Obscure American Folksongs from the Heart of the Middle West
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Audio CD, January 9, 2012
O, Ground Hog (1:46)
Boat’s Up the River (3:21)
Rowdy Blues (3:38)
Rockin’ the Cradle (3:20)
Santy Anno (3:11)
Early One Morning (2:44)
Shorty George (3:15)
Young Edmund (2:13)
Old Shoes & Leggings (2:38)
Stavin’ Chain (3:32)
Low-Down Hangin’ ‘Round (1:51)
Little Ball of Yarn (3:03)
Total running time, 34:33
“O, Ground Hog” exists in many variants. The original comes from the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, and probably dates to the turn of the 20th century, or slightly before.
I learned “Boat’s Up the River” from the recordings of Kentucky picker and singer Roscoe Holcomb, the original “high and lonesome.” “Rowdy Blues” comes from the work of Kit Bailey, of whom little is known, and which may be a pseudonym for Willie Brown, a close friend of blues artist Robert Johnson.
“Rockin’ the Cradle” is on the ancient theme of cuckoldry, as part of the larger theme of marital discontent. A similar song from the early 1700s, “I father a child that’s none of my own,” is advertised with the preface: “Being The Seaman’s Complaint; who took a Wanton instead of a Saint: Shewing That whilst he was Trading Seven Years from Port to Port at Sea, and brought home great wealth, his Wife, in the meantime, by Trading in the Low Countries, got a mischance, fell down and broke her Elbow; above all praising the Innocence of a Country Life.”
“Santy Anno” is a sea shanty about the Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The song may have been started by British seamen who jumped ship to serve with him in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). “Early One Morning” is an English folk song dating back to 1787, one of the three most popular songs of that era.
“Shorty George” was the train that brought visitors to and from the state penitentiary, so it’s easy to see why he “ain’t no friend of mine.” The story of “Young Edmund” (also “Young Edmond of the Lowlands” or “Young Edwin in the Lowlands Low”) was first published in 1813.
“Old Shoes & Leggings” dates back to the early 1700s, when it appeared under such titles as “An Old Man Came O’er The Lea” or “With His Grey Beard Newly Shaven.” (An old man with money might impress young girls, but an old man in poverty becomes an object of ridicule.)
“Stavin’ Chain” probably refers to a type of chain used in barrel-making, what we might today refer to as a “dog chain.” Apparently a similar type of chain was used to shackle together prisoners on a work gang. “Stavin’ Chain” was also folksinger Wilson Jones, recorded by Alan Lomax in prison in the South, where he also discovered and recorded Leadbelly.
“Low-Down Hangin’ ‘Round” is from the Allen Brothers of Chattanooga, Tennessee--a country duo popular in the 1920s and 30s. The bawdy song “Little Ball of Yarn” may date back to older Scots folk songs, including “The Yellow, Yellow Yorlin,” collected by Robert Burns in "The Merry Muses." My version is by far one of the mildest. One version, titled “I’m a Gentleman of Leisure, of Nobility and Pleasure,” begins:
I’m a gentleman of leisure, of nobility and pleasure,
With manners of the manor and the morals of the barn
And when I met a lady in the forest green and shady,
I asked if I could spin her ball of yarn.
Other versions result, not in a gentle parting, but in paternity suits and prison, or genital itching.
Dean Rathje: voice, guitar, dobro, banjo, mandolin, piano, bass.
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