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 Fridays. Platypuss 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!