Disc One: WOODY’S “GREATEST” HITS
All the songs on these four discs were recorded on April 16, 19, 20, 24, and 25, 1944, plus an unreported later date that month, in the cramped New York City studio of Asch Records. Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston were between merchant marine voyages; their friend, blind Sonny Terry, was living on a meager Social Security check and what he could pick up playing harmonica around town. Over those five days, they recorded approximately 250 tracks, some songs with multiple takes. Those discs were apparently divided equally between partners Moe Asch and Herbert Harris, when they dissolved the company. Asch would make extensive use of his 125 tracks when he launched Folkways Records. Harris later issued a handful of his cache on his Stinson label. (See Bill Nowlin’s extensive notes about the discovery of Harris’s cache and Peter D. Goldsmith,Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records [Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998], pp. 160 ff.)
Track 1 – This Land Is Your Land (MASTER MA 114)
Scornful of the earnest, cloying sentiment of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a huge hit for Kate Smith in the bitter winter of 1940, Guthrie apparently wrote his six-stanza response in one sitting, alternating between guitar and pen. For a tune he borrowed the Carter Family’s melody for “Little Darling, Pal of Mine,” itself adapted from a Southern gospel hymn, “Oh,My Loving Brother.” Originally titling the song “God Blessed America,” Guthrie scratched that out in favor of “This Land Was Made for You and Me.” (He also scratched out a pessimistic last verse.) It was a blacklisted Pete Seeger, singing for liberal organizations, schools, and church groups during the 1950s and 1960s, who popularized what has become the United States’ unofficial national anthem.
Woody sings and plays solo.
Track 2 – Going Down the Road (I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way) (MASTER MA 711)
Guthrie learned this from his uncle Jeff Guthrie, a fiddle- and guitar-player, a sometime Pampa, Texas, policeman and piano tuner, who, in turn, had picked it up around 1910 in Olive, Oklahoma.When his nephew suggested the song as one every migrant would know for use in the film The Grapes of Wrath,Woody was upset because director John Ford “slowed it down and made it too doleful.”
Guthrie here plays mandolin, Houston guitar, and Terry harmonica.
Track 3 – Talking Sailor (MASTER MA 20)
First reported in a 1913 number of the Journal of American Folklore, the “Talking Blues” form itself was apparently an older traveling medicine show tradition. Guthrie would repeatedly use the laconic “talking blues” – probably learned from a 78 record – most notably with his “Talking Dust Bowl” of 1940. In “Talking Sailor,” Guthrie’s account is autobiographical; “my woman” is Marjorie Mazia, with whom he was living when he shipped out three times as a messman on a merchant marine vessel during World War II. (The late Jim Longhi documented that little known episode in his heartfelt Woody, Cisco and Me [University of Illinois Press, 1997.])
Here, as was traditional, Guthrie plays solo guitar.
Track 4 – Philadelphia Lawyer (MASTER MA 36)
Guthrie wrote this sardonic song – later a hit for Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers – while performing with Maxine Crissman on KFVD, Los Angeles, in August, 1937. Apparently it was immediately popular when Guthrie first sang it over KFVD. In his 1938 printed collection of “Woody and Lefty Lou’s Favorite Collection [of] Old Time Hill Country Songs,” he wrote, “This song I sung two times over the microbephone. And it undoubtedly leaked out all over the country, ‘cause they was letters from almost everywhere come a-piling in.” It is set to a melody that Guthrie reportedly learned from guitarist Cluster Baker when Guthrie, Baker, and fiddler Matt Jennings formed The Corncob Trio in the mid-1930’s.
Track 5 – Hard Travelin’ (MASTER 689)
In May, 1941, Guthrie was hired by the Department of the Interior’s Bonneville Power Administration to provide songs for the soundtrack of a public relations film promoting the prospects of hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River. He was to write 26 songs over the span of a month including such enduring works as “Roll On, Columbia,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “Hard Travelin’,” one of his most widely recorded numbers. Retaining the melody and the theme, Guthrie rewrote the song in 1945 for inclusion in a mimeographed songbook. In a draft introduction to that small collection, Guthrie wrote, “I done just about every kind of work I ever heard of and here’s just a song, a story, a little history about myself that I sung up. And I got the callouses to prove it.”
Guthrie plays mandolin, Houston guitar, and Terry mouth harp on this recording.
Track 6 – Jesus Christ (MASTER MA 135)
Though baptized in Pampa’s Church of Christ by the charismatic E.C.McKenzie, Guthrie was widely read in world religions; indeed, on official forms when asked his religion, he wrote, “All.” Seemingly in February of 1941, he wrote there was a better way coming, “when there shall be no want among you, because you’ll own everything in common.When the rich will give their goods to the poor. I believe in this way. I just can’t believe in any other way. This is the Christian way… and it will come. To own everything in common. That’s what the bible says. Common means all of us. This is pure old Commonism.” Guthrie was, in effect, a Christian socialist, a not uncommon breed in early 20th Century Oklahoma. He took the spirit of the New Testament to heart, even if he did not read Scripture or attend church. These feelings he poured in early 1939 into “Jesus Christ,” casting the Savior as a social outlaw – and appropriating for his song the melody and structure of the traditional American ballad about another outlaw, “Jesse James.”
Guthrie sings accompanied by his own guitar.
Track 7 – The Sinking of the Reuben James (MASTER MA 80)
On October 31, 1941, the American destroyer Reuben James was struck by a torpedo fired by a German unterseeboot while protecting a convoy carrying Lend-Lease supplies to beleaguered Great Britain. Of the 160 officers and crew aboard, 115 were lost. The loss of the Reuben James gripped Guthrie’s imagination in an effort to memorialize each of the dead to the tune of the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower.” Guthrie’s fellow members of the Almanac Singers – Pete Seeger, Bess Hawes, and Millard Lampell – struggled with the song for some weeks. “It was also unsingable and unlistenable,” Ms. Hawes recalled. Finally, Seeger and Lampell came up with a new chorus, written in words that foresaw all the nameless dead of the second world war.
Guthrie accompanies himself with the closest he ever came to mastering Mother Maybelle Carter’s guitar lick.
Track 8 – Pretty Boy Floyd (MASTER MA 57)
This may well be Guthrie’s first song of social protest, written in March, 1939, after touring the lush farms of California’s Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys and seeing the abject misery the “migratious” farm workers endured. Borrowing the Robin Hood myth, Guthrie ennobles the undeserving Charles Arthur Floyd with some of the most droll and pointed lines Guthrie would write. In Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, a collection of songs Guthrie would co-edit with the premier American folk song collector, Alan Lomax, and budding folk revivalist Pete Seeger, Guthrie wrote, “This song is one I fixed up about Pretty Boy. It tells of tales I heard concerning his life and what kind of a man he was, and as I said before I spoke, we ain’t never had a governor down there that was half as popular as Pretty Boy. He tried and done it wrong. The governor won’t even try.” (University of Nebraska Press, 1999, p. 115) It is worth noting just how careful Guthrie was to enunciate final consonants; he wanted more than anything to communicate a story, a moral, a message.
