While working on the recently posted compilation, I happened to come across this thread at the mudcat cafe in which Bob Coltman shows up, chats with people, and ends up giving a very interesting analysis of his song “Wish To The Lord I’d Never Been Born” (lyrics). Reading that comment made me excited to include the song on the compilation. It was interesting to see it as so specific and, in some ways, so strange a song. These are his comments:
Maybe the best way to start off is to admit that, just because I put it on a record, that doesn’t mean I understand it! (Dire folkie confession there. We’re all supposed to be such good scholars of at least our own stuff.) Notably, I cannot be sure I’ve got all the words right. For instance, White Oak mountain might be some other soundalike mountain, etc. etc.
As to elucidating the song, I feel pretty daunted. But here’s how I see it (and, in places, can’t quite see it), based on the Charley LaPrade/Blue Ridge Highballers version, sung by band member Luther B. Clarke.
The first verse, I take it, is clear, though I’ll talk about it in a future post if you like.
Wisht I’d never been a co-op, or listened to T.H. Wilson,
I’d be ridin’ in a four-horse dray, and a-payin’ my bills and a-whistlin’.
My take on this: the singer is participant and victim in one of the south’s various cooperative farming/haying/milking/etc. schemes, whereby, inevitably, the big man (presumably T.H. Wilson) gets the money and the farmer gets screwed. The dray is an open question: it’s usually understood as a one-horse two-wheel cart, specifically for carrying stuff. It can also be understood as a heavier four-wheel wagon such as a draft (work) horse or ox might pull. But Clarke seems to be using it in the sense of a wealthy man’s four-horse carriage, two ranks of two horses abreast. Could “dray” mean that, locally? Not impossible, I guess. Sounds unlikely, though.
Never sow on an open floor, you just wait till fall,
I’m agonna drive in Delaware, I can hear Sam Robinson call.
This is a tough one. To sow on an open floor makes no obvious sense, and I’ve worked on farms. But if you let seed fall on a threshing floor belonging to the owner, maybe you don’t get your seed back for spring planting. The rest of the verse is clear enough, I guess. From the Charley LaPrade/Luther B. Clarke/Blue Ridge Highballers stamping grounds (Martinsville and Danville, VA, Spray NC of Charlie Poole fame) to Delaware sounds like a long shot, but it wasn’t. In the 40s as a kid I worked with an itinerant farmer from North Carolina who’d plunked himself down in the east Pennsylvania corn country, not to stay, just to make a few of those northern dollars for a few years and go back home again. Don’t know who Sam Robinson was, but if he was a Delaware farm owner hiring itinerants, that would work.
I want to hear Sam Robinson say, I’ll drive in the White Oak mountain,
You’ve been a durn fool long enough, you can drink right at this fountain.
There’s a tiny community in PA called White Oak…only place by that name in my atlas, though with time on the internet I might be able to scare up a White Oak Mountain someplace else. The last half of the verse I have always taken to be addressed to a horse (a Virginia horse being driven in the White Oak Mountain no doubt, and thus in strange territory) who’s balking at water–lots of horses do, for reasons of their own–telling him to drink the durn stuff.
Henry Payne carries the mail, sometimes drives a mule,
Ain’t got time to cuss no more, he’s busy in that pool.
All but the last half line seems clear enough, though why any of these, as you say, bizarre jagged images turn up in this rather expressionistic/surrealistic song is anybody’s guess. “He’s busy in that pool” sounds like (a) a garble, or (b) maybe we’re still talking about that horse standing in the water refusing to drink? Your guess is as good as mine.
Summing up, this is one of those intensely vision-laden songs I love, that just entangle you deep in the brush and mire and dust and deep woods of somebody’s intensely felt locality. Another is Obray Ramsey’s wonderful “Jim Gunter and the Steer.” They tend to be intensely local, with references to individuals nobody ever heard of who were locally known at the time. Luther B. Clarke and fiddler Charley LaPrade are dead, I’m pretty sure, and perhaps no one can now say who Henry Payne and T.H. Wilson were, or what Sam Robinson did to be such a deliverer figure.
Hope this is helpful…with the proviso that it’s all guesswork. Surely this is one of the least straightforward songs I know.
The interesting thing about all of this is that I never would have tried to figure out the song, and certainly not to that level of detail, on my own. I have a general assumption for traditional music which is that verses or lines that don’t seem to make sense are, as likely as not, from some other song or some other version of the same song. Without thinking too much I would have just assumed that a line like, “I’m a-gonna drive in Delaware” was pulled from some other song, not that it actually referred to North Carolina farmers riding to Delaware for itinerant work.
I also really enjoy Bob Coltman’s own appreciation for the strangeness of the song. It is a nice example of the way in which performing a song creates a different emotional reaction than listening to it. On some level, as a listener, I’m prepared to accept the occasional nonsense phrase in a song. I don’t assume that a song has to make sense, though I’m glad that most do, but he’s in a different relation to the song, having to figure out some sense of what each word is, and what they mean. In fact a respondent in the thread suggests that he may have misheard some of the words . . .
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