Welcome to the October feature here on Robert Frost’s Banjo. In my tradition of thematic song lists, I thought it might be fun—in a slightly ghoulish way perhaps—to think of old-time tunes that really fit the mood of Halloween. Of course, as anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with old-time music knows, the only problem in compiling such a list is keeping it to a reasonable length. There was certainly no shortage of death, destruction, murder & mayhem in traditional music.
Graveyard Tunes will be posted every Wednesday in October, so enjoy these & stay tuned for more!
- Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow: One of the most common conceits in old time tunes is the spurned lover who “dies for love.” How common this was in practice may be open to question, but many of us may have felt like doing so at one time or another—especially in the passions of youth. It would be hard to overstate the influence the Carter Family had on country music, & in particular Mother Maybelle Carter, for whom the guitar playing style “Carter picking” is named. Interestingly, tho most folks these days use a flatpick for “Carter style” playing, Mother Maybelle herself used a thumbpick & a fingerpick on her index finger—so called “two-finger picking,” which goes back to banjo playing. Check them out below! The Carter Family: The Complete Victor Recordings - "Anchored in Love" 1927-1928 (Rounder)
- Country Blues: This is a song I wrote up on Citizen K’s fine music blog, Just a Song—so you can check out the “full story” (including a vidclip) here. Besides the “haunted” jailhouse where the rounder finds himself, there’s the gothic burial scene in the last two verses, so "Country Blues" most certainly qualifies for our list. It also bears repeating (a point I made in my Just a Song post) that Boggs was able to take a stock lyric like “when I’m dead & buried & my pale face turned toward the sun” & make it completely his own in an immediate & chilling way. This is something that the really great traditional singers can do—Skip James (see below) is another singer who has this gift. Of course, much of Dock Boggs’ music tended toward the eerie—after all, his banjo was usually in the so-called “Graveyard Tuning.” Dock Boggs: Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings (Revenant – sadly, this has been discontinued & isn’t available for a reasonable price; not sure how to come by all the old Dock Boggs—this & a few others are available on The Anthology of American Folk Music)
- Crossroad Blues: Even folks who don’t know blues music probably have heard of Robert Johnson & his song “Crossroad Blues.” It’s been covered by lots of people (yours truly included)—perhaps most famously by Eric Clapton with Cream; Rory Block also does a fine version. But the song is a hallmark of Johnson’s because it’s often interpreted in light of the legend that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to gain his mastery on the guitar. It’s true that Johnson sang about the devil rather famously in “Me & the Devil,” & by implication in “Hellhound on My Trail”; but as we’ll see in the course of this month’s song lists, various forms of magic came up in a number of old blues songs; it wasn't unique to Johnson. Check out Mr Johnson in the clip below. Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Sony), Rory Block: Best Blues & Originals (Rounder)
- Cypress Grove: Folks talk about the “high lonesome” sound of Bill Monroe, but we could also speak of Skip James’ “high haunted” sound—which derived from James’ falsetto, as well as his proclivity for playing in a minor tuning—but most importantly derived from his own vision of the blues: a stark & ghostly landscape. “Cypress Grove” is a bit of a twist on the “died for love” motif—in this case, the singer would “rather be buried in some cypress grove than to some woman, Lord, that I can’t control.” This is a fairly common blues conceit, but James’ playing & singing make what could be a rather stock scenario into something remarkable. Of course his songwriting skills are crucial as well—the last verse is particularly chilling: “When your knee bone's achin' and your body cold/Means you just gettin' ready for the cypress grove.” Rory Block also does a gorgeously haunting version of this tune—you can check out Skip James below. Skip James: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo), Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)
- Death Don’t Have No Mercy: If you’re looking for a combination of instrumental skill & vocal urgency, it’s really hard to find anyone who can surpass Reverend Gary Davis. As such, this harrowing story about death’s inevitability is a perfect vehicle for his considerable musical strengths. This is another song I’ve written about on Just a Song (the link is here—there’s also a vidclip of the song performed live at Newport by the Reverend in the mid 60s); if you haven’t checked it out Just a Song is a blog I recommend highly, & certainly not solely for my contributions—there are several other regular contributors covering a pretty wide range of musical genres. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is a traditional song that’s been covered by many folks, but in my mind it’s always Reverend Gary Davis’ tune; his voice & his guitar bring a gravitas to the song that’s really hard to approach as a player, but which make for extraordinarily compelling listening. Reverend Gary Davis: Harlem Street Singer (Prestige/Bluesville)
- Death Letter Blues: This post is really cross-referenced, isn’t it? If you’re curious &/or missed it the first time around, you can hear Son House singing this song right here at my post about the great bluesman. This tale of receiving a “death letter” telling the singer to “Hurry, hurry, because the gal you love is dead.” The feeling here is visceral & stark, the emotions raw & vivid, & House’s playing & singing are—as always—full-bore; he doesn’t hold anything back. Son House: The Original Delta Blues (Sbme Special Mkts.); also live on Delta Blues & Spirituals (Capitol)—the latter is discontinued but available.
- Devil Got My Woman: Skip James: As I understand, this Skip James’ song has an autobiographical basis—it certainly plays that way, with James’ hair-raising vocal & brilliantly mournful guitar. Lately I’ve been pretty obsessed with this song—not for any personal reasons, I hasten to assure you!—& have been working on versions both with the banjo & the guitar (think I’ve settled on the latter). There are some interesting issues surrounding the song “Devil Got My Woman,” & I’ve written about this song today on Just a Song, where you can also listen to a video clip of James’ performance; here's the link to that post. Skip James: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo), Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)
- The Devil is a Busy Man: This week’s list has had its share of powerful singers, & Sunnyland Slim doesn’t have to take a backseat to anyone in that regard. "The Devil is a Busy Man" is a cautionary tale, & Slim’s energetic vocal is vigorously supported not only by his own piano playing, but also by a Hammond organ & a great horn section—featuring King Crimson on tenor sax. Although this recording is more “recent” than most of the others we’ll consider thru the month, Sunnyland Slim’s old-time status is as rock-solid as his piano playing; born in 1907, Sunnyland Slim played with Ma Rainey in Memphis in the 20s, then later in Chicago with the likes of Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf. Sunnyland Slim: Slim’s Shout (OBC – this has been discontinued but is still available used or as mp3 downloads)