Monday, December 21, 2015

Leadbelly: Children Get So Happy on a Christmas Day

Thanks to Alan and John Lomax thoughtfully recording Leadbelly's introduction to his songs, we are given his comments about Childen Get So Happy on a Christmas Day.

Leadbelly tells about being a little boy and being visited by another boy, and hearing his mother say that "Christmas is a coming!"  The young Leadbelly became very excited by this news.  Perhaps he wasn't quite sure what it meant, but he wanted very much to know.  In Leadbelly's words,   

"So I grabbed the little boy by the hand and we went to the highest hill in my poppa's field...and I said, "I don't see no YOU?

He says, 'No, I don't see no Christmas!'

We come back to the house and we went to my Momma and said, 'Momma, we don't see no Christmas!'

She said, 'Well, it's a comin'!"

It makes me laugh to think about two little boys searching the horizon for a clue as to what this Christmas was all about.  The simple song is about being visited by a very special person and sharing the amazing event with family and friends.  It's not about having material goods at all.  

Incidentally the chicken crows at midnight, signifying the holiness of the day.  This tradition is also attested to by William Shakespeare in Hamlet Act 1 scene 1.  (see

Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,

Think I heard my momma said it's Christmas Day,
Think I heard my momma said  it's Christmas Day,

Think I heard my poppa said it's Christmas Day, 
Think I heard my poppa said it's Christmas Day, 

Old Santa Claus is movin' in on a Christmas Day
Old Santa Claus is movin' in on a Christmas Day

Chicken Crows at Midnight on a Christmas Day,
Chicken Crows at Midnight on a Christmas Day,

Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,

Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.
Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.
Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.
Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.

Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Everybody get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Everybody get so happy on a Christmas Day,

....1000 additional verses.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bill Keith

     Bill Keith passed away, too soon. I remember back in the 70's he created a sensation in bluegrass circles by using the fifth string in a way that had never been done before. It used to be that the fifth string was almost never fretted and used mainly as a drone string to keep the rhythm going. But Bill decided to play way up on the neck of the banjo and use the fifth string to carry the melody as well as chromatic runs up and down the scales. Eventually the "chromatic" or "melodic" style (or "Keith" style) came to recognized as its own style, different from the Old Time that we play in West Virginia or the Scruggs style played in Kentucky Bluegrass. The first time I heard Keith style banjo played was at Jd LaBash's music store in Berea Ohio. I was awed by Devils Dream and other songs and I even learned to play a few songs.

     Bill influenced an entire generation of banjo players. I never met him, but from all I have heard he was modest and unassuming despite the fact that he was idolized as a folk icon.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stacker Lee (Stag O'Lee) Blues

          On Christmas Day 1895, "Stack" Lee Shelton fatally shot William Lyons in Bill Curtis' saloon after an argument in which Shelton first crushed Lyons' hat, after which Lyons retaliated by snatching Shelton's Stetson.   After shooting Lyons, Shelton simply picked up his hat and left.  Later, however, he was arrested, and convicted after a sensational trial which was widely covered in the press.
            From this tragedy, several songs were written, including this version by Mississippi John Hurt.   Mississippi John Hurt was an interesting story in his own right.   He was known to music historians like John and Alan Lomax, who had included  a few of his songs recorded in the 1920s, in their 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music.  No one knew what had happened to old John, but in 1963, a music historian by the name of Tom Hoskins decided to travel to a rural town called Avalon Mississippi, since Mississippi John had recorded the "Avalon Blues."  Perhaps people in Avalon might know something about the enigmatic musician.  
Amazingly, not only did people remember John Hurt, but he was still alive, making a modest living by farming.   Not only that, but John Hurt had a broad repetoire of songs that no one had ever heard before, and to top it off he was a warm, funny "country philosopher" of sorts, and an absolutely terrific performer that crowds of paying customers adored.  In his last years he was finally given some of the acclaim he richly deserved. 
   Mississippi John  tells a fanciful story about Shelton and Lyons, which is recored on youtube (John Hurt's story about Stacker Lee).   In John's account, the confrontation between the two men occurred at a card game after robbing a coal mine, perhaps even inside the coal mine itself.  Initially Lyons did not initially recognize Stacker Lee Shelton, but at some point realized that he was about to be killed and begged for his life.  From the standpoint of historicity, the account of Mississippi John Hurt is further removed from the historical event that the newspaper and trial records, but it makes for a good song.  
    As far as the name is concerned, the song is known under a variety of permutations, includding Stagolee, Stack O'Lee and dozens of others.   But there is little down that Lee Shelton was a historical person, and moreover it was the opinion of the Lomaxes (who were the pre-eminent American folk music historians of the past century) that he took his nickname after a riverboat, the Stack Lee, which was notorious as a house of prostitution.  Doubtless the other permutations occurred later on, especially because the rhythm of the song demands a two syllable first name.    
    He was a bad man, Stack Lee.  

Mister Police Officer, how can it be?
You arrested everybody but you never got Stack O' Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

Billy de Lyon told Stack O' Lee, "Please don't take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin' lovin' wife"
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

"What I care about you little babies, your darlin' lovin' wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I'm bound to take your life"
That bad man, cruel Stack O' Lee

Boom Boom. Boom Boom
with the forty-four
When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin' down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O' Lee

"Gentlemen of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stack O' Lee killed Billy de Lyon over a five-dollar Stetson hat"
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

And all they gathered, hands way up high,
at twelve o'clock they killed him, they's all glad to see him die
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dance You Hippies, Dance

   Dance You Hippy (Hippie) Dance is a delightful song concocted by Tim O'Brien and Jesse Lamb, well known to the Morgantown Old Time scene for his other sogs such as "Let's Go Hunting," most famously performed by Keith McManus and crew at the Wednesday Night Jam at the Morgantown Brewing Company.  

