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.

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

What is Old-Time Music?

When I first started performing traditional American folk music in the early 2000s, I shared a bill once with The Flying Turtles String Band. Tom and Ellen Hogan, founders of the band, told me that they host an old-time jam every Tuesday evening in the Boca Raton warehouse in which they build furniture for a living. I had no idea what an old-time jam was, but it sounded like it was probably for me. It was. As I walked into the unfinished warehouse, I was enveloped in the reverberating, yet unamplified, sounds coming from some twenty people playing tunes that were more than a hundred years old on fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins, and bass fiddles. This was my introduction to the living tradition of old-time music.

Old-time music is alive and well in communities around the United States and other parts of the world. But just what is old-time music? There is no single definition, so I have culled the following thoughts from various articles and my own observations and experiences.

Old-time music encompasses various styles that originated in rural America before recorded music and radio were widely available. This was music made in the home and in community spaces, generally for personal entertainment or dancing. It emerged from the synthesis of European and African musical sensibilities, particularly fiddle traditions from Scotland, Ireland, England, France, and Germany; ballad traditions from Scotland and England; and vocal, rhythm, and instrumental styles from West Africa. Much of this is embodied in the union of European fiddle and African banjo music.

The American southeast has been an especially productive incubator for old-time music styles. Today, the music remains unusually concentrated and persistent in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Other parts of the United States also have their own regional old-time music styles.

Old-Time Music Recordings

Though I stated earlier that old-time music originated before recorded music and radio were widely available, recordings from the late 1920s through the mid 1930s are among the best sources to hear old-time music. These recordings were generally made by and for white rural Southerners. Record labels marketed these records as “old familiar tunes,” “old time tunes,” and eventually “hillbilly.” As one might infer from these descriptions, most of the songs were already old and familiar at the time they were first recorded in the ’20s and ’30s.

Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records
Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records

These original old-time music recordings included:

Fiddle tunes

Old British ballads

Newer American ballads

Tin Pan Alley/sentimental songs

Religious music

Bluegrass and Old-Time Music

Though they share similar instrumentation and even some repertoire, bluegrass is not considered old-time music. Old-time music laid the foundation for bluegrass. Early bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers played and listened to old-time music before bluegrass emerged in the 1940s. Bluegrass is a more modern form of Appalachian music that incorporates improvised solos, which are generally not part of old-time music traditions. Bluegrass also tends to be music for performance, whereas old-time music is connected to social events like dancing.

Old-Time Music Today

Old-time music is a living tradition. Some people who play it today prefer to stick close to the styles of the original source material, while others use the older styles as a springboard for creativity and innovation. These more contemporary adaptations are sometimes referred to as neo-traditional.

Weekly or monthly old-time music jams occur in many communities across the United States. These communities develop a shared repertoire of tunes that they play together in an informal setting. Contradances and square dances, accompanied by live old-time music, are also present in many parts of the United States. Many of the jams and dances focus almost exclusively on fiddle tunes.

Old-time music is also shared and passed on in more formal settings, such as fiddle contests and music camps. While fiddle contests are a place for players to compete, they are cherished by participants for the opportunity to jam and interact with like-minded musicians. The list at FiddleStar.com is not up to date, but it gives a good idea of the breadth of contests held throughout the country. The largest old-time music event in the United States is the Appalachian String Band Festival held every August in Clifftop, West Virginia. Approximately three-thousand musicians participate in this five-day mountaintop gathering, which features contests, concerts, workshops, square dances, and perhaps most importantly, informal jams at the campsites.

Musicians and non-musicians alike can learn how to play old-time music at a number of music camps, including Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College’s Old-Time Week (West Virginia), Mars Hill University’s Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week (North Carolina), Old-Time Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), and Ashokan Music & Dance Camps (New York). These camps provide excellent opportunities to learn directly from experts in old-time music traditions and to interact with other enthusiasts. In one-week or weekend sessions, they offer classes ranging from beginning to advanced fiddle, banjo, guitar, singing, mandolin, dance, and more.

This 3-minute trailer for the documentary Why Old Time? provides a nice overview of why people are still drawn to play old-time music. For more on the subject, you can find the entire film on many online movie sites.

Old-Time Music Artists

Here’s a short list of artists for further exploration. Search for them on your favorite sites (YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Wikipedia, etc.)

Old Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the 1920s – 1930s)

  • Clarence Ashley
  • Fiddlin’ John Carson
  • Grayson & Whitter
  • Uncle Dave Macon
  • Charlie Poole
  • Eck Robertson
  • The Skillet Lickers
  • Ernest Stoneman

Mid Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the mid 20th century)

  • Highwoods String Band
  • The Hollow Rock String Band
  • Tommy Jarrell
  • New Lost City Ramblers
  • Doc Watson

New Old-Time Artists
(recorded in the 21st century)

  • Crooked Still
  • Dom Flemons
  • Foghorn Stringband
  • The Mammals
  • Uncle Earl
  • The Wailin’ Jennys

Spotify Playlist

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.

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

Anthology of American Folk Music (1 of 5): An Introduction

This is post 1 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

In the late 1990s, I read an article in Rolling Stone magazine about the Anthology of American Folk Music. The article indicated that Bob Dylan had given the album set to Ani DiFranco as a gift when they were on tour together. I thought that sounded pretty important, so rather than waiting on Dylan, I got one for myself. I had an epiphany through the Anthology that brought the story of America to life for me and set me on my current path as a tireless student of American heritage music.

The Anthology was originally released by Folkways Records in 1952 as a six-album set. In 1997 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released it on compact disc with expanded essays and annotations. The set contains eighty-four recordings that were made and issued on 78 rpm records between 1927 and 1932. The music included Appalachian ballads, fiddle tunes, country blues, Cajun, jug band, sacred harp, and more. The songs were chosen, sequenced, and annotated by West Coast visual artist, experimental filmmaker, record collector, and mystic, Harry Smith. Smith indicated that his hope in assembling and releasing the Anthology was to see “America changed by music.”

Harry Smith
Harry Smith

Author Greil Marcus wrote that the Anthology was “the founding document of the American folk revival” of the 1950s and 1960s. According to folk/blues musician Dave Van Ronk, a key figure in the folk music revival, “(The) Anthology was our bible… We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.” The set brought virtually unknown parts of America’s musical landscape to people’s attention, introducing generations of Americans to the music of their heritage.

The success of the Anthology led to the reissue of many other early recordings and is largely responsible for the general interest in roots music that continues to this day. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, and others learned to write by studying, playing, and singing its songs. These artists, in turn,  influenced countless songwriters who came after them. In his effort to see America changed by music, I’d say that Harry succeeded.

For a year or two after obtaining the Anthology of American Folk Music, I listened to the discs occasionally without giving them great attention. I loved the strangeness of the songs and the primitive sound of the recordings themselves, but I hadn’t read the essays and notations to really understand what I was hearing. I knew that, although the recordings were made between 1927 and 1932, many of the songs themselves were 25, 50, 100, 200 or more years older than that. So, for me, the set represented really old songs, essentially unrelated to the more contemporary music to which I was listening. I later had an epiphany that would enable me to see how connected the music really is.

I’ll share that in my next post. Subsequent posts will explore each of the three volumes of the Anthology.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of the 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.

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.

Spotify Playlist

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