Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Upcoming Releases on Rebel Records

I’m pretty excited about some up coming new releases from one of my favorite independent labels. Rebel Records has been at the forefront of Bluegrass and real Country music for going on four decades now.

The newest release from The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band, "Tell Someone", is scheduled to be in stores today. Several songs from the cd have been getting airplay and requests at radio stations across the country. "Tell Someone” has been available only from Kenny & Amanda Smith at their concerts and festival appearances. If you haven’t been able to get a copy yet, head out for your favorite independent record dealer, "Tell Someone” will be on the shelves today.

For the new release from John Starling, "Slidin' Home", we still have to wait a couple more weeks. John Starling, joined by other original Seldom Scene members, Mike Auldridge and Tom Grey are joined by Emmylou Harris for one of the most anticipated new releases since the Seldom Scene’s “Old Train”.

I’ve been a fan of the original Scene since their days at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, Maryland, even before they recorded together. Starling, Auldridge, and Grey (and the late John Duffy) were a powerhouse of excellent musicians who turned a few heads by bending the boundaries of the genre. They have had thirty years to tighten up. That stirring, soulful sound that made the original Seldom Scene an instant legend now belongs to Carolina Star.

I haven’t gotten a pre-release copy (yet?), but what I’ve heard so far has me anticipating the release of "Slidin' Home" more than any cd in recent memory. Head on over to John Starling’s MySpace page for the tour schedule (The first two weeks of February they will be in Alberta). While you are at their MySpace page, have a listen to their superb rendition of Lowell George’s classic truckin’ anthem, “Willin’”. "Slidin' Home" is scheduled to be on store shelves February 20th.

Here are two cuts from “Slidin' Home" sent by Tricia at Lotos Nile to share with the riders on the Bus.

John Starling and Carolina Star - Cold Hard Business.mp3

John Starling and Carolina Star - In My Hour of Darkness.mp3

Lotos Nile Media, Marketing & Music is a company with a unique angle on helping independent artists get the word out. Lotos Nile realizes that the best way to spread the word is through the word-of-mouth of fans. Similar to the ‘Street Teams’ that some independent labels use to promote new releases, Lotos Nile has developed the River Runners program to help fans by offering special incentives, gifts and prizes. Lotos Nile currently has campaigns working for John Starling and Carolina Star, Jeff Black, Cadillac Sky, The John Cowan Band, and Stoll Vaughan.

As part of the “word-of-mouth” campaign for John Starling, Lotos Nile is giving away a copy of "Slidin’ Home" signed by John Starling and Emmylou Harris to the fan that sends the news to the most friends. If you are interested in entering, click here.

To sign up as a River Runner and help spread the word about good music (no cost, no obligation) click here.

Independent artists are not backed by the deep pockets of the major record labels, and rely on just the sort of “word-of-mouth” marketing that Lotos Nile (or the Bus, for that matter) provides. Friends telling friends.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Pioneer: Bill Clifton

While I was listing the sources of Darby & Tarlton recordings for yesterday’s post, it occurred to me that the only multi-disc compilations were available from European labels, Germany’s Bear Family and the British JSP.

While the roots music of North America has been popular in Europe for decades, one of the leading proponents of Bluegrass, Country, and Old-Time music in Europe is also partly responsible for its resurgence of popularity in the United States.

Bill Clifton (not his given name) was born to a wealth family in suburban Baltimore County, Maryland. Much to his family’s chagrin, he took an interest in country music as a child. A true folk music enthusiast, he made a trip to New York to visit Woody Guthrie and while attending graduate school at the University of Virginia, formed a trio called the Dixie Mountain Boys with Paul Clayton and Dave Sadler. That is when he started using the stage name of Bill Clifton, due to his family’s objection to his musical interests.

The Dixie Mountain Boys signed a contract with Blue Ridge Records and appeared on the Wheeling Jamboree radio barn dance program. In 1955, Clifton published a songbook, 150 Old-Time Folk and Gospel Songs, which became widely popular with bluegrass musicians.

On July 4th, 1961, Clifton organized an outdoor concert at Oak Leaf Park, in Luray, Virginia. The show was the first of its kind, featuring a reunion of Bill Monroe’s original Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, Jim & Jesse, and several other top bluegrass performers. This show, although only one day in length, is considered to be the first Bluegrass Festival. The folk music community took notice and Clifton was hired as one of the organizers of the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.

Following his success with launching the Bluegrass Festival movement, he moved to England where he continued to play traditional Appalachian music at small venues throughout Europe. In 1967 he joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in the Philippines. While there he visited New Zealand where he recorded an album with the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band and help establish a Bluegrass circuit there.

Clifton visited the U.S. several times in the early 1970s to tour and record, this time with County Records. He joined forces with Bluegrass greats, Red Rector (mandolin) and Don Stover (banjo), forming the First Generation. They toured together throughout the ‘70s. In the early 1980s, Clifton moved his family to Virginia and continues to perform at the occasional festival and concert.

