Railroad Bill: An American Folk Song

“Railroad Bill” is a blues ballad that dates to the 19th century and has been performed and recorded by many folk artists throughout the 20th century. People have conjectured that the subject of the song is an African American outlaw named Morris Slater who robbed freight trains in the 1890s. Slater’s nickname was Railroad Bill. Only a few of the song’s dozens of stanzas seem to refer specifically to Slater’s activities. The majority of the stanzas are quite general. Was “Railroad Bill” written about Slater? Or did Slater get his nickname from what was a preexisting song, with the verses specific to him being added later?

Blues Ballads

Blues ballads are loosely-organized narrative folk songs. They are often about actual murders, disasters, or criminals, but they don’t follow an exact sequence of events as do other types of ballads. Blues ballads tend to focus on the responses and thoughts of the participants and those affected rather than a chronological story line. The style likely evolved with African American singers in the last decades of the 19th century as an adaptation of Anglo-American ballad traditions. Other blues ballads include “John Henry,” “John Hardy,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Casey Jones,” and “Stackolee.”

Historical Background

Stories about Morris Slater began to surface in newspapers in 1895. Slater robbed freight trains, primarily in Alabama and western Florida along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad line. His method was to throw merchandise off moving railroad cars and pick it up later. Slater allegedly killed at least two sheriffs as they, and a succession of detectives and railroad officers, tried to apprehend him. He was shot to death in Tidmore and Ward’s General Store in Atmore, Alabama, by Constable McGowan and storekeeper Bob Johns on March 7, 1897.

While most people condemned Slater’s crimes, a minority of African Americans in Alabama admired him and turned him into a folk hero. Like the legend of Jesse James, they said he gave the food he stole to poor blacks. Also like the legend of Jesse James, no one has found evidence of this. Some people even attributed supernatural powers to Slater, claiming that he could change form into an animal to escape capture or that he could only be killed by a “solid silver missile.”

That Slater could be viewed as a hero and a martyr is not surprising, considering the racial and economic divide in the post-Reconstruction Deep South.

“Railroad Bill” Song History

The song “Railroad Bill” seems to be related to other 19th century songs of African American origin about characters named Bill, including “Roscoe Bill,” “Shootin’ Bill,” and “Buffalo Bill.” Some lyrics are shared among these songs. This type of common “floating” stanza is a characteristic of blues ballads and other types of folk songs.

The first lyrics to “Railroad Bill” were collected by folklorists in Mississippi and Alabama during the first two decades of the 20th century. Newman I. White reported three fragments of lyrics he collected from a construction gang in Mississippi in 1906.

Railroad Bill did not know
That Jim McMillan had a forty-fo’

Sheriff Edward S. McMillan of Escambia County, Alabama was killed by Slater while trying to apprehend him. Though the first name in the lyric is different, this stanza may refer to Sheriff McMillan. In “Songs and Rhymes of the South,” published in 1912 in the Journal of American Folklore, E.C. Perrow includes a text in which Railroad Bill “killed McMillan like a lightnin’ flash.”

Howard Odum published three longer texts in his 1911 Journal of American Folklore article “Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes.” One has no identifiable references to Slater, and one seems to be mostly about him.

The following stanza collected by Odum is very similar to stanzas found in other 19th century Bill songs.

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill
He never work, an’ he never will
It was that bad Railroad Bill

Only four or five of the dozens of “Railroad Bill” stanzas collected and recorded make definite reference to Slater’s activities. Especially considering the oddity of a man named Morris Slater being nicknamed Railroad Bill, it is entirely likely that Slater was given the nickname as a reference to a preexisting song or songs. The few verses that specifically reference Slater’s activities may have been added later. As with many traditional folk songs, the origins of “Railroad Bill” may never be revealed.

“Railroad Bill” Recordings

The first recording of “Railroad Bill” was made by Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner on September 11, 1924.

Two months later, Roba Stanley and Bill Patterson recorded it. Stanley took out the first copyright on the song, claiming credit for the words and music.

