Texas Gladden

Ballad Legacy - Alan Lomax Collection: Portrait

Rounder CD 1800

According to John Cohen, Alan Lomax considered Texas Gladden to have been, 'one of the best American ballad singers ever recorded'.  Elsewhere, Lomax wrote, 'Texas Gladden sings in such fine style.  With such fire and, at the same time, with such restrained good taste'.  Over the years a few tracks by this Virginian singer have appeared on a number of 78s and LP anthologies.  Cover pictureNow we have a whole CDs worth of material so that, at last, we are able to see whether or not Lomax's praise was right and justified.

Texas Gladden was born in 1895 in Saltville, a small town in the south-western corner of Virginia.  She had a known repertoire of some two hundred songs, all of which she visualized during her performances.  "I have a perfect mental picture of every song I sing.  I have a perfect picture of every person I learned it from, very few people I don't remember.  When I sing a song, a person pops up, and it's a very beautiful story.  I can see Mary Hamilton, I can see where the old Queen came down to the kitchen, can see them all gathered around, and I can hear her tell Mary Hamilton to get ready.  I can see the whole story, I can see them as they pass through the gate, I can see the ladies looking over their casements, I can see her when she goes up the Parliament steps, and I can see her when she goes to the gallows.  I can hear her last words, and I can see all, just the most beautiful picture."  This is a fascinating insight and reminds me of something that John Cohen once said about Walter Pardon, namely that Walter's life was 'encapsulated within the world of the ballads'.  And the same, I think, may be said of Texas Gladden.  Here was a singer whose life was infused with her songs and ballads.

Collectors such as Alfreda Peel, Arthur Kyle Davis and Richard Chase recorded songs from her throughout the 1930s.  Alan Lomax first recorded her, on behalf of the Library of Congress, in 1941.  Fourteen of the fifteen songs recorded in 1941 are included on this album.  In 1946 Lomax invited Texas and her brother, Hobart Smith, to New York where they performed in a concert held at Columbia University.  While in New York they also recorded a number of interviews with Lomax and extracts from some of these interviews are also included.  Lomax introduced Texas to Moe Asch, who recorded enough material from her to fill three 78s, which he issued on his Disc label.  This material is also included here in its entirety.  Texas Gladden: Ballad Legacy also includes a couple of tracks recorded by Lomax when he returned to Virginia in 1959, as part of his Southern Journey project.  In all, there are thirty-seven tracks, comprising nine classic ballads (including two versions of The Devil and the Farmer's Wife - the first recorded by Lomax in 1941, the second recorded by an unknown person at the National Folk Festival in Washington, in 1938), six extracts from interviews, eleven songs from the Anglo-American tradition, fragments of a further nine songs, plus, finally, one spoken ghost story.

Texas Gladden is perhaps best known as a ballad singer.  This was, after all, the way that Lomax presented her to the 'outside' world.  And, yes, she was a very good ballad singer indeed.  On the CDs opening track, The Devil and the Farmer's Wife, she is accompanied by Hobart Smith on guitar, who plays melody - rather than chords - behind his sister's voice, and the effect is simply stunning.  Texas and Hobart clearly knew each others songs and her version of The Two Brothers is extremely close to Hobart's version, which can be heard on his Rounder CD Blue Ridge Legacy (CD 1799).  Hobart can also be heard playing banjo behind Texas on the murder ballad Pretty Polly, and the fiddle on the Rose Connelly track.  Anyone who plays clawhammer banjo should listen to Pretty Polly.  There is a drive and intensity here that has seldom been bettered by any other player.  Rose Connelly is, of course, the song that Grayson and Whitter recorded in 1927 as Rose Conley (reissued on Document DOCD-8054) and it seems clear that Hobart was aware of this recording, his fiddle sounding remarkably like G B Grayson's.

