Article MT297

When Cecil Left the Mountains - Part 2

More early recordings of American music

In When Cecil Left the Mountains (MT article 255) I tried to explain how, shortly after Cecil Sharp left the Appalachian Mountains of eastern America, recording companies began recording and issuing 78rpm discs of music from the Appalachians.  I gave examples of both Old-World Child and broadside ballads which had been recorded commercially.  I will continue to give similar examples in Part 2, but will also mention Old-World influences on fiddle music and will try to show how some 'Appalachian' songs evolved out of earlier Old-World pieces.

On Sunday August 9th, 1942, song collectors Alan Lomax, John W Work and Lewis Jones were in the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale in Coahoma County, the home of numerous blues singers, including McKinley Morganfield, better known today as Muddy Waters.  It is also the place where Bessie Smith died in 1937, following an automobile crash on nearby Highway 61.  One singer that Lomax and his friends met that day was called Will Starks.  According to Work:

Work added that almost all of Will Starks' songs and ballads were picked up in sawmill shanties during the period 1886 - 1920.  There was, however, one notable exception, and this was a song that his father had taught him.  Will, or perhaps Alan Lomax, called it The Fox Hunter's Song; whilst in England it has often been noted as The Noble Foxhunting (Roud 584).  According to the song collector the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 - 1924), who collected a version which later appeared in his Songs of the West as The Duke's Hunt, 'This is a mere cento from a long ballad, entitled The Fox Chase, narrating a hunt by Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, in the reign of Charles II.  It is in the Roxburgh Collection and was printed by W Oury, circa 1650.' How, one might ask, did an English song from the middle of the 17th century end up on the lips of the son of a Mississippi slave?1  Did white plantation owners organise foxhunts across their lands?  And, if so, could this song have survived because of this?  Or was it simply chance that the song had been taken to Mississippi and remembered by Will Stacks and his father?  I don't suppose that we will ever know.  But such things did happen.

In 1894 the folklorist Joseph Jacobs (1854 - 1916) published a collection of folktales under the title More English Fairytales.  One story, titled The Golden Ball, tells of a fiancé who has to find a golden ball so that he may save his girlfriend from the gallows.  In other versions of the story the girl is about to be hanged because she has lost some object or other that is made of gold.  Folklorists have spent decades trying to figure out just what the golden ball represents.  This tale also exists as a balled, one which Professor Francis Child called The Maid Freed from the Gallows (Child 95, Roud 144), while English folksingers call it The Prickle Holly Bush.  Like many ballads, such as The Fox Hunter's Song, The Maid Freed from the Gallows, also crossed over the Atlantic and this version was recorded commercially in 1937 by the great singer Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter.

At times it is hard to say whether Huddie was singing the word gallis or gallows.  Strange as it might seem, the ballad resurfaced in 1970, recorded as Gallows Pole on the album Led Zeppelin lll, although Bob Dylan had, by this time, also recorded his own idiosyncratic version of the story, which he titled Seven Curses.3

Another British, or in this case English, song which deals with a man facing death on the gallows is that of Jack Hall (Roud 369).  According to Frank Kidson, the pioneer of folksong study: 'Jack Hall was a chimney sweep, who was executed for burglary in 1701.  He had been sold when a child to a chimney sweeper for a guinea and was quite a young man when Tyburn claimed him'.  Roy Palmer - a latter-day Kidson - was able to expand the story in his book The Sound of History which was printed in 1988.  'Jack or John Hall ...  was born of poor parents who lived in a court off Grays Inn Road, London, and who sold him for a guinea at the age of 7 to be a climbing boy.  Readers of Charles Kingsley's Water Babies (1863) will know how such boys (and girls) swept chimneys by scrambling up inside them.  The young Hall soon ran away from this disagreeable occupation, and made a living as a pickpocket.  Later he turned to housebreaking, for which he was whipped in 1692 and sentenced to death in 1700.  He was reprieved, then released, but returned to crime and was re-arrested in 1702 for stealing luggage from a stagecoach.  This time, he was branded on the cheek and imprisoned for two years.  Finally, having been taken in the act of burgling a house in Stepney, he was hanged at Tyburn on 17 December 1707.'

