Once More a-Lumbering Go: An American Folk Song

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” is an American occupational song from the 19th century. It describes the life and work of the lumberjacks who harvested and transported trees, providing raw materials for the growing nation. The work of the lumberjacks also, as their saying goes, “let some daylight into these swamps.”

Historical Background

European settlers in North America began chopping down trees to clear land and build homes since their earliest arrival. As the colonies grew, so did logging as an industry. Lumber was needed for houses, public buildings, firewood, and ships for fishing and trade.

Lumberjacks bucking a tree into logs
Lumberjacks bucking a tree into logs

The early logging industry was centered in the northeastern part of what would become the United States. The Northeast had dense forests of white oak, cedar, chestnut, and other trees. The industry started in  Maine and Massachusetts and gradually expanded to New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Most of the early Maine woodsmen were of English heritage. By the 1830s many Irish immigrants had joined the labor force. By the 1850s Scandinavians, French Canadians, and Eastern Europeans also participated.

In the 1830s, as wood resources were depleted in the Northeast, the logging center migrated to the Great Lakes region. Loggers in Wisconsin and Michigan included people of German, English, Irish, and Dutch descent. By the 1880s, logging was taking place in the Pacific Northwest territories of Oregon and Washington. The work was done by Poles, Swedes, Czechs, Greeks, Armenians, Belgians, Germans, and Dutch.

Lumberjack Life and Work

Workers in the logging industry have been called loggers, lumbermen, lumberjacks, woodsmen, woodcutters, choppers, or shanty boys. During the 19th century, lumberjacks generally called themselves shanty boys, referencing the crudely-built wooden shacks in which they lived. During the working seasons of fall through spring, they lived communally in these bunkhouses at camps near the logging sites.

Lumberjacks in front of a shanty
Lumberjacks in front of a shanty

Shanty boys followed the timber-harvesting jobs where and when they were available. The pay was low and the living conditions primitive. Lumberjacks worked 12 to 14 hours a day, sometimes in freezing temperatures. The work was difficult and dangerous. Using only hand tools such as axes and cross-cut saws, they felled trees, removed the limbs, bucked them into logs, and transported the logs to a river to send downstream.

Lumberjack Singing

At night, the lumberjacks returned to their camp. They sharpened their axes and sat at the dinner table, where talking was often forbidden. After dinner they sat on the long, wooden deacon seat beside the stove  or around the campfire talking, telling stories, playing cards, and singing songs.

Shanty boys sang songs with which they were familiar, including the old Child and broadside ballads that were carried from the British Isles. They also sang indigenous ballads and songs that were made up in the United States. Some songs were sung by only one singer and some in groups. Some might have had a solo singer on the verses with all joining in on the repeated refrain.

Lumberjacks also created and sang their own occupational songs, including “Once More a-Lumbering Go.” Occupational songs describe work, work conditions, or attitude towards work. They differ from work songs, which are sung during the actual act of labor and might be about any topic. Occupational songs are not necessarily sung during work, but they are about the subject of work.

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” Song History

In the 18th century, ballads that concerned themselves with the lives of common people and began with the words “come all ye…” had become very popular in Great Britain. In America, this type of ballad became the basis for many new songs, including “The Lovey Ohio” and “Once More a-Lumbering Go.”

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” first appeared in print under the title “The Logger’s Boast” in John S. Springer’s 1851 book Forest Life and Forest Trees: Comprising Winter Camp-life Among the Loggers and Wild-wood Adventure with Descriptions of Lumbering Operations on the Various Rivers of Maine and New Brunswick. Springer spent several “of the most pleasant years of his life” as a lumberman in the pine forests of Maine. His book is an excellent source of information about the life and work of lumbermen. It is available digitally for free from several online sources, including Internet Archive and Google Books.

Following are the lyrics as printed in Springer’s book. No tune is provided.

