist of the Year" in 1974, beating Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tanya Tucker). Here she is performing the song for German television in 1972...

Download and listen to The Blue Sky Boys - "Down on the Banks of the Ohio"

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