On 17th June, 1937, a trio of musicians from the mountains of Virginia was standing round a microphone in a New York recording studio. It was not their first, nor indeed their last, foray into a recording studio. On the 1st August, 1927, the then unknown Carter Family, A P Carter, his wife Sara Carter and Sarah's cousin, Maybelle Carter, had been recorded in Bristol, Tennessee, by agents for the Victor Talking Machine Company, one of whom said, "They just wandered in. He was dressed in overalls and the women were country women from way-back there. They just looked like hillbillies!" But, "As soon as I heard Sara's voice, that was it! I knew it was going to be wonderful." Seven years later, they had become experienced recording artists and were, by then, extremely well-known throughout the rural south of America. One song that they recorded on that hot June afternoon was a version of an old English folksong, The Wittham Miller or The Berkshire Tragedy, a song that had been around since the mid 17th century. The Carters called it Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You.
Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You
My tender parents brought me up, provided for me well
Was in the city of Lanson town they placed me in a mill
It was there I spied a pretty fair miss on whom I cast my eye
I asked her if she'd marry me and she believed a lie
Three weeks ago last Saturday night, of course it was the day
The devil put it in my mind to take her life away
I went into her sister's house at eight o'clock one night
But little did the critter think on her I had my spite
I asked her if she'd take a walk with me a little way
That she and I might have a talk about our wedding day
We walked along until we came to my little desert place
I grabbed a stick off of a fence and struck her in the face
I run my fingers through her coal-black hair to cover up my sins
I drug her to the riverside and there I plunged her in
I started back unto my mill, I met my servant, John
He asked me why I was so pale and it so very warm
Come all young men and warning take, unto your lovers be true
And never let the Devil get the upper hand of you
Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You (Roud 263) sung by The Carter Family. Recorded 17th June, 1937, Decca 5479, Re-issued on JSP box set The Carter Family, Volume 2, 1935 - 1941, JSP7708.Versions of Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You had been taken to America by early British settlers and had become a quite well-known song in the southern Appalachians Mountains, where it was often called The Knoxville Girl. By chance, the English folksong collector Cecil Sharp had spent a total of 52 weeks in the southern Appalachians during the years 1916-18. Sharp had been told that many early folksongs could still be found in the mountains and so, along with his assistant Maud Karpeles, he had doggedly trudged across the region, bagging a total of some 1,600 pieces before he became overcome with illness and fatigue.1 At the end of his travels Sharp wrote:
What I want more than anything else is quiet, no children, no Victrolas, nor strumming of rag-time and the singing of sentimental songs - all of which we have suffered from incessantly during the last 12 weeks. I am sorry to have said goodbye to the mountain people but I suspect that I might have seen the last of them. There is enough work left, which might be well worth doing, that would take perhaps another year's work but I am satisfied with what I have done and the rest can be left to others.2The 'Victrolas' that Sharp mentioned were early record players that had been named after a model which was first introduced in 1906 by the Victor Talking Machine Company. The company used the term in America until the early 1970s.
When Cecil Sharp said that the "rest can be done by others" he was, I presume, referring to other folksong collectors like himself. And, indeed, others did follow Sharp into the mountains and into other parts of America in search of folksongs. Two names that stand out are those of John Lomax and his son Alan. When John began collecting cowboy songs in his native Texas he wrote the song words down by hand. Later, however, he acquired an early mobile recording machine and, along with a youthful Alan Lomax, toured the American south in search of singers and their songs.3 Some folksong collectors in England had previously used cylinder recording machines to help them take down songs, the composer and pianist Percy Grainger being the best-known. But Sharp had not liked these machines and, in a lengthy letter to Grainger, had explained why he did not trust the accuracy of the machines.4 The thing that Cecil Sharp could never have imagined was the fact that commercial record companies would also send their staff down into the mountains to record singers and musicians, and, in so doing, they would also help preserve some of the songs that Sharp had been looking for.
On 30th June, 1922, less than four years after Cecil Sharp left the mountains to return home to England, two Texas fiddle players, Alexander Campbell 'Eck' Robertson and Henry C Gilliland visited the Victor Talking Machine Company's recording studio in New York; having travelled there from Texas under their own steam and using their own money. They recorded four sides of music that day. The following day Robertson recorded a further six sides without Gilliland, but with a studio pianist, Nat Shilkret. Victor records later recorded a total of six sides on four 78rpm records.5 It used to be said that these were the first Old-Timey recordings to have been issued commercially. However Tony Russell has included a white Gospel group, the Vaughan Quartet, in his book Country Music Records. A Discography, 1921 - 19426 and, as they recorded in 1921, Robertson & Gilliland must now be seen in second place, so to speak! It was also said that the first Old-Timey recordings were actually made by Fiddlin' John Carson when he recorded The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane and The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow for the General Phonograph Corporation c.14th June, 1923.
Clearly, Robertson and Gilliland beat Carson by a year, but, Carson was the first Old-Timey musician to be recorded by a record company when the company was touring the south looking to find, and record, singers and musicians. Carson was from Atlanta, GA, and a local phonograph and record dealer, Polk Brockman, realized that if he could get some records by Carson he would be able to sell them to his regular customers. Brockman persuaded the General Phonograph Corporation to come to Atlanta and the two tracks were issued on the Okeh label. Company representative Ralph Peer (1892-1960) was not exactly impressed with Carson's playing and was surprised when Brockman ordered 500 copies of the record. Peer was even more surprised when they quickly sold out. A few weeks later, Peer invited Carson to New York, where he recorded a further dozen sides, all of which were issued and which sold well around Atlanta and other parts of Georgia. Peer suddenly realized that here was a market worth investigating and promptly set off south in search of other musicians and singers.