In the 1840s a Music Hall singer W G Ross revised the song, changing the name to Sam Hall in the process.  On 10 March 1848 Percival Leigh noted the following account of an evening's entertainment in an early Music Hall:

'After that, to supper at the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, wherein was much Company, great and small, and did call for Kidneys and Stout, then a small glass of Aqua-vitae and water, and thereto a Cigar.  While we supped, the Singers did entertain us with Glees and comical Ditties; but oh, to hear with how little wit the young sparks about town were tickled!  But the thing that did most take me was to see and hear one Ross sing the song of Sam Hall the chimney-sweep, going to be hanged: for he had begrimed his muzzle to look unshaven, and in rusty black clothes, with a battered old Hat on his crown and a short Pipe in his mouth, did sit upon the platform, leaning over the back of a chair: so making believe that he was on his way to Tyburn.  And then he did sing to a dismal Psalm-tune, how that his name was Sam Hall and that he had been a great Thief, and was now about to pay for all with his life; and thereupon he swore an Oath, which did make me somewhat shiver, though divers laughed at it.  Then, in so many verses, how his Master had badly taught him and now he must hang for it: how he should ride up Holborn Hill in a Cart, and the Sheriffs would come and preach to him, and after them would come the Hangman; and at the end of each verse he did repeat his Oath.  Last of all, how that he should go up to the Gallows; and desired the Prayers of his Audience, and ended by cursing them all round.  Methinks it had been a Sermon to a Rogue to hear him, and I wish it may have done good to some of the Company. Yet was his cursing very horrible, albeit to not a few it seemed a high Joke; but I do doubt that they understood the song.'

Ross's 'dismal Psalm-tune' - used by traditional singers such as Walter Pardon and Gordon Hall - has been on the go for at least three hundred years and has done service for such songs as William Kidd, The Praties They Grow Small, Aikendrum and the hymn Wondrous Love.4  The song has a special place in my memory.  It was the first song that I heard Walter Pardon sing.  Walter sang the piece in an almost gentle and sympathetic manner.  Not so Gordon Hall.  I doubt if anyone who saw Gordon's presentation of this song will ever forget the occasion.  Gordon, a large-built man, almost took on the persona of Sam Hall as he stared defiantly at the audience, almost spitting the words at them.  And when he reached the chorus words - Damn your eyes! - he would stab at his own eyes with the fingers of his right hand.  I sometimes wondered if, on reaching the end of the song, some members of the audience would be unable to decide whether or not to applaud … or else to run for their lives, especially after hearing this final verse:

Versions of Jack/Sam Hall have also turned up in America.  This version, Ethan Lang, was one of several dozen songs which Emry Arthur (1902 - 1967) recorded in 1928.  Arthur was, perhaps, best known for being the first person to record the song I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.  He was originally from Wayne County in Kentucky and he accompanied himself on guitar, although a childhood accident meant that he was missing a finger on his left-hand and could only play rather rudimentary chords behind his singing. Bearing in mind the crude nature of some English versions of this song, one can only suggest that some of the lines sung here by Emry Arthur had been edited for a more general audience.

I mentioned that The Fox Hunter's Song had appeared on mid-17th century broadside in England.  Another song that Emry Arthur recorded was almost as old.  Emry called the song Wandering Gypsy Girl and, as The Gypsy's Wedding Day, it had appeared on an English broadside during the early 1700s.  It was reprinted frequently up to the 1880s when the Such family of south London included it in their series of songsters.  The song is number 229 in the Roud Index and it has remained popular with English singers well into the late 20th century.6  The North Carolina singer Charlie Poole also recorded a version of the song in 1930, two years after Emry Arthur's version appeared on record, and it is interesting to see how their two texts differed.

Both Wandering Gypsy Girl and My Gypsy Girl can be easily traced to English broadsides, as can this song, The Soldier and the Lady (Roud 140), which the Coon Creek Girls recorded for Vocalion in 1938.

I do wonder if the Coon Creek Girls were aware of the symbolism in this song.  Or, for that matter, was the record company aware?  The record was issued in the main catalogue and was not an 'under the counter' or 'party' issue.  In 1956 the English song collector Peter Kennedy collected a version of the song from two elderly singers in Oxfordshire and Alan Lomax noted a longer version three years later from Jimmy Driftwood's father, Neil Morris, of Timbo, Arkansas.7  According to Morris: What interests me here is not the number of grandmothers involved, but, rather, just how much justification the singer gets from such genealogical information.  It tells him exactly who he is, where he comes from, how he fits into his community and why his songs are important both to him and to his neighbours.  It is, as Mark Wilson once noted in a slightly different context, the quality of thought that lies behind the singing.8