We are told that Texas Gladden learnt her version of The Devil's Nine Question from the collector Alfreda Peel, who had previously noted the songs from a Mrs Rill Martin of Mechanicsburg, VA, before passing it on to Texas.  The notes, however, are unclear about where Texas learnt the ballad Mary Hamilton.  Texas says that she picked it up, 'after one hearing'.  As Alfreda Peel had learnt the ballad from the singing of her grandmother, Mrs Marion Chandler who was born in Bristol, England, I suspect that this is the version that Texas Gladden later came to sing.  I think that Professor Child was the first to cast doubts on the Scottish origins of this ballad (which could be based on events that occurred in the Russian Court), though the version sung here clearly places the tragic story in Edinburgh, and even mentions Canongate, a street which today forms part of Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile.

Four of Texas Gladden's other ballads, The Three Babes, The House Carpenter, Barbara Allen and Gypsy Davy may be termed 'standard' versions, with little to distinguish them from countless other versions collected across America.  However, her version of Lord Thomas is carried to a tune far removed from the one normally associated with this ballad and is a joy to hear.  John Cohen describes the melody as, 'simpler and more regular than many of her songs.  There is less of the ornamentation, flatted notes, and odd phrasings that she often uses'.  Ignoring, for a moment, the curious term 'odd phrasings', that John uses, I must say that I find his assumption that this tune, 'might (once) have accompanied a dance as well' to be unproven.  Speculation, yes.  Hard fact, no.

Elsewhere, Debbie McClatchy has written that, 'Traditional Appalachian music is mostly based upon anglo-celtic folk ballads and instrumental dance tunes.  The former were almost always sung unaccompanied, and usually by women, fulfilling roles as keepers of the families' cultural heritage and rising above dreary monotonous work through fantasies of escape and revenge.  These ballads were from the British tradition of the single personal narrative, but the list was selective; most of the one hundred or so variations of the three hundred classic ballads found in American tradition are to do with sexual struggles from the female standpoint, as Barbary Allen, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, and Pretty Polly.  One is less likely to find Scottish ballads of rape and dominance, or those with men as heroes.  A large percentage, perhaps almost half, of the American variations tend to be about pregnant women murdered by their boyfriends.'

Interestingly, Texas Gladden sings all of the four ballads mentioned above on this CD.  There are also three folksongs, The Scolding Wife, I'm Never to Marry and My Lovin' Old Husband which would probably fall within Ms McClatchy's definition.  (Incidentally, in the song My Lovin' Old Husband, which comprises sung verses interspersed with spoken comments, Texas says "chimney corner" and not the meaningless "in the corn" following verse 4).  John Cohen says that Alan Lomax 'suggested that the pioneer women actively cultivated such songs because they were "vehicles for fantasies, wishes, and norms of behaviour which corresponded to...(their) emotional needs...(These ballads) represented the deepest emotional preoccupation's of women who lived within the patriarchal family system of their close-knit society".'

Clearly, in some of these songs I would suggest that we are seeing remnants of once commonly held European beliefs in female subjugation.  Dave Harker has already pointed out that such beliefs lie behind the ballad of The House Carpenter in his article 'A Warning' (Folk Music Journal, 1992. Vol.6, no.3. pp.299-338), and the situation is a far more complex one than either McClatchy or Lomax seem to have realized.

I have already mentioned the tune to Lord Thomas.  In 1918, having already collected songs in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, Cecil Sharp felt that, 'the Virginian tunes are the best I have yet got' and many of Texas Gladden's songs are, indeed, sung to beautiful tunes.  One Morning in May, a version of The Unfortunate Rake, has a splendid modal tune coupled with one of the most arresting first verses you're likely to hear:

When I was a young girl I used to see pleasure
When I was a young girl I used to drink ale
Out of the alehouse and into the jailhouse
Right out of a bar-room and down to my grave.
Kind Sir, I See You've Come Again, which Sharp called The Courting Case, is sung to a version of the tune which Scottish singers have used repeatedly for the ballad Lang Johnny More.  The fragment Cold Mountains uses the same fine tune that Fiddlin' Arthur Smith used for the song Adieu, False Heart which he recorded in 1938 (reissued on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music - Volume 4. Revenant CD RVN 211).