Peer soon discovered any number of singers and musicians, both black and white, and other companies were soon copying Peer and sending their agents into the South. Columbia Record's Artist & Repertoire (A&R) man was Frank Buckley Walker (1889-1963), who was originally from New York State.
In 1962 the late Mike Seeger interviewed Walker, who said that he divided his recordings into four distinct types.
One is your gospel songs, your religious songs. The others were your jigs and reels, like we spoke of a while ago at fiddler's conventions. Your third were your heart songs, sentimental songs that came from the heart, and the fourth, which has passed out to a degree today and was terrific in those days, were the event songs for instance, some of the biggest sellers we were able to bring out was things like Sinking of the Titanic Everything has a moral in the event songs. Well, for instance do you remember the story of the Scopes Trial? Well, who would think of making a phonograph record about that? He said man descended from the ape. Maybe he did. Lots of people think so, but the country people didn't believe that at all. Se we made a record. We sold 60,000 of them on the steps of the courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee - just during that tremendous trial. That shows the interest of the people in hearing somebody else recount an event, because remember there were thousands of buyers of phonograph records that had no other means of communication.7At one point during the interview, Mike Seeger asked, "In the early days, they seemed to record a lot of English kind of ballads." To which Walker replied:
That is right. That's where so many of these things came (from). And yet, it's a strange thing that you could take an English ballad of some sort and it got its way to this country and it settled at the foot of a mountain in North Carolina, and it had words put to it by the people in that area down through the years. And when you go to the other side of the mountain and you find the same tune, the same melody but with a different set of words, to fit their likes or their particular location. Originally much of that came from England and Wales.I am sure that Cecil Sharp would have agreed with Walker on this point, although the mention of Wales may have been a little wide of the mark.
It wasn't long before Peer, Walker and other A&R men were regularly making recording trips in the south, looking to record people that they had previously recorded and whose record sales had been good, and also to seek out new talent. During a two year period the Brunswick/Vocalion Company (actually the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company) covered the following ground with their recording teams.
|Ashland, KY||February, 1928|
|Atlanta, GA||early March, 1928|
|Indianapolis, IA||late June, 1928|
|Dallas, TX||October, 1928|
|New Orleans, LA||early November, 1928|
|Birmingham, AL||mid-November, 1928|
|Memphis, TN||late November, 1928|
|New Orleans, LA||February/March, 1929|
|Knoxville, KY||August/September, 1929|
|Memphis, TN||late September, 1929|
|New Orleans, LA||September-October, 1929|
|San Antonio, TX||October, 1929|
|Dallas, TX||October-November, 1929|
|Kansas City, MO||early November, 1929|
|Memphis, TN||February, 1930|
|Atlanta, GA||March, 1930|
|Knoxville, TN||March-April, 1930|
|Atlanta, GA||November, 1930|
|New Orleans, LA||November, 1930|
|Dallas, TX||November-December, 19308|
Prior to arriving in a town the record company would place adverts in the local papers asking any potential musicians to be at a certain place, usually a hotel, so that they could be auditioned. The companies also relied on local record salesmen, like Polk Brockman mentioned above, to send musicians to these auditions. Another such person was Henry C Spier from Jackson in Mississippi, who worked with both Ralph Peer and Frank Buckley Walker. Although Spier is best known for discovering blues singers, such as Skip James, Son House, Charlie Patton, Robert Wilkins and, indirectly, Robert Johnson, he also discovered a number of Old-Timey musicians, such as the Freeny Barn Dance Orchestra and was responsible for at least one of Uncle Dave Macon's recording sessions.9
So who were the people that made the records? To begin with they were mostly unknown singers and performers, unknown that is to the wider world although many would have been known within their own circle of friends and neighbours. Many performers only appeared in front of the microphone once and then vanished into who knows where? Who, for example, were the Vass Family, who recorded for Decca Records in New York on 4th August, 1937? They recorded eight songs, four of which, Paper of Pins, Soldier Won't You Marry Me, Deep Blue Sea and Jimmy Randall (The Pizzen Song) were issued on two 78s.10 Their repertoire of mainly Anglo-American songs (I have not so far managed to hear Jimmy Randall, which sounds like it could be a version of the Child ballad Lord Randall [Child 12]) suggests an Appalachian background and it is tempting to think that they may have been related to the Vass family of Hillsville, VA., one of whom, Ruby Vass, recorded songs for Alan Lomax. But, so far, I have been unable to link Frank, Emily, Louisa, Sally or Virginia Vass to the Hillsville set.
But things could change for some performers once they had made their first recordings. Remember that comment about the Carter Family looking "like hillbillies" when they first entered the recording studio? They went on to record around 200 songs in a long recording career and became professional musicians. Like Uncle Dave Macon, another professional who recorded a similar number of pieces, their repertoire was largely made up of late 19th/early 20th century popular songs and religious songs. But, unlike Uncle Dave, they also recorded a number of Anglo-American songs, including three Child ballads, versions of The Gypsy Laddie, The Mermaid and The Golden Vanity. Here are two of these ballads.
Black Jack Davey come a running through the woods
Singing so loud and gaily
Made the hills a round him ring
Then charmed the heart of a lady, charmed the heart of a lady
How old are you my pretty little miss
How old are you my honey
Answered him with a philly and a smile
I'll be sixteen next Sunday, be sixteen next Sunday
Come go with me my pretty little miss
Come go with me my honey
I'll take you across the deep blue sea
Where you never shall want for money, never shall want for money
She pulled off her high heeled shoes
Made of Spanish leather
She put on her low heeled shoes
And they both went off together, both went off together
Last night I lay on a warm feather bed
Side my husband and baby
Today I lay on the cold, cold ground
Side of Black Jack Davey, side of Black Jack Davey
Black Jack David (Child 200) sung by The Carter Family. Recorded 4th October, 1940,; Okeh 06313, Re-issued on JSP box set The Carter Family. Volume 2. 1935 - 1941, JSP7708.