Three recordings of the song were made in 1929, including the first by an African American artist, Will Bennett.

Frank Hutchison’s 1929 recording appears to be the first one that was played in fingerpicking style on the guitar. It’s also the first with the distinctive Major III chord following the I chord behind the second line of the verse. Both of these attributes became standard in many subsequent versions of the song.

Recordings of “Railroad Bill” are available from many other artists, including Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Hobart Smith, Lonnie Donegan, Crooked Still, Van Morrison, Etta Baker, and Billy Bragg.

“Railroad Bill” Lyrics

Dozens of different stanzas of “Railroad Bill” have appeared in print and on recordings. Below are the complete lyrics from the recordings of Will Bennett and Frank Hutchison.

From Will Bennett (1929):

Railroad Bill, ought to be killed
Never worked, and he never will
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill done took my wife
Threatened to me that he would take my life
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going upon the mountain, take my stand
Forty-one derringer in my right and left hand
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going up on the mountain, going out west
Forty-one derringer sticking in my breast
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Buy me a gun just as long as my arm
Kill everybody ever done me wrong
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Buy me a gun with a shiny barrel
Kill somebody ’bout my good-looking gal
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Got a thirty-eight special on a forty-four frame
How in the world can I miss him when I’ve got dead aim
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

When I went to the doctor, asked him what the matter could be
Said “If you don’t stop drinking, son, it’ll kill you dead”
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Going to drink my liquor, drink it and win
Doctor said it’d kill me, but he never said when
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

If the river was brandy, and I was a duck
I’d sink to the bottom and I’d never come up
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Honey, honey, do you think I’m mean
Times have caught me living on pork and beans
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Son, you talk about your honey, you ought to see mine
She’s humpbacked, bowlegged, crippled and blind
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

Honey, honey, do you think I’m a fool
Think I’m gonna quit you while the weather is cool
Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

From Frank Hutchison (1929):

Railroad Bill, got so bad
Stole all the chickens the poor farmers had
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, went out west
Shot all the buttons off a brakeman’s vest
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, got so fine
Shot ninety-nine holes in a shilver shine(?)
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, standing at the tank
Waiting for the train they call Nancy Hanks
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, standing at the curve
Gonna rob a mail train but he didn’t have the nerve
Well, it’s too bad, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, he lived on the hill
He never worked or he never will
Well, it’s ride, Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill went out west
Shot all the buttons off a brakeman’s vest
Well, it’s get back, Railroad Bill

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Further Reading

Cohen, Norm, and David Cohen. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

“Railroad Bill.” Encyclopedia of Alabama.

“Railroad Bill [Laws I13].” Traditional Ballad Index.

Anthology of American Folk Music (5 of 5): Volume Three – Songs

This is post 5 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

Singer/songwriter Elvis Costello noted, “First hearing the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music is like discovering the secret script of so many familiar musical dramas. Many of these actually turn out to be cousins two or three times removed, some of whom were probably created in ignorance of these original riches.” Folkways Records released the Anthology on six long-playing records in 1952, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-released it on compact disc in 1997.  It consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Three – Songs.

All three volumes of the Anthology contain “songs” by most definitions of the word. Volume One – Ballads focuses on songs that can be more specifically identified as ballads because of their strong narrative line. Volume Two – Social Music is dedicated to songs that serve community gatherings of dance or worship. Volume Three features non-narrative folk songs, including blues, cowboy, jug band, and other forms that don’t quite fit within the parameters of the other two volumes. Many are of the type that Harry Smith, editor of the Anthology, categorizes as “folk-lyric.” These are songs made up of verbal fragments or floating verses that have been shared among multiple songs and don’t necessarily connect logically to each other within a song.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a country lawyer and musician from Madison County in western North Carolina. Known as “The Minstrel of the Appalachians,” he traveled extensively through the mountains collecting folk songs. Lunsford recorded a few songs for the Brunswick record label in 1928, including “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” In later years, he recorded 350 songs for the Library of Congress.