Track 9 – Grand Coulee Dam (MASTER MA 17)
This too was one of the twenty-six songs Guthrie wrote in the month he spent working for the Bonneville Power Administration. (He was paid $266 for the month, or $10 per song; his momentary boss, Stephen Kahn, crowed, it “was the best investment the Department of the Interior ever made.”) Set to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball” – which Guthrie probably learned from a 1929 recording of the Carter Family – it is part geography lesson, part celebration of the vast dam itself, and a promise of the benefits to come. “The Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee,” to use Guthrie’s original title, contains some of his most poetic and alliterative lines: “In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray…” and “Like a prancing, dancing stallion down her seaway to the sea…” and “Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum….”
Track 10 – Nine Hundred Miles (MASTER 702)
Moe Asch arbitrarily titled this “Lonesome Train” when Guthrie, Houston, and Terry recorded it on April 24, 1944, this is part of a complex of railroad songs that travel under various names: “Reuben,” “Train 45,” “900 Miles,” and more. Guthrie claimed he learned the song as a youth from a black harmonica player who shined shoes for a living in Okemah, Oklahoma. Certainly it was one of many songs that crossed racial barriers despite Jim Crow laws throughout the South. According to the foremost scholar of railroad songs, Norm Cohen, Guthrie’s minor-key version “became standard among folksong revival performers” from the 1940s on. (See his Long Steel Rail [University of Illinois Press, 1981], pp. 503-517.)
Here Terry’s harmonica wails a sympathetic lament to Guthrie’s singing and mandolin. Houston’s guitar is not well miked, but he is there as well.
Track 11 – Going Down the Road (I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way) (MASTER MA 44)
Yet another version – probably with Guthrie’s improvised verses – of the Okie theme song usually known as “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” (See track 2) In his notes to the song in Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, Guthrie wrote this song “is the truth, the living truth…. If you’re ever down in Oklahoma, or along the 66 Highway to California, and want to get to knowing somebody, some of the working folks, why just sort of saunter up along side of ‘em, or up past their gate, and hum this song, or whistle it. They’ll come a running out and take you into the house to try to help them scrape up something to eat.”
Here Guthrie and Houston each play guitars, Houston adding a few runs up the neck, Guthrie playing rhythm.
Track 12 – My Daddy (Flies a Ship in the Sky) (MASTER MA 14)
While the Almanacs wrestled with Guthrie’s unsingable rollcall of the names of the men lost aboard the U.S.S. Reuben James (see the notes to Track 7), Guthrie was writing one of his most appealing of songs. Yet for all of its child-like charm,“My Daddy (Flies a Ship in the Sky)” was intended as a tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Arsenal of Democracy – then supplying Great Britain and Soviet Russia with desperately needed military supplies. Guthrie recorded it on April 19, 1944, and a year later wrote “…this is a song that run in at my ears one day when I heard some kids on a vacant lot telling what their daddys and mommys were doing to help win this war.”
Track 13 – Bad Repetation (MASTER MA 111)
Guthrie apparently wrote this humorous song while still singing on KFVD, Los Angeles. He included it in the 1938 publication of “Woody’s and Lefty Lou’s Favorite Collection,” commenting, “This song is a lie. A feller can dern shore overcome and live down a reputation of any kind.” He advised, “Change yore scenery and commence all over.” He included it again in a mimeographed 1939 songbook put together for listeners of the station, which suggested that the song was popular with his audience. Beyond that, the record is a complete blank, until the sessions of April, 1944, in the Asch studios, when he sang it near the end of the marathon. While the song is released here for the first time, we thought it might indeed have been a “greatest hit” if it had seen the light of day earlier.
Though an indifferent student in high school, Guthrie took two classes that made a deep impression on him: 10th grade English and typing. In one he was drilled in grammar, in the other he learned how to put that grammar on the page.Woody spoke in a soft drawl, but used good English when writing his family, for example. The deliberate “misspelling” of “reputation,” the over-the-top “coon-hunting” talk, to borrow Guthrie scholar Guy Logsdon’s phrase, was just part of an act.
Disc Two: WOODY’S ROOTS
In the face of so many, many songs and ballads Guthrie wrote – estimates range from 1200 to 1500 and higher – it is easy to forget that he was also a folk singer, that he learned traditional songs aurally most of his life. Steeped in the so-called “roots music” of the Southwest, Guthrie infused those qualities in much of what he wrote later, and thus assured the success of songs such as those on Disc One.
Guthrie learned some songs and stories from his mother, from Uncle Jeff Guthrie, from his father who regularly sang in the church choir, from the man who shined shoes at Jigg’s barbershop in Pampa. Later he picked up fiddle tunes from his best friend, Matt Jennings, and from the pickup square dance bands he played with around Pampa and Amarillo, Texas. He learned songs from 78 rpm records and over the radio, many of them traditional songs reworked, if at all, to secure a copyright, songs by the Carter Family, by Vernon Dalhart, by Fiddlin’ John Carson, and half a hundred others. He learned songs from traveling medicine shows and touring country bands. All of these he fused in a style uniquely his own.
As a youngster in Okemah, Oklahoma, a young man in Pampa, Texas, even as an adult playing with his good friend Huddie Ledbetter in New York City or listening to Library of Congress field records at Alan Lomax’s insistence in Washington, Guthrie absorbed an uniquely American tradition.
Track 1 – Poor Boy (MASTER MA 50)
There are probably as many titles for this traditional ballad – it tells a story, so it qualifies as such – as there are versions of the song. Folk song scholar Malcolm G. Laws in his Native American Balladry has catalogued this as “The Coon-Can Game” (Laws I 4) but also offers the following titles for it: “Poor Boy,” “Ten Thousand Miles Away from Home,” “As I Set Down to Play Tin Can,” and so on. Other versions have it as “I Got Mine” and “The Coon Crap Game.” (The definitive study of this tangled ballad is in Marina Bokelman’s UCLA master’s thesis of 1968, “The Coon Can Game.”) Guthrie T.Meade, Jr., Dick Spottswood, and Douglas S. Meade in their invaluable Country Music Sources (Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina Press, 2002) cite no fewer than forty commercial recordings of this ballad known throughout the Southeast and Southwest. Guthrie may have learned it from one of these records, or over the air, or from a local singer.Wherever, he makes it his own by using the truly evocative melody of the distinctly different song “Danville Girl.” (And complicates folk song scholarship even more.)
Track 2 –Worried Man Blues (MASTER MA 47)
Guthrie learned this widely known country blues from a Carter Family recording of either 1930 or 1935. He sang it on KFVD with Maxine Crissman, and repeatedly included it in songbooks, which suggests just how popular it was with his audiences. Given the importance of the Carter Family in Guthrie’s musical evolution, a bit of history will help track the probable course of this blues.