There was a little ship and it sailed upon the sea
And she went by the name of the Merry Golden Tree
As she sailed upon the low and lonesome low
As she sailed upon the lonesome sea
There was a little sailor unto his captain said
Oh, Captain, Captain, what'll you give to me
If I sink her in the low and lonesome low
If I sink her in the lonesome sea
Five hundred dollars I'll give unto thee
And my oldest daughter I'll wed unto thee
If you'll sink her in the low and lonesome low
If you'll sink her in the lonesome sea
He bowed his head and away swam he
Till he come to the ship called the Turkish Reveille
And she sanken in the low and lonesome low
She sanken in the lonesome sea
If it wasn't for the love of your daughter and your men
I would do unto you as I did unto them
I would sink you in the low and lonesome low
I would sink you in the lonesome sea
Sinking in the Lonesome Sea (Child 286) sung by The Carter Family. Recorded 5th May, 1935, Decca 5479,; Re-issued on JSP box set The Carter Family, Volume 2, 1935-1941, JSP7708.These, of course, were not the only Child ballads to be recorded commercially by the early Old-Timey singers. The well-known ballad Barbara Allen was recorded by no fewer than eight separate performers, including Vernon Dalhart, Newton Gaines, Doc Hopkins, Bradley Kincaid, Frank Luther and Carson Robison.11 George Collins was another popular ballad, one which was recorded on at least eight occasions by Emry Arthur, Elmer Bird, Roy Harvey, Jess Johnston, Riley Puckett, Dillard Smith, the Dixon Brothers and Henry Whitter.12
A specifically American version of the ballad of George Collins was one titled The Dying Hobo, and was recorded by several musicians and singers, including Kelly Harrell.13 Other ballads, such as The Fatal Flower Garden - a version of Little Sir Hugh - and The Old Lady and the Devil were recorded on only one occasion. The first, The Fatal Flower Garden, was recorded in Memphis, TN, in1929, by a group with the fancy name of Nelstone's Hawaiians. The second, The Old Lady and the Devil, was recorded by Bill & Belle Reed.14 A version of The Wife of Usher's Well was recorded by Buell Kazee, a singer and banjo player from Kentucky. There was a second recording, by a Professor & Mrs Greer, although this recording was never issued by their recording company.15 Another ballad, The Mermaid mentioned above, was also recorded twice. Once by members of the Stoneman Family who came from Galax in Virginia and once by The Carter Family. Both ballads (The Wife of Usher's Well and The Mermaid) are of interest to me because I collected versions of them when I was in the Appalachians many years ago. The Mermaid came from Dan Tate of Fancy Gap, VA, a small settlement a few miles from Galax16 and I have often wondered if Dan had heard the Stoneman family version of the ballad. Anyway, here is Dan's version of The Mermaid, together with the version recorded by the Stoneman Family:
Oh, the first on deck was the Captain of the ship,
Fine young Captain was he.
He formed a song, 'We've all done wrong,
As we sailed on the lonesome sea'.
The next on deck was the lady of the ship,
Fine young lady was she.
She formed a song 'We've all done wrong,
As we sailed on the lonesome sea'.
Well, the next on deck was the doctor of the ship,
A fine young doctor was he.
He told his patients on their beds so low
They would sink to the bottom of the sea.
The next on deck was the drunkard of the ship,
A wicked old curse (cuss?) was he.
He said he didn't give a damn if the boat would never land,
Let her sink to the bottom of the sea.
Stormy winds let them blow,
Raging seas let them roar.
Stormy winds let them blow,
While these poor sailors all a-running up the ropes
And the landlord a-crying out below.
The Sailor's Song (Child 289) sung by Dan Tate at his home in Fancy Gap, Carroll County, VA. Recorded 14.8.79.
The Raging Sea How it Roars
It's nine times around, said the captain of the ship
And it's nine times around, said he
Nine times around, are we sinking in the deep
While the landlord lies dreaming down below
Chorus: Oh, the raging sea, how it roars
And the cold chilly winds, how they blow
And tonight us poor sailors are sinking in the deep
While the landlord lies dreaming down below
First on the deck was the captain of the ship
And a fine looking fellow was he
Saying, I have a wife in Old Mexico
And tonight she is looking for me
Next on the deck was the lady of the ship
And a fine looking lady was she
Saying, I have a husband in New Mexico,
And tonight he is looking for me
Last on the deck was the sassy little cook
And a sassy little cook was he
He cared no more for his wife and his child
Than he did for the fish in the sea
The Raging Sea How it Roars (Child 289) sung by Ernest Stoneman & The Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers. Recorded 22nd February, 1928, Victor 21648, Re-issued on 5-String diouble CD set Ernest V Stoneman, The Unsung Father of Country Music 5SPH 001.Professor Child called this The Mermaid because, in some versions, the sailors sight a mermaid, a sign of bad-luck, before their ship is wrecked. It was published in a Newcastle garland, dated 1765, as The Seamen's Distress, although later broadside printers often called it The Sailor's Caution. In America the song was often treated comically in 19th century college glee books and it may be that sometimes the American folk versions are serious reinterpretations of these one-time comic versions! Other ballads, The House Carpenter or Young Hunting for example, were recorded more than once. These are the words to two of the three versions of The House Carpenter that were recorded.17 The ballad has survived best in America, although the first set, from the Carolina Tar Heels, is slightly confused.
Can't You Remember When Your Heart was Mine? (Child 243) sung by the Carolina Tar Heels. Recorded 11th October, 1928. Re-issued on JSP box set Mountain Frolic, Rare Old Timey Classics, 1924 - 1937, JSP77100.
