About three years ago I was listening to some of my recordings of the wonderful Norfolk singer Walter Pardon.  One song that I had forgotten about, The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, brought back many very happy memories of the time spent with Walter, who had quipped that he too lived in a 'little old cabin in the lane'.  Actually, Walter lived in a sturdy brick built cottage, though it did stand to the side of the lane which runs into Knapton.  What really struck me about the song, and the way that Walter sang it, was the fact that, even though the song was written from the viewpoint of an elderly black person in the southern states of America, it had now become something different to Walter.
Over the years I had recorded quite a large number of American songs from British singers.  And I had never really thought that much about it.  But now I began to ask myself a number of questions.  How, for example, had so many American songs entered the repertoires of British singers? Why did certain American songs turn up repeatedly, while other songs were only sung by one or two singers? Why were there so many Minstrel songs in British singer's repertoires? And just what was it that made these songs so appealing to British singers?
While I was beginning to mull over these points I realized that it might be possible to issue a CD of some American songs being sung by both American and British singers.  I was not the first person to make this suggestion.  Over the years Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger had recorded a number of albums where they sang British and American versions of the same songs, and Fellside Recordings had issued two sets of similar recordings under the general title of 'Song Links'.  The first (FECD190D) featured British and American singers, while the second (FECD176D) had British and Australian singers.  My idea, however, was slightly different.  In most cases we would have the same song, such as Little Old Log Cabin the Lane, sung firstly by an American singer and then followed by a recording of the song, but this time being sung by a British traditional singer (rather than what I would call a 'revival' singer).  I suspected that in one or two cases we would not be able to find a corresponding American recording to accompany a British recording.  And this proved to be the case with songs such as Come Little Leaves, sung in Britain by Walter Pardon, and When the Frost is on the Pumpkin, sung by Shropshire's Fred Jordan.  But, by and large, we did manage to find both British and American recordings of the same song.  In one or two cases, I suspect that the American recording was the actual recording from which the British singers, directly or indirectly, learnt the song.
In some cases singers who were proving popular with British traditional singers were actually visiting England, where they performed all over the country.  Some American singers, such as Vernon Dalhart and Frank Luther, not only performed in England, but they also had recording sessions in London.  But these performers were not the first American singers to visit the UK.  In the mid-19th century American Minstrel Shows began to cross the Atlantic, bringing their songs and dances with them.  Many of the songs were published as sheet music.  Also, the words (but not the music) to many Minstrel songs appeared on broadsides printed in London, and elsewhere, by Henry Parker Such and his contemporaries.  By the beginning of the 20th century American songs were beginning to be heard on cylinder recordings and, soon afterwards, on 78rpm gramophone records, many of which were also played on the BBC radio.
And so the idea of a CD set of American/British recordings grew in my mind.  At the same time, though, I was aware that British songs, ballads and fiddle tunes had travelled to America with the early British and other European settlers and that American songs travelling to Britain was actually a part of a process, in reverse, which had begun centuries before.  Songs and music had travelled to America years ago and now American songs and tunes were travelling in the opposite direction, back to the Old World.  It therefore seemed logical to issue recordings of British songs and tunes which had been taken to America, before issuing the CD (actually triple CD by the time of completion!) of American songs that had been absorbed into a British song tradition.
In 2018 Volume 1 of the series - A Distant Land to Roam (Musical Traditions MTCD516) - appeared.  The album was subtitled 'Anglo-American songs and tunes from Texas to Maine' and contains twenty songs and five instrumental tracks.  The CD case cover features a 1929 photograph of Frank Jenkins' Pilot Mountaineers who can be heard singing The Railway Flagman's Sweetheart on the album.  The song's title might sound American, but the song is actually a version of the old British Song Go and Leave Me if You Wish It.  And the CD's booklet cover has a photograph of the singer Bradley Kincaid, who recorded a number of Old World songs and ballads in the 1920s and '30s.  Here you can hear him singing Child ballads such as The Two Sisters and Fair Ellen.  One surprise on the album is provided by Will Starks from Mississippi.  Starks, the son of a slave, sings a version of a fox hunting ballad which was printed in London on a blackletter broadside sometime around 1650.  One song, Silly Bill, is actually an American song, though one which the English song collector Lucy Broadwood had collected in England at the beginning of the 20th century.  In a way, by including this song, I was opening the door for the CD of American songs sung by both American and British singers.