Alvin Pleasant Delaney was born on the family farm between Hiltons and Maces Springs, in Scott
County, Virginia, on December 15, 1891. The oldest of eight children, A.P., as he preferred to be called, attended school off and on, long enough to learn his letters. He sang bass in his father’s church choir, played a little fiddle, but showed no particular gift for music. He tried working on a railroad gang, then fixing farm machines, and eventually ended up selling fruit trees to farmers in the region. On one of his trips through the hill country, A.P. met 16-year-old Sara Dougherty, who had been raised by an aunt and an uncle in a musical household. (Family legend had it that Sara was singing “Engine 143” while accompanying herself on the autoharp when A.P. first saw her.) He was smitten. Letters led to more visits, and eventually to marriage on June 18, 1915. Sara was five weeks shy of her seventeenth birthday when the newlyweds moved to Maces Spring. A.P. sold trees, farmed, hired out as a carpenter on occasion; Sara minded the house, and, in time, their three children.With family and with neighbors, Sara made music, singing the old songs and ballads to her autoharp or banjo; A.P. occasionally played fiddle, though not with any distinction.
Sara’s first cousin Maybelle Addington attended some of these neighborly gatherings. She was six years old when she first danced and cavorted on the porch in front of an impromptu family string band. Over time, and many visits,Maybelle learned to play autoharp, then banjo, and finally guitar. Over time, and many visits, A.P.’s younger brother Ezra took notice of Maybelle; they would be married two months shy of her seventeenth birthday.
A.P., Sara, and Maybelle – now related to A.P. by marriage and by blood to Sara – eventually melded into the “Carter Family.” They played local churches and town halls, giving informal concerts, before A.P. spotted an advertisement in the Bristol News-Bulletin. A representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company, Ralph Peer, would be in Bristol, which sat on the Tennessee-Virginia border, twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Maces Spring.
Maybelle was the musical glue who held the trio together. She was a gifted musician, and a quick study. “You don’t have to give Maybelle any lessons,” Lesley Riddle, a family friend, told two Carter Family biographers. More than anyone else, she gave the trio its unique sound, both instrumental and vocal. (See Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? [Simon and Schuster, 2002], pp. 131-33.)
While the Carters did not consider themselves professional entertainers, they still thought it might be worth the trip to Bristol. On August 1, 1927, they recorded three songs for Peer and Victor – “Single Girl,Married Girl,” “Wandering Boy,” and “Poor Orphan Child.” In doing so, they changed American popular musics.
The songs were immediate hits, prompting RCA to bring them back to recording studios no fewer than 18 times. Between 1927 and 1943, when the act dissolved, the Carter Family recorded 273 masters for a variety of record labels. (This biographical information was culled from the unpublished doctoral dissertation of the late Edward Kahn, “The Carter Family: A Reflection of Changes in Our Society” [UCLA, 1970] and from Archie Green’s Only a Miner [University of Illinois Press, 1972], p. 393.)
Many of those almost 300 “Carter Family” songs came from friends, others from the family, others still from singers whom A.P. deliberately sought out. As such, he was a folklorist, a songcatcher, however careless he was about sources and dates. In fast-growing Kingsport, Tennessee, just twelve or so miles from Maces Springs, A.P. met a young black guitar player, Lesley Riddle, who preferred to be called “Esley.” Riddle played and sang for A.P., who immediately invited the young man to come to Maces Spring. For the next ten years, the two were constantly on the road, searching for new material to record, despite the barriers thrown up by Jim Crow laws. (Though this was the segregated South, up country, around Maces Spring, there had never been many blacks, and even fewer slaves.Many of the mountainous counties of Appalachia sent their sons off to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Nor was A.P. the only white to pick up songs from blacks. Nick Dawidoff points out in his In the Country of Country [New York: Pantheon Books, 1997], p. 10), that “a number of the most progressive and influential figures” in country music, including Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens, “all had black musical mentors.”
For some ten years, A.P. and Esley were constantly together, looking for singable material, black or white. “He was just gonna get old music, old songs, what had never been sung in sixty years,” Esley explained. Esley also had an ear for a lyric and a tune. “I was his Poll’ Parrot. I was his tape recorder. He’d take me with him and he’d get someone to sing him the whole song. Then I would get it and I’d learn it to Sara and Maybelle.” Later, A.P. told Ed Kahn, the trio would “fix it up to suit their style.” (Kahn, p. 55. The material here about Riddle was adapted from Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg,Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? [Simon and Schuster, 2002], pp. 131-33. An album of Riddle’s music was recorded between 1965 and 1978 by Mike Seeger and Barry Connell, and released by Rounder: Lesley Riddle: Step By Step – Lesley Riddle Meets the Carter Family: Blues, Country, and Sacred Songs, ROUN CD 0299)
Folklorist Ed Kahn recorded a last, poignant moment. A.P. lay dying on November 7, 1960, in Kingsport –where he had picked up so many songs sung by blacks, and transformed them into such classics as “Worried Man Blues.” His mind wandering, A.P. imagined he was in yet another recording session, still singing the old songs he had collected and recorded.
Track 3 – A Picture from Life’s Other Side (MASTER MA 82)
Guthrie seemingly carried about the country a fair number of late Nineteenth Century parlor songs, some from his mother, Nora, some from recordings he heard over the radio, some from other singers. The homiletic “A Picture from Life’s Other Side” is one such. Written in by harles E. Baer, it was recorded first by Smith’s Sacred Singers in 1926.
Some eighteen “covers” followed, including cuts by such important country and western singers as Vernon Dalhart and Bradley Kincaid. (Those masters, according to Meade, Spottswood, and Meade, Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Southern Folklife Collection, 2002), pp. 297-298) were released, under a farrago of artistic noms de commerce, as many as fifty-one times.)
Obviously the song struck a chord with the public – and with Guthrie.
Here he plays an unadorned mandolin and sings lead, while the usually comfortable Houston
strums a 3/4-time guitar and strains to sing harmony.
Track 4 – The Buffalo Skinners (MASTER 902)
This is an American dramatic ballad, lean, spare, and stark, certainly the equal of great novels or of grander opera so praised by critics; at its most matter-of-fact, it might be described as a ballad noir. Guthrie learned it in 1940, while visiting Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, D.C.; there Lomax played for his guest a variant of the ballad entitled “Boggy Creek” collected sometime earlier by his father, John A. Lomax. (Guthrie’s text more or less follows that of Lomax, as printed in his Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads [Macmillan, 1938], pp. 41-42.) The ballad that Lomax had snared from one H. Knight of Sterling City, Texas, however, is not original to the Southwest, or to cowboys or to buffalo skinners. In the earlier Minstrelsy of Maine (Houghton Mifflin, 1927), pp. 22-23, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth, reported a ballad they called “Canaday-I-O.” Set to a tune more or less familiar as “The Wild Colonial Boy,” the ballad credited to one Ephraim Bailey
warned “jolly lumbermen” not “to spend a pleasant winter up…in that forsaken G____ D____ place called Canaday-I-O.”