Well met, well met, said an old true love
Well met, well met, said he
I'm just returning from the salt, salt sea
And its all for the love of thee
Come in, come in, my old true love
And have a seat by me
It's been three-fourths of a long, long year
Since together we have been
Well, I can't come in or I can't sit down
For I haven't a moment's time
They say you're married to a house carpenter
And your heart can never be mine
Says, it's I could have married a king's daughter dear
I'm sure she'd have married me
I forsaken her crowns of gold
And it's all for the love of thee
Will you forsaken your house carpenter
And go along with me
I will take you where the grass grows green
On the banks of the deep blue sea
Said, it's she picked up her little babe
And kisses she gave it three
Says, stay right here, my darling little babe
And keep your papa company
Then it's she jumped on the snow white steed
And him on the dapple gray
They rode till they come to the banks of the sea
Three hours before it came day
Says, it's are you a-weeping for my silver and my gold
Says, it's are you a-weeping for my store
Are you a-weeping for that house carpenter
Whose face you'll never see anymore
Says, it's I'm not a-weeping for your silver or your gold
Says, it's I'm not a-weeping for your store
I am a-weeping for my darling little babe
Whose face I'll never see anymore
Hadn't been on the ship but about three weeks
I'm sure it was not four
Till they sprung a leak in the bottom of the ship
And they sinken for to rise no more
The House Carpenter (Child 243) sung by Clarence Ashley. Recorded 14th April, 1930, Columbia 15654-D, Re-issued on County CD The Music of Clarence "Tom" Ashley,1929-1933, County CO-CD-3520.There is a story about Clarence Ashley calling The House Carpenter a "lassy makin'" tune (i.e. a tune sung while making molasses), much to the confusion of the recording engineer. Years later Ashley would tell how he had confused the naïve 'city slicker' who had no idea what The House Carpenter was about. In longer versions of the ballad we find reference to Heaven and Hell and, as Professor Child called the ballad James Harris, the Daemon Lover, many scholars believed that there was a supernatural undertone to the story; though recent researchers have knocked this on the head, preferring instead to see the ballad as a warning to married women that they should not stray away from their husbands. The House Carpenter is another ballad that has survived best in the New World, and the same can be said for the ballad of Young Hunting.
Lowe Bonnie (Child 68) sung by Jimmie Tarlton. Recorded on 3rd December, 1930, Columbia 15763-D. Re-issued on Times Ain't Like They used to Be, Volume 4, Yazoo CD 2048.
Get down, get down, little Henry Lee, and stay all night with me
The very best lodging I can afford will be fare better'n thee
I can't get down, and I won't get down, and stay all night with thee
For the girl I have in that merry green land, I love far better'n thee
She leaned herself against a fence, just for a kiss or two
With a little pen-knife held in her hand, she plugged him through and through
Come all you ladies in the town, a secret for me keep
With a diamond ring held on my hand I'll never will forsake
Some take him by his lily-white hand, some take him by his feet
We'll throw him in this deep, deep well, more than one hundred feet
Lie there, lie there, loving Henry Lee, till the flesh drops from your bones
The girl you have in that merry green land still waits for your return
Fly down, fly down, you little bird, and alight on my right knee
Your cage will be of purest gold, in deed of property
I can't fly down, or I won't fly down, and alight on your right knee
A girl would murder her own true love would kill a little bird like me
If I had my bend and bow, my arrow and my string
I'd pierce a dart so nigh your heart your wobble would be in vain
If you had your bend and bow, your arrow and your string
I'd fly away to the merry green land and tell what I have seen
Henry Lee (Child 68) sung by Dick Justice. Recorded on 21st May, 1929, Brunswick Br 367, Re-issued on Old-Time Music from West Virginia, Document DOCD-8004.The ballad of Young Hunting must be quite old. The talking bird motif also occurs in another of Professor Child's ballads, namely The Outlandish Knight (Child 4), which can be dated back for several hundred years. Young Hunting seldom turns up today in Britain, although it has been recorded from Irish Travellers during the latter half of the 20th century, and is another ballad that appears to have survived better in the New World. Jimmie Tarlton learnt his version from his mother, who, in turn had the song from her grandmother. Interestingly, when Jimmy was in the recording studio, with his singing partner Tom Darby, he chose to sing Lowe Bonnie to the tune of The Drunkard's Dream, apparently not wanting Darby to learn his mother's tune! Many years later, in the 1960s when Tarlton was rediscovered by the American folk world, he reverted to using his mother's tune for the ballad.
One of the most interesting, and ancient, of the ballads that Professor Child included in his vast collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads was a piece that he titled Our Goodman. The story seems simple enough. A man returns home to find another man's horse, dog, boots etc, where his own should be. There follows a formulaic exchange between the man and his wife, who explains that her husband's eyes are deceiving him, and the story ends without rancor, revenge or remorse. It's a bit of a joke, to be sung in the pub on a Saturday night, although a version collected from George Spicer of Sussex ends with the spoken comment, 'I stayed home Saturday night!'18 And yet, there seems to be something unsaid. A L Lloyd, quoting the Hungarian folklorist Lajos Vargyas, mentions a possible connection between this ballad and one from Hungary, Barcsai (which has parallel versions in the Balkans, France and Spain). Here a couple are caught in an adulterous act by a returning husband, who promptly kills both his rival and his wife. There are even Mongol versions of Barcsai, so who can say where the story really come from? But, it is still a popular piece in Britain and in North America, and there are several early recordings of the piece, most of which are similar to British versions. Gid Tanner, John B Evans and Earl Johnson recorded it as Three Nights Experience while Emmett Bankstone & Red Henderson recorded an extended version, Six Nights Drunk, which was issued on two sides of a 78rpm record.19 These, of course, were white musicians. But, there were also three recordings of the ballad sung by black musicians. The first, sung by the Texas singer Coley Jones, is similar to the versions recorded by Tanner, Evans and Johnson.20 The two remaining versions, however, were sung by blues musicians and differ considerably from the other versions.