Bill Clifton is a pioneer in the preservation and proliferation of Bluegrass music around the world. So while you are enjoying one of the great festivals this season, take a moment and thank Bill Clifton for getting it all started.

Bill Clifton - Take Me Back.mp3

Bill Clifton - Little White Washed Chimney.mp3

BILL CLIFTON 'Around The World To Poor Valley' is an astounding 8 cd boxed set: available from County Sales.

County Sales lists seven of Bill Clifton's great recordings available.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Pioneers: Darby & Tarlton

It is hard to pin-point a definitive starting point for any style of music, just as it is hard to define the point of birth of any invention. Any musical style, or invention, is the culmination of many ideas being blended and built upon.

An excellent example of this is the invention of the telephone. While most of us learned in grade school that the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875, we have come to learn that Elisha Gray submitted his patent application at roughly the same time as Bell. Some riders on the Bus may even know that an Italian immigrant by the name of Antonio Meucci had demonstrated a similar device in New York as early as 1854. (For more about the telephone, and the people who added to its development see this Wikipedia entry.)

John Donne’s observation that “No man is an island, entire of itself” is true for inventions and musical styles, as it is for everything else. One of the myths that I have tried to dispel here on the Bus is the notion that a particular artist “invented” any style of music. All music is the sharing and borrowing of what has come before, rearranged and built upon.

Such was the music of Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton. Tarlton was born in 1892 in Chesterfield County, South Carolina. His father was a sharecropper and mill worker who played fretless banjo at local events. Jimmie Tarlton was playing fretless banjo and French harp by the age of six. Later he picked up the guitar and learned to play bottleneck slide after the black blues musicians he met while playing on the street for change. He set off to make his living playing music and his talent took him far and wide. Playing at bars, on street corners and in medicine shows, he traveled to New England, down to Louisiana and Texas, and eventually to California. While in California in the early 1920s he heard the then popular Hawaiian style of slide guitar and added it to his repertoire.

By the mid-1920s Tarlton was back on the east coast, this time settling in Columbus, Georgia. This is where he met up with a talented local blues singer by the name of Tom Darby. Darby (born 1884 in Columbus, Georgia) was a relative of Riley Puckett and had learned his blue vocal style from the black blues singers as they passed through Columbus. The two teamed up and auditioned with Columbia Records. The duo was awarded a recording contract and their first record was released in 1927. The record, Birmingham Town / Down In Florida On A Hog (Columbia 15197) was an instant hit.

Darby & Tarlton continued to record with Columbia until 1933, when they had a falling out over the contract terms. They recorded one more record in 1936, this time with the Vocalion label, but shortly after parted ways.

Many consider their recordings to be some of the earliest examples of what would become known as Country music. In fact, over his career, Jimmie Tarlton played with some of the names we recognize as founders of Country music: Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and even Hank Williams. Tom Darby worked with the Georgia Wildcats and others.

So here we find two Southern white men. Both raised on Folk and Old-Time music and both heavily influenced by black blues musicians. Jimmie Tarlton was also influenced by the flowing Hawaiian lap style guitar as were many of the black blues musicians from the Delta to St. Louis and even up to Chicago.

Like the telephone example above, it was the preservation, blending, and building upon what had come before that would lead to something new.

Darby & Tarlton - Lonesome in the Pines.mp3

Darby & Tarlton - Down in Florida on a Hog.mp3

For many years the recordings of Darby & Tarlton were only available on the original 78s. In recent years several compillations have been released on cd, any of which would be fine additions to one's collection.

DARBY & TARLTON 'Complete Recordings' 3 cd set on Bear Family: available in North America from County Sales.

DARBY & TARLTON 'On the Banks of a Lonely River' on County Records: and also available from County Sales.

DARBY & TARLTON 3 cd box set on JSP Records: available in North America from Amazon.com.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Time for a little R&R

Photos and/or text Copyright Intersystem Concepts, Inc. Used with permission. See http://www.trainweb.org/oldmainline

After a week long look at the story of a man workin' himself to death, I'm ready for the weekend and a little R&R (Rum & Rompin').

Ramblin' Jack Elliott - Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms.mp3

The photo above is a beautiful view of the Ellicott City Station along the B&O Railroad's Old Main Line. It was the first commercial railroad in the United States, built between 1828 and 1835, and is still in use today. Ellicott City is just up the road from where I was raised. As a school kid I walked along these tracks to meet up with friends and get to our favorite fishing holes.

For a photo tour of the B&O RR Old Main Line, with historical commentary, visit B&O RR Photo Tours.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

John Henry: Finale

OK, I promise this will be the last post about John Henry, although I have found more than two dozen other versions in my collection.