To describe what we have suffered is past the art of man,
But to give a full description, I will do the best I can:
Our food the dogs would snarl at, our beds were on the snow,
We suffered worst than murderers up in Canada I O.
Peeling the narrative back, step by grisly step, Phillips Barry in Bulletin of the Folk-Song Society of the Northeast, VI, tracked this ballad from the buffalo skinners of the Great Plains to misled lumberjacks in Michigan, back to woodsmen in Pennsylvania, and eventually to shantyboys in Maine. Guthrie, thereby, is singing a truly quintessential American ballad, and an early workers’ protest song.
Track 5 – Hard, Ain’t It Hard (MASTER LM 1)
Like “Going Down the Road” on Disc One, Guthrie learned this song in Pampa, Texas, from his fiddling Uncle Jeff, who said he picked it up in Olive, Oklahoma, about 1910. It was a favorite of Guthrie’s. He sang it over KFVD, and included it in his 1939 mimeographed song collection “On a Slow Train Through California.” He taught it to the Almanac Singers when he reached New York in the winter of 1940, and recorded it first with Pete Seeger’s clawhammer banjo driving the tempo for General Records in July, 1941. He recorded it again a year later for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song. Lomax, in his headnote to the song as printed in The Folk Songs of North America (Garden City, NY: 1960), sees this cautionary song as stemming from an English ballad of unrequited love, “The Butcher’s Boy,” which, in turn, evolved into a widely sung American college song, “[There Is a] Tavern in the Town.” Such is the way of folk song. Guthrie authority Guy Logsdon stated that this was the first song Guthrie and Houston recorded as they began their marathon recording session on April 19, 1944.
Here Guthrie plays mandolin, and Houston guitar.
Track 6 – Stewball (MASTER MA 16)
Irish in origin, the early 19th Century ballad recounted a match race between “Skewball” and “Miss Sportly” on the plains of Kildare, winner take all of the 500 English pound purse. A copy of a version of the ballad appeared in The Vocal Library published in London, in 1822; that fixed the approximate date of the race, though there were other, perhaps earlier imprints celebrating the victory of the noble Skewball over the little gray mare. (See Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs [Cambridge, 1925; reprinted in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1963], pp. 61-64.) As a work song or as a ballad, “Stewball” is sung throughout the South by blacks as well as whites, according to Bruce Jackson’s Wake Up Dead Man (Cambridge, 1972; reprinted Athens, Georgia, 1999, pp. 102-03. Jackson’s accompanying album of prison songs by the same title was released on Rounder as ROUN CD 2013.) Charles K.Wolfe notes that most Tennessee “horse fanciers know the term ‘Skewbald’ refers to a horse marked with blotches of bay on a white background.” (See his Folk Songs of Middle Tennessee [Knoxville, 1997], p. 88.) Malcolm Laws, British Broadside Ballads Traditional in America, classifies this as Q 22. Just where or when Guthrie learned the ballad is unknown. There apparently were no 78 rpm recordings of it, suggesting that Guthrie learned it aurally.
Track 7 – Stackolee (MASTER MA 68)
“Stackolee” is another of the ballads that Guthrie apparently learned from George, “the big ol’ colored boy” who shined shoes at Jigg’s barbershop in Pampa. George “had great long fingers...;” he could walk all over the neck of a guitar.” As Guthrie’s closest friend Matt Jennings, a superb fiddle player recalled, “Woody learned quite a bit from this shineboy.” “Stackolee” is black in origin, and largely confined to black singers, the eclectic Guthrie ever the exception to all such generalizations. As Guthrie sings it, the ballad more or less recounts the shooting death of William Lyon at the hands of Lee Shelton, known to the sporting fraternity of St. Louis as “Stack Lee.” Shelton was a pimp, and considered “a bad nigger,” a hot-tempered man quick to take offense and do violence. As the boast has it:
I was raised in the backwoods, where my pa raised a bear.
And I got three sets of jawbone teeth and an extra layer of hair.
When I was three I sat in a barrel of knives.
Then a rattlesnake bit me, crawled off and died.
(Quoted from ROGER D. ABRAHAMS, Deep Down in the Jungle [Hatboro, Penn., 1964], p. 79.
There Abrahams offers a discussion of the role of the “hard man” in black American folklore.)
John R. David in his doctoral dissertation, “Tragedy in Ragtime: Black Folktales from St. Louis” (St. Louis University, 1976), detailed the story based on police reports and court records. To some extent, the ballad is an accurate recounting. “Stack” Lee Shelton and Billy Lyon were drinking together in the infamous Bill Curtis Saloon on Christmas Night, 1895. Old friends, they chatted until the conversation turned to politics, according to witnesses. They grew angry and swatted at each other’s hats. Stack Lee smashed the crown of Lyon’s derby; in turn, Lyon snatched Shelton’s milk white Stetson.
Shelton ordered Lyon to give it back; Lyon refused and drew a knife. Shelton then pulled a .44 Smith & Wesson from a coat pocket, and shot Lyon once in the stomach. Shelton walked up to Lee, snarled, “Nigger, I told you to give me my hat,” picked up the Stetson, then calmly walked out. Taken to a hospital, Lyon died about four hours later. Stack Lee was arrested later than night, convicted of murder, and hung. (Cecil Brown’s Stagolee Shot Billy [Cambridge, 2003] recounts the history of the ballad and its significance within the black community.)
Laws in his Native American Balladry, assigns the catalog number of I 15 to the ballad. As well known as the narrative was in the black community, it was not often commercially recorded, probably because artists and repertoire men like Ralph Peer believed that black musicians did not sell as well as white.
Track 8 – Gypsy Davy (MASTER MA 139)
This is the oldest of the songs Guthrie sang, learned from his mother, who had a special liking for traditional ballads. As “The Gypsy Laddie,” a Scottish version was first set down in 1788, but the ballad is at least 100 years older, and its original tune was older still. The great Harvard scholar of the 19th Century, Francis James Child, assigned this as number 200 in his almost definitive canon of what the Scots call “the muckle ballads,” the great ballads.
Guthrie’s version, transported from Great Britain to the Great Plains, is very close to a version sung in Arkansas. That suggests there was a local tradition (Arkansas abuts Oklahoma) in which it is “the boss,” not “the lord” who comes home to learn that his wife has run off with another man.
Alan Lomax was so taken with Guthrie’s version that he recorded it in Washington and included it on the first long playing record of field recordings of traditional music released by the Library of Congress.
Track 9 – Little Darling Pal of Mine (MASTER MA 38)
This is another of the songs that Guthrie learned from a Carter Family recording of either 1930 or 1935. A.P. borrowed the melody from the white spiritual “When the World’s on Fire,” according to David Harbison’s master’s thesis, “A Study in the Song Tradition of Metcalfe County, Kentucky (Southern Illinois University, 1971). To that tune A.P. affixed a clutch of traditional “floating verses” that are used in multiple folk songs.