Novelist Robert Cantwell wrote the following about Lunsford’s recording of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”

Listen to “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” again and again. Learn to play the banjo and sing it yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and maybe your family, and you will not fathom it.

This writer can attest to that statement, having engaged in most of the aforementioned activities.

Lemon Henry “Blind Lemon” Jefferson was one of the first rural or country blues artists to achieve popular success with just guitar and voice. Born blind in Wortham, Texas, Jefferson earned money busking in the streets of Dallas. He also traveled extensively, sometimes in the company of singer/guitarists Josh White or Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. He made a series of successful recordings for Paramount Records between 1926 and his death in 1929. Jefferson recorded “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” in 1928 at his last recording session. He died a short time later in Chicago.

The Memphis Jug Band, led by singer, songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player Will Shade, recorded “K.C. Moan” in 1929. Jug bands flourished in the first decades of the 20th century, especially in cities along the Mississippi River. Their styles mixed jazz, blues, ragtime, and string band music. Jug bands played homemade instruments such as the jug, washtub bass, washboard, spoons, comb and tissue paper kazoo, in addition to manufactured instruments that might include guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mandolin.

We’ll leave the Anthology with the track that closes the set – Henry Thomas’ 1929 recording of “Fishing Blues.” Author Greil Marcus notes that there is an “almost absolute liberation” in the song. Thomas plays guitar and quills, a form of pan-pipe made from cane that has its origins in Africa. You may recognize the sound of the instrument from the Canned Heat hit “Goin’ Up the Country.”

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Three – Songs. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

Anthology of American Folk Music (4 of 5): Volume Two – Social Music

This is post 4 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

Anthology of American Folk Music has inspired countless musicians and songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Jerry Garcia, John Sebastian, and The Fugs. Folkways Records released the Anthology on six long-playing records in 1952, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-released it on compact disc in 1997.  It consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music.

Social Music focuses on music as a part of community events, specifically dance and worship. The first fourteen tracks include various forms of dance music, and the remaining fifteen songs are church and religious music.

Dance Music

The first track on Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music is a 1926 unaccompanied violin recording of “Sail Away Lady” by “Uncle Bunt” Stephens. Harry Smith, editor of the Anthology,  notes that the style of this performance is probably typical of American dance music between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Early European settlers generally used unaccompanied violin for dancing.

The African-derived banjo became a common accompaniment to the violin during the mid-19th century. The Spanish-derived guitar came into the mix in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. String bands consisting of fiddle, guitar, banjo, and sometimes mandolin and double bass, were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, laying the foundation for bluegrass and country music. “Brilliancy Medley,” recorded by Eck Robertson and Family in 1930, features violin with banjo and two guitars. Smith notes that this “medley of traditional tunes is more suited to the popular dance steps of the 1920s than for the square dance.”

Social Music also includes a few Acadian dance tunes, a jug band song, and a jazzy song that is “one of the musical ancestors of Spike Jones.”

Religious Music

The religious set of songs on Social Music begins with two “lining hymns” from Rev. J.M. Gates. In a lining hymn, the leader chants a phrase which is then sung by the congregation or choir. Smith identifies this style of  song as “one of the earliest modes of Christian religious singing in this country.”

The lining hymns are followed two shape note songs from The Sacred Harp song book, first published in 1844. Shape note singing originated in New England and was perpetuated in the American South. Shape note songbooks represent the notes of the melody with different shapes to identify the appropriate pitch. The method was devised so people who don’t read standard musical notation can join the singing. In the first part of the song, instead of the lyrics, singers sing the name of the scale position – fa, sol, la, or mi.

Other unaccompanied vocal performances follow in addition to some with instrumental accompaniment. Blind Willie Johnson recorded “John the Revelator” in 1930. Johnson made some of the most popular African American religious song recordings of the time.