In one of the interviews Texas Gladden speaks of using 'grace notes' in her singing, adding that her mother, "had a knack of putting in little grace notes like I do sometimes".  Mention is also made of the composer John Powell (the right-wing nutter who founded the White Top Festival with Annabel Morris Buchanan), who is described by Texas as 'the greatest authority on musical compositions in Virginia'.  Texas knew Powell, through attending the Whitetop Festivals, and I would suggest that she picked up the term 'grace notes' from him.  Both Alan Lomax and John Cohen speak of Texas's use of ornamentation (not forgetting that strange 'odd phrasings') in her singing.  Actually, it seems to me that Texas Gladden did not use a great deal of ornamentation.  In her ballads she does use the occasional appoggiatura grace note.  But, in general, she is quite a plain singer.  Don't get me wrong.  She is a good singer, at times a great ballad singer, but she just does not sound like, say, Dellie Norton or some of the other Sodom Laurel singers that I met in the late '70s and early '80s.  Interestingly, though, Texas did change her style in a few of her songs.  Take, for example, the song Old Kimball, which began life in Ireland in the early 1800s.  The song quickly travelled to America where, by the late 1860s, it was being sung by Negro singers, and Texas's version clearly shows a black influence, as did many of the songs and tunes that Hobart Smith sang and played.

Sadly there are no notes attached to the song fragments.  Love's Worse Than Sickness is related to Dellie Norton's version of Black is the Colour, while I Am a Man of Honor is a fragment of the song that Sharp called The Virginian Lover and which Dellie Norton called The Silkmerchant's DaughterAlways been a Rambler is the opening verse to the song The Girl I Left Behind, in the version recorded in 1928 by Grayson and Whitter as I've Always been a Rambler.  Several of the other fragments were also recorded commercially during the 1920s and '30s.  Roving Cowboy was noted by a number of American collectors and was recorded by Frank Jenkins in 1927 (reissued on Document DOCD-8023).  In the Shadow of the Pines was recorded by Kelly Harrell, The Wreck of the Old '97 by Vernon Dalhart (and countless others), and Wild and Reckless Hobo by Burnett and Rutherford.  This latter, incidentally, is of interest to British listeners in that the song is based on a broadside published by James Catnach of London's Seven Dials in the early 1800s.  Catnach's sheet, which was titled Standing on the Platform (Waiting for the Train), was reprinted extensively in the States in the 1860s and '70s, a fact which would help explain its popularity with American folksingers.

Today there seems to be as much interest in the telling of folktales as there is in the singing of folksongs.  Luckily, Lomax recorded at least one of Texas Gladden's folktales - here simply titled Ghost Story.  In fact, it is a short version of the story The Haunted House that I recorded in 1979 from Matt Burnette of Meadows of Dan, VA.  Matt's tale was set locally and was without any specific date, whereas Texas Gladden's version is supposed to have happened sometime during the Civil War.  In a way it reminds me of parts of James Lee Burke's excellent novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

No doubt Alan Lomax was thinking of Hobart Smith, a professional musician for much of his life, when he asked Texas Gladden "You never have made any professional use of your singing at all, have you, Texas?"  I doubt if he was surprised by her answer.  "Been too busy raising babies.  When you bring up nine, you have your hands full.  All I could sing was lullabies!"

Texas Gladden really was one of America's great ballad singers.  Her songs came to her from her parents and family, from the radio and from gramophone records.  Most of her singing was done at home.  During her life she never achieved the fame that she deserved.  She died in 1967, without becoming involved in the American folkmusic revival.  I can think of no better memorial to her than this essential CD.

Mike Yates - 5.11.01

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