Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Down on the Farm #1

We often think of August as the prime vacation month—when I was a child, my family always headed to the shores of Lake Champlain in August for a week or two of camping & swimming & fishing & general recreation. August does seem to be a month when it’s simply too hot to work.

While a lot of us may feel like kicking back in shade during the August days, the farmer isn’t allowed to idle this time away, because August is a key month for the harvest. As the temperatures soar here in the Idaho rangeland, one of the most commonplace sights is the rancher harvesting hay—the big pastures dotted either with the relatively small, old school bales which a person can lift by hand or the large round bales that require heavy equipment to move from place to place. In Northern Idaho, & in wheat-growing areas all around the northern hemisphere, this is the month for wheat harvest. & of course, everyone from big commercial vegetable growers to family gardeners are bringing in the fruits of their labors.

This being the case, we’ll be looking at “farming songs” all month. As usual, the songs are drawn from my own cd/vinyl/cassette collection, & will reflect my current musical tastes; I’ll give a brief write-up, as well as album info—& yes, there will be videos every week.


Balky Mule Blues: I’m on a Blind Lemon Jefferson kick these days—love all those runs on both the bass & treble strings! This tune is actually about Blind Lemon’s “woman,” but we do learn that she is—you guessed it—“like a balky mule.” Blind Lemon had a heavy Texas accent, & it can be a bit hard to follow the lyrics, but it seems the woman somehow metamorphizes from a mule to a cat. Take a listen below. Blind Lemon Jefferson: Moaning All Over (Tradition); this title has been discontinued, & it appears this title is only available on a couple of the more “complete” compilations, like the 5-disc import, Blind Lemon Jefferson: Texas Blues.

Blue Harvest Blues: I never tire of listening to Mississippi John Hurt—both his guitar playing & his singing really sum up so much of what I love about the acoustic country blues. This song is built on a fairly simple syncopated chord riff, but it’s a memorable exposition of the “bad luck farmer” facing a bad harvest. Mississippi John Hurt: 1928 Sessions (Yazoo)

Boll Weevil/The Boll Weevil Song: This is the folkie version of the tune—check in to a later installment for the more blues roots version by “the Masked Marvel.” Seeger’s version is nice & relaxed, & brings out the song’s humor; Van Ronk’s version—with his big voice & big guitar picking—kind of emphasize the surreal angle. They’re both good. Pete Seeger: Folkways: A Vision Revisited (Legacy International); Dave Van Ronk: Statesboro Blues (Blues Collection); the Van Ronk title has been discontinued, & as far as I can tell his recording isn’t available on any current releases.

Bull Cow Blues: Not really about how to care for a bull in the sense of Bos primigenius, but you probably already knew that. Big Bill was a great bluesman who isn’t as well known by the general public as he should be; huge in the history of Chicago blues. Big Bill Broonzy: I Feel So Good (Indigo)

Chicken Reel: The dancers better be in good trim if they want to step out to Doc Watson & Bill Monroe’s version of “Chicken Reel”—it’s lightning fast. The interplay between guitar & mandolin is exquisite & the solos are dizzying. I never saw a chicken move that fast. Bill Monroe & Doc Watson: Off The Record, Vol. 2: Live Duet Recordings, 1963-1980 (Smithsonian Folkways)

Cluck Old Hen: Anyone who’s tried to clawhammer a banjo even half seriously has probably encountered this old-time standard. Dwight Diller is an accomplished clawhammer player, & he takes the interesting (& I think succesful) tack of playing the tune at a very moderate clip. It goes to show that old time music doesn’t all need to be played at really fast tempos. Taj Mahal’s tune is a variation I haven’t heard elsewhere, but it’s great: just Taj & his banjo. Dwight Diller: Just Banjo 99 (Yew Pine); Taj Mahal: Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home (Columbia)

Cock-a-Doodle-Doo: This is an original tune from another very good clawhammer banjo player, Mary Z Cox. Interestingly, it has some of the same syncopation as found in “Chicken Reel,” a sound that invariably makes one think of a strutting hen or rooster. As I’ve said in this space before, don’t let the fact this album is self-produced fool you—Ms Cox is an extremely talented player with a great ear for melody & great driving rhythm. Mary Z Cox: Secret Life of the Banjo (Mary Z Cox)

Deportees: We mustn’t forget the crucial role that migrant workers play in our agriculture—& how arduous & brutally difficult that life is for them. Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to this great song; Mart Hoffman later set them to music. Please check out Just a Song for a full write-up by Citizen K. Arlo Guthrie: Arlo Guthrie (Rising Son); Los Super Seven: Los Super Seven (RCA)—can you believe RCA has discontinued Los Super Seven’s first album? For shame! This Arlo Guthrie release also has been discontinued.