    Dance You Hippy Dance is based upon an old fiddle tune known variously  as Brown Eyed Rabbit or Big Eyed Rabbit.   Doubtless it comes to us from Scotland or Ireland as a foot-stomping fiddle melody and probably the lyrics were added in America in the 19th or early 20th century, but I have no direct proof of that process.  

   Tim and Jesse have created a great variant, with a catchy refrain. I can imagine that at a wedding or bar setting, this song might get everyone up and dancing, kind of an Old Time version of the Electric Boogie.         

     The video shows shows both young and old playing music, dancing and having fun.  It's not some kind of fantastic clever dance, just a simple improvised shuffle that virtually anyone can do  
     That really is the way that this music and dance are passed down from one generation to the next.   At our jam there are at least 4 families with multigenerational representation (the Shanks with Bob and Robert;  the Eddy's with papa Richard and daughters Rachel and Libby; the Halls with Mike and Mitch;  and the McManuses with Keith and Shane).  

You see?  The family what plays Old Time together, stays together! Where else do you find kids and parents partying together like this? That is part of the unique appeal of Appalachian music and culture. 

If Tim and Jesse will permit me one editorial suggestion, however, I would sing "Dance you hippies dance" which in other words encourages everyone to dance, just like in the video.  If there is just one "hippie"   we are left to imagine that there may be only one particular guy being asked to dance. But okay.    

     Another thing that I thought was cool about the video is the bagpipes player.  In Old Time music, we usually do not have a bagpipes player, but somehow, musically speaking, we all have Scottish Irish ancestry, and there seems to be some dormant gene that is activated by bringing in a bagpipes.  On rare occasion we have been fortunate enough to have  a bagpipe player in the Morgantown jam.  It brings an audience to its feet, absolutely spectacular if done well.  

A Part:  A A A D   
              D A A E    E A

B Part:  A E E A 
              A E E A 

Dance You Hippy Dance by Tim O’Brien and Jesse Lamb ©2013 No Bad Ham Music / ASCAP / administered by Bluewater Music.

Yonder comes a hippy, how you think I know?
See that long hair hangin’ down, smell patchouli oil
Dance you hippy dance, dance you hippy dance
Dance you hippy dance, dance you hippy dance

Once I was a hippy back when I was young
I still dance the same way, I still dance in tongues

Do you have a hackie sack, are you wearing dreads?
Follow Yonder Mountain? You heard what I said

Do you go to Delfest, Hardly Strictly too?
In between is Telluride, bring your hula-hoop

Dirk is on the fiddle, Michael’s on the flute
Johnny’s on the guitar, but where’s my hula hoop?

I love this little farm girl, she dance the best she can
Through her daddy’s wheat field, I call her “Kansas Jan”

I knew her for a long time, but now she lives with me
In the town of Nashville, call her “Janessee”

(Swing, cha-cha-cha, huckelbuck,
noodle dance, swim to Atlantis now
get up offa that thing, and feel better,

I dress in a special style, flannel derby weird
I call it “Lumbersexual”, grow a big old beard

If you’re up in Glasgow, here’s what they all say
If you like good dancin’, look for Molly Mae

(Dance in your own style)

Yonder comes a hippy, how you think I know?
See that long hair hangin’ down, smell patchouli oil

Recorded Groundhog Day 2015, Gorbel’s Sound, Glasgow Scotland
Jim Neilson engineer
Mixed by David Ferguson at the Butcher Shoppe, Nashville

Dirk Powell – fiddle
Michael McGoldrick – whistle
John Doyle – guitar
Jan Fabricius – mandolin and vocal
Tim O’Brien – banjo, bass and vocal
Dance You Hippy Dance video filmed and edited by Graham Maciver

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Little Georgia Rose

Little Georgia Rose is a Bill Monroe song which tells the story of a beautiful young lady who lived in Georgia.   It is really a great bluegrass song if you can forgive the somewhat unenlightened view of adoption portrayed in the lyrics. 

Most of the versions that I sampled on line are in a higher key than G usually around B-flat to C.  People like to emulate Bill Monroe's fabulous tenor singing voice and style. For example, I like the way he slides up to the pitch  on "way dow---wn in the Blue Ridge Mountains."     Bill Monroe's version .  That to me is a characteristic of Bill's vocal style.  

Ricky Skaggs and Travis Tritt also have a great version:  Ricky Skaggs and Travis Tritt version .

I believe that at the Tuesday Bluegrass jam at McClafferty's, we play this song in the key of G, which makes it a little easier for most of us.

My Little Georgia Rose  
Written and recorded by Bill Monroe

G                   C     G
Now come and listen to my story
A story that I know is true
        G         C         G
About a rose that blooms in Georgia
                          D7       G
With a hair of gold and a heart so true

    C                      G
Way down in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Way down where the tall pines grow
G                          C
Lives my sweetheart of the mountains
G        D7             G
She's my little Georgia rose

                    C     G
Her mother left her with another
A care free life she had planned
    G        C    G
The baby now is a lady
                   D7        G
The one her mother could not stand

Repeat #3

                      C       G
We'd often sing those songs together
I watch her do her little part
      G                C       G
She'd smile at me when I would tell her
                D7       G
That she was my own sweetheart

Repeat #3