The Soldier and the Lady has, as I said, a well-known history.  However, other early Appalachian commercial recordings are not that easy to place.  In 1928 G B Grayson & Henry Whitter travelled from the mountains to New York City, where they recorded a number of songs including one which they called Where Are You Going Alice? The song, set to a tune which seems to be related to a number of older British melodies, comprises four verses, the final two being similar to verses found in the song The Banks of Claudy (Roud 266).  Compare, for example, these two verses from the version of The Banks of Claudy as sung by the Copper family of Sussex9:

They are, of course, similar to verses three and four of the Grayson & Whitter text.  And the line "Where are you going Alice, this dark and rainy night?" is similar to this line, again from the Copper Family version, "How far have you to travel this dark and rainy night?".  The Grayson & Whitter song is, I would suggest, indeed a version of The Banks of Claudy albeit one in which the story has become condensed and one where some of the lines have become confused.  Although The Banks of Claudy began life in the Old World, some later American printers did issue the words on American broadsides, and it may be that this is how the song entered the Appalachian repertoire

This is the text to the Grayson & Whitter song:

Greenland(s), mentioned in verses 2 and 4, is probably Greenland, Tennessee, which lies on the Lee Highway, to the west of Kingsport, between Church Hill and Surgoinsville.  A year later, in 1929, Grayson & Whitter recorded an instrument side, Going Down the Lee Highway, which commemorates the road mentioned above.11

On Monday, August 1, 1927 a group of musicians who called themselves the Bull Mountain Moonshiners took part in the famous 'Bristol Sessions'.  They recorded two pieces, although only one song was actually issued.  This was a version of the old British army piece The Girl I Left Behind Me Roud 262), which the Moonshiner's called Johnny GoodwinActually, although the British claim this song, usually under the title Brighton Camp which can be traced to the 1750s, the Irish believe it to be an Irish piece, An Spailpin Farnach (The Rambling Labourer), which can also be dated to the 18th century.

The band was led by fiddler Charles McReynolds, who was the grandfather of bluegrass musicians Jim and Jessie McReynolds.  The Girl I Left Behind Me was a highly popular tune in the mountains and more than 15 recordings were made by Old-Timey musicians prior to 1942.  However, the Moonshiner's version contains a set of verses.  Sadly, it has proved almost impossible to make out the words on this recording, although, judging by what can actually be heard, it may be that the verses are local to the singer's home area, rather than being traditional verses from Britain.12

Some songs can be even more confusing.  Consider, for example, the song Jimmie and Sallie which was recorded in 1938 by Howard and Dorsey Dixon, two mill-workers from North Carolina.13

Where, I wonder, does this song come from?  Is it British or an American song?  Some of the words and phrases suggest an Old World connection, (the names Jimmie and Sallie (or Sally) certainly occur in a number of British broadside songs), although other words (caught a freight, for example) suggest a New World origin.  Alternately, it could be that the song was created in America, although based on a British song.  The song was recorded on September 25th, 1938; interestingly the next song that they recorded was a version of the old Child ballad of George Collins (Child 42, Roud 147).14 For some reason or other this ballad was recorded by quite a number of American singers during the 1920s and '30s, although not all of these recordings were actually issued.  In 1926 Henry Whitter (the same person who later recorded the song WhereAre You Going Alice?) recorded a version of George Collins for the Okeh Record Company.  This recording was unissued.  In 1929 both Elmer Bird and Dillard Smith recorded the song for the Gennett Company and in 1931 Jesse Johnston also recorded a version for Gennett.  In all three cases the song remained unissued.  Perhaps the people at Gennett disliked the song! The first recording to actually appear for sale was that made in 1928 by Roy Harvey and the North Carolina Ramblers.15  The song was issued by Brunswick Records (Br250) and was backed with a song about a local murder, The Bluefield Murder.  Emry Arthur, mentioned above in connection with the song Ethan Lang, recorded George Collins a year or so after Roy Harvey's version appeared.  Coincidentally, Arthur's version, on Paramount Records Pm 3222, was also backed with The Bluefield Murder.  Recordings by the North Carolina Ramblers were selling well, and it may be that Arthur was trying to cash in one their popularity.

