Sometimes the hardest part of learning Lomax’s version of a folk song is learning to forget the version I’m familiar with. I’ve heard plenty of versions of “Jesse James,” most recently and most indelibly on Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. The version printed in Folk Songs of North America follows roughly the same chord pattern, but the melodic movement is markedly different. As I stumble through this recording, know that it’s not musical incompetence, but opposing melodies beating each other out of my mouth.
Setting out on this project, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d find a song with the line, “No one can tell how my bowels feel.” But “Lousy Miner” lays it all out on the line–the indigestion, lice infestation, and heartache that comes with mining for gold. I don’t have much time to write tonight, so I’ll leave it at this: only a bitter ’49er could deliver ridiculous lines like this with a straight face and such a heartbreakingly lovely tune. Enjoy.
“Twistification” is a weird song in a lot of ways. Here are a few:
1) Twistification is not a word and appears nowhere the lyrics.
2) The chorus is simply the fives times table.
3) The verses seem totally unrelated. The first is about meeting a girl in the swamp, the second is about dancing, the third is about a raccoon and possum.
However, this song does have one of the awesomest stanzas I’ve ever heard:
“Take that little miss by her hand,
Lead her like a pigeon,
Make her dance just one more reel,
Scatter her religion.”
Finally! We emerge from the Southern Mountains into the West. The first section of the West, ‘Beyond the Mississippi,’ contains the first song I learned out of this anthology, two summers ago. I returned from tour with my band, Bark Hide and Horn, having recently released an album entirely based on old National Geographic articles. Many of the songs were from the perspectives of animals, and I decided that I wanted to continue working from this angle. I began digging through my American music anthologies for animal folk songs, thinking I could rework them from the animals’ points of view. The first song I found was “The Hound Dawg Song,” and I was immediately obsessed. I decided that there was no point in writing a new song inspired by this one, since the original is a perfectly infectious, hilarious, tragic masterpiece about a boy and his dog. The only thing I add is the instrumental bridge, which in my mind is the dog’s chance to wail out his misery. The narrator’s voice breathes authenticity with every phrase, especially with his use slang: “ornery old cuss”; “passel of yaps”; “that just naturally made us sore”; “he lit into them gentlemen”; “he shore mussed up the courthouse square.” The chord progression is simple and bittersweet. The minor chord adds a touch of adolescent melancholy that always cycles back around, no matter how hard the V7 chord tries to brush it off. The narrator is downright desperate: “they gotta quit kickin’ my dawg around!” When he and Lem Briggs and ol’ Bill Brown, and then Jim the dog, finally get their revenge, it feels like a fantasy played out in the narrator’s head. Inevitably, the song loops back to the chorus, and the sad fact that the bullies win every time. To me, this song captures the plight of every wimpy boy, the devotion a child feels toward his pet, and the power of imagination to bring justice to an unfair world.
The ‘Hard Times and the Hillbilly’ section of Southern Mountains and Backwoods reads like a Merle Travis songbook. Travis was a Kentucky coal-miner’s son who hit it big in the late ’40s with recordings of traditional and original mining ballads. His intricate finger-picking style, now known as “Travis-picking,” influenced generations of folk guitar slingers. Travis inspired me to swap the flat-pick for the thumb-pick and my furious strumming for speedy finger-work. His “Nine Pound Hammer” was the first song I learned to finger-pick, my gateway into the world of bluegrass and folk music. I first heard Travis on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The long-haired cosmic cowboys assembled all of the greats–Travis, the Carter family, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson–and made a triple album of classic bluegrass songs. It rotated steadily on my family’s record-player growing up, ushering me into the world of hillbilly and folk music.
“Dark as a Dungeon” is a well-known, somber miner’s ballad. I love the image that Travis returns to several times–man’s blood and body filling with the coal that he mines: “It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,/ till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal”; “I hope when I’m dead and the ages shall roll,/ my body will blacken and turn into coal.” It’s a powerful symbol of man’s tendency to let his work consume him, physically and psychologically. It’s also a dark reminder of the tragic toll coal mining took on worker’s bodies, communities, and local landscapes.
There are plenty of directions I could take this posting about “Tom Dula” (also known as “Tom Dooley”). I could write about how the Kingston Trio’s version of the song launched the pop folk revival in the USA. I could mention how the Kingston Trio’s version , like many of their songs, strips all the grit and authenticity away from the source, replacing it with an utterly palatable, white collegiate gloss. Or I could delve into the true story behind the song, and the popular theory that it wasn’t ex-Confederate soldier Tom Dula who stabbed Laura Foster in the North Carolina woods in 1868 on account of her giving him an STD, but instead his jealous lover Anne Melton, and that Dula confessed to being the lone killer simply to protect Melton. I could even try to pin down the song’s writer–Lomax claims in his notes that Dula composed the song the night before he was hung; others attribute it to a North Carolina journalist. But mostly I want to consider the murder ballad: a truly bizarre genre. In what other type of song would the singer cheerfully exclaim, “I met her on the mountain/ I swore she’d be my wife/ I met her on the mountain/ and I stabbed her with my knife”? Or whine to his pappy, “what shall I do?/ I lost all my money,” and as an afterthought, “I killed poor Laurie too.” The Tom Dula this song presents is a total sociopath, remorseless for his horrible deed. Are we supposed to sympathize? Maybe it’s like the appeal of reality TV, the guilty pleasure you get in watching the suffering of someone who has made terrible decisions. Or maybe it’s just a morality tale. Stay away from red whiskey and pretty women, boys, and you won’t end up on the gallows.