The Logger’s Boast

Come, all ye sons of freedom throughout the State of Maine
Come, all ye gallant lumbermen, and listen to my strain
On the banks of the Penobscot, where the rapid waters flow
O! we’ll range the wild woods over while a lumbering we go

When the white frost gilds the valleys, the cold congeals the flood
When many men have naught to do to earn their families bread
When the swollen streams are frozen, and the hills are clad with snow
O! we’ll range the wild woods over, and a lumbering we wil go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

When you pass through the dense city, and pity all you meet
To hear their teeth chattering as they hurry down the street
In the red frost-proof flannel we’re incased from top to toe
While we range the wild woods over, and a lumbering we go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

You may boast of your gay parties, your pleasures, and your plays
And pity us poor lumbermen while dashing in your sleighs
We want no better pastime than to chase the buck and doe
O! we’ll range the wild woods over, and a lumbering we will go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

The music of our burnished ax shall make the woods resoundAnd many a lofty ancient Pine will tumble to the ground
At night, ho! Round our good camp-fire we will sing while rude winds blow
O! we’ll range the wild woods over while a lumbering we go

And a lumbering we’ll go, so a lumbering, &c.

When winter’s snows are melted, and the ice-bound streams are free
We’ll run our logs to market, then haste our friends to seeHow kindly true hearts welcome us, our wives and children too
We will spend with these the summer, and once more a lumbering go

And when upon the long-hid soil the white Pines disappear
We will cut the other forest trees, and sow whereon we clear
Our grain shall wave o’er valleys rich, our herds bedot the hills
When our feet are no more hurried on to tend the driving mills

“When our youthful days are ended,” we will cease from winter toils
And each one through the summer warm will till the virgin soil
“We’ve enough to eat,” to drink, to wear, content through life to go
Then we’ll tell our wild adventures o’er, and no more a lumbering go

And no more a lumbering go, so no more a lumbering go
O! we’ll tell our wild adventures o’er and no more a lumbering go

John and Alan Lomax printed lyrics and melody for a version of the song in their 1947 book Folk Song, U.S.A. The book was later republished under the title Best Loved American Folk Songs.

Once More a-Lumb’ring Go

Come all you sons of freedom that run the Saginaw stream
Come all you roving lumberjacks and listen to my theme
We’ll cross the Tittabawassee where the mighty waters flow
And we’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

When the white frost takes the valley and the snow conceals the woods
Each farmer has enough to do to earn the family food
With the week no better pastime than to hunt the buck and doe
And we’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

You may talk about your farms your houses and fine ways
And pity us poor shanty boys while dashing in our sleighs
Around a good campfire at night we’ll sing while the wild winds blow
And we’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

With our axes on our shoulders we’ll make the woods resound
And many a tall and stately tree will come tumbling to the ground
With our axes on our shoulders to our boot tops deep in snow
We’ll range the wild woods over and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

When navigation opens and the waters run so free
We’ll drive our logs to Saginaw then haste our girls to see
They will welcome our return and we’ll in raptures flow
And we’ll stay with them through summer and once more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

When our youthful days are ended and our jokes are getting long
We’ll take us each a little wife and settle on a farm
We’ll have enough to eat and drink contented we will go
And we’ll tell our wives of our hard times and no more a-lumb’ring go

And once more a-lumb’ring go
And once more a-lumb’ring go
And we’ll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbring go

“Once More a-Lumbering Go” Recordings

Folk music collector Alan Lomax recorded lumberjack Carl Lathrop singing “Once More a-Lumbering Go” in Saint Louis, Michigan on August 22, 1938. The recording is part of the Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings.

“The Adirondack Minstrel” Lawrence Older recorded the song for folk music collectors Caroline and Sandy Paton in the 1960s. Older was a lumberjack and musician who played fiddle, guitar, and sang songs he learned from his musical family. His recording of “Once More a-Lumbering Go” is part of the Folk-Legacy Records full-length album of his music calledAdirondack Songs, Ballads, and Fiddle Tunes.

The 20-minute film Adirondack Minstrel featuring Older can be viewed online at Folkstreams.

My version of “Once More a-Lumbering Go” is based on the printed lyrics and melody in Best Loved American Folk Songs. The recording is on my first album of traditional folk songs Over a Wide and Fruitful Land (Ballad of America Volume 1)released in 2004. The album tells the story of the westward expansion of the United States through the 19th century.

Spotify Playlist

Shenandoah: An American Folk Song

There are few melodies as recognizable as that of the American folk song “Shenandoah.” As with most folk songs, there are many different variations and versions, and it is impossible to determine the song’s exact origin. It has commonly been sung as a sea shanty (also spelled chantey or chanty), though it most likely originated with early French Canadian fur traders. Versions of the song have linked it to riverboat men, cavalry men, mountain men, and soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Some use names, including Sally Brown, Polly Brown, Darby Doyle, Paddy Doyle, or Dan O’Shea, in place of the word Shenandoah.