One singer who did not record a version of George Collins, a surprising fact when we consider just what he did record, was the singer Bradley Kincaid (1895 - 1991).  Kincaid came from Kentucky farming stock, having been raised in Garrard County, KY, which lies along the edge of the Cumberland Plateau.  His parents, William and Elizabeth Kincaid, were both singers.  They sang in a local church, but, unlike some church-goers, they also sang some of the old love songs and ballads that Cecil Sharp had been seeking.  A couple of Bradley's ballads, Fair Ellender and The Two Sisters, which he later recorded, apparently came from his mother.  On one occasion Bradley said that "the hairs on the back of [his] neck would stand on end" when his mother sang "some of the old blood curdlers"! As a young man, Bradley would travel through the mountains on the lookout for new songs.  He wrote the words down in old school books and in this way soon built up a repertoire of over eighty songs.  In 1917 Bradley began attending Berea College.  He spent two years in the army, one year in France, before graduating in 1921, when he was then twenty-six.  Although Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles visited a couple of Kentucky mountain schools in 1917 (Hindman and Pine Mountain) they did not visit Berea.  Having married his former music teacher, Bradley moved to Chicago, where he began singing on the radio.  He was an instant success and apparently received no fewer than a third of a million fan letters within five years.  Bradley Kincaid began making records in 1927.  Between December, 1927 and November, 1934, he recorded over a hundred issued sides, one hundred and four of which have been re-issued on the 4 CD set Bradley Kincaid - A Man and His Guitar (JSP Records JSP77158).  He also began to issue song folios, such as Favorite (sic) Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs which ran through six large printings within sixteen months.  The edition illustrated here was printed in 1937.

Until the JSP set appeared in 2012, little of Bradley Kincaid's material had been reissued on CD.  One track, Dog and Gun, did, however, make its way onto the Revenant double CD Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, volume 4 (RVN211).  It may be that Bradley Kincaid's voice, a soft tenor, reminiscent at times of that other Kentucky singer Buell Kazee, had by this time gone out of fashion.  And that is a pity, because Bradley was an important singer, one whose singing must have encouraged many others to try their hand at music making.  And, he did leave us with a fascinating collection of recordings.  Dog and Gun, for example is a version of the British broadside The Squire of Tamworth (Roud 141).  Timothy Connor, a prisoner of war in England during the American Revolutionary War, included the song in a song-book he compiled during his imprisonment from 1777 to 1779. Since Connor's day the song has been printed by many broadside printers, and has been widely collected in both England and America.  It is a deservedly popular song with a fine romantic story.  Robert Bell in Songs of the Peasantry (1857) writes that 'it is traditionally reported to be founded on an incident which occurred in the reign of Elizabeth', although this might be a rather fanciful statement.16

Other British songs recorded by Bradley Kincaid are Froggie Went a-Courtin', The Swapping Song, The Foggy Dew, A Paper of Pins, I Wonder When I Shall be Married, Billy Boy and I Gave My Love a Cherry.  He also recorded versions of four Child ballads, The House Carpenter, Barbara Allen, The Two Sisters (Child 10, Roud 8) and Fair Ellen (Child 73, Roud 4) and I am enclosing the latter two texts here.

Bradley Kincaid also recorded American folksongs, such as Sourwood Mountain, Cindy, Pretty Little Pink, Old Joe Clark, Pearl Bryan, The Little Mohee, The Red River Valley, The Blue Tail Fly, a few cowboy songs, including When the Work's All Done This Fall, In the Streets of Laredo and Bury Me on the Prairie, and quite a number of late 19th century - early 20th century parlour ballads.

One song that particularly interests me is Bradley Kincaid's version of Pretty Little Pink (Roud 735):

This is a song which has turned up all over the Appalachians.  I think that the first version I heard was on a 1960 recording by Clint Howard, Doc Watson and Fred Price.17  Sometimes the song's tune is used for another common Appalachian song, Shady Grove,18 but what fascinates me is the fact that the song is comprised of so-called floating verses.  It seems to be a characteristic of many Appalachian songs that they are composed of verses which can be used in numerous songs.  For example, the North Carolina singer Dellie Norton began her version of the song Black is the Colour (Roud 3103) with a verse from Pretty Little Pink. Dellie also sang a version of the song Little Betty Ann (Roud 5720) which, again, opens with a verse that is found in Pretty Little Pink.  The rest of the song comprises floating verses, as does the version sung by Dellie's one-time neighbour Inez Chandler.  I am including the texts to both versions for comparison. If we return to the song Black is the Colour we may note that some of Dellie's verses can be traced directly to British songs such as The Week Before Easter and The Rambling Boy, which contains verses such as: Or And the same may be said for other Appalachian songs, such as Pretty Saro (Roud 417), a song which, on the surface, appears to be quintessentially Appalachian.19 But compare the words to this Irish broadside text for the song The Maid of Bunclody (Roud 3000). Verse 3 of The Maid of Bundclody also turns up in the song The Cuckoo (Roud 413), which, in America, is often changed to read: Many English singers remember this verse, while forgetting the rest of the song, although at least one singer keeps his family version of the song alive today.  This is Bob Lewis of Sussex and it is interesting to see how verses 2 and 3 of his version can be found in the American song On Top of Old Smokey.20 Before I leave the subject of so-called floating verses, verses which pass freely between any number of songs, I should add that in 1985 Flemming G Anderson produced a study of lines, verses or sequences of verses (he called them 'commonplace or floaters') which occur in various Child ballads, and his book Commonplace and Creativity.  The Role of Formulaic Diction in Anglo-Scottish Traditional Balladry (Odense: Odense University Press.  1985) should be read by anybody with the slightest interest in the subject.  There are several examples of these commonplaces in the ballad Fair Ellen, given above.  This verse, for example, turns up in several other ballads. These sort of things remind me of the epic Balkan ballad singers who memorized hundreds of stock lines and phrases, so that when, say, they needed to describe a person moving from one place to another, they already had a ready-made verse, similar to the above, which they could drop into the narrative.21

