I was born in 1949, four years after the War ended, went to college
in the 60s, and heard a lot of this music as I grew up, though I
didn’t know then how much nostalgia I’d have for it now.
There are some surprising connections between the tunes—for
example, the traditional music climate of the 50s and 60s in New
York that spawned Bob Dylan among others, was a much stronger generative
force than I imagined, linking Jean Ritchie, the Clancy Brothers
and others. The universality of Tin Pan Alley music, ubiquity of
Hollywood musicals, international flavor of pop song, influence of
Black blues, are all integrated in this recording. Tina Chancey
I’m an Old Cowhand (Johnny Mercer)
This song is a longtime favorite of mine, written by the man who
also gave us the lyrics to Moon River. His delicious sense of irony
reminds me of the energetic artificiality of 1930s Hollywood, a
reflection of those enterprising, pioneering spirits that filmed
everything from Medieval Crusade epics, Eskimo blizzards and Middle
Eastern desert battles on desolate, cactus-filled back-lots behind
Santa Monica Boulevard. Our version is a conflation of Mercer’s
original verses with some fiddle licks and vocal stylings from
Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers, tweaked for viol.
Soldier’s Joy I was particularly happy to celebrate the perennial
appeal of ‘Soldier’s Joy’ by recording Chris’s
fiddle version. I originally came across the tune when researching
Colonial American repertoire in the 1980s; finding out that versions
of it have been found in Scandinavia and France, and it’s been
known as "King's Head," "King's Hornpipe," "I
Love Somebody" and "Payday In The Army." Considering
the variety of joys described in the different texts, from Jean Ritchie’s ‘Love
somebody, yes I do,’ to the Skillet Lickers’ "Twenty-five
cents for the morphine, and fifteen cents for the beer, twenty-five
cents for the morphine, now carry me away from here," you can
understand how the tune got its longevity.
Princess Papuli Seemingly one of those embarrassing references of
colonialism, both sexist and racist, (a genre that Bruce says is ‘best
left unsung,’) Princess Papuli may have been intended as a
sincere tribute to the authentic music of Hawaii. It was composed
in the late 1930s by Nebraskan Harry Owens, then the newly hired
as bandleader of the Royal Hawaiians Orchestra (featuring Hilo Hattie)
performing at the eponymous hotel on Waikiki Beach. Smitten by his
new home, Owens began to visit local musicians, collecting traditional
old Hawaiian songs and arranging them for his band, featuring the
sweet sounds of the steel guitar. Owens also composed more than 300
Hawaiian-style songs; the tune he wrote for the birth of his first
child in 1934, ‘Sweet Leilani,’ captured the heart of
the visiting Bing Crosby who featured the tune in his next film,
leading to the tune’s Oscar win in 1937. Returning to the mainland
after Pearl Harbor, Owens and his band appeared regularly on television
after 1949, promoting the hapa haole style of Hawaii music (native
music as interpreted by foreigners) further developed by Sonny Cunha
and Johnny Noble.
Also known as a ‘Mississippi Moan,’ ‘Muddy Water’ became
a signature tune of Bessie Smith, recorded by her in 1927. Its composer,
Pete DeRose was a versatile and prolific tunesmith whose works were
popular with such diverse musicians as John Coltrane, Paul Robeson,
Bing Crosby, Louis Prima, Johnny Mathis, and Donnie and Marie Osmond.
One of his hits, the 1933 instrumental ‘Deep Purple,’ was
the source from which the rock band took its name. Molly fell in
love with the song in her early 20s.
Although most sources list this tune as Irish, D. K. Wilgus tells
another story: Joe Coleman, a shoemaker, was accused of stabbing
his wife to death near the town of Slate Fork, Adair County, Kentucky,
as recorded in the Burkesville Herald Almanac for 1899. Convicted
on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of his sister-in-law
who was living with them at the time, Coleman was tried in nearby
Cumberland County and sentenced to death. While being driven to
the place of execution in a two-wheeled ox cart, Coleman sat on
his coffin and played a tune that has come down as ‘Coleman's
March.’ Coleman protested his innocence to the last, and
there several stories exist of a man confessing, or of "an
old lady confessing on her death-bed she had killed Coleman's wife." I
learned it from the cross-tuned version of Pete Sutherland, at
the Augusta Heritage Festival in 1984.
Here’s another Old Time reel, chosen for its good-natured exuberance.
This renaissance ballad, collected (written, perhaps?) by Thomas
Ravenscroft in 1611, is sung in Appalachian ballad-fashion by Molly
and accompanied in lyra viol-fashion (chords) by Tina, a true crossover.
Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle?
Well, the viol is a big fiddle, isn’t it? Got this version
from Bruce Molsky, who played it with Hesperus on our Unicorn recording
in the 1990s. This arrangement goes tribal with low and high (overdubbed)
viols, modal-tuned banjo, minor-tuned banjo and cello banjo.
