1. Get Along, Little Dogies
The Texas woman who sang her version of “Get Along, Little Dogies” for pioneer folk song collector John Lomax in 1910 called it “the loveliest of cowboy songs.” Though references to the song go back to the 1880s, the first commercial recordings did not appear until 1928 when two separate sides came out, on different labels, within months of one another. One was by Harry “Mac” McClintock, whose “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” made the same year, would launch him to musical fame. The other was by Jack and Bernard Cartwright, from Munday, Texas, who performed together for not quite three years as the Cartwright Brothers.
My version comes from the Cartwrights’ recording. I love its meditative air, and the last verse, where the singer daydreams of a fortunate marriage.
2. Charlie Rutledge
D. J. O'Malley was cowboying on the N-Bar-N Ranch in eastern Montana in 1891 when he submitted this ballad of death on the round-up to the Miles City Stock Growers' Journal. The song circulated widely in oral tradition, but never acquired the canonical status of “When the Work's All Done This Fall,” another of O'Malley's compositions. The tune that I use is my unconscious corruption of the tune in Kenneth Clark, The Cowboy Sings (1932) – time and the folk process at work.
3. Some Little Bug is Going to Find You Someday
Bradley Kincaid, my source for this song, grew up in the Cumberland foothills of east-central Kentucky and gained renown in the late 1920s as a radio star on the Chicago-based National Barn Dance, a northern precursor of the Grand Ol' Opry. Kincaid was best known for his mountain repertory. But he also sang time-worn sentimental and novelty pieces – “requested by the old folks,” he said. This one was from a comic operetta that ran on Broadway in the 1915-1916 season. Kincaid recorded it in 1933.
4. The Rose Tree
A selection from the Shenandoah Harmony (2012), a spectacular compilation of music from the “fa-so-la” singing tradition more commonly identified with another collection, the Sacred Harp (1844). The tune, from which the song gets its title, is traditional, dating to the late-eighteenth century. The words are from a longer text composed in 1807 by Alexander Campbell, a prominent figure in America’s second Great Awakening. This three-part arrangement is by Ananias Davisson, the Virginia tunebook printer and compiler whose own Kentucky Harmony (1816) inspired the new book.
John del Re and Kelly Macklin, among those who created the Shenandoah Harmony, join me on this track.
5. Give Me Your Love and I'll Give You Mine
No singers from the premier recording period for old-time music, from the 1920s through mid-1930s, have influenced me more powerfully than the original Carter Family. My relationship with their music began around 1965, when a favorite teacher loaned me one of the early Harmony LPs, featuring ten classic songs. I learned them all.
The Carters garnered songs liberally from diverse sources and honed every one to their own unique style. This song, a Tin Pan Alley number from 1902, they probably learned from a 1935 side by Jesse Rodgers, cousin to Jimmie, which preceded their own recording by one year.
6. Whiskey Seller
I learned “Whiskey Seller” from Tom Paley’s 1962 recording with the New Lost City Ramblers. Tom thinks he learned the song from his late band-mate, Mike Seeger. Mike would have learned it from a Library of Congress field recording of southern-Indiana fiddler and singer John Collier, made by Alan Lomax in 1938.
Collier was an interesting character. Lomax described him in his notes as “a wizened fellow of about forty years” who had traveled professionally with an itinerant medicine show for most of his adult life. I mention him here because individuals like Collier, who never recorded commercially, had much to do with shifting tastes in rural America, away from the traditional ballads and age-old hymns that predominated when Cecil Sharpe combed the mountains for songs, a generation earlier. It is that mix of folk and cosmopolitan influences, which they helped to foster, that, in my mind, partly defines “old-time” music.
Though Collier had acquired “Whiskey Seller” as a child from his uncle, he had few real “folk” songs in his songbag, preferring either comic or sentimental numbers, better suited to his performing metier. Tom stayed true to Collier’s version in his own recording with the Ramblers. My version follows Tom’s more than otherwise, with some mingling of words from a variant in Vance Randolph's Ozark Folk Songs (1946-1950).
Bruce Molsky accompanies me on banjo.
7. Cabin With the Roses at the Door
This sentimental jewel dates back at least to 1887, when the verses appeared in Wehman’s songster, published periodically in New York during the late-nineteenth century. The song was credited, at least once in that period, to J. M. Waddy, dubbed at one time “the best colored basso that this musical race has produced.” Waddy, who mainly performed Negro spirituals, probably made this song, extolling rural domesticity, a part of his concerts, too. But Sandra Graham, expert on nineteenth-century jubilee singers, finds the claim that he wrote it unlikely. Its composer, a person of obvious talent, remains obscure.
“Cabin with the Roses at the Door” entered the old-time music repertory when Kentucky fiddler Leonard Rutherford and singer-guitarist John Foster, of Tennessee, recorded it for Brunswick in 1930. That original recording was re-issued on a Rounder LP.
