Welcome to this week’s eerie old-time eight: it’s time for Graveyard Tunes again, & this week there are some real notables examples! At least half of these have high hair-raising potential, while the rest are just plain good songs with a somewhat supernatural angle.
- The House Carpenter: For those of you who don’t know, “The House Carpenter” is one of the ballads Francis James Child collected in the late 19th century. Originally a British Isles song titled “James Harris,” it also became a staple of the Appalachian repertoire. “The House Carpenter” tells the story of a “daemon lover” (another of the song’s titles) who spirits the earthly woman he loves away from her husband the house carpenter & her “own wee babe.” This modal song sounds best with instruments like banjo or dulcimer, because unlike the guitar, they don’t tend to smooth its edges. Accordingly, you can’t go wrong with the versions by Clarence Ashley or Jean Ritchie. Ashley’s may be a bit spookier (they’re both pretty high in this quality), but they both make a remarkable impression. Check out Mr Ashley’s version below. Clarence Ashley: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways); or Clarence Ashley: Greenback Dollar: 1929-1933 (County); Jean Ritchie: Jean Ritchie & Doc Watson Live at Folk City (Smithsonian Folkways)
- I Ain’t Superstitious: This is just pure Chicago Blues fun with the man who was “300 pounds of heavenly joy,” Howlin’ Wolf. We have black cats & brooms & itchy trigger fingers & howling dogs, all under the auspices of the singer claiming that he “ain’t superstitious.” For musicians out there, the song is interesting because it breaks a bit from the typical blues chord pattern: the vocal actually begins on the IV chord instead of the root chord, as almost always happens in blues. But hey, this is nothing to get to academic about. Give it a listen, & then if you’ve got a guitar, try playing around with it! Howlin’ Wolf: His Greatest Sides, vol. 1 (Chess—this is vinyl, but it’s currently available on Geffen’s Howlin’ Wolf: The Definitive Collection, & also on other compilations)
- The Lady Gay: Our second foray into the Child Ballads, this is a rather blood-curdling tale of a mother’s grief for her dead children originally titled “The Wife of Usher’s Well.” Buell Kazee’s version of the old tune—just Kazee’s amazing voice accompanied by his masterful frailing-style banjo—is truly unforgettable; as with “The House Carpenter,” the banjo’s crooked harmonic corners allow the song’s haunting modal character to come thru. The song tells the story of how the woman sends her three children away to “learn their grammarie,” how the children are stolen away by death, & how she prays that they will return. They do return, but as ghosts, telling her in an unforgettable line “Every tear that you shed for us it wets our winding sheets.” Buell Kazee: Buell Kazee (June Appal). This essential (my opinion) old-time recording isn’t available from some of the big name online retailers, but can be purchased directly from June Appal & is also usually stocked at the best all-around music store I know, Elderly Instruments.
- Mojo Hand: The title doesn’t refer to the amazing fingerstyle guitar skills Lightnin’ Hopkins routinely displays in his music. A mojo hand—also called (among other things) simply a mojo or a mojo bag or a conjure bag (&, if worn by a woman, a nation sack)—is a bag containing various charms. As such, it’s part of the hoodoo belief system, which itself goes back to west Africa, & which turns up often in old blues—the “nation sack” for instance makes an appearance in Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” In this case, Lightnin’ says he’s going to “Louisian” to get a mojo hand—in this case, the conjure will be to keep his woman from cheating on him. There’s also some suggestion in one version of the song that his woman may have laid some spell on him, since the word “fix” is used both for what the mojo hand will do to the woman & for what the woman has done to him. As always, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ singing & playing are top notch—just see for yourself in the video below! Lightnin’ Hopkins: Prestige Profiles (Prestige)—this is also available on any number of Hopkins’ compilations.
- Oh Death: I’m a huge Dock Boggs fan—love his singing, his repertoire & just about everything about his banjo playing; & I must say that when Eberle & I first heard this song some years ago, I thought it was one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’d ever heard. In somewhat the same way as the Reverend Gary Davis’ great song “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Oh Death” comes from a time & place when death was a more common occurrence in the midst of everyday life—neither the garish & gory fakery of movies & TV nor the invisible sequestered death of nursing homes & hospitals. This is a serious & moving song, chilling in its intensity & somberness—check it out below. Dock Boggs: (playing with) The New Lost City Ramblers: Old Time Music (Vanguard); also on Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years 1963-1968 (Smithsonian Folkways)
- On the Cooling Board: Blind Willie McTell’s song is a graphic depiction—in terms of both emotional & physical details—of a man’s grief for his dead lover. According to Wikipedia, "A cooling board is a board used to present a dead body. In winter months it would be difficult to bury the dead due to the earth being frozen, so the body is wrapped and propped in a barn until the ground thaws out. Referred to in a number of Blues songs, for example by Blind Willie McTell.” Of course, that’s this song being referred to. The term also comes up in Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.” Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta Twelve String (Atlantic)
- The Pale Horse & His Rider: A country music vision of the apocalypse, co-written by four people, including Kitty Wells! Hank Williams didn’t write this one, but his version is probably the best known; it’s a rather stark call for repentance, before the day when “the Pale Horse and his rider goes by.” You’d have to assume this was a theme that spoke to Williams, as his life, amidst his talent & fame, was severely troubled at the time he recorded this in 1951 by alcoholism, drug addiction & a failing marriage. I do know another excellent version of this tune—it’s by Freakwater, an alternative country band I’ve admired for years; they’re still performing & releasing new music, so check them out! Hank Williams: Turn Back The Years - The Essential Hank Williams Collection (Mercury Nashville); Freakwater: Feels Like the Third Time (Thrill Jockey)
- Pretty Polly: For this list I’ve avoided the sort of “happy” bluegrass murder ballads like “Banks of the Ohio” or “Knoxville Girl”—I don’t care for those songs. But I am including “Pretty Polly” on the basis of its flat-out eeriness, & one of the best versions I know is by that master of old-time eeriness, Dock Boggs. Like “The House Carpenter” & “The Lady Gay,” this is in origin a British Isles ballad, & also like those songs, it’s modal in nature & thus lends itself to a banjo treatment like Boggs’. Of course, “Pretty Polly” has been covered by everybody from Burl Ives to the Byrds & from Ralph Stanley to the String Cheese Incident. An interesting side note: Woody Guthrie based the melody & harmonic structure of his wonderful song “Pastures of Plenty” on “Pretty Polly.” Dock Boggs: Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings (Revenant – sadly, this has been discontinued & doesn’t seem to be available for a reasonable price).