A Companion to the Old Town School Songbook
Compiled and edited by Mark Dvorak.
Take This Hammer
Take This Hammer like a sea chantey, is an actual work song. For generations it was a song common to Southern prison farms and work crews. Where some work songs like Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos, have a slow rock and a free rhythm which leads the cane cutters to strike together, Take This Hammer drives the men to keep a swift and steady work tempo.
Songs like Take This Hammer and Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos have their real roots in Africa, which was and is a land of work songs. Africans brought to North America as slaves also brought with them their work song tradition. The land of the South was cleared and the crops harvested as the black slaves chanted their communal songs. The roads were built, the levees raised, the railroads laid down, the cotton baled, the steamboats loaded - the manual labor of the post Civil War South was done in harmony and rhythm, with satire and with the overtones of sorrow.
Folk singer, song collector and composer Lead Belly recorded and performed Take This Hammer as one of his signature pieces, bringing the musical work song tradition of the African American South to a much wider audience.
Source: Folk Song USA, Alan Lomax, Editor, New American Library.
Recordings on File by: Flatt & Scruggs, Lead Belly, Odetta.
Tell Old Bill
Carl Sandburg first heard this grim blues-ballad from Nancy Barnhart of St. Louis back in the 1920s. Ten years later, folklorist and singer Sam Hinton came across an African American farmer in Walker County, TX who sang another version. And in the late 1950s, Bob Gibson introduced Tell Old Bill to a wider audience when he recorded an interpretation of Sandburgs version.
While Gibsons records may sound like run-of-the-mill white-boy folk to modern listeners, he played an important role in popularizing folk music to American audiences in the 1950s at the very beginning of the folk boom.
His 12-string guitar style influenced performers like Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin; he was a mainstay at one of the first established folk clubs in the U.S., the Gate of Horn in Chicago; and he wrote songs with Shel Silverstein and Phil Ochs, as well as performing in a duo with Hamilton Camp. Most of all, he was one of the first folkies on the scene - when he began performing and recording in the mid-50s, there was hardly anyone else playing guitar-based folk music for an educated, relatively affluent audience.
Gibson helped Joan Baez and Phil Ochs in their early days, and was managed by Albert Grossman, who later handled the affairs of such giants as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. He did continue to perform in Chicago in the latter part of his life until he passed away from Parkinsons disease in September 1996 at the age of 64.
Recordings on File by:
- Sing Out! Magazine, Volume 9, Number 2.
- All Music Guide on the World Wide Web.
Bob Gibson, Jim Post.
This Land Is Your Land
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim, too ugly, too this or too that. Songs that run you down on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing the songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit ya pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.
I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kinds of songs and sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you've not got any sense at all.
But I decided a long time ago that Id starve to death before Id sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.
Source: Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.
Recordings on File by: Flatt & Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul & Mary, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Will Geer & Various artists.
In the African American tradition of spiritual singing, there are many roads leading to heaven. Sometimes a golden chariot is ridden or a prancing white horse is mounted. Sometimes Jacobs Ladder is climbed rung by rung and sometimes the singer inches along like a poor inchworm. Other times he runs down the Kings highway with the hell-hounds snapping their jaws at his heels.
As the twentieth century dawned, the imagery in spirituals was updated right along with the changing times. One verse has the angels talking through the royal telephone with a line running to the church-house and the receiver of my heart.
And ever since the first locomotive whistle split the quiet air of the South and the black engine thundered down the rails, snorting steam and fire like the horses of the Apocalypse, the righteous have been buying tickets on the snow-white heavenly express for glory. For the gambler, the back-biter, the crap-shooter, and other back sliding sinners, the Black Diamond Express, manned by Satan, was booked and bound for the lower regions.
Source: The Folk Songs of North America, by Alan Lomax, Doubleday.
Recordings on File by: Big Bill Broonzy, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger & Big Bill Broonzy.
One of the most tragic events in maritime history took place on the night of April 14, 1912, when the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, making her maiden voyage from Southhampton, England to New York City, collided with an iceberg in mid-Atlantic and sank to the bottom of the sea with a loss of 1,513 lives. American street-ballad writers, fired by the dramatic disaster, immediately poured forth a slew of songs documenting the tragic event.
Many of these ballads were composed by African American street singers. Lead Belly claimed his version of The Titanic was the first song he composed, and the first on which he accompanied himself with 12 string guitar.
Versions of the Titanic story are still sung widely in the United States today, and popular with singers and listeners of all ages, almost a hundred years after the event.
Source: Sing Out! Magazine.
Recordings on File by: Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Hobart Smith, Art Thieme, Various artists.
Soon after the Civil War ended, a young man named Tom Dula composed his confession song while in a jail cell awaiting his hanging day. Dula was reported to have been, among other things, an unthinkably good old-time fiddler. Some say he used the melody of Handsome Molly as the model for the self-titled narrative which described the final episode of his life.