Guthrie sings lead and plays rhythm guitar, Houston harmonizes in this two-guitar version of
Track 10 – What Did the Deep Sea Say? (MASTER MA 48)
As written, better, adapted by Bob Miller and Charlotte Kaye in 1929, this was recorded by another of Guthrie’s stalwarts, Vernon Dalhart, on July 1 of that year. That Guthrie would learn the song was a reflection of his penchant for often over-the-top sentiment. Consider this example, from “Mama’s Little Baby Boy” which Guthrie copied into his looseleaf songbook at KFVD:
Baby boy and baby girl,
Someday they will fall in love.
Then they’ll find the whole wide world
Filled with light from Heaven above.
Houston introduces “What Did the Deep Sea Say?” with a guitar introduction that sounds suspiciously like the melody of “John Hardy.”
Again, Guthrie sings lead and plays rhythm guitar, Houston plays lead guitar and harmonizes.
Track 11 – Chisholm Trail (MASTER MA 29)
John A. Lomax, Alan’s father and a pioneer folk song collector in the west, first printed this epic in his 1910 Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Lomax assembled a more of less coherent “jury text,” that is, a narrative composite of forty verses gathered from many singers – probably omitting as many bawdy verses as he included unobjectionable.
Among his sources was the pioneering 1908 collection assembled by New Mexican cowboy N. Howard “Jack” Thorp. (For a sampling of the sort of “unprintable” verses Lomax excised, see Cray, The Erotic Muse, second edition [Urbana, 1992], pp. 186-191; and Guy Logsdon, The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing [Urbana, 1989], pp. 60-73.)
The Chisholm (pronounced “Chizzum” in the Southwest) Trail ran from the Texas panhandle northeasterly first to the stockyards and railhead of Abilene, Kansas; then when the rowdy cowboys wore out their welcome, eventually to “the greatest and wickedest cow town of them all, Dodge City.” (Quoted from John I.White, Git Along, Little Dogies [Urbana, 1975], p. 41.)
Guthrie closely follows Lomax’s version, suggesting he learned it – as did so many other entertainers – from Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.
Unusually, Houston plays guitar, Guthrie only sings.
Track 12 – Put My Little Shoes Away (MASTER MA 81)
Written by Samuel N. Mitchell and Charles Pratt in 1873, this was the sort of sentimental parlor song popular in American homes for almost seven decades. Guthrie may have learned it from his mother’s singing early on, or from a phonograph record sometime later. (It was recorded no fewer than seventeen times, the last by the Everly Brothers as late as 1958, according to the redoubtable Meade, Spottswood,Meade bible, Country Music Sources, p. 283.
Guthrie plays mandolin and sings lead on this master recorded on April 24, 1944. Houston
plays guitar and sings harmony. An almost restrained Sonny Terry is on harmonica.
Track 13 –Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone (MASTER MA 83)
This gospel song was written sometime around 1900, according to Meade, Spottswood, and Meade (p. 217) by the Reverend George Beebe, with music by H.E.McAfee. That formation may have been inspired by an early hymn, “When I Am Gone,” as printed in William Walker’s influential The Southern Harmony, first published in 1854. The chorus there repeats the phrase “When I am gone” at the end of each verse and refrain.
The Carter Family recorded it first in 1928, in a duet by Sara and Maybelle, the ladies
playing autoharp and guitar. Seven years later, they sang it again, each playing guitar, joined
by A.P. singing bass.
This is probably the surest harmony Guthrie, on mandolin, and Houston, playing guitar,
achieved in the marathon sessions.
Track 14 – John Henry (MASTER MA 10)
There really is nothing much one can say about the quintessential African-American ballad, the story of a man pitted against a steam engine, of dignity and heroism, indeed, of one man standing against the gods. Is it not the fate of those who challenge the gods that even if they prevail, in the end they must die?
“John Henry,” the stuff of myth, of great deeds well and nobly done, is literally known throughout the United States, among whites as well as blacks. (Meade, Spottswood, and Meade, pp. 61-62, list more than twenty recordings by white musicians, not counting those who recorded “race” records.) Scholars have traced its origins to at least three states, most recently to Alabama. University of Georgia professor John Garst makes a persuasive case for that state and one John Henry Dabney as the original John Henry. Garst wrote that Dabney, “an ex-slave from Copiah County,Mississippi, is said to have been driving steel at Coosa Mountain Tunnel on the Columbus & Western Railway (Central of Georgia) when he raced a steam drill outside nearby Oak Mountain Tunnel in 1887. These locations are about fifteen miles east of Birmingham.”
Guthrie takes the vocal lead, Houston the guitar lead, and together they harmonize on this epic ballad celebrating man’s triumph over machine.
Disc Three: WOODY THE AGITATOR
In New York City, Guthrie fell in, or was snatched up by The Almanac Singers, an evershifting malgamation of pro-Union, anti-Jim Crow singers. The central figures were a lanky five-string banjo player, Pete Seeger; a portly, folksy Arkansan who sang bass, Lee Hays; and Millard Lampell, a facile and clever songwriter who tended to sing the melody line. For the last ten years, they had seen “oppressed people and therefore oppressors,” as Hays argued; now they lifted their voices in protest and defiance.
Track 1 – I’m Gonna Join That One Big Union
(You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union) (MASTER MA 9)
Guthrie was not particularly union-conscious until he traipsed through California’s farm rich San JoaquinValley where the awkwardly named UCAPAWA, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, struggled to organize Kern County cotton field workers in the summer of 1938. These were his people, Okies and Arkies, Missourians and “Texicans,” often faced off against American Legion vigilantes picking fights with picketers while local police looked on benignly. Until then, Guthrie had been no more than an observer; now he had a cause.
No hand at picking cotton himself, Guthrie rallied the scattered strikers with his guitar, gathering groups of them around him on the edge of the highway as he sang through the evening. A strike organizer, Dorothy Healey, five decades later still vividly recalled the intensity of the moment, and the mutual understanding that flowed between Guthrie and his people.
Guthrie wrote “You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union” in 1941, while on a tour with the Almanac Singers on behalf of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, “the one big union.” The melody is lifted from the popular gospel song “You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley,” which in turn was adapted from a much older African-American spiritual. As printed in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 anthology, The American Songbag (p. 486), the first verse of the spiritual read:
You got to cross that River Jordan,
You got to cross it foh yohself;
O there cain’t nobody cross it foh you;
You got to cross it foh yohself,
Cain’t yoh brother cross it foh you,
You got to cross it foh yoself.
Sandburg’s tune is virtually the same as Guthrie and Houston sing here. Apparently, this is
the first time this track has been released.
Track 2 – Hangknot, Slipknot (MASTER MA 115)
Still living in Hanover House at the corner of 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City – and just days after he wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie recalled grim stories he had heard as a boy in Okemah, tales of black folk lynched for stepping out of line, of offending the man,Mister Charlie.
