Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Down on the Farm #3

Wednesday has rolled around again, so let’s take a trip down to the farm for some more great farm songs. Blues, political folk tunes & just good old time music. Enjoy!

  • A Lazy Farmer Boy: This tune also goes by the name “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” It’s a cautionary tale, as the farmer not only gets no crop, but he also gets no girl. Interestingly, in some versions the song ends with both the “girl next door” & the “pretty little widder” send him packing, & that’s that—this, for instance, is the version printed by Pete Seeger in his wonderful little songbook, America’s Favorite Ballads. In the Carter & Young version, the song ends with the farm boy swearing vengeance on the girl who rejected him—certainly a more ominous note, & in keeping with the overall dark vision of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Buster Carter & Preston Young: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1, Ballads (Smithsonian-Folkways)
  • Little Red Hen: Malvina Reynolds is best known for her song “Little Boxes,” but she was a prolific songwriter & she turned out a number of really great political folk songs. This is just one of them, tho it’s one of my favorites. Reynolds takes the old fable of the little red hen & transforms it into a delightful political satire about how the hen’s thriftiness & her impulse to involve the other barnyard creatures in her labor are what get her labeled as “red.” Check her out below on the old Pete Seeger show. Malvina Reynolds: Ear To The Ground (Smithsonian-Folkways)
  • Long Gone Like a Turkey thru the Corn: Lightnin’ Hopkins has long been a favorite of mine, both as a singer & as a guitarist—he was a master of the fingerstyle boogie guitar, & this is a beautiful example of his playing style. The song moves along at a rousing clip as Lightnin’ sings about being “long gone with my long pajamas on.” Wherever he’s going, he’s getting there in fine style—Lightnin’ Hopkins: Country Blues (Tradition)
  • Milk Cow Blues: Kokomo Arnold’s tune has been covered by any number of musicians, but the Bob Wills & the Teax Playboy’s 1946 version & Elvis’ take from the legendary Sun sessions are certainly among the most memorable. They’re also a study in contrasts, too, as there’s a laid-back air to the Playboy’s recording (perhaps heightened by Wills’ many vocal asides—many even by his rather chatty standards), & punctuated with one of Lester Barnard Jr’s tasty electric guitar solos. Elvis had Scotty Moore behind him, of course, & they roar thru this number: as Elvis said, “Let’s get real gone for a change.” Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: Take Me Back to Tulsa (Proper); Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions (Rhino—this is vinyl but the Sun Sessions must be out on cd)
  • Milk Cow's Calf Blues: You can come at this song from a couple of different angles—musically, it contains the characteristic Robert Johnson turn-arounds & licks with all their electrifying verve; lyrically, it’s kinda beyond racy, & is a prime example of cows & bulls cavorting in a blues sexual fable (cf. Charlie Patton’s “Jersey Cow Blues” from last week’s Down on the Farm). Johnson remains one of the foremost blues legends, of course, so check out his singing & playing at the end of this post. Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues (Columbia)
  • Mississippi Boweavil Blues: As I understand it, even the encyclopedically minded Harry Smith didn’t know that the “Masked Marvel” was actually Charlie Patton when Smith was assembling his great Anthology of American Folk Music. Apparently, “the Masked Marvel” idea came from some PR guy at Paramount Records; there was a sales campaign promising a free record to anyone who could identify the singer’s true identity. It can be difficult to understand the lyrics in Patton’s singing—Howling Wolf, who knew Patton, admitted that he couldn’t always make out the words in Patton’s singing. But “Mississippi Boweavil Blues” follows the general narrative pattern of the folk song version I wrote about in Down on the Farm #1; Smith condensed the song as follows: “Bollweavil survives physical attack after cleverly answering farmer’s questions.” Patton’s music has such drive & uncanny rhythm—check him out in the clip below. The Masked Marvel: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1, Ballads (Smithsonian-Folkways)
  • Mule Get Up in the Alley: I love jug bands—one of my musical ambitions is to find someone who can blow a jug, but I haven’t yet—I occasionally try to pique Eberle’s curiosity. This rather surreal offering by Cannon’s Jug Stompers features not only Gus Cannon’s jug blowing, but also kazoo, here played by Hosea Woods, also guitarist & vocalist. The narrative mix of the singer’s streetwalking girl, Sue, a game of gin in the parlor & a mule being urged up in the alley never coalesces into a coherent story, but it’s a lot of fun anyway—check out the clip below. Oh, & the Kweskin Jug Band’s version is also top-notch! Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (Yazoo), Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band: Jug Band Music (Vanguard)
  • Over the River to Feed My Sheep: I must say I was disappointed not to find a vidclip of this song on YouTube; it’s a long-time favorite of mine, & perhaps my favorite among Jean Ritchie’s entire excellent repertoire. It was one of the first songs I could play on the guitar, & Eberle would accompany me on the dulcimer. For those of you who don’t know, Ms Ritchie is an extremely accomplished musician—she’s among the best Appalachian dulcimer players, & also a good guitarist; & she’s a fantastic singer. This is a lovely courting song—do check it out. Jean Ritchie: The Most Dulcimer (Greenhays); also (as “Over the River Charlie”) on Jean Ritchie & Doc Watson: At Folk City (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Pastures of Plenty: Woody Guthrie adapted his moving words about migrant workers to the very scary old folk ballad “Pretty Polly,” tho where the earlier song pretty much stays in a minor mode the whole time, “Pastures of Plenty” rocks bath & forth between the relative major & minor. I think the lyrics of this song are some of Guthrie’s finest poetry: “On the edge of your city you’ve seen us & then we come with the dust & we go with the wind,” or “It’s always we ramble, that river & I, all along your green valley I’ll work till I die.” An essential song from so many points of view, & both Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Woody’s sidekick at one point) & Woody himself have recorded great versions. Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land, The Asch Recordings, vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways); Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: South Coast (Red House)

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  1. This is turning out to be a wonderful series and is helping me to fill up my MP3 player with some great new music.

  2. Hi Alan:

    Glad you're enjoying it--& getting some good tunes, too.


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