In summing up the beauty and appeal of the song, it is hard to top the writing of John and Alan Lomax in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs:

The melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.

Sea Shanties

Sea shanties, or nautical shanties, are the work songs of sailors. Often sung in call and response fashion, shanties coordinate the actions of sailors in specific tasks. The singing of shanties evolved from more primitive chants and calls to coordinate work on board sailing vessels. They evolved with British and northern European sailors during the 16th century. Shanties sung by American sailors include older European and American songs, adaptations of these songs, and original creations. The 1820s through the 1860s were the peak years for American shantying. These were years that smaller packet ships carried passengers, goods, and mail on rivers and along the coasts of America. Fast transatlantic clipper ships brought immigrants and transferred goods both ways across the Atlantic Ocean.

Shanties are generally one of two types: hauling or heaving. Hauling songs coordinate intermittent actions, such as pulling on a halyard (rope) to hoist a topsail. Heaving songs accompany continuous actions, such as pushing the wooden bars of a capstan to raise the anchor of a ship. The anchor’s rope winds around the capstan, which is a sort of giant winch. Rhythmic coordination of action is less important in heaving songs than in hauling songs.

“Shenandoah” was one of the most popular capstan shanties. Heaving songs such as this set an appropriate, manageable pace and inspired the sailors to accomplish the task at hand, which could be quite long in duration.

Sailors working at a capstan
Sailors working at a capstan

French Canadian Origins

The song first appeared in writing as “Shenadore” in The New Dominion Monthly in April, 1876. The author, Captain Robert Chamblet Adams, indicated that he had first heard the song around 1850.  W.B. Whall reprinted it in his 1910 book Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner. The lyrics tell the story of a canoeing voyageur, or fur trader, who was in love with the daughter of a Native American chief.

This earliest known version of the song likely originated with French Canadian voyageurs who traded with Native Americans around the Great Lakes starting in the 16th century. The voyageurs gave weapons, tools, and money in exchange for animal furs, especially beaver pelts. They often sang while they paddled their canoes along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including the Missouri, in the quest for furs.

"Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" - painting by George Caleb Bingham
“Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” – painting by George Caleb Bingham

Most musicologists agree that the chief mentioned in “Shenandoah” is the Oneida Iroquois chief John Skenandoa. Skenandoa supported the English against the French in the Seven Years (or French and Indian) War. Support for the English may be the reason that the chief forbade the love between his daughter and the French trader, if the story in this early version of “Shenandoah” is true.

Missouri, she’s a mighty river.
Away you rolling river.
The redskins’ camp, lies on its borders.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

The white man loved the Indian maiden,
Away you rolling river.
With notions his canoe was laden.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

“O, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,
Away you rolling river.
I’ll take her ‘cross yon rolling water.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

The chief disdained the trader’s dollars:
Away you rolling river.
“My daughter never you shall follow.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

At last there came a Yankee skipper.
Away you rolling river.
He winked his eye, and he tipped his flipper.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

He sold the chief that fire-water,
Away you rolling river.
And ‘cross the river he stole his daughter.
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

“O, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Away you rolling river.
Across that wide and rolling river.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound away, ‘Cross the wide Missouri.

(from Ships, Sea Songs and Shanties Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner)

Other Versions

Flatboatmen carrying goods on the American rivers in the early 19th century may also have sung versions of “Shenandoah.” Sailors on packet ships along the Mississippi River sang it while they hauled in the anchor. Eventually, sailors on American clipper ships carried the song around the world.

In the book American Ballads and Folk Songs (Macmillan, 1934), John and Alan Lomax include a version called “The Wild Mizzourye.” They identify this as a version sung by U.S. Cavalry men in the American West.