But, a few days after A Distant Land to Roam was issued, I recalled another tune Jenny Baker which had been recorded in 1932 by the Kentucky fiddler Andy Palmer (then a member of the Jimmy Johnson Stringband).  Jenny Baker was a version of the hornpipe The Boys of Blue Hill which was popular with Irish musicians.  It was a tune that I should have included on A Distant Land to Roam and I was, to put it mildly, annoyed with myself.  Over the following few days I began to remember other American tunes which were based on British, Irish and European tunes and so I began to wonder if we should have another CD, this time one devoted to Old World fiddle tunes which had travelled with those early settler to America.
Oh Listen Today , subtitled 'The Roots of American Old-Timey fiddle music', appeared in 2019 (Musical Traditions MTCD517) and became Volume 2 in what was now becoming a series of albums.  This CD contains twenty-nine fiddle tunes, plus one song as the final track - more on that later.  Some tunes were clearly related to British tunes.  Charleston No.3 by Narmour & Smith from Mississippi is better known as The Sailor's Hornpipe in Britain, while Too Young to Marry, by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, is a version of the Scottish tune My Love She's But a Lassie Yet.  And Humphrey's Jig, played by the redoubtable blind fiddler Ed Haley, is another well-known Scottish tune, namely The Bob of Fettercairn.  And Haley's Wilson's Jig is better known in Britain and Ireland as The Cliff(e) Hornpipe.
Some of the other tunes, though, were not so obviously related to the Old World.  Who could imagine that the popular tune Black Eyed Susie, here played by James Preston Nester & Norman Edmonds (banjo & fiddle), was actually based on a tune which had appeared in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book published in England c.1550 - 1600? Or that a song regarding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Booth (shot Lincoln Dead), had used an Irish tune, The Market Town to carry the song's words? One splendid tune, a slow air here called Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies, which had been played beautifully by a West Virginia fiddle called Edden Hammons, turned out to be the air to the Irish song, The Blackbird, which had been composed in Ireland to commemorate the Jacobite Old Pretender, James Francis Stewart, leader of the short lived 1719 Rising.
I mentioned above that the CD ended with a song, The Old Clay Pipe, recorded in 1927 by The North Carolina Ramblers, which is a version, albeit much altered, of an old Child ballad The Lass of Roch Royal (Child 76).  As I explained in the booklet notes accompanying this CD, this fragment of the Child ballad has, on the lips of American singers, just about become a new and separate song.  Again, it was a way for me to say that music in America was changing and that Volume 3 of the series would reflect, not only this change, but would demonstrate how this new music was in fact travelling back to the Old World.
Rod Stradling and myself then set about deciding just what songs we should include on Volume 3 of the series - Wait Till the Clouds Roll By (Musical Traditions MTCD518-0).  As you can see from the numbering, we ended up with a triple CD because there was just so much material available! Firstly, though, a word on the title.  For some reason or other I began to use the title When You and I Were Young Maggie - the title of one of the songs on the set - but this somehow or other morphed into Wait Till the Clouds Roll By, the title of another song on the set.  And there was a slight problem here.  Ex-teacher Rod wanted to spell the second word as ''Til', using the British spelling.  But I stressed that this was an American song which had been published using an American spelling - namely 'Till' - and Uncle Dave Macon also used this spelling on the label of his recording of the song.  So we have kept the American spelling, probably upsetting a few pedants in the process.
I ended Volume 2 with an American 'version' of a British Child ballad, and Volume 3 also has a Child ballad, but this time as an opener.  This is a version of Our Goodman (Child 274) sung by Asa Martin from Kentucky.  Normally one would expect a Kentucky version of this ballad to be similar to versions collected by Cecil Sharp and others in Appalachia.  But this is not the case.  Martin's version is sung to a jaunty march-time tune and at times he seems to pronounce some words with an Irish accent.  Could it be that this version of the ballad has come from the American Music Hall stage, where it may have been sung by a stage Irishman? If this is the case, then again we can see how American singers had started to alter Old World material.
In 1922 a fiddler from Texas, Eck Robertson, travelled to New York, where he recorded a number of fiddle tunes.  In doing so, Robertson started what was to become a wave of recordings by numerous performers from various American states.  The following year Fiddlin' John Carson recorded two songs, The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane and Old Hen Cackled and we may say that these two recordings heralded the birth of what we now know as 'Old-Timey' music.
