January 2010

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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.

2ND VERSE:

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.

3RD VERSE:

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.

3RD VERSE

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.

4TH VERSE

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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Posted below the fold is the track list for the mix that I did. I haven’t posted the .mp3 yet, though I will probably will at some point, but I wanted to talk a little bit about what I learned from this particular mix.

I always end up learning things from making a mix; it gets me to listen more closely than I normally would, and to think in different ways about commonalities or difference between recordings. In this case, my sense of the theme for this mix came out of a conversation that I had been having immediately prior. I had been talking with someone about my tastes in traditional music and I realized that those tastes come out of a very specific core experience for me and that experience is growing up in a house where playing musing was a significant part of the the social lives of both of my parents and many of their friends.

I didn’t play music at the time and, in fact, I didn’t actively seek out music to listen to, or develop confidence in my own tastes in music until after I went away to college, but that’s really another story. Even though I wasn’t interested in making music I have a large set of childhood memories of hanging around in the living room while my parents played music with their friends.

I would get bored after a while, and wonder off to find a corner in which to read, but I realize those memories are what define traditional music for me. When I’m listening to recordings of folk or acoustic music one of the things that I listen for is whether the performance and recording capture something of the spirit of making music for pleasure. It is, of course, a subjective category, and the musicians in my parents’ generation that I knew, growing up, represent a specific style of making music. Still, there are many recording in which I do feel that sense of music as a social activity shared among participants — rather than between a performer an an audience.

And so, I’ve collected a number of recording that evoke that spirit on this mix, called Living Room Songs in reference to those memories.

I will post some of the songs and more specific thoughts when I have time but, for now, tracklist below the fold.

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I received my CD copies for the music swap on Saturday, so I’ll post my final tracklist and thoughts soon, but I wanted to mention one more song, which was one of the most difficult ones for me to cut.

I was excited about the song, first of all because it was a song that I remembered very fondly from my childhood, which I had just acquired a copy of. It’s a gorgeous song but, I had to admit, it just didn’t fit the feel of the mix that I was constructing because it placed too much emphasis on the words and story. I realized that most of the songs I had chosen didn’t demand close attention; they had strong forward energy, whereas this one didn’t. But I was sorry to see it go.

The song is Si Kahn’s tribute to the experiences of his immigrant grandfather, “Crossing the Border.” Lyrics below the fold, it must have been a tough song to write, because his emotion is so obvious, and yet there’s a lot of details that he includes. I find it very moving.
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From the “currently listening” file:

A while back I picked up a copy of In Country: Folk Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War because . . . well, because I believe that folk music is a way to understand something about a given culture and I was curious.

On first listening, it was a significant disappointment. In retrospect, there are some obvious limitations of the project, which I should have realized. The first is that they aren’t really folk songs. They’re song written by people serving in Vietnam, many of which had some popularity within the military, but they clearly represent individual voices, not any sense of folk process. Secondly the CD is a re-recording. The liner notes mention cassettes of the songs that were passed around Vietnam, but none of those performances are included. They got people together for a recording session in 1991 (presumably), so there is a feeling of distance and memory rather than immediacy.

All of that said, I happened to pull it from the shelf and listen to it, and some of the songs grew on my. Perhaps I was just in a mood to appreciate songs about the fear of marching through an unknown jungle (“Six Clicks”) or soldiers heroically sacrificing themselves to cover a helicopter rescue of injured soldiers (“Cobra Seven”) and to respond to them emotionally rather than as kitsch, which they are.
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I would be remiss, in any discussion of bluegrass music, to omit John Hartford’s great tribute to the genre, “Tater Tate and Allen Mundy,” which has influenced me in various ways. Whenever I come across something by one of the people mentioned in that song (which isn’t very often) I always have a moment of recognition*.

Apparently the CDs are starting to go out, so I will post the final track listing soon. One of the interesting parts, for me, of this particular mix is the way which my sense of what did or didn’t fit became much more specific. I originally thought that it was going to be evenly balanced between country, folk, and bluegrass, but it really ended up being mostly bluegrass with other stuff that could fit around that. For example, I had planned on including this Willie Nelson track, but it became obvious, relatively quickly, that it just didn’t fit the mood towards which I was gravitating.

On other example, of something that got cut, was Emmylou’s version of, Wayfaring Stranger. It seemed like a perfect fit but, when I heard it it context, I just couldn’t get past the reverb that they applied to her voice. It just makes me shake my head and wonder, “why?” It isn’t necessary, surely she has a sufficiently strong voice that it would have worked great without adding vocal effects. But, as it is, once I started to notice that, it just stood out more and more, and I decided I couldn’t use it.

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