To wrap this series up I thought I'd post one song each from popular artists of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

Bill Monroe - New John Henry Blues.mp3

Woody Guthrie - John Henry.mp3

Terry Gilkyson - John Henry.mp3

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

John Henry: The Legend

Coosa Tunnel, Columbus & Western Railroad - 15 miles east of Birmingham, Alabama
(Stovall & Havens, 1895)

So, was John Henry a freed slave from Norfolk, Virginia who took a job as a steel driver with the C&O Railroad? Or was he hand drilling a tunnel for the C&W Railroad in Alabama? There is also the possibility that a "real" John Henry never existed. The answer may have been lost to time.

While the debate continues over the identity of John Henry the legend has been interpreted in different ways as well. The story of the man who challenged the mechanization of his job is one that many workers today can emphasize with. But even here the story has a strange twist. The hero of the story wins the race with the steam drill, yet loses his life as a direct result. I’ve always found this part of the story a bit odd.

There seems to be almost as much controversy about the legend as there is about the man. Whatever the man or meaning, the song has remained a favorite for over a century.

Furry Lewis - John Henry.mp3

John Hurt - John Henry.mp3

Lesley Riddle - John Henry.mp3

Big Bill Broonzy - John Henry.mp3

Completely unrelated:
I hope that riders on the Bus in the U.S. watched our fine senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, give the response to the State of the Union address. Here in Virginia we have a long history of proud statesmen starting with Thomas Jefferson, and we are right proud of our new senator, Jim Webb.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Steel Drivin' Man

The story of John Henry, the man, may never be resolved, but the story of John Henry, the legend, with inspire working people for generations to come.

There are just too many great versions of "John Henry" to post in just one day.

Let's start with a couple of incredible instrumental versions. Etta Baker passed away this past September leaving us with a wealth of her wonderful finger-picked guitar artistry. Glen Smith of Elizabeth, West Virginia is primarily known for his fantastic Old Time fiddle, but can impress an audience with his clawhammer banjo as well.

Joe Uehlein gained a respect for the songs of workin’ folks when he was employed at an aluminum mill in central Pennsylvania. His band, The U-Liners, have a more rock-tinged roots sound. On this version of “John Henry” Joe is joined by John Uehlein, Mike Auldridge, and Phil Rosenthal.

Etta Baker - John Henry.mp3
Available on the great 6 cd set "Anthology of American Folk Music" from Smithsonian/Folkways.

Glen Smith - John Henry.mp3
From another influential and essential collection: "Clawhammer Banjo, Vol. 3" on County Records.

Joe Uehlein & The U-Liners - John Henry.mp3
Visit www.uliners.com for more info.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Hammer gonna be the death of me"

No song celebrates the virtues of hard work more than the American folk ballad “John Henry”. Although very few of us have to work as hard to make a living as the hero of this song, I’d be willing to bet that most folks have had times when we have felt overwhelmed with a daunting task and, well, just plain busted ass to get it done.

The story of John Henry is typical of many stories from the industrial revolution: Man versus machine. Although the story of John Henry sounds like a myth akin to Paul Bunyan, the story is based in true events. It’s the finer details, like location, that seem to be in question.

Like many of you, I had always thought that the story of John Henry’s race with the steam drill took place in the mountains of West Virginia, but there seems to be a growing number of people who feel the story actually originated in Alabama.

As I had originally heard the story, John Henry was a big man, over six foot tall and weighing about 200 pounds – a giant in his day. He was the best steel driver the B&O Railroad ever had. The B&O was the first large commercial railroad in the U.S., incorporated in 1827. After the Civil War the great rush to join the country together with ribbons of rail had begun. As they pushed into West Virginia several tunnels had to be drilled through the mountains, the most important of which was the one-and-a-quarter mile long Big Bend Tunnel built between 1870 and 1873.

While the industrial revolution brought the steam powered trains that run on the rails, the work of making a smooth roadbed and laying the rails was entirely accomplished with manual labor. The same is true for tunneling. To tunnel through the rock a steel driving team, consisting of a hammer man and a shaker, would drill holes into the rock face where explosives would be packed. The shaker would hold a long, heavy steel rod with cutting teeth on one end against the rock face. With each driving blow from the hammer man, the shaker would rotate the rod in a slow drilling action. Some historians believe that John Henry could drill 10-20 feet in a 12 hour day, the best of any steel driver.

The legend says that one day a salesman showed up with a new fangled steam-powered drill that could out drive any man. John Henry accepted the challenge. According to the legend, John Henry drove 14 feet and the steam drill only 9. John Henry died shortly after from exhaustion or a stroke.

The original story was documented by W.T. Blankenship when he published the song “John Henry, The Steel Driving Man” around 1900. Over the years many historians have tried, with varying success, to prove the legend true. Recently, Prof. John Garst has found compelling evidence that the story actually took place during the construction of the Columbus & Western Railroad’s Coosa Tunnel located about 15 miles east of Birmingham, Alabama.

Whatever the true location, the story of John Henry’s defeat of the steam drill has been inspiration for generations of people as a protest against poor working conditions and as an inspiration representing man’s dominance over machine.

Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers - John Henry.mp3

Stringbean - John Henry.mp3

Lily Brothers & Don Stover - John Henry.mp3

For some fascinating reading on the legend and controversy, check John Henry: The Steel Driving Man.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Texas Ranger

Out on the western frontier life was full of potential tragedy. During the mid 1800s, the period of western migration and settlement, one of the dangers the settlers faced was confrontation with the original inhabitants that were being displaced. In Texas it was the job of the Texas Rangers to protect the constant stream of immigrants from Mexican vaqueros and the superb warriors of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes that were, in turn, protecting their land and livelihood.

Many songs have been sung of the western frontier, but “The Texas Ranger” is one song that has withstood the test of time and come to be sung by a wide variety of artists. Tex Ritter’s version of “The Texas Ranger” is probably the most well known, although many have recorded it long before Ritter and even more have followed.

The song’s original author has been lost to history and the story it tells, while believed to be true, can not be tied to any particular confrontation. Some sources claim that the song recounts an encounter in 1844 between 80 Comanche and 16 Texas Rangers led by John Hays. American Folklorist, Alan Lomax, documented the song in his The Folk Songs of North America (Doubleday, 1960) were he wrote “This song of the Texas Rangers was the first important ballad of the far West, and it made a great impression on the whole country.” But even Lomax says he “learnt this version from two pretty young girls in Hazard, Kentucky, in 1934.” The song traveled back east and north and was sung by both sides during the Civil War. “The Texas Ranger” became a regularly played song in the repertoire of folk singers from New England to the Southern Mountains.

Harry McClintock - The Texas Ranger.mp3

Ian & Sylvia - Texas Rangers.mp3
from their "Northern Journey" album, cd reissue available from Amazon.com

Jerry Douglas & Peter Rowan - Texas Rangers.mp3
from their "Yonder" cd available from Sugar Hill Records

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"When That Great Ship Went Down"

I find it a bit odd that there aren’t more songs about the Titanic. The sinking of the great liner on the night of April 14, 1912 was one of the most tragic disasters of the turn of the century, and yet, except for a children’s nursery rhyme, few songwriters have honored the tragedy in song.

The song, “The Titanic” (sometimes called “"It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down") has been documented as early as 1915, but probably emerged shortly after the incident in 1912. According to American Negro Folk-Songs (Newman I. White, original publication 1928) “The Titanic” is a children’s nursery rhyme sung at summer camps. Judging by the strangely upbeat tone of the song I tend to believe this account. Other versions of the song have been documented to the early 1920s.

Some texts mistakenly credit a 1927 recording by William and Versey Smith of Chicago, Illinois as the first recording of “The Titanic”. I have no clue who Will and Versey Smith are, but Pop Stoneman recorded the song in 1925. I’ve included Pop’s early recording along with Patsy Stoneman’s recent recording. (Ha! I’ve managed to slip two Autoharp songs into the same post.)

Leadbelly recorded a different version of “The Titanic” during his last sessions with Folkways.

And the last selection is a self-penned tribute to the Titanic by a Dutchman that lives in Vienna and is a master of American blues and folk. Hans Theessink (pronounced Tay-sink) like many of us, was taken by the blues in the 1960s and has turned his love of American roots music into an impressive career. His beautiful voice and artistic guitar work are worth further listening if you aren’t familiar with his work.

Ernest Stoneman – The Titanic.mp3

Patsy Stoneman - Titanic.mp3
from the wonderful 3 cd set Autoharp Legacy available from Autoharp Quarterly.

Leadbelly – The Titanic.mp3

Hans Theessink - Titanic.mp3
for more info about Hans visit theessink.com.

Wreck of the Ol' 97

I’m rather enjoying this look at some of the historical events that have been preserved in song, so let’s continue.

Murder ballads aren’t the only songs that have survived to remain popular today. The industrial revolution has left us with a variety of songs lamenting the struggle of man and machine. One of the first songs to come to mind when thinking about the dangers of steam power is the “Wreck of the Old 97”.

The story of the Old 97 starts in Washington, D.C., where the Southern Railroad signed a contract with the U.S. government to haul mail from D.C. to Atlanta. The contract was especially attractive, as the government would pay Southern $140,000 annually for the mail run, however, the railroad would pay a substantial penalty for every minute that the mail arrive late to Atlanta.

In order to make the run on time the train had to average 40 miles per hour, including stops, on its race southward. That timetable is quite impressive when you take into account the poor conditions of the single track that the train had to travel for most of the run. Even more impressive, the tracks ran through the mountains on the east side of the Blue Ridge. Service was inaugurated on November 2, 1902, and ran not quite a year before the tragic event.

Mail Train 97 was the pride of the Southern Line. She was pulled by Engine #1102, a 4-6-0 Ten Wheeler steam locomotive built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. The run was a “mail only” trip, no passengers or cargo, only the train’s crew and several postal employees were aboard for the run. Old 97 made several stops along the trip to take on water, coal, and a fresh crew.