Social Music concludes with Rev. D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation’s notably contemporary, jazz-inflected performance of “I’m in the Battle Field for My Lord” from 1929.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

Anthology of American Folk Music (3 of 5): Volume One – Ballads

This is post 3 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

The popularity of Americana and roots music today can, in no small measure, be credited to Anthology of American Folk Music. Writer Greil Marcus called the Anthology “the founding document of the American folk revival.” It was released by Folkways Records on six long-playing records in 1952 and re-released on compact disc by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1997.  The Anthology consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume One – Ballads.

British Ballads

Ballads are narrative, or storytelling, songs. It’s impossible to determine exactly how long humans have been telling and singing stories. The ballad tradition as we know it today is traceable to the minstrels and troubadours who traveled and entertained throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages. A repertoire of common ballads evolved in the British Isles from the 15th through the 18th century. While most may have originated from single composers, who are unknown to us today, these ballads evolved and developed variants over time through the singing of many different people.

The old British ballads tell stories of nobility, romance, love, family strife, heroes, monsters, ghosts, death, and damsels in distress. Many of these ballads were carried in the hearts and minds of immigrants to Colonial America. They were commonly sung in America and passed down to subsequent generations orally. By the early 19th century, Americans were composing new ballads to tell stories relevant to their lives in the United States.

Child Ballads

Harry Smith, the creative force who almost single-handedly assembled the Anthology, starts volume one with a series of five Old World ballads that can be found in Francis James Child’s seminal work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The books, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898, catalog the texts of 305 distinct ballads and 1,660 variants. Most of the Child ballads, as they are now commonly called, originated and circulated orally in the British Isles during the 17th and 18th centuries, though some have remnants and influences that can be traced as far back as the 13th century. The Child ballads are the cornerstone of the Anglo-American ballad tradition.

In North America, the Child ballads went where the British settlers went and have most frequently been found and collected in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, New England, the southern coastal states, and the Canadian maritime provinces. Originally sung unaccompanied, by the 1920s and 1930s when the recordings on the Anthology were made, they were often sung with instrumental accompaniment that might include guitar, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, or any combination of these and other instruments in a small string band.

The Anthology includes Child Ballad #243, “The House Carpenter,” recorded in 1930 by singer and clawhammer banjo player Clarence Ashley. All versions listed by Child are of Scottish origin, though details of the story differ. Ashley is from Shouns in East Tennessee and sang with medicine shows in the 1920s and 1930s. He is one of several Anthology artists who had a second career performing and recording music in the 1960s after being rediscovered by young folk revivalistswho had initially assumed all the artists from the Anthology had long since passed. Ashley was only 35 years old when he recorded “The House Carpenter,” though he sounds as though he might have been 135.

Heavily influenced by the music of the Anthology, Bob Dylan recorded “The House Carpenter” during the November 1961 recording sessions that produced his first album. This recording was not included on the Bob Dylan album, which consisted almost entirely of traditional folk songs. His recording of “The House Carpenter” was eventually released as part of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1 – 3, issued in 1991.

Indigenous Ballads

Following the five Child ballads, the Anthology moves into indigenous ballads that were born in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They generally recount actual events and were composed soon after the events occurred. Indigenous ballads, like British ballads, are often of unknown origin and developed many variants through the singing of people who transmitted them orally over the years. They tell stories of crime, love, natural disasters, and change brought about by the industrial revolution. On the Anthology, the songs aren’t sequenced chronologically, which would have been all but impossible. Part of Harry Smith’s genius is evident in the way the songs fit together, following sometimes intangible thematic, lyrical, or harmonic threads.

“Kassie Jones” recounts events related to an actual train wreck that occurred on April 30, 1900, killing engineer John Luther Jones. Jones was from the town of Cayce, Kentucky, which is how he attained his nickname, usually spelled “Casey.” The song was written by Wallace Saunders, a close friend of Jones, a few days after the wreck. It might more accurately be identified as a blues ballad, because it does not strictly follow the events of the story, as ballads generally do. The version of “Kassie Jones” on the Anthology was recorded by Memphis bluesman Walter “Furry” Lewis on August 28, 1928. Like Ashley, Lewis had a second career in music later in life after being rediscovered during the folk music revival by disciples of the Anthology.