In 1910, two years before he was born, “the good people” of Okemah and surrounding parts – that is, the whites – kidnapped a 13-year-old black youth who had shot and killed a deputy sheriff.When the boy’s mother sought to protect him, the mob swept her up as well.Mother and son were lynched from a bridge spanning the Canadian River, seven miles south of Okemah, where Guthrie would be born. (A famous photograph of the bodies hanging from the bridge survives.)
Thirty years later, the boy who had grown up in segregated Okemah, who had imbibed the unthinking prejudices of a segregated South, who so casually used the word “nigger,” now had come to a different understanding. He had traveled through the richest of farm country and tallied the misery doled out equally to poor whites and poorer blacks. He now understood it was not race, but economic status that divided his people, and himself, from the others. Poor was poor, regardless of skin color.
If it was a hard lesson to learn, he learned it well. The result was this remembrance “dedicated to the many negro mothers, fathers, and sons alike, that was lynched and hanged under the bridge of the Canadian River….” (Quoted from Dave Marsh and Harold Leventhal, Pastures of Plenty (New York, 1990), p. 37.)
Track 3 – Gonna Roll the Union On (MASTER MA 118)
This is another of the unreleased tracks from the April, 1944, marathon. It was written by the charismatic activist of the integrated Southern Tenants Farmer Union, John Handcox, two of whose late 1930’s songs, are still remembered, still sung: “Raggedy, Raggedy Are We” and the rousing “Roll the Union On.” In 1937, Handcox made a trip to Washington, D.C., where he was recorded by Charles Seeger, Pete’s musicologist father, and Sidney Robertson Cowell, the wife of composer Henry Cowell and a musicologist herself. Alan Lomax, then head of the Archive of American Folk Song, pressed Pete Seeger, Charles’ son, and Guthrie, to listen and learn Handcox’s songs. Both were members of the Almanac Singers; the Almanacs would later sing these on picket lines to boost the picketers’ spirits, just as Handcox had intended.
The melody and structure of “Roll the Union On” is, of course, the black spiritual “Roll the Chariot On.” The fact that the union was integrated led Guthrie to conclude in his notes to the song in Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People that “it takes all kinds of colors of make a picture.” This is another of Asch’s unreleased masters.
Track 4 – Ludlow Massacre (MASTER 902)
Protesting brutal working conditions, dishonest weight-checkmen and inadequate pay, the polyglot coal miners – Mexicans, Greeks, and Poles – employed by the Colorado Fuel and Iron mining company in Ludlow, Colorado, lay down their tools and walked off the job in September, 1913.
Evicted from their homes in the company town, the miners and their families moved into tents set up on platforms built on land rented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). There they lived through the harsh winter of 1913-14 on the eastern edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range while “scabs,” replacement miners continued to funnel dollars into the distant coffers of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who owned the coal company.
Still the striking miners held out, even as Baldwin-Felts “detectives” ranged the borders of the rented encampment in “The Death Special,” a specially built armored car with a machine gun mounted in the rear.When snipers began firing on the tented community, the miners dug trenches or pits beneath their tents to shelter wives and children.
The bitter animosity between strikers and scabs festered, then erupted in clashes. When a body of a scab was found on March 10, 1914, the governor of Colorado called out two companies of the National Guard to keep order. They would be supplemented by an ad hoc militia formed of CF&I guards, financed by the company, and decked out in National Guard uniforms.
The morning after the Greek Easter, April 20, 1914, the militia set up a machine gun on a ridge looking down on the miners’ tent camp. The miners, armed with rifles and pistols bought by the UMWA, sought to flank the ridge line; one or another side started shooting.
The shooting spread along the ridge line as the machine gun swept the tents below. Fires erupted in the tent city where women and children huddled in their trenches beneath the wooden platforms. Under one tent two women and eleven children suffocated to death. The UMWA had its rallying cry. The women and children, as well as three miners murdered by the National Guard, were victims of “The Ludlow Massacre.” The strike of miners in southern Colorado along the aptly named Purgatory River would continue another eight months until the UMWA ran out of money. By the end of the Colorado Coalfield War, at least sixty-nine were dead, the strike had been broken, and CF&I continued production with its replacement workers. Four years later, the union bought the site of the massacre and erected on that plot a granite monument to its martyrs.
Track 5 – Sally Don’t You Grieve (MASTER MA 34)
This was written sometime after June 22, 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive, three-pronged attack on the Soviet Union. Until that moment, the Almanac Singers, including Guthrie, had hewed to the Communist Party line of nonintervention in the European war. But once Hitler broke the so-called Stalin-Axis pact, the party line abruptly shifted. Now Communists and fellow travelers everywhere were to press for American involvement, Lend-Lease to the USSR, and all aid to the beleaguered Red Army.With that, Guthrie metaphorically, musically enlisted with this song, based on an older gospel song, “Don’t Grieve After Me.”
Tracks 6 and 7 – The Ballad of Harriet Tubman, Part 1 (MASTER 905)
and Part 2 (MASTER 904)
In March, 1945, Guthrie facing induction into the army (he was divorced from his first wife,Mary, and yet to wed his second, Marjorie Mazia), he rushed into the remodeled Asch studio, to record what he and Moe Asch hoped would be a continuing series of recordings. Guthrie recorded five ballads that day, including “The Ludlow Massacre” (Track 4 on this disc), and the long ballad of “Harriet Tubman.” (“Tubman,” sung to the tune of “Kansas Boys,” was so long it spread over two masters.)
Curiously enough, Asch never got around to putting the Tubman ballad on a commercial release. In one sense it took the pioneering scholar of American protest songs, John Greenway to recognize Guthrie’s powerful narrative of the legendary woman who guided as many as 300 escaped slaves to freedom over the Underground Railway.
Greenway wrote of Guthrie that “so unerringly does he strike at the heart of the matter in composing his song-stories, that annotations are an impertinence.” (American Folksongs of Protest [Philadelphia, 1953], p. 90.)
Track 8 – Tear the Fascists Down (MASTER MA 13)
Internal evidence suggests that this, one of Guthrie’s virtually unsung songs, was written sometime after November 19, 1942, when the Red Army launched its winter offensive along the Don River to relieve the besieged city of Stalingrad. For some months, the American Communist Party and its allies had urged a “Second Front Now,” that is, an invasion of France by Allied forces to relieve pressure on the retreating Red Army. Hence the lines: “Good people, what are we waitin’ on?” and the reference to Paris in chains. The melody, of course, is that of “John Henry.”
Track 9 – Yanks Go Marching In (MASTER MA 2)
Once the United States entered the war, Guthrie threw himself into the war effort. He sailed as a messman three times on Atlantic crossings, ferrying goods to the North African invasion in 1942, and reinforcements to the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. Twice his ships met grim fates. The first was towed to port after taking a torpedo in the Mediterranean Ocean and allowed to settle in the mud of Oran Harbor; the third limped to a sheltering English port after discharging its troops on the beaches of Normandy, mission accomplished.