For seven long years I courted Nancy
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
For seven long years I courted Nancy
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

She would not have me for a lover
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
She would not have me for a lover
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And so she took my fifteen dollars
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And so she took my fifteen dollars
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And then she went to Kansas City
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And then she went to Kansas City
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

And there she had a little sh-sh-baby
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
And there she had a little sh-sh-baby
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

She must have had another lover
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
She must have had another lover
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

He must have been a _th Cavalry Soldier
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
He must have been a _th Cavalry Soldier
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

I’m drinkin’ rum and chawin’ tobacco
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
I’m drinkin’ rum and chawin’ tobacco
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

I learned this song from Tommy Tompkins
Hi! Ho! The rolling river!
I learned this song from Tommy Tompkins
Ha! Ha! I’m bound away for the wild Mizzourye!

(from American Ballads and Folk Songs by John and Alan Lomax)

Carl Sandburg provides a version with some similar stanzas in his book The American Songbag (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927). He indicates that “The Wide Mizzoura” was sung by regular army men by 1897. Instead of the word “Shenandoah,” Sandburg’s version uses “Shannadore.”

In his book Splendour of the Seas (E. Stanford, 1953) Captain Frank H. Shaw includes the following version, which celebrates the Shenandoah River and Valley of Virginia and West Virginia.

O Shenandoah, I long ter hear yer
O Shenandoah, I long ter hear yer

O Shenandoah, I look a-notion
To sail across the stormy ocean

O Shenandoah, I’m bound ter leave yer
But, Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive yer

O Shenandoah, I love yer daughters
I love the music of yer waters

‘Tis seven long years since last I seed yer
But, Shenandoah, I’ll never grieve yer

O Shenandoah’s my native valley
Beside her waters I love to dally

O Shenandoah, she’s a lovely river
An’ I shall never forget you ever

(from Splendour of the Seas by Captain Frank H. Shaw)

America’s familiarity with “Shenandoah” soared in the 1960s when it was featured in at least two popular films. How the West was Won (1962) linked the song with the American West, and Shenandoah (1965) connected it to the Civil War.

My version of “Shenandoah” with the Rambling String Band includes the lyrics from John and Alan Lomax’s Folk Song U.S.A. (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 1947).

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Missouri, she’s a mighty river
Away, you rolling river
The Indians camp along her borders
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

The white man loved an Indian maiden
Away, you rolling river
With notions his canoe was laden
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

O Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Away, you rolling river
For her I’ve crossed the rolling water
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Seven long years I courted Sally
Away, you rolling river
Seven more I longed to have her
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Farewell, my dear, I’m bound to leave you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

“Shenandoah” is one of the most recorded and performed American folk songs. The Spotify playlist below includes versions by Harry Belafonte, Trampled by Turtles, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Richard Thompson, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Spotify Playlist

The Wisconsin Emigrant: An American Folk Song

The desire for land has been part of the American psyche since the time of the early European explorers, conquistadors, and settlers. Throughout the 19th century, the quest for land pulled Americans ever farther towards the West. It also drove government policies and military actions that removed Native Americans from their lands.

While there was opportunity for American pioneers in the West, there was also a great deal of uncertainty. The decision whether or not to leave the relatively settled lands of the East was not an easy one to make. The lyrics to The Wisconsin Emigrant are representative of the discussions that went on in thousands of households as husband and wife debated whether or not to take their chances in the West.

Historical Background

Thomas Jefferson promoted the idea that the United States should be a nation of small, independent farmers. This would require a great deal of land to accommodate the growing population. Jefferson drafted the Land Ordinance of 1784, incorporating territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1803, as President, he purchased approximately 828,000,000 square miles of territory from France, doubling the size of the United States.

Following the War of 1812, immigrants flooded into the United States to farm, work in factories, and build roads and canals. Because the soil in New England was poor and not ideal for farming, the region thrived on industries such as manufacturing, shipping, and foreign trade. Eastern seaboard land in the United States became scarce and expensive as industrialization advanced. For struggling New England farmers and factory workers, the lure of western lands for farming and independent living was strong. Many pioneers loaded their wagons and headed west.

The Northwest Territory, which existed legally from 1787-1803, consisted of all the land in the United States west of Pennsylvania and northwest of the Ohio River. This included the present-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota.

The British Empire and France struggled for control of this region during the 18th century. During the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) the Native Americans living in the area generally fought alongside the French, with whom they had longstanding trade relations. Britain was victorious and took control of the land at the end of the war. The Great Lakes region became part of the United States in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, but that did not end the disputes.