The first video below is Lewis’ recording of “Kassie Jones” from the Anthology, followed by a video of him performing it in 1968.

Joni Mitchell wrote “Furry Sings the Blues,” after meeting the singer in a Memphis boarding house in the 1970s.

“The House Carpenter” and “Kassie Jones” are just two of the twenty-seven ballads on volume one of the Anthology.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume One – Ballads. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

Anthology of American Folk Music (2 of 5): An Epiphany

This is post 2 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

In high school, I didn’t really connect with my United States history course. I halfheartedly attempted to “memorize the important identifications from the chapter(s),” as I was instructed to do by my teacher, but it was solely to achieve an acceptable grade. For whatever reason (“memorize the important identifications,” anyone?)  I didn’t relate to history as a tapestry of stories about real human beings living through both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. It was through music, starting with the Anthology of American Folk Music, that this would change.

During the 1990s, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album started me down a path tracing the roots of country music. The path seemed to end abruptly at a 1927 field recording session in Bristol, Tennessee that is frequently referred to as the “Big Bang of Country Music.” Soon-to-be-stars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family , the “First Family of Country Music,” were discovered at the Bristol sessions. In the late 1990s, I also started listening to a set of CDs called Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology was a collection of American folk songs, some of which dated back to the English and Scottish ballads that were carried with emigrants to Colonial America.

I had an epiphany that would forever change my worldview when I realized that the Anthology included four recordings by the Carter Family.

The implication of this discovery was that the Bristol sessions were not the Big Bang of Country Music. The music of the Carter Family and other Bristol artists was connected to the music that came before it. While these artists in the 1920s recorded some songs of their time, many of the songs predated the recordings by 25, 50, 100, 200 or more years. All the music since the Carter Family, right up until today, is part of a continuum that reaches back to Colonial America and stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to the Old World. Whoa.

Suddenly, listening to the music and digging into the essays and annotations that accompany the Anthology, the whole story of America came alive for me in a way that it hadn’t in my high school history course. It’s one thing to read about people and events from the past, but now I was hearing and feeling their words and music. The sounds are rooted in the traditions of the countries from which they came, but the music changed and grew as people from different cultures interacted in the United States. The lyrics reflect the hopes, fears, struggles, sorrows, triumphs, and humanity of the real people who lived our history. To follow the paths taken by the music is to understand the great cultural stew that is the United States. The entire story of America can be deeply felt and understood through the music of its people.

The Anthology is organized in three volumes, with two discs dedicated to each. Volume One – Ballads, Volume Two – Social Music, and Volume Three – Songs. In subsequent posts I will explore each of the three volumes.

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

Spotify Playlist

The Carter Family and the “Big Bang” of Country Music?

Browsing through the country music section of a music store in the late 1990s, I happened upon a CD by the Carter Family. Country music sections of music stores were new to me, and I was wholly unfamiliar with the Carter Family. As I was seeking new experiences in old country music (see my previous post How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music), the photo on the cover of the album intrigued me.

Best of the Best of the Original Carter Family

The text on the back of the CD referred to the Carter Family as the “First Family of Country Music.” There was also reference to them being discovered at a 1927 recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, that has been called the “Big Bang of Country Music.” The Bristol sessions were conducted by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was seeking rural musicians to record for what was a growing “old-time” or “hillbilly” music market in the record industry during the 1920s.

The Carter Family came from Poor Valley at the foot of Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia. They were a trio consisting of Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle. The first vocal group to become country music superstars, the Carter Family carried on in various forms with two generations of offspring, which included Maybelle’s daughter June, who eventually married Johnny Cash. Maybelle’s distinctive guitar style, playing melody notes interspersed with chords (“the Carter scratch”), was hugely influential and can still be heard today in many genres of music.

So I had found the “First Family of Country Music” from the “Big Bang of Country Music.” At the time, it appeared that my search for the roots of country music, which began with the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, had reached its end. I had found the source. Or had I?