Went home last night, heard a noise, I asked my wife what was that
Went home last night, heard a noise, I asked my wife what was that
Said man don't be so suspicious, that ain't nothin' but a cat
Lord I traveled this world all over mama, takin' all kinds of chance
Travellin' this world all over mama, takin' all kinds of chance
But I never come home before, seein' a cat wearin' a pair of pants
Lord I wouldn't call him cat man, if he'd come around in the day
Wouldn't call him cat man, if he'd come around in the day
But he waits till late at night woman, when he can steal my cream away
Lord I want that cat man to stay away from my house, Lordy when I'm out
Lord I want that cat man to stay away from my house, oh Lord when I'm out
'Cause I believe he's the cause of my woman, wearin' the mattress down
Said I went home last night, actin' just quiet as a lamb
Said I went home last night, actin' quiet as a lamb
I never raised no stuff man, till I heard my backdoor slam
Cat Man Blues (Child 274) sung by Blind Boy Fuller. Recorded on 29th April, 1936, Vocalion Vo 03134, Re-issued on Document CD Blind Boy Fuller, Volume 2, Document DOCD-5092.
Cat Man Blues (Child 274) sung by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Recorded on 24th September, 1929. Paramount Pm 12921. Re-issued on JSP Box set Blind Lemon Jefferson. JSP7706 (4 CDs).Nor was Our Goodman the only Child ballad to be recorded by black musicians. Leadbelly's well-known version of The Maid Freed from the Gallows - he called it The Gallis Pole - is an extremely full version of the ballad, whereas a version recorded by the white musician Charlie Poole is somewhat fragmentary.21
Of course ballads were not the only Old-World songs to be recorded. Here are a couple of versions of the old highwayman song Newlyn Town, which also goes under many, many other names in Britain and elsewhere. The Carter Family called it The Rambling Boy, while the Carolina Tar Heels recorded it as Rude and Rambling Man.
I was rich, but a rambling boy
Through many a city I did enjoy
And there I married me a pretty little wife
And I loved her dearer than I loved my life
She was pretty, both neat and gay
She caused me to rob the road highway
I robbed it, yes, I do declare
I made myself ten thousand there
Plenty dry goods for to carry me through
My pistols, swords are mighty too
My forty-four, she never fails
My true love comes for to go my bail
My mother says she has no home
My sister says she's all alone
My wife, she's left with dandies fair
With a broken heart and a baby fair
Now when I die, don't bury me at all
Just place me away in alcohol
My forty-four laying by my feet
Please tell them I am just asleep
Rambling Boy (Roud 1417) sung by The Carter Family. Recorded on 14th October, 1941, Bluebird BB 33-0512, Re-issued on JSP box set The Carter Family, Volume 2, 1935-1941, JSP7708.
When I was a rude and a rambling man
I bought my ticket to Birmingham
To Birmingham I paid my way
To spend my money in a gambling way
I hadn't been there but a week or so
Till I met me a wife, who troubled me so
To support that girl both nice and gay
She taught me to rob the road highway
I robbed the train, I will declare
I robbed it on the public square
On Sunday night I was roving around
When I robbed it of ten thousand pounds
Now I am condemned to die
And a-many pretty girls for me will cry
But all their cries, they can't save me
Or free me from the gallows tree
To Mountain City I've paid my way
I've got on board and I took my seat
The wheels did a-roll and the whistle did a-blow
In about nine days I rolled into home
My mamma said she was all alone
My sister said she would weep and a-mourn
My sweetheart said she's down in despair
Gold diamond ring and a-curly hair
Now when I die, don't bury me at all
Just pickle my bones in al-ki-hol
Place a marble stone at my head and feet
And go tell Hetty I'm just asleep
Rude and Rambling Man (Roud 1417) sung by The Carolina Tar Heels. Recorded on 3rd April, 1929, Victor V-40077, Re-issued on JSP box set Mountain Frolic, Rare Old-Timey Classics 1924-1937, JSP77100 - 4 CDs.We can clearly see here how this once British song has both retained British elements ("ten thousand pounds") and yet has changed ("I robbed the train") to suit American audiences. The British phrase "the King's highway", which would mean little to an American audience has, over time, become "the road highway". In British versions of the song we often find the robbery taking place in "Saint James' square", which can help explain this slightly confusing verse from Wade Mainer's North Carolina set.
Oh don't you remember a long time ago
Two poor little babes, their names I don't know
They were stolen away, one bright summer day
Lost in the woods, I've heard people say
And when it was night (so sad was their plight?)
The moon settled down and the stars gave no light
The sobbed and the sighed and they bitterly cried
These poor little babes just laid down and died
And when they were dead, the robins so red
Brought strawberry leaves and over them spread
And sung them a song, through all the day long
These poor little babes have never done wrong
Repeat last verse
Two Babes in the Wood (Roud 288) sung by The Red Fox Chasers. Recorded 26th January, 1931, Champion S-16768, Re-issued Going Down to North Carolina, Tompkins Square 2219.
The Old Miller's Will (Roud 138) sung by Carson Bros & Sprinkle. Recorded 6th December, 1929, Okeh OK45398, Re-issued on Times Ain't Like TheyUsed to Be, Volume 1, Yazoo 2028.In the full version of the song, the dying miller questions his three sons as to which one will inherit the mill. As the eldest son says that he will steal all of his customer's corn he is given the mill! Clearly, in the recording there is only time enough for the miller to speak to one of his sons. Another song that had to be cut down to fit a three minute side of a 78rpm record was The Nick Nack Song as sung by Ridgel's Fountain Citians, who, presumably, came from Fountain City, a suburb of Knoxville, TN, where their recording was made. Their song was a version of the Child ballad The Wife Wrapt in Wether's Skin and was also recorded in 1927 as Nickety Nackety Now Now Now by the singer and banjo player Chubby Parker, who also recorded a well-known version of the British song Frog Went a-Courting which he called King King Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O.23
The Nick Nack Song (Child 277) sung by Ridgel's Fountain Citians. Recorded on 27th August, 1929, Vocalion Vo 5455, Re-issued on JSP box set Appalachian Stomp Down, JSP7761 - 4 CDs.In the complete song the husband, exasperated by his wife's inability to work on the farm, covers her back with a sheep-skin, which he beats with a stick, saying that he wouldn't beat his wife, but he has nothing against beating an old sheep's skin. The song, once highly popular (as The Wee Cooper o' Fyfe for example) has, understandably, lost some of its appeal in recent years.