In both parts of When Cecil Left the Mountains I have concentrated on some of the songs and ballads which were recorded commercially in the 1920's and '30's.  But the record companies also recorded instrumental, often fiddle-led, music.  During the period 1921 - 1942 at least twenty groups recorded versions of the tune Soldier's Joy, while some seventeen groups recorded versions of The Girl I Left behind Me.  Other instrumental groups recorded tunes such as Speed the Plough, Money Musk, Miss McLeod's Reel, Paddy on the Turnpike, Polly Put the Kettle On and other old-world tunes.  These tunes can be traced to England, Ireland and Scotland, while other tunes, Fire in the Mountains for example, can be traced to Eastern Europe.

There are various ways of judging just how popular old-world tunes were in America.  One way would be to analyse American printed tune-books.  Another way, and I think that this is a better way, is to consider the repertoire of just one mountain fiddler, namely the blind fiddler Ed Haley (1883 - 1951).  Ed was born in Logan County, WVA, and played around the eastern Kentucky-western West Virginia region for most of his life.  During the period 1946 - 1947 Ed's son, Ralph Haley, recorded his father on a home disc-cutting machine.  In 1997 Rounder Records issued sixty-five of these recordings on two double CD sets - Ed Haley: Forked Deer, CD1132 - 33, and Ed Haley: Grey Eagle, CD1134 - 35 - and I would estimate that over a quarter of these tunes (30% actually) can be traced back to old-world sources.22 These are:

In August, 1979, I drove up a steep hillside above Boones Mill in Franklin County, VA, to meet fiddle-player Sherman Wimmer.  One tune that Sherman liked to play was titled Twin Sisters and was a version of a hornpipe that I knew as The Boys of Bluehill.  I had first picked the tune up from a recording of Irish musicians and was delighted to hear Sherman's version.  I had always assumed that it was an Irish tune (Ryan's Mammoth Collection calls it The Boys of Oak Hill), although there are some 19th century Scottish printings of the tune.  The earliest (?) American version, titled The Two Sisters, can be found in Knauff's Virginia Reels of 1839.  A few days after meeting and hearing Sherman Wimmer I met up with another fiddler, Taylor Kimble of Laurel Forks in Carroll County, VA.  Taylor was quite ill when I met him, although he insisted on playing me a few tunes, one being his version of The Boys of Bluehill, which he called The Old Ark's a-Moving. And there were other titles for the piece, The Jimmy Johnson String Band, from Kentucky, called it Jenny Baker, while other performers called it Pussy and the Baby, Hell on the Wabash or Beau of Oak Hill.  Kentucky fiddler William B Houchens included the tune in a 1922 medley of tunes titled Turkey in the Straw.

In fact, so many versions of this tune have turned up across America that some authorities have begun to wonder whether or not it is really an Irish tune, or, is it, perhaps, actually an American tune; one which, somehow or other, later found its way to Ireland.  And perhaps this is not such a wild idea; after all, today we are inundated with American music in Britain and I suppose that I should not have been surprised a few days ago when I heard the American fiddle tune Listen to the Mockingbird being used to back an English TV advertisement.  Once, when America really was the New World, music only flowed one way; namely from Europe to America (and from Africa to America when slaves were being transported across the Atlantic) whereas, today, it is a river that flows in both directions.  Now, with music moving both ways, I suppose that we can say that the circle has been completed.

I wonder what Cecil Sharp would have made of it, though?

Mike Yates - 27.12.14


Appendix - Fifty Essential CDs of Appalachian Music.

(This is, of course, a personal list.  Others may disagree!)

A. Solo/single group performers.

B. Anthologies:

Article MT297

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