I eagerly removed the shrink wrap, inserted the CD into the player, and hit the play button. From the opening guitar notes on the first track I was hooked. And when the three-part vocal harmonies kicked in on the chorus… just listen.

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How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (3 of 4): Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly

This is post 3 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

I don’t remember the first time I heard or read the name Woody Guthrie. Does anybody? For what seems like my entire life I associated him with “This Land is Your Land” and nothing more. As my musical outlook was expanding in the 1990s, thanks in large part to my exploration of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album (see part 1 of this series), I happened upon a CD called Folkways: The Original Vision. The album, which launched the nonprofit Smithsonian Folkways label in 1989, was a collection of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly recordings from the 1940s.

I loved it from the opening notes of the first track – “Sylvie” by Lead Belly and Anne Graham. Just listen…

The album included one of Lead Belly’s several recordings of “Midnight Special,” a song that I knew from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s later version. “Midnight Special” is a traditional folk song that became a staple among folk and rock singers. It has been performed and recorded by Little Richard, Van Morrison, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney, and many others.

Another Lead Belly song from the album, “Rock Island Line,” was covered by the Beatles in their original incarnation as a skiffle group, The Quarrymen. Skiffle was a music craze in England in the 1950s that consisted of British youth playing American folk and blues songs on whatever instruments they could obtain or devise. Many of the rock artists associated with the 1960s British Invasion, including the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Who, started out listening to and playing skiffle. Skiffle bands learned more than a few songs from Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie records.

The Lead Belly songs on Folkways: The Original Vision were more interesting and satisfying to me at the time than the Woody Guthrie songs, but the influence Woody had on one of my favorite artists, Bob Dylan, was unmistakable. Before he began writing his own songs, Dylan was “like a Woody Guthrie jukebox,” as he later described himself. When he did begin writing songs, Dylan borrowed melodies and song styles from Woody.

Folkways: The Original Vision included one of Woody’s recordings of “Pretty Boy Floyd. ” This song was covered by the Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The floodgates were open. The connections I was making between older folk and country music and the rock music I loved were undeniable, and I was compelled to swim further up the stream.

Continued in part 4 of 4. Sign up to receive future posts by email using the box on the right.

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How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (2 of 4): The Louvin Brothers

This is post 2 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

The first time I heard the Louvin Brothers, one of the artists covered by the Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, I was struck by how much their sound and vocal harmonies reminded me of the Everly Brothers. I loved the Everlys and many of the artists who were inspired by their vocals, including the Beatles, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys. Could the Louvin Brothers be the source of all this musical magic?

Not exactly. The Louvin Brothers, who first recorded in 1947, listened to older harmony duos, including the Monroe Brothers (first recorded in 1936), the Blue Sky Boys (first recorded in 1936), the Delmore Brothers (first recorded in 1931), and Mac and Bob (first recorded in 1926). No doubt the harmonies and some of the repertoire of folk, country, and sacred songs performed and recorded by these duos predates the era of recorded sound in the music of the Appalachian Mountains, where the duos originated.

After scoring top ten hits with “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” from their self-titled debut album in 1958, the Everly Brothers released an album called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. The album featured traditional folk and country songs the brothers learned from their father, Ike Everly. Ike was a guitar player who had worked in the coal mines in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and the songs he taught his sons were cut from the same cloth as those recorded by the Louvin Brothers, Monroe Brothers, et al.



The Louvin Brothers first came to my attention in 1997 shortly after Capitol Records released three of their classic albums on compact disc. An article by David Cantwell that appeared in Miami New Times piqued my interest, and I purchased Tragic Songs of Life (originally released in 1956) and Satan is Real (originally released in 1959). The Louvin Brothers were a musical duo consisting of brothers Ira (guitar and vocals) and Charlie (mandolin and vocals). They began their career in the 1940s singing gospel music. Until they split up in 1963, largely because of problems caused by Ira’s excessive alcohol consumption, they performed and recorded a mix of gospel and secular folk and country music that often focused on themes of God, family, love, and loss. As Cantwell wrote, “If you said these harmonies were the closest anyone has ever come to actually simulating the pain of human loss and desire right there in the recording studio, you would probably be right. But you still wouldn’t be doing them justice.” The Cantwell article is a good place to start if you want to know more about the Louvins and their music.