For decades the British maintained a presence in the area and supported the Native Americans in their resistance against American expansion. Miami Chief Little Turtle led a confederation of tribes, including the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Odawa, and Chippewa, against the United States Army in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795). The confederacy lost and were forced to cede extensive territory, including much of present-day Ohio. In 1810 Shawnee leader Tecumseh led an Indian confederacy against the U.S. Army. Tecumseh’s War bled into the War of 1812, with Britain and the confederacy ultimately being defeated.

Tecumseh
Tecumseh

The end of the War of 1812 marked the end of British support for Indian resistance. The war also “renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution has given,” according to Albert Gallatin, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. “They are more Americans; and they feel and act more as a nation.” Americans turned to the federal government to cancel Native American titles to land in the Northwest and Indiana Territories. Official commissioners negotiated with remaining tribes for their lands and moved them farther west.

In 1827 the Winnebago tribe, reacting to a wave of lead miners trespassing on their lands in what is now the state of Wisconsin, attacked some American civilians. The so-called Winnebago Uprising consisted of only one or two incidents, but it alarmed American officials. After a show of U.S. military force, the Winnebagos ceded the lead mining region to the United States.

The Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. Some tribes went peacefully. Others did not. Between 1830 and 1832 Sauk Chief Black Hawk led groups of Sauks, Meskawakis, and Kickapoos east across the Mississippi into the Illinois lands that were once theirs. Black Hawk believed that the treaties ceding Sauk lands had been signed without full tribal authorization. The U.S. Army drove the tribes back across the Mississippi River. Following the Black Hawk War, as this brief conflict is called, President Jackson ordered the relocation of all other tribes still living in the Northwest Territory to the Indian Territory across the Mississippi.

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Song History

In 1931, 1941, and 1942 ballad collector Helen Hartness Flanders made recordings of “The Wisconsin Emigrant” from three different singers in New England. Between 1930 and 1958 Flanders, a native of Vermont, collected traditional songs and ballads throughout New England. Her collection of nearly 4,500 field recordings, transcriptions, and analyses are housed at the Flanders Ballad Collection at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Helen Hartness Flanders
Helen Hartness Flanders (left) with Eveline K. Fairbanks, one of the singers whose traditional songs she recorded

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Lyrics

Since times are so hard, I’ve thought, my true heart
Of leaving my oxen, my plough, and my cart
And away to Wisconsin, a journey we’d go
To double our fortune as other folks do
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, I’ve noticed with sorrowful heart
You’ve neglected your oxen, your plough, and your cart
Your sheep are disordered; at random they run
And your new Sunday suit is now every day on
Oh, stay on the farm and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let’s go; oh, don’t let us wait
Oh, I long to be there; oh, I long to be great
While you some rich lady – and who knows but I
Some governor may be before that I die?
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land is to clear
Which will cost you the labor of many a year
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are to buy
And you’ll scarcely get settled before you must die
Oh, stay on the farm and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Oh wife, let’s go; oh, don’t let us stay
I will buy me a farm that is cleared by the way
Where horses, sheep, cattle, and hogs are not dear
And we’ll feast on fat buffalo half of the year
While here I must labor each day in the field
And the winter consumes all the summer doth yield

Oh husband, remember that land of delight
Is surrounded by Indians who murder by night
Your house they will plunder and burn to the ground
While your wife and your children lie murdered around
Oh, stay on the farm, and you’ll suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

Now wife, you’ve convinced me; I’ll argue no more
I never had thought of your dying before
I love my dear children, although they are small
But you, my dear wife, are more precious than all
We’ll stay on the farm, and suffer no loss
For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss

“The Wisconsin Emigrant” Recordings

From the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection

My version of “The Wisconsin Emigrant” is based on the printed lyrics, chords, and melody in The Ballad of America: The History of the United States in Song and Story by John Anthony Scott. I had not heard any recording of the song at the time I learned it from the book. “The Wisconsin Emigrant” is the second track on my first album of traditional folk songs Over a Wide and Fruitful Land (Ballad of America Volume 1)released in 2004. The album tells the story of the westward expansion of the United States through the 19th century.

Spotify Playlist

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

Spotify Playlist

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.
http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1258.

“Railroad Bill [Laws I13].” Traditional Ballad Index.
http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/LI13.html.