As Volumes 1 and 2 in this series show, many Old-Timey recordings were made of what we might call traditional songs and tunes.  I have outlined the birth of these recordings in a Musical Traditions article When Cecil Left the Mountains - Early recordings of American Music (MT article 255) which focuses on many of the Anglo-American songs that were recorded in the 1920s and '30s.  But not all Old-Timey recordings are of British/Irish songs and tunes.  In another article, Uncle Dave Macon - A study in repertoire (MT article 257), I tried to show just how wide Macon had cast his net in search of songs.  In the article I divided his songs into four categories: Popular and Parlour Songs and Ballads, Blues, Topical Songs and, finally, Religious Songs, and, as I showed, the largest number of songs were clearly to be found in the first category - Popular and Parlour Songs and Ballads.  And Macon was not alone in this respect.  If we study the recorded repertoires of other Old-Timey singers we repeatedly find that many, if not most, of their recordings are of songs which were composed either towards the end of the 19th century or at the very beginning of the 20th century.  Charlie Poole, for example, recorded a couple of Child ballads, but the majority of his recordings are of songs which were composed in the late 19th century/early 20th century period.
Apart from a few exceptions, all of the songs heard on Wait Till the Clouds Roll By are by known composers, and would certainly fit into the 'Popular and Parlour Songs and Ballads' category that I mentioned above.  Three exceptions are the opening track, Asa Martin's Johnny the Drunkard (mentioned above), Levi Smith's song Two Convicts, (which has been found in both America and Britain, and at least once in South Africa) and the song Blue Haired Jimmy.  Two Convicts has turned up repeatedly and I had always assumed that this was an American song, one which had probably come to Britain via an American 78rpm recording.  Collectors first noted it in America, firstly from a singer in Mississippi (see The Journal of American Folklore # 39 (1926) pp.  144-45), and, secondly, from a singer in California in 1941 (Library of Congress disc 5117 B2).  In Britain a number of Gypsies and Travellers are known to have sung the song (these include Wally Fuller, a Sussex Gypsy who sang the song to the BBC in 1952, two Scottish Travellers, John McPhee and Marty Powers both recorded in Blairgowrie, Perthshire - and an Irish Traveller called Andy Cash, living to the west of London in 1973).  Another trio of singers, this time from Suffolk, have also been recorded singing versions of the song and one of these versions, from the singer Tony Harvey, can be found in John Howson's book Songs Sung in Suffolk (1992) p.60.  Recent enquires via the Mudcat Café website have shown that the song was once widely known throughout England and Scotland, one informant saying that a relative had learnt the song in 1912 while living in south London.  So, if the song was being sung in 1912, it seems more likely that there must have been a song sheet, rather than an early recording, and this is where we should perhaps be looking for a source.  And this may also be the case with the song The Volunteer Organist because I can find no early American recording.  So, again, did the song spread about Britain via a song sheet? (Another alternative is that some singers may have picked the song up from Peter Dawson's early recording.  Dawson, an Australian, was highly popular in Britain at one time.)
Blue Haired Jimmy is less well-known.  Although the earliest known texts are from late 19th century England, most experts consider it to be an American song.  In 1929 The Cumberland Mountain Fret Pickers made a recording of the song, under the title 'Little Blue-Haired Boy' for the Brunswick/Vocalion Record Company.  Unfortunately, the track was unissued, although a test-pressing does survive.  The recording was made in Knoxville, TN.  Which may suggest that the group was possibly from somewhere in this locale.  Here is the text to this recording:
The Blue-Haired Boy
He's gone from us forever our darlin blue haired boy
Our cock-eyed darlin we will see no more
He gently passed away on the 93rd of May
He never died so suddenly before.
We knew that it was death by the freckles on his breath
His eyeballs were dragging in the mud
The doctor took his knife and said I'll save poor Willie's life
I'll just stop the circulation of the blood.
No more upon the mat will he tease poor pussycat
No more between his teeth he'll chew her tail
No more he'll press her nose up against the red hot stove
Our little brother Billy's kicked the pail
So we soaked poor Willie's head in a pot of boiling lead
But alas all our efforts were in vain
For burglars came that night and when he coughed they took to flight
And a "Masterplast" was all that they did gain.