Will the Weaver was another song concerned with marital strife; one where the husband felt obliged to use force against his adulterous wife. There were two Old-Timey recordings made of the song, Will the Weaver sung by Charlie Parker & Mack Woolbright,24 and David McCarn's version, titled Everyday Dirt.
Everyday Dirt (Roud 432) sung by David McCarn. Recorded 19th May, 1930, Victor V-40274,; Re-issued Gastonia Gallop, Old Hat 1007.The well-known North Carolina singer and guitarist Doc Watson later learnt the song from the McCarn recording and it is interesting to see how lines from the song have changed and moved about over the years.25
Other songs recorded on 78s had often more or less died out in Britain by the time the American singers were visited by the recording companies. Here is a version of the song The Lover's Lament for her Sailor, the words taken from a broadside printed in London by John Pitts between the years 1819-1844. Pitts' song may be based on an earlier broadside, one titled The Sorrowful Lady's Complaint. The Pitts' set is followed by a version recorded by the Carter Family
I Never Will Marry (Roud 466) sung by The Carter Family. Recorded on 17th June, 1933, Bluebird B-8350, Re-issued on JSP box set The Carter Family, 1927-1934, JSP7701.Another song recorded by the Carter Family, unlike I Never Will Marry, was recorded by several Old-Timey performers. The Carter family called it Who's That Knockin' On My Window.
Who's That Knockin' On My Window (Roud 711) sung by The Carter Family. Recorded on 8th June, 1938,; Decca De 5612, Re-issued on JSP box set The Carter Family, Volume 2, 1935 - 1941, JSP7708.Other early recordings were made by The Blue Sky Boys (Katie Dear), Tiny Dodson's Circle-B Boys (Katy Dear), The Callaghan Brothers (Katie Dear), J P Ryan (The Silver Dagger), B F Shelton (Oh Molly Dear), Kelly Harrell (O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother), The Oaks Family (Wake up You Drowsy Sleeper) and Wilmer Watts' oddly titled Sleepy Desert.26 Many of the singers that Cecil Sharp visited called the song Awake, Awake, You Drowsy Sleepers and on occasion we find the opening line something like this, "Awake, awake, you seven drowsy sleepers", and I have sometimes wondered if this is a reference to the Christian story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus? Though quite how this would fit into the rest of the song is somewhat beyond me.
For those who don't know the story, here it is in brief. Sometime around 250CE the Roman emperor Decius started persecuting Christians, including seven men from the town of Ephesus (now in modern day Turkey). They were asked to recant their faith, but, instead, they went to live in a cave, where, having prayed, they fell asleep. Decius ordered the mouth of the cave to be sealed. And it was not opened until some two hundred years later, when the men were found to be still asleep. They awoke and were amazed to find that their homeland was now a Christian country. If there is a connection between this tale and with the song, then I would suggest that it is only a passing reference.
B F Shelton's version of this song is interesting, in that parts of the song have been padded out with lines for one or two other songs. Such things happen in folksong from any oral tradition, singers forget or miss-remember words and lines, but in Appalachian America we find that whole songs can be comprised of verses from several previous songs.
Oh once I lived in old Virginny
To North Carolina I did go
There I saw a nice young lady
Oh her name I did not know
Her hair was black and her eyes was sparkling
On her cheeks were diamonds red
And on her breast she wore a lily
To mourn the tears that I have shed
Oh when I'm asleep I dream about her
When I'm awake I see no rest
Every moment seems like an hour
Oh the pains that cross my breast
Oh Molly dear, go ask your mother
If you my bride can ever be
If she says no, come back and tell me
And never more will I trouble thee
Last night as I laid on my pillow
Last night as I laid on my bed
Last night as I laid on my pillow
I dreamed that fair, young lady was dead
No, I won't go ask my mother
She's lying on her bed of rest
And in one hand she holds a dagger
To kill the man that I love best
Now, go and leave me if you want to
Then from me you will be free
For in your heart you love another
And in my grave I'd rather be
Oh Molly Dear (Roud 711) sung by B F Shelton. Recorded 29th July, 1927, Re-issued on The Music of Kentucky, Early American Rural Classics 1927 -37, Yazoo 2013.Some songs, and Cecil Sharp found quite a few in the Appalachians, are comprised solely of 'floating verses' - whole verses taken from other songs to reform a 'new' song. In Hayes Shepherd's It's Hard for to Love we can find verses from songs such as Ten Thousand Miles and the ballad Lord Gregory. Shepherd, who like to bill himself as 'The Appalachia Vagabond', was a banjo player and singer from one of the remoter parts of Kentucky (as was B F Shelton) and like many Kentucky musicians had quite a number of ancient pieces in his repertoire.
It's Hard for to Love sung by Hayes Shepherd. Recorded on 28th March, 1930, Vocalion Vo 5450,; Re-issued on Dock Boggs - Country Blues, Revenant 205 and The Music of Kentucky - Volume 2, Yazoo 2014.Another song, this time from the Carter Family, was made up solely of 'floating verses'.