On September 27, 1903 Old 97 rolled into the depot at Monroe, Virginia for fuel and crew, it was running 47 minutes late. 33 year old engineer Joseph Andrew "Steve" Broady took over as the train left Monroe. Knowing that he would have to make up time, Broady let her rip on the straight sections of track and hit the brakes hard as he approached curves. On the three mile downhill grade into Danville, Broady poured the steam on. Some estimates say Old 97 was going 90 miles per hour or better when Broady hit the brakes hard as he approached the curved trestle into town.

As anyone who drives in the mountains knows, constant hard use of your brakes on a steep grade is just asking for trouble and Broady was pushing it. As he hit the brakes to slow for the trestle he didn’t have enough air pressure to slow the train. In a last desperate act to slow the train he threw the engine in reverse, but it was too late. The train sailed off of the trestle into the ravine below. Eleven men, five railroad men and six postal workers, were killed.

The song surfaced within a few days of the tragedy. There have been several lawsuits to determine the original composer with claims by Fred Lewey, Henry Witter, and Charles Noell, all claiming authorship. In 1933 the courts ruled against the RCA Victor Company, stating that David G. George, a Pittsylvania telegraph operator who was at the accident scene, was the song's original author. There is still controversy surrounding the song’s author. The song was recorded by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter and olso by a light opera singer by the name of Vernon Dalhart. Dalhart’s record was the first “gold” record to sell over one million copies in the U.S. The “Wreck of the Ol’ 97” has become a standard with Old Time, Bluegrass, and Country artists around the world.

Ernest Thompson - The Wreck Of The Southern Old 97

Vernon Dalhart - The Wreck on the Southern Old 97.mp3

Lester Flatt - The Wreck Of The Old 97.mp3

Stoneman Family - Wreck Of The Old 97.mp3

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Stackalee - Update

My post the other day about the murder of Billy Lyons by Lee Sheldon drew quite a bit of interest. It’s interesting that such a minor incident (although, not so minor to Billy Lyons or his friends and family) still draws this much attention some one hundred years after the dastardly event. Had it not been for the song that it inspired, the story of Billy Lyons’ demise would have been lost amongst the seemingly endless acts of violence we’ve come to live with.

Writer, Derek McCulloch, left a comment to let us know he and illustrator, Shepherd Hendrix, had written a historical novel about the event and the song it inspired. Stagger Lee was published by Image Comics and released this past May.

From the reviews that I have read (see Derek’s comment at the original post for links) McCulloch and Hendrix have woven the historical facts of the event with close scrutiny of the song’s various versions and wonderful artwork to create a thoroughly enjoyable book. I’ve ordered a copy for myself and thought I’d pass along the link for any of the riders on the Bus that may be interested.

Stagger Lee is available at Amazon.com.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Contemporary One Man Band

I wasn't going to post today. Yesterday I made a long road trip to pick up a car my son has bought and I returned late and exhausted. As I sat enjoying a nightcap my younger son, a banjo picker, turned me on to a guy whom has taken the banjo to a new place. The subways of New York.

Phillip Roebuck is the son of a folk singer. Originally from Pungo, Virginia (you'll remember Pungo as the home of Grace Sherwood) Phillip started writing and performing at the age of twelve. Ten years later he moved to New York City, where he developed a unique banjo style as he played the subways for donations. Over time he developed the one man band apparatus that he uses today. His music has been described as "Like Uncle Dave Macon on a whiskey and speed binge."-Weekly Volcano.

YouTube video

Phillip Roebuck - Monkeyfist.mp3

Phillip Roebuck has recorded a new CD appropriatly entitled "Fever Pitch". For more info on Phillip, his unique style and his new CD visit PhillipRoebuck.com

Thursday, January 11, 2007


From THE ST. LOUIS GLOBE DEMOCRAT, 1895: "William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee."

Billy Lyons died from his wounds. ‘Stag’ Lee Sheldon was tried for his murder, his first trial ending in a hung jury. He was found guilty in a second trial and served his time. He was released and lived out his life in obscurity, dying sometime before 1920.

While the story of ‘Stag’ Lee and Billy Lyons may not have been an exceptional storie, the song that it inspired has been performed and recorded by a wide variety of artists, in an equally wide variety of styles for the past 80 years, and will probably be recorded for another 80 years.

The story and song traveled down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, where it took on a life of its own. The scoundrels name variously became ‘Stag’ Lee, Stagger Lee, Stag-O-Lee, Stagolee, Stackolee, Stack-A-Lee, and even Stack-O-Dollars, and the song traveled around the country. The words to this song were first published in 1910 by John Lomax under the title “Stagolee”. One of the first recordings was by Frank Hutchison in 1927. I’ve posted many times about Frank Hutchison, the white coal miner in Logan, West Virginia. Hutchison was an incredible guitarist who learned a lot of his styling from a crippled black musician and neighbor named Bill Hunt. Hutchison recorded the song he titled “Stackalee” in 1927.
The song was recorded by many blues and Old Time artists over the years. The New Orleans R&B artist known as Archibald (Leon T. Gross) had a hit with the song in 1950 followed by Lloyd Price, who recorded the song on the flip side of his minor hit "You Need Love". DJs discovered "Stagger Lee" on the other side and started playing that. The song took off and in no time was number one on the charts, selling over 200,000 copies a day.