We filled his mouth with glue
Thinking that might bring him through
But again all our efforts were in vain
For after we had tried he just heaved a sigh and died
Then he sneezed - blowed his nose and died again
Died again, died again, he just sneezed, blowed his nose and died again
For after we had tried he just heaved a sigh and died
Then he sneezed - blowed his nose and died again.
All of the other songs heard on Wait Till the Clouds Roll By are, however, clearly from American sources.  Granny's Old Arm Chair (originally titled 'Grandma's Old Arm Chair'), a favourite with British audiences, dates from the early 1880s and is typical of the kind of songs that made a successful journey from America to Britain.  Another song, Frank Crumit's Get Away Old Man, Get Away had been recorded by both Vernon Dalhart and Carson Robison (and parodied as 'Get Away, Old Maids Get Away' by Chubby Parker) and the song was regularly played on the BBC.  In fact both Dalhart and Robison were popular with British radio audiences and, as a child in the 1950s, I remember frequently hearing The Run Away Train on children's radio.  Dalhart and Robison had both recorded the song and I think that the version that I remember was the one sung by Robison.  When it comes to Old-Timey music today, both Vernon Dalhart and Carson Robison are rather out of favour.  Dalhart's trained voice and Robison's lightweight songs are now often ignored.  But they were once highly popular in days gone by and it is little wonder that their recordings are remembered today by British singers.  On this 3-CD Set we have Dalhart also singing The Gypsy's Warning, The Drunkard's Lone Child and Just Break the News to Mother, and Robison singing The Wanderer's Warning.  Vernon Dalhart also recorded a version of the song Swinging Down the Lane, which was issued in Britain on Regal MR23, with Dalhart using the alias 'Mack Allen'.  Carson Robison also recorded with Frank Luther (also known as Bud Billings) and the pair can be heard singing Twenty One Years and Will the Angels Play Their Harps for Me?.
One piece that Rod and myself wanted to include was the song Ben Bolt as sung by Walter Pardon.  I thought that there would be several early American recordings to link to Walter's recording, but this was not the case.  That is, until I discovered a remarkable cylinder recording made one hundred and eight years ago, in 1912.  Ben Bolt had been written in 1843, originally as a poem by Thomas Dunn English (1819 - 1902).  Music was later added by Nelson Kneass. Many American folksong collections include the song, which must once have been highly popular in America, though it seems only to have turned up on a couple of occasions in England.  Cecil Sharp collected a set from a Mrs Glover of Huish Episcopi, Somerset, in 1904, and Henry Burstow included the title in his repertoire list in the book Reminiscences of Horsham (1911). The American cylinder recording, on Edison Amberol cylinder, number 28017, was by a trained opera singer called Eleonora de Cisneros (1878 - 1934).  The sound quality of this early recording is quite remarkable.  The Irish tenor John McCormack made an influential recording of Ben Bolt in 1914, and this may be the direct, or indirect, source of Walter Pardon's version.  Another early recording heard here is a performance of the song Silver Threads Among the Gold, which was recorded in 1905 by the singer Richard Josè.  Although Josè was born in Cornwall, England, he spent most of his life in America, where he recorded Silver Threads Among the Gold.
Sometime around 1978 I was recording songs from a number of Gypsy singers in a pub in Gloucester.  At one point a man stood up and began singing The River in the Pines.  It's an American song (Roud 669) and when I asked him where he had learnt it, he said, "From a Country and Western album".  I should not have been surprised because Country and Western music seems to be very popular with some Gypsy singers.  Another Gypsy singer, this time Derby Smith, also liked this genre and was happy to let me record a number of such songs, which he too had learnt from record albums.  Two songs, California Blues, learnt from the singing of Gene Autry, and He's in the Jailhouse Now from a Jimmie Rodgers' album, are included on Wait Till the Clouds Roll By alongside the Autry and Rodgers' original versions.  Rodgers also recorded Mother, Queen of My Heart which was issued in Britain on Regal Zonophone record MR 1310.  Did Levi Smith have this from the Rodger's recording?