My girlfriend Jessie provides the lovely harmony vocals. (She’s a pretty woman, I admit, but I promise not to drink a drop of red whiskey.)
With some of these old folk songs, I feel like the meaning escapes me because the lyrics are cobbled together from a hundred different singers saying a hundred different things. “Dig a Hole in the Meadow” is opaque in a more deliberate way, as if the narrator is leaving out important details to leave us guessing. The chipper tune belies the violent trouble beneath the surface. Like any good mystery, it starts with a cadaver: Lulie is dead. “Dig a hole in meadow/ just to lay little Lulie down.” The singer then rewinds to dimly illuminate the events leading up to her death. He first sees her at the still-house door, making him the bootlegger inside. Then he’s frantically waking her–“go get me my gun… I’ll die before I run.” Trouble is coming, and we already know that it’s Lulie who’s going to pay. The third verse pulls us briefly away from the action, but reminds us the end is near. As if in a dream, the narrator sees Lulie “on the banks of the sea/ two pistols strapped round her body/ and a banjo on her knee.” What a badass. Facing death while picking her banjo. Then it’s “Wake up, wake up” again–is she already slipping out of consciousness? “What makes you sleep so sound?” I see the singer locked up in the still, pistols loaded, a dying Lulie in his arms. “The highway robbers are comin’/ Gonna tear your playhouse down.” That’s one way to break the news: sorry, little Lulie, it’s a hole in the meadow for you.
“Shady Grove” is a subtly hilarious story of a desperate man trying to find a wife. The self-deprecating narrator knows he’s little more than a grown boy (“Now I am a great big boy/ I think myself a man”), but he is fixated on his search for a mate. He finally has one by the last verse, but he’s so hopeless that he loses her: “Every night when I come home/ My wife, I try to please her/ The more I try, the worse she gets/ Damned if I don’t leave her.” It was fun to choose and rearrange verses to emphasize this story line. As it’s written in Lomax’s anthology, the chronology is all over the place and several verses are unrelated. Sometimes you get the sense that he provides all of the verses he’s ever heard sung in a particular song. This creates some interesting juxtapositions (one of the verses I didn’t choose to sing in “Shady Grove” is about the singer’s mulie cow–“took a jaybird forty year to fly from horn to horn”), and almost always provides plenty of material if you’re looking to create a cohesive narrative. Maybe that’s being untrue to the source material, but the way I see it, singers have been putting personal touches on these songs as long as they have existed. Now it’s my turn.
I took a bit of creative liberty with today’s entry. This is actually a medley between two related songs–“King David,” a black spiritual I learned several weeks ago from A Treasure of Afro-American Folklore by Harold Courlander, and “O David,” a white spiritual from Lomax’s collection. “King David” is the song that I use as the verses, with “Good Lord” as the imaginary choral interjection. “O David” is what I use for the chorus, with “Yes yes” as the intejection. The topic and several of the lyrics are identical. Lomax explains the interchange between black and white spiritual music: when shape-note and camp-meeting movements lost steam in the late nineteenth century, a new revival took hold of the rural South–the Holy Roller Church. “White Holiness churches, in the heart of the Jim Crow belt, invite Negroes to participate in their services. Negro churches have white members. Ministers and church officials move with remarkable freedom between Negro and white congregations. In the North and West, where this movement has taken a strong hold in city slums, Negroes and whites, possessed of the spirit, dance and roll on the floors together…. In this people’s revival, Negroes and their music were openly received into the white church. ‘O David,’ a modern Holiness spiritual from Eastern Kentucky, has the shape of the most primitive type of Negro solo-chorus work song.” Lomax’s explanation is fascinating, but I take issue with the final sentence. “King David” is most likely the “Negro solo-chorus work song” that “O David” takes its shape from, but to call the earlier song primitive is overlooking its amazing artistry. The lyrics of “King David” are complex and poetic, gracefully weaving together Biblical moments and human concerns. “O David” is by far the simpler song, with its 3-5 syllable verses and repetition of phrases. Interesting how racial assumptions have dictated folk musicology through the years. Regardless, I hope you enjoy the spiritual mash-up:
I discovered “Rattlesnake” this weekend in the ‘Across the Blue Ridge’ section of ‘The Southern Mountains and Backwoods.’ I’m breaking my section-by-section approach for a day in order to go back to what I see as an almost perfect song. I’m fascinated by the use of animals in American folklore and folk song, in part because of their ability to illuminate the animal nature still intact in humans (see Greil Marcus’ take on the cuckoo in yesterday’s post). I also love a singer’s or storyteller’s journey into an animal perspective, both for the outsider status it allows in commenting on human culture, and for the sheer imagination it takes to inhabit an inscrutable brain and body. In “Rattlesnake,” the singer effortlessly melds the animal and human perspectives. He starts each verse with an invocation and a question–“Rattlesnake, o rattlesnake/ what makes your teeth so white?” He then slips into the first person, answering his own question: “I’ve been in the bottom all my life/ an’ I ain’t done nothin’ but bite.” It’s unclear just who’s speaking. Is the rattlesnake answering? Or does the singer, through his own experience, feel the the miserable plight of this hated animal? The song goes on, creature by creature, revealing struggle after struggle. The line between animal instinct and human chore is blurred throughout. A few lines just kill me: “I’ve been in the bottom all my life/ till I’m mortified in my head”; “It’s a wonder I don’t smotherfy/ livin’ down in the ground”; “Been robbin’ your cornpatch all my life/ it’s a wonder I don’t die.” Once again, what could be written off as a cute animal song for kids is in fact a profound, deeply sad meditation on life, duty, and death.