Monday, January 24, 2011

“Poor Lazarus”

Hope you’re ready for the Monday Morning Blues—yes, the new week is upon us already.  After a weekend off, I’m hoping to come back to Robert Frost’s Banjo rejuvanted & ready to go.

Today’s song is something a bit different—“Poor Lazarus” is sometimes described as a “spiritual,” but is more likely a “field song” or a work song that was sung by groups a capella in the midst of their daily tasks.  In fact, in 1959 Alan Lomax made a recording of the song by one James Carter & other prisoners at the Mississippi State Peniteniary; this recording was later used in the 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou.  Various versions of the song have been covered by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, the Carolina Chocolate Drops (an a capella version featuring Rhiannon Giddens) & others.

Given the title, you might expect “Poor Lazarus” to be Biblical, but the song doesn’t refer to either of the Gospel stories involving a character named Lazarus.  In fact, the story comes from Alabama:

Another "bad man" was an Alabama turpentine worker named Lazarus. According to the legends he worked and lived in the piney wood mountains of northern Alabama working in the turpentine mills. Some dispute over pay caused Lazarus to tear up the place and "walk the table," a practice of jumping upon the dinner table at the factory and walking it's length placing one's foot in every plate. He then broke into the commissary and stole the payroll. This would, of course, cause a riot, and for this action the "High Sheriff" was called in the arrest "Poor Lazarus." The sheriff sent out his deputies and they cornered Lazarus "up between two mountains" where they gunned him down. They hauled his remains back to the commissary where they laid him out and sent for his family but he apparently died before they could get there.
from the page James "Sparky" Rucker: BULLIES, BADMEN, and the BLUES

My version is accompanied by guitar—my Regal resonator tuned to Drop D but capoed at the third fret to make the sounding key F—however, as I typically do with the drop D tuning, I tend to play the D chord as neither fully major nor minor (but definitely shaded toward the latter).  There’s also a quick jump to the A chord (again, neither major nor minor).  I had a lot of fun doing this one, but it’s a workout in some ways.  Hope you like it!


  1. This was great. Feels like it should be a soundtrack to a film set during the Depression.

  2. Hi Jacqueline: So glad you liked it! It's a very interesting song & one that I'm happy to add to my repertoire.

  3. I'd love to listen, but it's 5:00 a.m. and Kev's asleep and my headphones are hidden somewhere, so I'll come back later in the day and tune in.

  4. Hi Kat: Wise choice, 'cause it's kinda loud!

  5. Ooh, liked this one very much, John. It's strange though, the vibrato in your voice put me in mind of Bryan Ferry - for some reason, "Virginia Plain" struck me. Wow.

    (This would have been a good one for Johnny Cash, I think - reminds me also of the stuff on his "Murder" album.)


  6. Hi Kat: Thanks! So glad you liked it. As far as the vibrato goes, I could have done with a bit less myself, but Eberle liked it, & I'm satisfied enough with the recording. Bryan Ferry--now there's a name I haven't heard in a while!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.