Boogie Woogie Santa Claus
Louisiana songwriter Leon René’s 1948 R&B hit
Scott was later recorded by Patti
Page and many others. (René is perhaps best known for
his 1940 award-winning tune, ‘When the Swallows come back to
Capistrano.’) This arrangement is taken from the Mabel Scott
version, substituting rebec and viol for the horn section, and adding
a slide turn by Zan.
Bruce learned this from the playing and singing of the McGee Brothers,
Sam and Kirk. The McGee Brothers were one of the most enduring
acts on the Grand Old Opry during the show's first fifty years,
from 1926 to 1974. They also toured with Uncle Dave Macon’s
band the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Dixieliners, and Bill Monroe and
his Bluegrass Boys. The McGee Brothers saw a brief resurgence during
the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, championed by Mike Seeger.
I knew the tune in jug band form from my wild and crazy days in
Pyle Inn Coop at Oberlin College in the 60’s.
My Name is Death
Another group I liked at college was The Incredible String Band, a
Scottish acoustic band formed by Robin Williamson, Mike Heron and
Clive Palmer that specialized in quirky lyrics accompanied by improvising,
badly-tuned folk flutes and tiny, scratchy bowed string instruments—obviously
the template I took for my future career. The song itself, though
officially written by Williamson, belongs to an older collection
of ballads loosely called ‘Conversations with Death’ or ‘Death
and the Lady.’ We start this track with a reference to Dock
Boggs’ ‘Oh Death,’ an Appalachian member
of this song family. The evocative solo instrument that follows is
the Turkish kamenj.
Nick says, "The town of Tarascon was liberated, it was
said, from the monster Tarasque by Saint Marthe. From
medieval times there was a celebration of the event, with a parade
of a wheeled version of the spiked monster through the town, and
men with ropes would try to trip people up so they would stumble
into the monster, perhaps even be injured. Lou Cordeu would
be played during this bloody/jolly little procession, and this version
comes from the wonderful playing of tambourinaire Patrice Conte."
Purple Picket Rag
Chris says, “My friend Su Peck’s house and property are
surrounded by a picket fence that she built herself. The neighbors
were quite impressed with the fence until she painted it purple.
She lost some friends in her neighborhood, but gained a tune.”
HESPERUS was honored to do some performing and recording with Jean
Ritchie in the 1980s, and she taught us this tune and the following
instrumental. Here, Marcy Marxer plays drum and shakes bells to
give it something of an Eastern flavor.
Been on the Job Too Long
The ballad was written about a real event: on October 6, 1880, Patrolman
James Brady was shot and killed at the Charles Starkes Saloon in
downtown Saint Louis, Missouri. A man by the name of Harry Duncan
was arrested, convicted and executed for the crime, despite his
pleas of innocence. According to Duncan, the crime had actually
been committed by bar owner Charles Starkes, who denied it at the
time. Duncan was convicted and sentenced to hang for the crime,
but fought the decision with a series of appeals that took the
case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Lawyer Walter
Moran Farmer presented his case and holds the distinction of being
the first African-American attorney to argue a case before the
Court. The appeal was denied and Duncan was executed by hanging
on July 27, 1894. According to some, Charles Starkes would later
confess to the murder on his deathbed.
Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles (named after the aviator Charles
Lindbergh who flew his historic flight in 1927) recorded this traditional
tune in their 1929 Paramount sessions. They called it ‘Been
on the Job too Long,’ but it’s also known as ‘Duncan
and Brady.’ Bruce’s version is a composite of Watts’ and
Spider John Koerner’s verions.
It was Silent so I gave it Away
Chris says: “Noticing the odd spelling of my friend Su Peck’s
first name, I once asked her, ‘What happened to the E?’ She
replied, ‘It was silent, so I gave it away.’ Hence the
name of her waltz.”
The Lark in the Morning
There are a number of tunes with this title: ours refers to the Paddy
Tunney song, not the instrumental. Tunney sang this song on the
first album-length recording of Irish music (of the same name)
to be recorded in Ireland. In 1955, Diane Hamilton (née
Guggenheim) travelled to Ireland to make field recordings of Irish
folk singers. According to Liam Clancy, she had become acquainted
with Tom and Paddy Clancy in New York, and while in Ireland made
the Clancy household one of the stops on her collecting trip. Young
Liam, still living at home, was invited to continue on the trip
with her, and one of the next stops was the home of Sarah
Makem who had previously been recorded by Jean
Ritchie on her album "Field Trip" (1954). This fateful
meeting brought together Liam and Sarah's younger son, Tommy Makem,
who was also recorded. These two, along with Liam's older brothers
Paddy and Tom Clancy, would eventually form "The Clancy Brothers
and Tommy Makem," one of the most successful groups in Irish
music history. This recording was the result of Diane’s trip.