The song has been recorded by a wide variety of artists including; The inmates at Angola Prisoner, the Grateful Dead, Mike Bloomfield, Pat Boone, Roy Bookbinder, James Brown, Beck, Cab Calloway, Lonnie Donegan, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Doc Watson, ...
Update: I've fixed the link to the list of artists that have recorded this song. It can be found HERE.

Frank Hutchison - Stackalee.mp3

Mississippi John Hurt - Stack O' Lee Blues.mp3

Archibald - Stack A Lee.mp3(parts 1 & 2)

Wilson Pickett - Stagger Lee.mp3

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Poor 'Omi Wise

The story of Naomi Wise is a sad and tragic one. The song that her story spawned is perhaps the most recognized song in the Old Time genre.

The story of “Poor ‘Omi Wise” took place in Randolph County, North Carolina at the turn of the nineteenth century. Naomi Wise was a poor orphan girl whom had been bound out in service to Mr. & Mrs. Adams. Naomi worked in the Adams’ kitchen and sometimes in the fields. The Adams’ treated her kindly, keeping her in nice dress and often loaning her a horse to ride to church. It is said that while she was fetching water from the spring she met a young man on horseback as he paused and ask her for a drink.
That young man was Jonathan Lewis.

Jonathan Lewis’ grandfather, David, had come to Randolph County from Pennsylvania; some say just two steps ahead of the law. According to local records, David Lewis had several run-ins with the law starting around 1780, Pennsylvania records show a David Lewis as a known thief and moonshiner. He built a cabin along Sandy Creek and made brandy from the peaches growing in his orchard. He had two sons, Richard and Stephen, who were said to have been strong, well-built, and handsome young men. The elder brother, Stephen, had a quick and ruthless temper and was known to seek out a quarrel. Stephen had beaten his wife with something called a “hobble rod” and she fled her home, hiding out with a neighbor so well that Stephen had not found her for several months. Younger brother Richard promised to deliver the woman if Stephen promised no more hobble rod beatings. When the promise was made, Richard kept his end of the bargain. Once Stephen found out that his wife had been at Richard’s all along, he loaded his gun and set out to visit his brother. Stephen’s shot missed and Richard return fire, wounding his older brother. Knowing his brother would return in the morning, Richard visited his brother that night and, peering through a crack in the wall, shot Stephen in the heart. He was exonerated of any wrongdoing on a plea of self defense.

Richard moved across the line into Guilford County where he built a cabin along Polecat Creek. He married and had a son, Jonathan, who grew into a handsome young man. Jonathan was well employed as a clerk at Benjamin Elliott’s store in Asheboro. Jonathan boarded in Asheboro during the week and returned to his parents’ home for weekends. The trip took him past the farm of William Adams in Randolph County, where Naomi Wise worked as a bound servant. Remember Naomi? I’m sure you were wondering if I was ever going to get back to the story of ‘Omi Wise.

Well the young man that stopped for a drink as Naomi was at the spring was Jonathan Lewis. He made a regular stop at the Adams’ farm on his trips to and from Asheboro on weekends and the two struck up a relationship. Jonathan had also started courting young Hettie Elliott, the beautiful daughter of his employer in Asheboro. His mother thought that the daughter of a well-off merchant would be a better catch than a poor orphan girl and encouraged Jonathan along that path.

The news got back to Naomi and she was heartbroken. But Jonathan continued to stop at the Adam’s farm on his weekend journeys. According to Mrs. Adams, Naomi left with pail in hand one day to fetch water from the spring and did not return for supper.
As darkness fell, the Davis family, who lived along the Deep River just a few miles south of the Adams’ farm on the road to Asheville, were settling in for the night when the peace was broken by blood-curdling screams. Mrs. Davis and her two sons ran out into the night and to where they had heard the screams. They heard a loud splashing and the sound of hoofs rushing off. They called out but got no answer and could see nothing due to the darkness.

In the morning the Davis’ visited the Adam’s to tell of the horrible screams the night before. Other neighbors were fetched and a search was made of the river, where they found the body of Naomi tangled in weeds near the shore. Her long heavy skirt had been pulled up over her head, possibly to quiet her screams, and her neck was bruised by strong hands. The coroner declared that young Naomi (she was 19 at the time) had been “Drowned by violence”. He also noted that she had been expecting a child.

Jonathan Lewis was found the next day and brought to jail. He was held for nearly thirty days awaiting the judge and his trial, but before he could be tried he escaped with the help of his kin.