Down On Penny's Farm: Most of the songs on the Anthology of American Folk Music enjoyed great popularity during the first wave of the folk movement, & “Down on Penny’s Farm” was no exception. I believe the song now is much less performed than it once was, tho Natalie Merchant did a nice version on her House Carpenter’s Daughter album. It’s pretty hard to beat the Bently Boys 1929 take on this song about the sharecropper’s life. The Bently Boys: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1, Songs (Smithsonian-Folkways)

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  1. What a great feature. You're always so creative coming up with new features. I wish I could think of some for my blog.

    In all the years I've been in Oklahoma and Kansas, I've never heard or seen the old school bales to which you referred.

    You've made me wonder about farm songs rooted in Oklahoma. Any ideas? I'll give it some thought, too. Really great post, John. Enjoyed it. Now, I'll watch a video or two.

  2. Hurt is the best. And I love this piece of arwork, too.

    We've had such a mild summer. It's hard to believe it is August in Ohio, with the cool temps and all the rain!

  3. Hi Jen & Willow:

    Jen: I probably didn't describe them well--I'll post a picture next week. As far as farm songs rooted in Oklahoma, my first idea would be Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl songs, like "So Long It's Been Good To Know You" or "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" or "Dust Pneumonia." Thanks for your kind words!

    Willow: Yes, I hear it's been cool & rainy in the east. We got off to a slow start, but from about July 4 onward it's been hot weather as usual. Glad you also like Mississippi John Hurt!

  4. FANTASTIC! The theme, the post and the music, too. Greatness! Thank you.

  5. I may have said this before, but it is worth saying it again. One of the great delights of blogging is being exposed to the kind of music that you wouldn't normally listen to. It stops us being introspective, it widens our horizons, it exposes us to new pleasures. Thanks John, there was a great deal of pleasure in that post.

  6. I'm with JenX, it's a great feature. The August is for Holidays brough back memories - mostly of wet, overpriced ones I'm afraid. We try to avoid August now I'm no longer teaching!

  7. Hi Reya, Alan & Dave

    Reya: Really glad you liked it--thanks!

    Alan: Always happy to expose folks to some good old-time music.

    Dave: Thanks a lot. Living in a semi-arid region, I tend to forget about those summer rainy days. Out here we look forward to the summer's very infrequent rains, especially in August as this is the fire season.

  8. oh, my goodness! wonderful shades of yesteryear! all great! love this post! and on the august thing, we've had so much rain here, too, all summer - skies have looked more like fall and winter than summer - a summer which seems to be more gone than here - but where o' where did it go? - have a great day - jenean

  9. what a great musical theme for the month!

    thanks for turning a lot of us on to some new (old) tunes!!

    have a great harvest!

  10. Hi Jenean & Mouse!

    Jenean: That's sad, that summer seems to be slipping away. We had a brief break in the heat here this morning & it actually felt good; it's pretty toasty now, tho. Glad you liked the music!

    Mouse: Glad you enjoyed it; thanks! I'll be posting these every Wednesday thru August.

  11. hi john - thanks so much for coming over to the yaya tree - just so you'll know, thus far, i have revised the july 3 posts - my big sister before i was born and her first few months [i think] - anyway, added a few items - recently came across another album of photos that i'm trying to incorporate - would love your feedback if you should be so inclined - thanks again - have a wonderful evening - jenean

  12. I miss Dave Van Ronk. It's lovely to hear Big Bill Broonzy again, though. Thanks, John. You keep bringing back good memories.

  13. Hi Jeanean & Sandra

    Jenean: I've loved the photos you've posted so far.

    Sandra: I never got to see Dave Van Ronk live--it's one of my few regrets along those lines (along with not catching Townes Van Zandt). I always get so much from hearing Van Ronk. Glad you liked this.

  14. Blind Lemon Jefferson? Wow! Now THAT's a name! Thanks John for all your warm wishes when I was at my worst, I'm sure they helped :) Will check out all when I'm recovered,bye for now.

  15. Thank you for your kind words about Cock a Doodle Do. I wrote it for my youngest son, Gordon, who was born in the year of the rooster and struts around quite a bit. He is also a very fine producer and sound engineer (Neon Glitter Bliss--and now quite a few others from the NYC community) and recorded and mixed quite a bit of "A Secret Life Of Banjo"--so although the CD is technically self produced--it has the benefit of being worked over by a pro. :)
    I'm working on a new cd right now and Gordon will have his hand in this one too. :)

  16. Hi TFE:

    Glad to see you "up & about" in the cyber-sense at least! I agree on Blind Lemon Jefferson--that's a name!

  17. Hi Mary Cox:

    Thanks for stopping by & also for your kind words at Banjo Hangout. Looks like quite a few folks came over here from that site.

    Always happy to let folks know about excellent musicians such as yourself who they may not encounter from mainstream sources. Will look forward to your new cd!


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