Friday, June 10, 2011

“I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”

Happy Friday!  Hope you’re up for some banjo music, because that’s what we have for you today.

In fact, I want to let you know that from now on, Fridays here at Robert Frost’s Banjo will all be Banjo FridaysPlatypuss in Boots will be moving to Saturday, where it will alternate with my translations of Cendrars' Dix-Neuf poèmes élastiques (Nineteen Elastic Poems).  To accommodate the switch, the next poem in that sequence will post tomorrow.

Today’s featured banjo song is one of my all time favorites, & one I’ve performed from time to time on both guitar & banjo—it’s Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”  I first experienced this song (not to mention my first exposure to Clarence Ashely, Buell Kazee & Dock Boggs!) on Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, where it’s found on volume three (“Songs”) along with tunes by Ashley, Kazee & Boggs (as well as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the Carter Family & lots more.)  In his essay on the Anthology entitled “Old Weird America,” critic Greil Marcus described the “Songs’ volume of the set as follows:

“a charnel house that bears a disturbing resemblance to everyday life: to wishes and fears, difficulties and satisfactions that are, you know, as plain as day, but also, in the voices of those who are now singing, the work of demons—demons like your neighbors, your family, your lovers, yourself.”

Lunsford’s three & a half minute piece of uncanniness is certainly as fine a piece of lyrical folk surrealism as you will find.  The mole that will “root that mountain down” apparently out of some existential despair, the railroad men who will “drink up your blood like wine” (this latter image of course purloined by Bob Dylan in his “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”), the lizard who listens to his “darling sing”—these all seem to take us to some sort of Americana dreamscape. 

& we are taken there, of course, by the power of Lunsford’s voice (John Fahey described Lunsford’s singing as sounding like “he was always about to crack up”) & by the force of his banjo playing.  Like Roscoe Holcomb in our previous Banjo Friday selection, Lunsford played “two finger style,” using only the thumb & index finger.  One difference in Lunsford’s style, however, which as I understand was common in his native North Carolina, is that the index finger also brushed up on the strings as well as plucking single notes (up meaning the finger moved up from the direction of the floor rather than down towards it.)  Both Art Rosenbaum & Pete Seeger in their writings have noted that this form of two-finger playing was a common old-time style, & possibly as prevalent as the better known frailing styles.  Rosenbaum gives a transcription of “Mole in the Ground” in his Old-Time Mountain Banjo (Oak Publications).  According to that transcription, Lunsford playing the song in the double C tuning, which from the 5th string to the 1st string is as follows: gCGCD.  I’ve also seen arrangements of this in the open C tuning, which is gCGCE.  I always worry about taking that 1st string up to E myself! (a moot point in this case, however, since I actually sing “Mole in the Ground” in A using the standard G tuning capoed up 2 frets.)

This is a truly remarkable piece of music, “born,” as Lunsford said, “out of the hilarity of mountain banjo picking”—enjoy!


  1. *I'm tappin' my foot ....* Glad I stopped by - over from twitter!

  2. Heh, heh! This is great, just what I needed to listen to on getting home from work. Thanks, John!

  3. Greetings From Southern California

    I am your newest follower. I invite you to visit my blog and follow back if you want too.

    Have a Nice Day :-)

    BTW, the video was great! :-)

  4. Hi Kathryn, Roy & RonJoe

    Kathryn: So glad you liked it, & thanks so much for stopping by!

    Roy: Yes, that ought to make you leave work behind for sure! Thanks.

    RonJoe: Glad you liked the video, & greetings from Idaho! Will stop by your place real soon!

  5. Oh, fabulous, John! How in hell does he get that ripple effect from finger and thumb? A real Django achievement!

  6. Great fun. Thanks! Again, I'm reminded of things. There's Odetta's "Roberta, let your hair hang down." And there's the wishing business. Once again I hear "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens," the title of which I botched the other day. In that song, "I wish I was a little sparrow," and "I wish I was on some tall mountain."

    I wonder how the mountain "wishing" of the early 20th century or before compares to our talk these days of wishing we could just drive on by the entrance to the work place . . . Sometimes I've pushed myself into the work place by reminding myself that it isn't a coal mine. That's melodramatic, of course, but I do it anyway. Good for perspective.

  7. Hi Dick & Banjo52

    Dick: His fingers are flying! Some of that is the upstroke with the index finger, which I've been incorporating more into my own banjo playing, Thanks for stopping by!

    Banjo52: An interesting question--those wishes were very prevalent in the songs that became staples of mountain music--many of them British Isles songs of the 17th & 18th century of course (of course in this case being played on an essentially African instrument!) Yes, there are a number of "let your hair down" songs--related to the Odetta one is "Alberta," which Doc Watson made a stunningly beautiful recording of. The folk song index lists "Alberta, Let Your Hair Hang Low" as a related song, along with 10 other titles, only a couple of which I know. The link is here

    I've never looked into the origins of "Mole in the Ground."

  8. I forgot about Doc's "Alberta"--thanks.

    Not to belabor the point, but once I had a Josh White song book, and I think he was labeled the composer of "In the Pines." Now I've heard a couple of bluegrass or country versions, which are striking in both their similarities and differences. I wonder which came first. Jimmie Dale Gilmore has a version on his (latest?) CD.

    (If you're tired of the topic, I understand--feel free to ignore this).

  9. Banjo52: I rarely get tired of discussing old tunes! With all due respect to Josh White, I'd question that composer claim. Of course, Elvis Presley & Vera Matson have copyright on both the words & music of Love Me Tender, tho the melody is the same as Aura Lee, which was written by one George Poulton in the 19th century. Song copyright is an odd thing. The Robert Johnson estate claims copyright on words & music to Hellhound on My Trail & If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day--while Johnson did pen mostly unique lyrics for these songs (& powerful ones at that), the melody of Hellhound is essentially Skip James' Devil Got My Woman, while If I Had Possession is one of the many versions of that ur-blues tunes, Roll & Tumble Blues.


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