Tuesday, June 14, 2011


     Ebeneezer is a really cool song with a mysterious origin.   According to the Fiddler's songbook, it was played only in western Virginia and West Virginia.  Weirdly, I can find no mention of why the song is called Ebeneezer.  Two famous Ebeneezers are the one from the Bible as well as Ebeneezer Scrooge, but there is no clear connection between the song and either of these two figures, as far as I can tell .  The tune was first recorded in the 1920's by  Kahle Brewer of Galax.  The same tune is known by other names as well, including West Virginia Highway (Earnest Stoneman), West Virginia Farewell (Charlie Higgins of Galax), Alabama Gals Give the Fiddler a Dream (Henry Reed of Virginia) , and  Professor Wise (Bob Hill). 

      The names of the song are totally unrelated, and moreover I'm not aware of any lyrics for any version of the song, either!  This song has no relationship to a hymn with the same name,  however.

     The lack of lyrics probably rules out an Irish or Scottish origin for the song, since almost all songs from the British Isles have lyrics.  The ragtimey sound also argues for an American origin. The regional popularity of the song leads me to think that the song must have originated in West Virginia or Virginia.

       I found a version from a jam at 123 Pleasant Street in Morgantown in 2009 (thanks to MandoGreg for filming it and sharing it).  It's kind of hard to see owing to the darkness, but I believe that I can see Richard Eddy, Rachel Eddy and Scott Radabaugh on fiddle, Bob Shank on banjo, Richard Pierce on dobro, and Ray Hicks on guitar, among a cast of thousands.  Please let me know if you can identify any of the others who were there. 


  Another nice version features a dulcimer lead from 13 year old Bonnie Russell and the Russell family from Galax...

Part A
G    G     G     D     
D    D      D     G

Part B
G    G     G     G     
D     D     D     G

   www.traditionalmusic.co.uk has a version that is a little more complex.

Hold the Woodpile Down

       Recently, in Morgantown we've been doing a version of an old song called "Hold the Woodpile Down."  This song is one of several I first heard from Doc Watson on Stage, a collection of live performances of the great Doc Watson.  When I first heard it, it was really mind blowing.  I had never heard anyone play guitar like Doc.  Maybe up until that time, I listened to stuff like the Beatles and Chicago.  But by the time I was in high school, I was kind of looking for a different sound.  And though I certainly didn't like everything my Dad liked (I wonder what Slim Whitman is up to these days?), Doc was just something else.  He inspired countless musicians, including yours truly, to learn to play guitar.  Not that I'm any good, but I did try to learn  a few of his songs (hint:  never try to imitate Doc Watson.  It just don't happen!).   

       One of the songs that Doc played on that live album was "Hold the Woodpile Down."

       This is another song that doesn't seem to make much sense, at least on the surface.  As Lyle Lofgren points out in his analysis of the song 

( http://www.lizlyle.lofgrens.org/RmOlSngs/RTOS-HoldWoodpile.html ), 

"gravity already does a fine job of holding woodpiles down," so why does anybody have to hold them down?  

        Well, it turns out that this song was originally called "Haul the Woodpile Down."  It is a work song dating from the 19th century, sung by young African Americans who worked on the river steamboats.  Down south, where coal was unavailable, they had to feed wood to fire the boilers. The work song has a characteristic pattern, where the songleader would sing a one or two line verse, and the workers would sing back the chorus, "Haul the woodpile down!"  And in fact they would throw the firewod into the burner in time to the music. 

        Lyle suggests that Uncle Dave Macon, the patron saint of clawhammer banjo players, might have been the one that garbled up the words for us.  Uncle Dave was a colorful vaudeville performer, famous for singing, playing banjo and comedy.  A huge number of Old Time songs come to us via Uncle Dave.  Dave in turn grew up in a family that owned a  hotel that used to host traveling entertainers.  As such, Dave's songs and playing style is a fusion of Scotch Irish and African American styles. 

    Also, Uncle Dave's version says that "The Black girls shine on the Georgia line,"  while Doc's version goes "The pretty gals shine on the Georgia line." Uncle Dave's lyrics might be considered to be offensive today, since it might be construed as making fun of skin tone.  

     But, I guess you could imagine that pretty young women seem to radiate loveliness, so maybe Doc's lyrics work as well.   

    Keith McManus and Bob Shank offer a different interpretation in our Facebook forum for the Morgantown Brew Pub Wednesday Night Jam.  "Hold the woodpile down" could refer to the fact that a large woodpile could be a tip to a federal revenue agent (revenoor) that moonshine whiskey is being distilled.  So you have to "hold it down" to avoid being too obvious.  Then the last line in chorus goes "backyard shine to the Georgia line" means that an escape route exists to a neighboring state.  This seems plausible, especially given the moonshine reference in the second verse (Uncle Dave calls it "white lightning" by the way).    Anyway, my feeling is that Lofgren's interpretation has better and earlier attestations, but this may be an example of how the words of a folk song are allowed to mutate to fit or different circumstances.

     In any case, here's a set of lyrics that are close to Doc's, with the exception that the Morgantown version has "Backyard shine to the Georgia line" replacing "Pretty gals shine on the Georgia line."  If you like, you can just sing back the refrain, "Hold the woodpile down,"  after each line, and let the lead singer worry about the rest of the lyrics. 
    Doc plays this in the key of G.  I've inserted my best guess at where the chord changes come, as best as my tin ear can decipher them.  However, you might also want to consult some other versions on the web.  Lyle Lofgren's version is based on Uncle Dave's version, and the other version comes from the British Isles.



HOLD THE WOODPILE DOWN (Morgantown Version)

(G)  I went to see my love the other night - (C) hold the woodpile (G) down,
(G) Everything went wrong and nothing was right 
-  (D7) hold the woodpile (G) down,
(G) She hit me love like it made me glad 
- (C) hold the woodpile (G) down,
I kissed her once, she said "(C)Here comes my  dad." - (G)  hold the (D7) woodpile (G) down,

*Lord I was a travelin' , (C) travelin'
As long as the world rolls (D7) round
(G) The backyard (D7) shine on the (G) Georgia (C) line
(G) Hold the (D7)  woodpile (G) down

When I went to town the other night - hold the woodpile down,
I heard a Iittle noise and seen a big fight - hold the woodpile down,
There was a lot of policemen runnin' around - hold the woodpile down,
Said a big load of moonshine come to town - hold the woodpile down,

I went to the packin' house and stoled a ham - hold the woodpile down,
Nobody don' t know how mean I am - hold the woodpile down,
I took it right home and laid it on a shelf - hold the woodpile down,
I'm so mean I'm afraid of myself - hold the woodpile down,

A bookkeeper swallowed a nickel one day - hold the woodpile down,
It like to drove him crazy, so they say - hold the woodpile down,
Just listen and I'Il tell you what it's all about - hold the woodpile down,
' Twas a nickel in and a nickel out - hold the woodpile down,