The Lovely Ohio: An American Folk Song

“The Lovely Ohio” is an American folk song that arose from unknown sources in the United States during the late 18th or early 19th century. It celebrates the opportunities available in the Ohio River Valley, inviting settlement into the long-disputed lands.

Come all ye brisk young fellows who have a mind to roam
All in some foreign country, a long way from home
All in some foreign country, along with me to go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
We’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

“The Lovely Ohio” is one of the first traditional folk songs that I learned to sing and play. I was fascinated by the historical context out of which it emerged. The lyrics express the beliefs and practical needs of the settlers, reflecting the pioneering spirit of the time. The “come all ye” style linked the song to musical traditions from the Old World. Listeners today can connect with an important part of the American story through “The Lovely Ohio.”

Historical Background

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, European nations that were establishing colonies in the Americas frequently clashed with each other and Native American populations. In 1756, years of territorial struggle between the British and French in the Ohio River Valley resulted in the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, known in the colonies as the French and Indian War. Both sides established allies with local Native American tribes. With the defeat of the French in 1763, the British gained control of Canada and all land east of the Mississippi River.

The French had generally respected Native American traditions in the Great Lakes region, and they established good trade relationships. When the British took control of the area following the Seven Years’ War, they restricted the tribes’ ability to trade and provoked distrust and hostility.  Pontiac, a leader of the Odawa people, organized a violent uprising against the British confederacy that included nearly every tribe from Lake Superior to the lower Mississippi. Pontiac’s War, or Pontiac’s Rebellion, reached a negotiated end in 1766.

In an effort to minimize further confrontations in the region, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763 which forbade English settlement west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. It established the land as Indian territory. Colonists disregarded the proclamation and continued to settle in the territory, resulting in further violent clashes with local tribes. In an effort to quell the violence and quiet colonial discontent with the proclamation, the British government established subsequent treaties that acquired additional Indian land for British settlement.

It would not be enough. The Declaration of Independence cited “raising the conditions of new appropriation of lands” as part of the justification for freeing the thirteen colonies from British rule.  At the end of the American Revolution, Great Britain legally recognized the independent existence of the United States of America. Britain ceded claims not only on their colonies, but also on the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

The United States Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 officially establishing the Northwest Territory, which included the Ohio River Valley. The new law set conditions for settling in the territory and addressed the rights of the Native Americans living there.

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress.

This was not to be. The violence continued as a growing population of Anglo-American settlers came to inhabit Indian lands. A series of United States government treaties and policies, backed by the U.S. Army, forced the tribes onto reservations west of the Mississippi River by the middle of the 19th century.

“The Lovely Ohio” Song History

Songs about the lives of common people that opened with the call “come all ye” were very popular in the British Isles in the 18th century. In the early United States, the “come all ye” format was the foundation for many new songs about the American experience.

A song called “The Banks of the Ohio” appeared in the Forget Me Not Songster: Containing a Choice Collection of Old Ballad Songs, As Sung By Our Grandmothers, published in 1842. More than a dozen slightly different versions of songsters were published in the mid-19th century with this name. The subtitle Containing a Choice Collection of Old Ballad Songs, As Sung By Our Grandmothers suggests that the books included songs that were known perhaps fifty years earlier.

Forget Me Not Songster

Melodies were not printed in the books, but the lyrics to “The Banks of the Ohio” are very similar to those in the song now known as “The Lovely Ohio.”

Come all you young men who have mind for to range
Into the Western country, your station for to change
For seeking some new pleasure we’ll all together go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the pleasant Ohio

The 1941 book Songs of Yesterday: A Song Anthology of American Life by Philip D. Jordan and Lillian Kessler includes “We’ll Hunt the Buffalo!” with lyrics virtually identical to “The Lovely Ohio,” except for the addition of a repeated chorus. The melody, “arranged” in the book by A. Briff is also very similar to “The Lovely Ohio” melody. The following words are attributed only to “F.M.”

We’ll Hunt the Buffalo!

Come all you brisk young fellows, who have a mind to roam
Unto some foreign country, a long way from home
Unto some foreign country along with me to go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

chorus (sung after each verse):
Sweet and shady groves!
Thro’ the wild woods we’ll wander,
and we’ll hunt the Buffalo,
And we’ll hunt the Buffalo,
Thro’ the wild woods we’ll wander,
and we’ll hunt the Buffalo.