One by one the rest of the Lewis family left North Carolina in shame. Years later it was learned that they had settled in Kentucky. The fine folks of Randolph County voted to send men to find them. Three men, not known to the Lewis family set out and found the Lewis settlement. Posing as hunters the men requested a meal and beds for the night. In the morning they were invited to join a hunting party with the Lewis men. Once in the woods they stuck close to Jonathan and as they lost sight of the other members they overtook and bound him. He was brought back to Randolph County and tried but by then they had no evidence and no proof, so Jonathan was released. He lived the rest of his life in his father’s cabin on Polecat Creek. He took ill and it is said that just before he died he confessed to his father that he had been the one that had drowned Naomi Wise and that he was haunted by her every day of his life.

Coon Creek Girls - Poor Naomi Wise.mp3
This version by the Coon Creek Girls, is very close (as far as the lyrics go) to the original song that was sung in Randolph County shortly after the murder and was partly responsible for the Lewis family leaving North Carolina.

Dock Boggs - Little Omie Wise.mp3
This version is closer to the version we all know today. Over the years some of the facts of the story have been changed a bit, but thanks to this song the tragic story of Jon Lewis and poor 'Omi Wise is known around the world.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Witch of Pungo

Folk music has long been a source of historical information. Major local events have been preserved in the form of song probably since folks started singing. Some of these songs of often tragic events survive for many generations. Some, like the childhood nursery rhymes “London Bridge” and “Ring Around the Rosie”, story-songs of the Black Plague, have nearly lost the original context of their stories. On this side of the Atlantic many of our story-songs have survived and even had a resurgence of popularity many years after the song’s events have long faded.

I have been interested in music and history for as long as I can remember and songs that combine these two interests hold a special intrigue. I thought we’d take a look at some of the more interesting story songs of North America.

Let’s start with a local story.

Down along the coast, about 20 miles south of Virginia Beach, is the small community of Pungo in Princess Anne County. Pungo was the home of Grace Sherwood, the only person ever convicted as a witch in Virginia. The famous witch trial fervor of New England in 1692 never really caught on down here. Grace Sherwood was a midwife who lived with her husband and sons on a small farm in Princess Anne County. Her troubles started around 1698 when a neighbor accused her of cursing his cotton crop. This was the first of the allegations and she was brought before the court time and time again over the next few years by two neighbors who blamed her for their poor crops and dead livestock. After her husband’s death the allegations became more frequent. Sherwood took her accusers to court for slander on several occasions. After many such appearances the court decided she should be tested by water, then called “ducking”. On July 10th, 1706 Grace Sherwood was bound right thumb to left big toe and left thumb to right toe. She was then thrown into the Western Branch of the Lynnhaven River where, by the reasoning of the time, if she floated and lived, she was guilty, for the consecrated water would reject her, if she sunk and drown, she would be innocent. Dead, but innocent. She floated for a while when one of her supporters shouted for someone to save her. She was hauled ashore and found guilty by the fact that she was alive. She was jailed for a short period and released to live out her life as a midwife and healer.

On July 10th, 2006, the 300th anniversary of her “ducking”, Governor Tim Kaine granted Grace Sherwood a full pardon. The area along the Lynnhaven River where Grace was tried by water has since been known as Witchduck Point.

Grace’s story has been preserved in song.

East Virginia - Legend of Grace Sherwood.mp3

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Hound Dog Roots

January 8th would have been Elvis Presley's 72nd birthday. To be honest, I am not a big fan of Elvis. He was more my parents generation. I do, however, recognize his contribution to Rock and Roll.

Elvis is often credited (or accused) of taking the music and on stage antics of the black rhythm and blues performers and introducing them to a white audience. There are some that believe that Elvis “stole” black music, but such accusations don’t take all of his influences into account.

While it is true that Elvis borrowed from artists such as 'Big Boy' Crudup, 'Big Mama' Thornton, and Fats Domino, he equally borrowed from white country performers such as Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Snow. It wasn’t only rural music that influenced Elvis. He covered white pop singers Mario Lanza, Dean Martin, and others, but his primary musical influence was the gospel music he heard at church.

So, in honor of the anniversary of Elvis’ birthday, here are a few of the artists that were such an influence on the “King”.

Arthur 'Big Boy'Crudup - That's All Right.mp3

Bill Monroe - Blue Moon Of Kentucky.mp3

Hank Snow - I'm Movin' On.mp3

Thursday, January 04, 2007

2007 Festivals

Whew! We’ve made it through the first work week of the year. The tough part of getting back in the groove after all of that time off for the holidays is over. If, like me, you are not a government worker, you probably won’t see another holiday until April. That’s a long stretch. It’s time to settle in the groove and get comfortable.

I’ve often wondered what the difference is between a groove and a rut. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. I’ve come to the realization that it’s all in one’s perspective.
I’ve been doing the same type of work for over thirty years now. Most days I find I can get in the groove and have a satisfying day. This week I’ve seen more rut than groove.