Once committed to the war effort, Guthrie like his good friend Pete Seeger was determined to defeat the Fascists. This is another of Guthrie’s World War II rallying cries, this parody set to the familiar tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Guthrie plays mandolin and sings lead, Houston offers guitar and harmony voice.
Track 10 – You Can Hear My Whistle Blow (MASTER MA 35)
This is so short as to be almost a ditty, but the sentiment resonates for all of that. Seemingly Guthrie wrote this while in the merchant marine – “the ship I ride on” which is “heading over this ocean to a better world to come.” Little wonder then that Tom Brokaw dubbed this “the greatest generation.”
Track 11 – Union Burying Ground (MASTER MA 77)
By the fall of 1940, Guthrie was established in New York City. He was singing with the Almanacs, appearing regularly on CBS radio, either on Alan Lomax’s School of the Air or
on Norman Corwin’s weekly programs. Beyond the Almanacs, he had a widening circle of friends, including Huddie and Martha Ledbetter, and three fugitives from Harlan and Bell Counties, Kentucky: “Aunt Molly” Jackson, and her half-siblings, Jim Garland and Sarah Ogan. The three of them had been run out of Harlan where they had sought to organize for the United Mine Workers at the risk of their lives. (Not for nothing had Harlan been tagged “Bloody Harlan.”)
From Aunt Molly, Garland, and Sarah Ogan – with whom Guthrie had an intimate relationship – Guthrie learned of the difficulties of union organizing in eastern Kentucky, and the very real human costs. “Aunt Molly would sing us an hour or two of Bloody Harlan County, songs of organizing the coal miners to beat the thugs of old Sheriff Blair.” Sarah, Guthrie continued in his small collections of American Folksong (New York: Oak Publications, 1961, pp. 10-12) “told us how the deputy sheriff caught her in the dark of night stealing a sack of coal of the mine dump. He pulled his pistol and said that he would shoot her if he caught her there stealing coal again. Sarah said, Oil your pistol up good, Mister Deputy, I’ll be right here on this dump tomorrow night carrying home a sack to keep my kids from freezing…. And then I said, yes, Sarah, you are fighting the people I hate, the sicknesses that we all hate, the causers and the carriers of the worst of all wordly [worldly?] illnesses, this profit system to feed the monopoly machine that is choking every solitary one of us.”
“Union Burying Ground” was the result.
Track 12 – You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union (MASTER 46)
A reprise, with a slight word change from the first track on this CD. Additionally, Guthrie and Houston start off on the wrong foot, then pause to give Moe Asch editing room, and begin a second time. (That pause is significant. It marked just how professional Guthrie had become both in a recording studio and on the air since leaving Pampa in the spring of 1937.)
Disc Four: WOODY, CISCO, AND SONNY
JAM THE BLUES, HOLLERS, AND DANCES
After their second voyage in the merchant marine, Guthrie persuaded Moses Asch to record as many songs as he could get down on the scarce aluminum masters. Asch was taking a big gamble based on a hunch; Guthrie was important as a songwriter, and Guthrie would sell enough records to make the gamble worthwhile.
Guthrie, being Guthrie, offhandedly invited his shipmate, Gilbert “Cisco” Houston, and Sanders “Blind Sonny” Terry to join him in what would be an impromptu jam session in the Asch studio during the last weeks of April, 1944. On many tracks, Terry, a true virtuoso on the harmonica, shone brightly. As Guthrie later wrote:
Sonny Terry blew and whipped, beat, fanned and petted his harmonica, cooed to it like a weed hill turtle dove, cried to it like some worried woman come to ease his worried mind…. He put the tobacco sheds of North and South Carolina in it and all of the blistered and hurt and hardened hands cheated and left empty, hurt and left crying, robbed and left hungry, pilfered and left starving, beaten and left dreaming. He rolled down the trains that the colored cannot drive, only clean and wash down. He blew into the wood holes and the brassy reeds the tale and the wails of Lost John running away from the dogs of the chain gang guards, and the chain gang is the landlord that is never around anywhere. (American Folksong [New York: Oak Publications, 1961], p. 7.)
Track 1 – Train Breakdown (MASTER MA 103)
Terry plays harmonica and takes the lead while Guthrie plays guitar as they jam their way through a tune Moe Asch casually entered into his ledger as “Train Breakdown.” If the tempo were slower, it might be termed a “blues.”
Arguably, Guthrie as a guitar player was never better than he is here, supporting Terry.
Track 2 – Do You Ever Think Of Me? (aka At My Window) (MASTER MA 89)
Pickup sessions are like this. Guthrie or Houston hums the tune; Terry instantly picks it up. Then our three paladins set off on this sentimental song that Guthrie wrote on March 10, 1939, in Los Angeles. The language of the first stanza seems to have been inspired by the parlor songs Woody’s mother, Nora, so favored.
Houston provides a guitar foundation and sings harmony here, Guthrie sings lead and plays rhythm, Terry punctuates the performance.
Track 3 – Guitar Rag (MASTER MA 101)
There is a hint here of the improvisational nature of the session(s) with Terry. Notice how he increasingly fills in, until on the last verse – do instrumentals have “verses?” – when Terry leads. This is apparently the first release of this master.
Track 4 – Square Dance Medley (MASTER 1225)
While still a teenager in Pampa, Texas, Guthrie played in, or filled in, for bands furnishing the music for square dances in nearby wheat farming communities. There he learned dozens, perhaps hundreds of square dance tunes, each played over and over and over and over, through the set. Even more boring or mindless, he learned that fiddle players did not like band members to deviate in the slightest from thump-thumpthump chorded accompaniments, lest the fiddler be outshone.
The medley here is “Cripple Creek,” “Buffalo Gals,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Red Wing,” “Chilly Winds,” and “Sandy Land.”Woody does as those fiddlers commanded – to a point – while interspersing a handful of square dance calls.
This may be the most exuberant of the recordings in this collection: Houston plays guitar, Guthrie mandolin, and Terry adds harmonica comments here and there as he picked up the melodies. They are simply having great fun. This too is apparently a first release.
Track 5 – Guitar Breakdown (MASTER MA 25)
This falls under the general heading of “Just Having Fun,” the sort of arrangement messmen Guthrie and Houston might have worked out after cleaning up the kitchen and the mess hall aboard ship. It is all Houston for the first verses; Guthrie assays a few licks of his own on the last two. This too does not seem to have been previously released.
Track 6 – Raincrow Bill (MASTER 699)
From at least Pennsylvania south and west to Arkansas and perhaps beyond (not to mention Germanic traditions), to hear a crow call, or to see a flock take flight in the late afternoon foretells rain that night or the following day. The belief is widespread among whites and blacks, north and south. (See W.D. Hand’s magisterial North Carolina Folklore, VII [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1964], p. 314, and the references there.) It would seem too that the rain crow is especially powerful, Hand reports, for “to see a ghost, take a rain crow’s egg, break it in water, and wash your face” (p. 142).