I don’t quite recall how I made the connection between the Louvin Brothers and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo (see part 1 of this series). I don’t know if I bought the Louvin Brothers albums because I recognized that one of their songs, “The Christian Life,” was covered by the Byrds on Sweetheart, or if I only discovered that when I heard their original version on Satan is Real. But no matter. The Byrds had eased me into the sounds of country music, and I learned that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it could be downright beautiful. And I was learning that country music was elemental to rock & roll.

Continued in part 3 of 4. Sign up to receive future posts by email using the box on the right.

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How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (1 of 4): Sweetheart of the Rodeo

This is post 1 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

OK – so I wasn’t really a hard rocker or metalhead, but my gradual discovery of American heritage music was a revelation that caused a transformation in me. I found that much of the music in America today is part of a continuum that reaches back to Colonial America and stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to the Old World. American heritage music includes, but is not limited to, traditional folk songs, fiddle tunes, ballads (both Old and New World), sea shanties, railroad and cowboy songs, Appalachian, ragtime, spirituals, work songs, minstrel, blues, jazz, jug band, rhythm and blues, old-time, country and western, bluegrass, and rock & roll.

Being on this journey has deepened my understanding and appreciation of many genres of music, new and old. The music connects me to the strength and beauty that have emerged from the often troubled history of the United States. I believe that it can do the same for you. I’m still traveling down this path of discovery, and I am happy to point out some of the highlights that I find along the way, if you care to join me by reading this blog. This is American heritage music. This is your birthright. Own it.

The Beatles were my first love musically, and most everything I listened to was influenced by them. I was one of those “I like all kinds of music, except country” people. Upon hearing Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album (1987), I commented that it was “too country” for me. Now I own and play seven different banjos and write a blog called American Heritage Music. The album that opened the door for me was The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

It was sometime around 1990, and I was in college. I liked The Byrds, but I was primarily familiar with their hits. Although we were squarely in the CD era, my housemate (future Rambling String Band bassist Chris DeAngelis)  had a turntable and a massive record collection. Stumbling upon Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I dropped the needle and found that it wasn’t the rock (or folk/rock) music that I was expecting, though the title and cover may also have clued me in to that. It was country music. I didn’t know much about country music, but I knew this much – I did not like country music. But I liked Sweetheart of the Rodeo. A lot.

The album was largely the vision of Gram Parsons, who was a member of The Byrds only for the recording of this one album. There were contributions by Nashville session musicians, including Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar, John Hartford on banjo, fiddle, and acoustic guitar, and Clarence White on electric guitar, who become a full-time member of the band following Parsons’ departure.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons

Today, with the popularity of Americana music and artists like Wilco, Ryan Adams, and Jason Isbell, all roads lead back to Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As the first country rock album by a major artist, it essentially launched the genre of Americana music decades before that term would be used. From Pure Prairie League to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to the Eagles and beyond, the influence of Sweetheart is well-documented and can be easily heard.

But this story and blog is not about what came after Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It is about what came before. (see Americana: How Country and Roots Music Found a “Brand New Dance” for what came after). The album included songs written by Bob Dylan (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”), another one of my favorite artists at the time. There were a few songs penned by Gram Parsons (“One Hundred Years from Now” and “Hickory Wind,” co-written by Bob Buchanan). One song was written by Merle Haggard and another by soul singer and songwriter William Bell.

It was the songs written by three other names that really started me on my journey backwards in time to the roots of American music: “The Christian Life”by the Louvin Brothers, “Pretty Boy Floyd” by Woody Guthrie, and “I Am a Pilgrim” by Traditional.

Continued in part 2 of 4. Sign up to receive future posts by email using the box on the right.

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