Oh, dig my grave both wide and deep
Place marble at my head and feet
And on my breast a snow white dove
To show to the world I died for love
Bring Back My Blue-Eyed Boy to Me (Roud 4308) sung by The Carter Family. Recorded on 15th February, 1929 Victor V-40190, Re-issued on The Carter Family, 1927 - 1934, JSP7701.In 1941 America entered the Second World War, and things would never be the same again. For a start, shellac, one of the substances used in the manufacture of 78rpm records, was needed for the preparation of weapons and so became scarce, forcing the record companies to cut back on production. Many young people left the rural south as they were called up into the forces. They were either sent abroad or else to towns and cities far away from their original homes. By the end of the war, people's expectations had changed and so, too, had the music. Many of the older Old-Timey musicians had either died or else retired. A few, such as Uncle Dave Macon and The Carter Family, did continue to perform, but there were now new musical forms, such as Bluegrass and Country music, appearing and these began to replace the older musical styles. True, some Bluegrass performers did look back into their family repertoires for material to record - the Stanley Brothers, for example, recorded the song The Little Glass of Wine on two occasions between 1947 and 1949 and John & Bill Garay recorded a version of Awake, Awake (which they called Little Girl Go Tell Your Mama) for a little-known label, Marlboro Records, which may have been based in Marlboro County, South Carolina.28 But these were exceptions. Of course, people still sang and played at home, but it was not until the 1960s, when enthusiasts began to seek out long-forgotten recording artists, that Old-Timey music came back into popularity. And this led to a re-evaluation and a seeking out of the songs that Cecil Sharp had collected all those years ago, so that younger people could once again sing the songs that many of their ancestors had treasured a few generations back.
|The Boston Burglar||John Carson||Re-issued Document 8016|
|The Boston Burglar||Frank Hutchison||Re-issued JSP7743|
|The Boston Burglar||Riley Puckett||Re-issued JSP7780|
|The Butcher's Boy||Blue Sky Boys||Re-issued JSP7782|
|The Butcher's Boy||Kelly Harrell||Re-issued JSP7743|
|The Butcher's Boy||Buell Kazee||Re-issued JSP77100 &|
|Coo Coo Bird||Clarence Ashley||Re-issued County 3520 &|
|Cuckoo She's a Fine Bird||Kelly Harrell||Re-issued JSP7743|
|Darby's Ram||Bascom Lamar Lunsford||Re-issued JSP77100|
|Dog and Gun||Bradley Kincaid||Re-issued Revenant 211|
|Devilish Mary||Red Fox Chasers||Re-issued Thompkins Square 2219|
|Devilish Mary||Skillet Lickers||Re-issued Document 8059|
|The Foggy Dew||Bradley Kincaid||No re-issue|
|The House Carpenter||Professor & Mrs Greer||Recorded for Paramount, but unissued.|
|Jimmie and Sallie||Dixon Brothers||Re-issued Document 8049*|
|Little Mohee||Buell Kazee||Re-issued JSP77100**|
|The Little Mohee||Bradley Kincaid||No re-issue|
|Mary of the Wild Moor||Blue Sky Boys||Re-issued JSP7782|
|Mountaineer's Courtship||Ernest V Stoneman||Re-issued 5SPH001 &|
|My Gypsy Girl||Charlie Poole||Re-issued JSP7734|
|(Wandering) Gypsy Girl||Bela Lam||Re-issued JSP7761|
|Old Shoes & Leggins||Eck Dunford||Re-issued Smithsonian/Folkways SFW40090|
|A Paper of Pins||Bradley Kincaid||No re-issue|
|Pretty Polly||Dock Boggs||Re-issued Revenant 205|
|Purty Polly||John Hammond||Re-issued Yazoo 2014|
|Pretty Polly||B.F.Shelton||Re-issued Yazoo 2013|
|Pretty Polly||Coon Creek Girls||No re-issue|
|Soldier and the Lady||Coon Creek Girls||No re-issue|
|Soldier Will You Marry Me||Skillet Lickers||Re-issued Document 8059|
|Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me||Bradley Kincaid||No re-issue|
|Spanish Merchant's Daughter||Ernest V Stoneman||Re-issued 5SPH001 &|
|Story of the Knoxville Girl||Blue Sky Boys||Re-issued JSP7782|
|The Export Gal||Louisiana Lou||Re-issued JSP77131|
|Sweet William & Fair Ellen (2 parts)||Professor & Mrs Greer||No re-issue|
|The Three Babes||Professor & Mrs Greer||Recorded for Paramount, but unissued.|
|Three Men Went a-Hunting||Byrd Moore||Re-issued County 3520|
|The Two Sisters||Bradley Kincaid||No re-issue|
|When Willie & Mary|
Strolled by the Seashore
|McGee Brothers||Re-issued Document 8036|
|Wind the Little Ball Of Yarn||Southern Melody Boys||Re-issued JSP77131***|
* Jimmy and Sallie is somewhat confused, but would seem to be based on a British song or ballad.
** Although The Little Mohee might, on first hearing, appear to be an American song, it is almost certainly a version of the British broadside song The Indian Lass.
*** I am assuming that this is, originally, a British song, although, as I have pointed out elsewhere,29 the song was copyrighted in America in 1884 to a Polly Holmes. This does not necessarily mean that Ms Holmes actually wrote the song. But, it could, originally, have come from the States. It is certainly popular with British singers.
Perhaps I should also include the song The Island Unknown that was recorded on two sides of a 78rpm record by Eck Dunford & his wife (re-issued on County 3515). Although untraced, the song does sound as though it could have an Irish origin. And if The Island Unknown, what about The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore (Roud 17338), that the Carter Family recorded in 1941? It is another song that is unique to America, and yet one which also has an Irish feel to it.