I bought the LP early on and greatly enjoyed it. But it was my late friend Craig Johnson whose singing inspired me to learn the song, sometime in the 1970s, when we both lived in Ann Arbor and spent all our time at the old Ark Coffeehouse. My words mostly duplicate Craig's version, varying slightly from Rutherford and Foster's original.
Thank you to Sandra Graham for sharing her knowledge of J. M. Waddy.
8. Poor Soldier
This Civil War song comes from Frank Proffitt, beloved singer, banjo player and instrument maker from north-western North Carolina. Proffitt, who died in 1965, had an enormous trove of songs that he learned from both neighbors and relations. This was one that came to him through his aunt, Nancy Prather.
Many songs passed down from the Civil War years focus on the ordeals and exploits of men in the field. For me, “Poor Soldier” is a home-front song about the woman narrator who sings it to us in first person. Separated from her partner and removed from news of the conflict, she gives vent to feelings of isolation, doubt and anxiety. Yet one more testimony to the anguish that war always brings.
Thanks go to Severn Savage, who, when I was hunting for traditional songs from the Civil War for a festival workshop, reminded me of this one.
9. Hop, Old Rabbit, Hop
This comes from the traditional singer Horton Barker, recorded for Folkways by Sandy Paton in 1961. The first three verses trace back to “Poor Old Horse,” a song found in various forms throughout England and Wales. The song is attached to an age-old British May Day ritual where a man costumed as a horse parades through the village, surrounded by dancing and singing revelers who continually restore him from death to life. The horse’s death marks the death of the old year. His revival celebrates the fertility of the coming season.
The verses that follow these first three are from the very different tradition of Brer Rabbit stories and songs, which long flourished among African-American, Creole and Cherokee communities throughout the American South. It’s the same tradition that Joel Chandler Harris popularized in his Uncle Remus stories, in the 1880s. Brer Rabbit is a savvy fellow who frees himself from difficulties through cunning and a wry wit. “‘Excuse me, but Ah don’t reckon Ah better go home wid you today, Brer dog,’” he says in one narrative from Zora Neale Hurston. It’s an endless chase in which Brer Rabbit always wins. We can be certain without being told that “Old Jack,” in this song, won’t fare any better than others before him.
How or when these two disparate threads came together in Barker’s native Tennessee and Virginia hills is a mystery of the folk process. What we do know is that they make a good song.
I added a guitar lead.
10. Bangum and the Boar
Another animal song, I learned this version of Child ballad no. 18 in around 1973 or ’74 from my friend and early mentor Dan Gellert, whose hard-core old-time musicianship has always left me in awe. Dan understands the music like no one alive.
“Bangum and the Boar,” he sings to banjo accompaniment in an almost growling baritone voice that instantly places you in a primeval world of dark forests with fantastic creatures foraging the woods for human prey. “Where did you find your version?” I innocently asked him when Dan and I met up not long ago. Howie Mitchell’s 1962 Folk Legacy album, was his impassive response. Anyone familiar with these two wildly different musicians will know from this story that Dan is endlessly full of surprises.
Howie Mitchell found the song in H. M Belden, Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society (1940).
This is another selection from the Shenandoah Harmony. It first appeared in Jeremiah Ingalls’ volume The Christian Harmony, published in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1805. The three-part vocal arrangement is Ingalls’ own. The text is from a 1709 poem by Isaac Watts, “The Friend of Sinners Dies.” Shenandoah Harmony includes the last eight lines of Watts’ longer verse, inspired by Paul’s defiant cry in 1 Corinthians, “Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
I’m joined again here by John del Re and Kelly Macklin.
12. The Big Corral
Around 1922, Romaine Lowdermilk, cattle rancher and cowboy entertainer, made up a short nonsense song to the tune of a gospel piece called “Press Along to Glory Land,” and performed it with two friends at a talent show near his Arizona home. The song eventually made its way into songbooks and onto recordings, with and without credit to the author. I first came across an anonymous version with three two-line verses in one of my standbys, Kenneth Jackson’s The Cowboy Sings (1932).
The chorus made the song, as far as I was concerned. So I traded two of Lowdermilk’s couplets for several new ones of my own. The new lines came to me after re-reading Andy Adams’ classic Log of a Cowboy (1903), the writer’s partly fictionalized account of a drive he made on the Western Trail from Texas to Montana in 1882. The third verse, about rocks in the beans, is Lowdermilk’s original.
Bruce Molsky joins me in harmony on this one.
13. The Night Guard
The night guard is truly the most romantic figure of cowboy lore. Imagine starry skies and a lone cowboy singing to his herd and the night guard invariably comes to mind. “Singing to quiet the cattle is important,” the writer Owen Wister reflected in his western journals near the end of the old trail days. “The more restless they are, the louder or more inarticulate is the singing, no words being used at all, but only a strange wailing. But as the cattle grow quiet, the music gathers form, and while the herd lies quietly at rest on the plain, the night herders are apt to sing long definite songs as they ride round and round the edges.”