To help turn that rut back into a groove I started thinking about all of the great concerts and festivals I plan to attend this year. 2007 is the 400th Anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and all of Virginia will be celebrating with special events. Since the celebration coincides with the third and final appearance of the National Folk Festival in Richmond they are planning an exceptional weekend. There is no information available yet, but I’ll be watching for it.

The good folks at MerleFest have announced this years performers and stage schedule. The dates for this year’s festival are April 26th-29th. This year’s line up is as impressive as past years. MerleFest is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Tickets and more info available on the MerleFest website.

The mountains of southwest Virginia, along the Blue Ridge Parkway come alive with music and humanity once again for FloydFest 6. Mark your calendar, July 26th-29th. FloydFest is the most unique festival in the world. A coming together of music, poetry, visual arts, healing arts, and natural foods, all nestled on the beautiful hilltops of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This year’s theme is “It’s in the Mix”. The list of performers already signed to appear is once again a varied assortment of superb artists. I’ll be ordering my tickets this weekend.

I told you this was going to be a great year!

Eldon Baker - Happy Cowboy.mp3

Louise Massey & The Westerners - Huckleberry Picnic.mp3

Y'all have a good weekend and keep it in the groove!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

That ol' Tom Cat

Once again I have had a busy day and evening. I was wrestling with what to post today. I was leaning toward some good folk revival stuff from the 50s or 60s and just listening to random items in my collection, when the Rooftop Singers version of Tom Cat came through the speakers.

Hey! Wouldn’t it be neat to compare Cliff Carlisle's original Tom Cat Blues from the mid 1930s to the reworked version by the Rooftop Singers? Sure, I’m easily amused.

Cliff Carlisle is probably best remembered as a Jimmie Rodgers style country singer of the 1930s. Lumping him in with the slew of yodeling Jimmie Rodgers tag alongs would be a mistake. Carlisle was one of the better white country blues performers of the ‘30s. Sure he did his share of blue yodels, but heck, it was all the rage at the time. As a child in Taylorsville, Kentucky, Carlisle loved the Hawaiian guitar records of artist such as Frank Ferera. While working on his family’s farm he was surely listening to the rural blues and gospel of hired hands and the string bands that played the barn dances on Saturday nights.
At the age of 16 he struck out on a musical career of his own. He played all the local social events and entered local contests. In 1924 he teamed up with a local construction worker by the name of Wilber Ball. Ball played guitar and sang tenor harmony. The two were perhaps the first blue yodeling duo and were quite popular, touring all across the country for better than a decade. In fact, in 1931 they even recorded with Jimmie Rodgers himself. Not long after their recording with Rodgers, Carlisle took off on his own. His solo career really took off and by the mid 1930s his son joined him on tour. His solo recordings were a bit on the rowdy side of the blues. He must have written nearly 300 songs during this period. His "You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone" was covered many years later by Elvis Presley as "Just Because”. His 1939 song "Footprints in the Snow” has been reworked and is now considered a bluegrass standard. And then there was his “Tom Cat Blues”, covered decades later by the Rooftop Singers. And that old resophonic guitar of his sure does sound sweet.

The Rooftop Singers were Erik Darling (a former member of the Weavers), his friend Bill Svanoe joined in with guitar and the beautiful voice of Lynne Taylor rounded out the trio of folk revivalists. They are best remembered for their 1963 reworked version of the 1920s ragtime song “Walk Right In”, which I have posted here before. I still like their jazzy/bluesy/folky reworking of many great songs from the 1920s and ‘30s.

Cliff Carlisle - Tom Cat Blues.mp3

The Rooftop Singers - Tom Cat.mp3

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Back to work

Wow, that first day back at work was a tough one after so much time off.
After a long day at the plant, I have spent the entire evening listening to music trying to find some inspiration for a post. Well, I've finished off the last of my eggnog and heard lots of music, but alas, I’ve got nothing to show for it except a light head and a persistent alarm clock waiting to rouse me at much too early an hour.

It seems to be just as tough getting back to the Bus. So here are a couple of tunes I just happen to have handy. The first is a wonderful song from Byron Parker. Parker was a radio announcer and sometimes performer who was one of the original members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. The second song is an old favorite from the "Reverend" Robert Wilkins who worked the clubs of Memphis in the 1920s and was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Byron Parker And His Hillbillies - Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.mp3

Robert Wilkins - Ain't No Way To Get Along.mp3

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Dawn of a New Year

I hope y’all had a happy and safe New Year's celebration.

Another year has past. I’ve taken the old calendar down and hung a glossy new one on that old nail. I can feel it already; it’s going to be a good year, filled with music, friends and good times.

Come on in and have a seat. If you’re feelin’ a little green from last night’s celebration you might want to take a seat by an open window.

Let’s get this Bus back on the road! Y’all come.

Osborne Brothers - Y'all Come.mp3

Reno & Smiley - Howdy, Neighbor, Howdy.mp3