The above re-issue CDs are available from Red Lick Records at: www.redlick.com
Mike Yates - 2.9.10
2. Sharp correspondence. Letter to Mrs Storrow of Boston, a benefactor, dated 10.3.19.
3. Recordings of black singers and musicians made by John & Alan Lomax can be heard on the eleven CD set Deep River of Song. Rounder CD1821 - CD1832. John Lomax's 1940 recordings of the blues singer Blind Willie McTell can be heard on the four CD box set Blind Willie McTell. The Classic Years. JSP 7711. Some of Alan Lomax's important 1937 Kentucky recordings can be heard on The Music of Kentucky vols. 1 & 2 Yazoo CDs 2013 & 2014 and on the seven CD box set Kentucky Mountain Music Yazoo 2200.
4. See Michael Yates Percy Grainger and the Impact of the Phonograph. Folk Music Journal. 1982.
5. These, and other, recordings by Eck Robertson can be heard on the CD Eck Robertson - Vintage Recordings 1922 - 1929. County 3515.
6. Oxford University Press, 2004 & 2008.
7. The John T.Scopes Trial sung by Vernon Dalhart. Columbia record 15037-D. Although the trial took place as long ago as 1925, we still find many Americans (and others) who still cannot accept the idea of evolution.
8. My thanks to Tony Russell for this information.
9. Recordings by the Freeny Barn Dance Orchestra can be heard on Document DOCD 8009 (Mississippi String Bands. Volume 1), while almost all of Uncle Dave Macon's commercial recordings can be heard on two JSP box sets (Uncle Dave Macon. Classic Sides 1924 - 1938. JSP7729 - 4 CDs & Uncle Dave Macon. Classic Cuts 1924 - 1938. JSP7769 - 4 CDs).
10. I am unaware of these four songs being re-issued on CD.
11. I can only find a re-issue for Frank Luther's version of Barbara Allen. This is on Document DOCD 1102.
12. Roy Harvey's version of George Collins can be heard on two CDs, JSP7734 (Charlie Poole box set) and Roy Harvey - Complete Recorded Works. Volume 2 (Document 8051). The Dixon Brothers sing The Story of George Collins on Document 8049.
13. Kelly Harrell's The Dying Hobo has been re-issued on JSP box set Worried Blues (JSP7743).
14. The Fatal Flower Garden as sung by Nelstone's Hawiians has been reissued on the JSP box set Mountain Frolic. Rare Old-Timey Classics 1924 - 1937 JSP77100 - 4 CDs. The Old Lady and the Devil can be heard on the Smithsonian-Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music- volume 1. Smithsonian/Folkways SFW40090.
15. Buel Kazee's version of The Wife of Usher's Well, titled Lady Gay, can be heard on JSP box set Mountain Frolic (JSP77100).
16. These two recordings, titled The Three Little Babes and The Sailor's Song, can be heard on the double CD Far in the Mountains. Volumes 1 & 2. Musical Traditions MTCD321-2.
17. As well as the two versions printed here, The House Carpenter was also recorded in 1933 by Bradley Kincaid and was issued on Bluebird 78rpm record B-5255.
18. George Spicer's version of Our Goodman can be heard on Volume 13 of Topic Record's Voice of the People series (Topic CD TSCD 663).
19. Earl Johnson's version of Three Night's Experience can be heard on the Document CD Earl Johnson. Volume 1. Document DOCD-8005. Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett sing Three Nights Drunk on the JSP CD set Serenade in the Mountains JSP7780 (4 CDs).
20. Coley Jones can be heard singing Drunkard's Special on Document CD Texas Blues (1927 - 1935). Document DOCD-5161.
21. The Gallis Pole (Child 95), as sung by Leadbelly, can be heard on the JSP box set Leadbelly. Important Recordings 1934 - 1949 (JSP 7764) and Charlie Poole's version of The Maid Freed from the Gallows, titled The Highwayman, can be heard on another JSP box set, Charlie Poole (JSP 7734). When the Library of Congress sent out collectors they recorded all kinds of material from black singers, not just blues and religious music. One singer, Mississippi singer called Will Starks recorded a good version of an old late 17th century British hunting song, which he called The Fox Hunter's Song (available on Rounder CD 1824). See also my article No Need of Knockin' on the Blind on the Musical Traditions website.
22. Wade Mainer Ramblin' Boy recorded 29th September, 1941. Re-issued on JSP box set J. E. Mainer Classic Sides. 1937 - 1941. JSP77124 (4 CDs).
23. King Kong Kitchie, Kitchie Ki-Me-O, as sung by Tubby Parker, has been re-issued on Smithsonian Folkways box set SFW40090.
24. Will the Weaver is re-issued on the CD In the Pines. Tar Heel Folk Songs & Fiddle Tunes 1926 - 1936. Old Hat 1006.
25. Doc Watson sings Every Day Dirt on Smithsonian-Folkways CD The Doc Watson Family (SF 40012).
26. Five of these versions are currently available. Sleepy Desert can be heard on Times Ain't Like They Used to Be, volume 3 (Yazoo 2047), Oh Molly Dear is on The Music of Kentucky (Yazoo 2013), Wake Up You Drowsy Sleeper is on Times Ain't Like They Used to Be, volume 1 (Yazoo 2028), O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother is on Worried Blues JSP box set JSP7743 and Katie Dear is on The Blue Sky Boys JSP box set JSP7782.
27. Verse 4 of this song has proven impossible to transcribe. Lines 1 and 3, which are possibly the same, are just beyond my ear. So far I have only been able to transcribe the following and I must stress that this could be wrong!
28. The two Stanley Brothers recordings of The Little Glass of Wine have been re-issued on JSP box set Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers. Selected Sides, 1947 - 1953. JSP 7724 and the recording of Little Girl Go Tell Your Mama is on another JSP box set JSP77110.
29. See the booklet notes to the CD Here's Luck to a Man. Gypsy Songs and Music from South-East England. Musical Traditions MTCD320.
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