Terry and Guthrie provide a definitive lesson in acculturation as they swap versions of the instrumental tune “Raincrow” on harmonica. (Note that Guthrie borrows Terry’s mouth harp.)
This tune was ostensibly copyrighted in 1927 by early country artist Henry Whitter who recorded a number of traditional songs and ballads, and then claimed copyrights.
Track 7 – Ain’t Nobody’s Business (MASTER MA 42)
This must be the most defiant of, well, the polite phrase is “stick your nose in someplace else.” This song, ostensibly written in 1920 by one W.E. Skidmore-Walker and the great black vaudevillian Bert Williams, was recorded at least twenty-two times, in versions ranging from white country artist Riley Puckett in 1924 to the towering talent of Billie Holiday as “T’Aint Nobody’s Business If I Do” twenty-five years later.
Here Houston plays guitar, and Guthrie mandolin. “Bender, winder”? Guthrie was usually a lot more precise with his rhymes; obviously he was singing something learned originally from a record.
Track 8 – Goodbye to My Stepstone (MASTER MA 94)
According to the authoritative Meade, Spottswood, and Meade, this favorite of Guthrie’s was written by one J.O.Webster in 1880. It is possible that Guthrie learned it from someone in his family – his mother favored such sentimental ballads – and equally possible too that he learned it from a phonograph record. (There were at least nine recordings of the song before Guthrie left Pampa in the spring of 1937. Guthrie and Maxine Crissman sang “Stepstone” over KFVD often.)
According to Guy Logsdon, Bess Lomax Hawes, a member of the disbanded Almanac Singers, sat in on this, adding a second vocal harmony.
Guthrie plays mandolin and sings lead, Houston plays guitar and sings harmony, Terry adds a bit of musical punctuation here and there with his harmonica.
Track 9 – Ezekiel Saw the Wheel (MASTER MA 88)
This spiritual, among those popularized by the touring Fisk Jubilee Singers in the last quarter of the 19th Century and into the first decades of the 20th, is probably one of the best known of all. Guthrie and Houston, both playing guitar, seem to invest it with increasing intensity as the spiritual moves on; Terry meanwhile seems to be holding back as if he were not quite sure how to attack a song he associated more with worship than with a jam session in a recording studio. This is the first time the trio’s “Ezekiel” has been released.
Track 10 – Bile Them Cabbage Down (MASTER MA 140)
This is a string band staple, recorded again and again by such early country and western artists as Riley Puckett, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner, and Crockett’s Kentucky Mountaineers, according to Meade, Spottswood, and Meade (p. 790). It is the sort of tune you pick up at first hearing, and sing whatever verses, borrowed and/or blue, come to mind.
Guthrie sings lead and plays fiddle, Houston adds guitar and harmony, Terry shows some of his stuff on this traditional fiddle tune.
Track 11 – Danville Girl (MASTER MA 1226)
There is a poignancy in this ballad of the “wild and reckless hobo” (an alternate title) torn between his love of a Danville, Virginia, girl and the call of the open road – though as Guthrie sings it the love story is barely hinted. Further, the ballad is enhanced by as fine a melody, in 3/4 or waltz time, as one could imagine. That might explain its popularity among early country and western artists. (Meade, Spottswood, and Meade list no fewer than twenty-seven recordings of the ballad on fifty-five (!) labels; one master might serve many masters, if a play on words is permitted.) Those who might claim Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train” as the original must
contend with Nolan Porterfield’s biography of Rodgers. Porterfield quotes RCA Victor’s artist and repertoire man, Ralph Peer, asserting a garbled version of “an old minstrel song…was in the public domain anyway, but the way he changed it, it was obviously a great song. So I didn’t hesitate to put his name to it.” (See Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979], pp. 162-63.) Guthrie’s song has no bearing on Rodgers’.
Other versions are cited in G.Malcolm Laws, Jr., Native American Balladry, revised edition (Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1964, under the rubric H 2, “Ten Thousand Miles from Home,” pp. 230-31) but the most thoughtful history of the ballad is in Cohen’s Long Steel Rail, pp. 355-366.
Here Terry sits out, while Guthrie and Houston play guitars.
Track 12 – Guitar Blues (MASTER 675)
As musicians know, whether playing jazz, or chamber music, or picking in a string band, there sometimes comes a moment when all the parts come together. Frowns and headshakes turn to smiles, even guffaws. Yeah, now it’s working, it’s cooking. And it goes right, or comes off, or swings.Whatever. It is, to borrow a phrase, righteous. So it seems to have happened to Guthrie and Houston sometime on April 20, 1944 as they played this two-guitar country blues.
Track 13 – Brown’s Ferry Blues (MASTER MA 98)
Near the end of the marathon sessions, on April 25, 1944, Guthrie, Houston, and Terry assayed “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” an upbeat country tune associated indelibly with the Delmore Brothers, who first recorded it in 1933. It is nothing more than an anthology of traditional verses or tropes – “two old maids sitting in the sand/each one wishing the other was a man,” etc. – set to a not very imaginative tune.
Nonetheless, Guthrie, Houston, and Terry jam their way through it, Terry obviously tentative at first (Guthrie probably told him nothing more than the key signature, E, and let Terry find his way). But coaxed or urged by Guthrie’s “Play it again, I didn’t hear you,” Terry responds.
Track 14 – More Pretty Girls than One (MASTER MA 2)
Woody’s advice to the lovelorn was the second master recorded in his first session with Moe Asch on April 16, 1944. Those with a keen ear may spot that the melody here is actually a set of “Danville Girl” (see Track 11 on this disc). Here Guthrie plays mandolin and sings lead; Houston on guitar adds harmony.
Just where Guthrie or Houston learned this is not clear.Meade, Spottswood, and Meade, p. 534, cite eight recorded versions of the song between 1927 and 1938. Any one or another might have lodged in Guthrie’s head or stuck in his craw; this 3/4 time tune is hardly the most challenging Guthrie ever confronted.Whatever: they do the best they can with shoddy material.
Track 15 – “Sonny’s Flight” (MASTER 705)
The title assigned by Asch, for lack of anything better, was “Train Breakdown,” but we’ve retitled this song to distinguish it from the first track on this disc, for here is Sonny Terry truly in full flight. Simply put, has anyone living heard an E-major harmonica played like this, as Terry performs here, with Guthrie’s quiet guitar supporting Terry’s driving, pulsating mouth harp? (At this tempo, how many harmonica players could divide eighth notes into sixteenths, as Terry does here?) Asch’s robotic, insensate electric turntable, and cartridge captured true genius here, and we, the later listeners, are the beneficiaries. (For other harmonica virtuosi wailing train effects, see Meade, Spottswood and Meade, pp. 891-2.)
This cut apparently has never been released before.
Notes, including Woody Rediscovered and Depression America and Woody Guthrie, by Ed Cray and Bill Nowlin
This project is dedicated to the memory of Lucia Sutera (1939-2007)