This song captures that feeling better than any other I know. It comes from Jack Webb, who recorded it for Victor in 1930, one of only two sides he ever recorded. Born in 1902, Webb lived most of his life in Oklahoma, becoming one of the earliest and most celebrated rodeo stars in the country’s history. He could rope six horses abreast at a gallop and shoot articles from his head by pulling a string attached to a rifle trigger. Occasionally billed as the “Crooning Cowboy,” he also composed and sang cowboy songs. “The Night Guard” is apparently one of Webb’s own.
14. Don't Leave the Farm
“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” So Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in 1787. The association of farming with virtue and cities with vice originated among European and American intellectuals in the late-eighteenth century in response to the challenges of growing industrialization. In the nineteenth century, vast changes in the American landscape and economy before and, especially, after the Civil War – this song first appeared in 1871 -- gave the idea enormous popular resonance in a nation that was still overwhelmingly rural.
The fact is, it continues to resonate for many of us. It does for me. But the city indeed “has many attractions,” and my own contrary impulses are never resolved. That’s where my thoughts go when I sing this song.
I learned “Don’t Leave the Farm” from 100 WLS Barn Dance Favorites, a songbook published in 1935, in Chicago, an American city then second in size only to New York.
15. Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning
Irving Berlin wrote this song in 1918 and Arthur Fields recorded it the same year. Berlin composed it while serving as a private in an Army training camp on Long Island during World War I. Already a well-known and successful song-writer, he was drafted at age thirty, within months of becoming a United States citizen.
Berlin was an inveterate night owl and the early hours were a torment for him. "There were a lot of things about army life I didn't like", he later recalled, "and the thing I didn't like most of all was reveille.” He wrote this song, he explained, as “a protest from the heart out.”
Well, the War ended quickly and Berlin went back to composing songs and keeping late hours. Whatever hardships he suffered at Camp Upton had been minor compared to those of his comrades who landed in Europe. These included the so-called “Lost Division” that fought defending the French Forest of Argonne in October 1918. A detachment of 679 soldiers, the greatest number from New York City, were trapped in a wooded ravine for five days under German fire before reinforcements managed to reach them. Only 252 emerged unscathed.
As a night owl myself, I love this song. But I feel a need to keep things in perspective.
16. Wreck of the Six-Wheeler
This song was one of four recorded in Dallas by Newton Gaines in October, 1929. Gaines was an academic, which makes him unusual among so-called “hillbilly” recording artists of the day. He had published a piece on cowboy songs for the Texas Folklore Society and would later become chair of the Physics department at Texas Christian University.
According to D. K. Wilgus, who re-issued “Wreck of the Six-Wheeler” as part of the path-breaking RCA Victor Vintage Series in 1967, Gaines learned it in 1910 from a student at the University of Texas. The student, who was white, had gotten it sometime before from African-American singers living near Paris, Texas.
The song is connected to the 1909 vaudeville hit “Casey Jones,” but not through direct lineage. Norm Cohen, the world’s leading authority on the railroad in folk song, has written that fragments of the version Gaines sang were current among African-American singers even before 1900. Anyway, Gaines’ sources had never heard “Casey Jones.” For me, the mournful pace of the song is just right. It is, after all, recounting a fatal train wreck.
To be “on the Charlie” meant to be a hobo, to be “on the bum.”
17. The Cowboy
Glenn Ohrlin, one of my favorite singers ever, included this song on his first LP, The Hell-Bound Train, now regrettably out-of-print. It’s actually a truncated version of “The Cowboy’s Soliloquy,” a song whose text first appeared in the Trinidad, Colorado Daily Advertiser in 1885. The poet, unidentified at the time, turned out to be an east-Texas cowhand named Allen McCandless.
McCandless’ original, sometimes called “The Biblical Cowboy,” is partly Biblical analog, with verses sanctifying ranchers and cowboys by likening them to Old Testament patriarchs.
Abraham emigrated in search of a range,
When water got scarce he wanted a change.
Isaac had cattle in charge of Esau,
And Jacob ‘run cows’ for his father-in-law.
It’s an eloquent argument for the nobility of a maligned caste.
Ohrlin’s version, the version I sing, transforms the longer argument into a spare and sympathetic portrait. The cowboy is a gentle figure who lives simply, close to nature and, undeservedly, beyond the fringe of respectable society.
If I’d hair on my chin, I’d resemble the goat
That bore all the sins in the ages remote.
These last two lines refer to the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, where God orders the sacrifice of two goats. One should be burned to death and ritually devoured to atone for the sins of the Israelites. The other unfortunate animal, while allowed to live, “shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area.” The very first scapegoat.
Ohrlin later recorded another version of “The Cowboy,” somewhat closer to McCandless’ original. That version is also printed in his wonderful songbook, The Hell-Bound Train (1973).
Except where noted, all vocals and instrumentation on the album are my own.
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