Another genre of songs, this time Cowboy Songs, may seem rather far removed from England, though at least two Gypsy singers, Ben Willett and Wiggy Smith, have been recorded singing the song The Strawberry Roan, a song about a horse.  Actually, this may not be too difficult to understand, as Gypsies have a long-standing relationship with horses, which they used for generations to pull their wagons along the byways of Britain.  At least three American recordings of The Strawberry Roan were reissued in England during the early 1930s.  These were by The Beverley Hillbillies (Panachord 25630), The Ranch Boys (Panachord 25970) and Frank Luther & Carson Robison (Panachord 25230).
And it was not only American songs which have turned up here.  The tune to There'll Come a Time - recorded in America by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers - has been recorded by two Gypsy musicians, fiddle-player Harry Lee and harmonica-player Bill Ellson.  Harry Lee's recording is on MTCD373, while Bill Ellson's performance can be heard on MTCD320.  You can also hear Harry Lee's version of Waiting for the Robert E Lee on Wait Till the Clouds Roll By alongside an early vocal version by the Heidelberg Quintette.
When we had worked out that Wait Till the Clouds Roll By would be a three CD set we realized that there would not be enough space in the accompanying booklet for all of the notes and song transcriptions.  If the booklet were too large it would not fit into the CD case.  In order to achieve a 48 page booklet (about the maximum size that would fit the case) we decided two things.  Firstly we would omit song transcriptions from songs whose transcriptions were already available in the booklets which accompanied other Musical Traditions CDs, and which were also available on the Musical Traditions website, and, secondly, we would remove some illustrations of record labels and of performers which had been intended for the booklet.  Some of these illustrations are now included in this article.
If there is one thing that is clear from this Old World/New World Trilogy, it is the fact that music can unite people from many different parts of the world.  The songs and tunes heard on this series of CDs have travelled thousands of miles, toing and froing across the Atlantic Ocean.  They have been carried by people of all generations and they could not have done so had they not entered the hearts of these people.  I believe that music is truly international.  It is a defining characteristic of civilization.  It is what makes us truly human.  It is what links a Kentucky farmer, working a steep patch of hillside and singing as he does so, to an English Gypsy living on the edge of a Kentish town.  And they, in turn, are linked to all those thousands of other people who sing in order to make sense of their own worlds.  This Old World/New World Trilogy confirms these beliefs and ideas, and, at the same time, offers hope and optimism for the future.
Mike Yates - 7.5.20
The CDs are here numbered 1 to 5.  |
1 = A Distant Land to Roam.
Each CD number is followed by a track number i.e.  5/6 means CD 5, track 6.
All Alone By the Seaside - 5/16
Ben Bolt - 4/22.  4/23
California Blues - 3/25.  3/26
Darby's Ram - 1/16
Ethan Lang - 1/5
Fair Ellen - 1/19
Gentle Annie - 5/23.  5/24
He's in the Jailhouse Now - 4/9.  4/10
If There Wasn't Any Women in the World - 3/7.  3/8
Jenny Baker - 2/3
Kitty Wells - 3/9.  3/10
Lady Hamilton - 2/26
Money Musk Medley - 1/18
Mother Queen of My Heart - 5/14.  5/15
Mountain Rangers - 1/1
Mountaineer's Courtship - 1/3
Natchez Under the Hill - 2/18
Polka Four - 2/21
Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies - 2/20
Railway Flagman's Sweetheart, The - 1/22
Sailor Boy - 3/11
Volunteer Organist, The 5/27
Wait Till the Clouds Roll By - 3/17.  3/18
Ethan Lang - 1/5
The Blue Ridge Mountaineers
The Blue Sky Boys
Carter & Young
Carter Brothers & Son
The Carter Family
Fiddlin' John Carson
Eleonara de Cisneros
The Dixon Brothers
Floyd County Ramblers
Blind Boy Fuller
Mary Ann Haynes
The Heidelberg Quintette
The Hill Billies
Frank Jenkin's Pilot Mountaineers
Jimmy Johnson's String Band
Fiddlin' Sam Long
Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Darby's Ram - 1/16
Frank Luther & Carson Robison
Uncle Dave Macon
George 'Pop' Maynard
Narmour & Smith
Nester & Edmonds
The North Carolina Ramblers (see also
The Red Fox Chasers
The Red-Headed Fiddlers
Ridgel's Fountain Citians
Fiddlin' Doc Roberts
B F Shelton
Jasper & Levi Smith
The Southern Melody Boys
The Stanley Brothers
Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers
Taylor's Kentucky Boys