Come all ye pretty fair maids, and spin us some yarn
To make us some nice clothing, to keep ourselves warm;
For you can knit and sew, my loves, while we do reap and mow,
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio.

There are fishes in the river just fitted for our use;
There’s tall and lofty sugarcane that yields us some juice;
There is all kind of game, my boys, beside the buck and doe,
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio.

If ever those wild Indians do unto us come nigh,
We will all unite, together, lads, to conquer or to die;
We will march into their tents, boys, and strike the deadly blow,
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio.

“The Lovely Ohio” Lyrics

Following are the lyrics as printed in Alan Lomax’s 1960 book Folk Songs of North America. Lomax’s source for the lyrics and melody is singer Ed McCurdy’s recording from his 1956 album A Ballad Singer’s Choice. The liner notes for the album do not indicate McCurdy’s source for the song, but the lyrics and melody are very similar to “We’ll Hunt the Buffalo!” above, with one of the verses and the repeating chorus eliminated.

The Lovely Ohio

Come all ye brisk young fellows who have a mind to roam
All in some foreign country, a long way from home
All in some foreign country, along with me to go
And we’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
We’ll settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

Come all you pretty fair maids, spin us some yarn
To make us some nice clothing to keep ourselves warm
For you can knit and sew, my loves, while we do reap and mow
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

There are fishes in the river, just fitted for our use
There’s tall and lofty sugar cane that will give to us its juice
There’s every kind of game, my boys, also the buck and doe
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio
When we settle on the banks of the lovely Ohio

“The Lovely Ohio” Recordings

My version of “The Lovely Ohio” is based on the printed lyrics and melody in Folk Songs of North America. I had not heard McCurdy’s or any other recording of the song at the time I learned it from the book. “The Lovely Ohio” is the opening track on my first album of traditional folk songs Over a Wide and Fruitful Land (Ballad of America Volume 1)released in 2004. The album tells the story of the westward expansion of the United States through the 19th century.

Ed McCurdy opened his 1956 album A Ballad Singer’s Choice with “The Lovely Ohio.” In the liner notes, McCurdy writes that the song is “a very good song of its type and era. The words sound honest and the tune sings along with good humor.”

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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.

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 (4 of 4): Traditional

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

One song on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, “I Am a Pilgrim,” has a songwriting credit that attributes it to “traditional.” My understanding at the time I first heard the song was that traditional meant it was so old that no one remembers who wrote it.Later I learned that “traditional” is a term, like “folk music” and “old-time music,” that has been defined in different ways. Some people spend a lot of time and brainpower discussing, dissecting, and debating the minutiae of these definitions. Fortunately for you, I am not one of those people.

For our purposes, let’s just expand my original definition a little. A song can be traditional even if the name of the songwriter(s) is known. Traditional songs are those that are performed by custom in a community and have been passed down orally, or aurally, over a period of at least a few generations. Close enough.

“I Am a Pilgrim” is of unknown origin. It seems to be related to many different 19th century song texts. It was possibly an African American spiritual from the time of slavery. Trying to determine the origins of a traditional song of unknown origin is part of the fun and frustration of folk music.

The earliest recording that I have been able to identify is by the Heavenly Gospel Singers, recorded on February 13, 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The song has been recorded by many others, including Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Alabama, Willie Nelson, and Doc Watson. Some people mistakenly attribute its authorship to Merle Travis, possibly because his version provided the blueprint for some of the versions to follow. In the spoken introduction for his 1946 recording of “I Am a Pilgrim” (below), Merle indicates that he learned the song in his youth at the camp meetings and Brush Arbor meetings (religious gatherings) presumably in or near his hometown of Rosewood, Kentucky (Muhlenberg County). Depending on how old Merle, who was born in 1917, was when he “first got big enough to start running around by myself at night,” this supports the idea that the song was in circulation prior to the recording by the Heavenly Gospel Singers.

Here is the 1968 recording from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album started me traveling down a most unexpected road that led to country and folk musicians the Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Merle Travis. This was only the beginning of my journey into American heritage music. Little did I know how far the road would go, how many forks it would have, and how long I would travel it. It’s been more than two decades and I’m still fascinated by what I find around every bend.

Spotify Playlist