Tom Dula is a local story involving real people and actual events which had been told and re-told by generations of folks native to western North Carolina. But in 1959, the song Tom Dooley became a number one hit record for The Kingston Trio and, for better or worse, is generally acknowledged as the record which launched the great folk revival.
After serving the Confederacy in the Civil War, it's reported that young Tom Dula rode home to the North Carolina mountains a worn out, badly whipped and bitter Rebel soldier. He'd fought through the war with Zeb Vances cavalry. He'd seen Gettysburg. The Civil War brought out the ornery streak in him and he was feeling as mean as a nestful of hornets, but looking forward to a warm welcome from his sweetheart.
His welcome home scarcely matched his expectations. The young lady, Miss Laurie Foster, was cordial, but cool toward him. Tom smelled trouble. He had several rivals, and, as if specially to gall him, one of them was a dad-burned impudent Yankee schoolteacher. The more Tom brooded about that, the cooler his lady friend grew.
One day he invited her to go for a walk in the hills, and that night she didn't turn up for supper. Nobody knew what had become of her, least of all Tom Dula. The Yankee schoolteacher kept looking around and asking questions. Then one morning, after a rain, as he was moping along through a lonely mountain cove, he noticed a gleam of red against the rocks. He climbed the hill and clawed away the earth. There in a shallow grave lay his sweetheart, white and still, wrapped in her mud covered, scarlet cloak.
When Tom Dula heard about this, he saddled up the same old nag he'd ridden home from the war and took off for the Tennessee line. His brother, in order to throw the posse off his track, galloped off in the opposite direction. Hours later, as Tom was heading his winded animal up through the pass which led into Tennessee and freedom, a quiet voice spoke out of the laurel bushes. Tom pulled up. The Yankee schoolteacher stood there at the side of the path, his rifle lying across the mules neck. Right there Tom gave up. A dad-burned Yankee had outfoxed him again.
Some folks said they never forgot hearing Dula, sitting up in the cart on the way to his hanging ground, singing away at his ballad in a sour baritone, playing the tune over and over on his fiddle between every verse. His stark ballad has lived on among the people of the Great Smokies as a musical epitaph of a bitter returned hero of the Civil War.
Frank Warner, the noted musician and folklorist has collected and documented many ballads and folk songs native to North Carolina and the Appalachian region. He explains that the name of the song's protagonist was probably changed by indigenous singers since Dooley sings much more easily than Dula.
By the 1950s the song had crept north to New York City where it was picked up by young urban folk-revival musicians including Pete Seeger and Erik Darling. It was Darling who syncopated Dulas original melody and eventually taught his arrangement to Dave Guard. Guard would later join Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds to form The Kingston Trio who recorded Tom Dooley on their million-selling album, and the rest as they say, is musical history.
Recordings on File by:
- Folk Song USA, Alan Lomax, Editor, New American Library.
- The Songs of Doc Watson, Oak Publications.
Kingston Trio, Doc Watson, Doc Watson (Handsome Molly).
The musical tall tale, Travellin Man was a signature piece of the late Pink Anderson, a good-natured finger-picking guitarist who played for about 30 years as part of a medicine show. He did make a couple of sides for Columbia in the late 1920s with Simmie Dooley, but otherwise didn't record until a 1950 session, the results of which were issued on a Riverside LP that also included tracks by Gary Davis.
Anderson went on to make some albums on his own after the blues revival commenced in the early 1960s, establishing him as a minor but worthy exponent of the Piedmont school, versed in blues, ragtime, and folk songs. He also became an unusual footnote in rock history when Syd Barrett, a young man in Cambridge, England, combined Pinks first name with the first name of another obscure bluesman (Floyd Council) to name his rock group, Pink Floyd, in the mid-1960s.
Source: All Music Guide
Recordings on File by: Recording on file by: Doc Watson.
Trouble in Mind
Troubled in Mind is actually a composed song which attained wide circulation amongst Anglo and African American singers and musicians, both professional and indigenous. It was written by Richard Jones, a New Orleans jazz man and arranger who played an important part in the development of jazz and blues in Chicago from the early 1920s onward.
Jones, born in 1889, was from a musical family. He played a variety of instruments before making the piano his main instrument. He played in Armand Pirons Olympia Orchestra and led his own band called The Four Hot Hounds which included Sugar Johnny Smith and occasionally King Oliver. During World War One he played with Papa Celestin. He left New Orleans in 1919 and moved to Chicago where he set up the Chicago branch of Clarence Williams Publishing Company and music store.
Jones continued to play in bands in Chicago during the 1920s, but his main gig was as manager of Okeh records race records division. He lead his own studio band called Richard M. Jones Jazz Wizards and accompanied a great number of singers and bands on piano. He continued to be active in music both as a musician and talent scout until his death in 1945.
Recordings on File by:
Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.
Like hymns and patriotic songs, union songs are songs with a message. Put together, the ballads, anthems and ditties composed by American union members would tell the best part of the history of the American Labor Movement.
Unlike most hymns and patriotic songs, union songs are usually composed by amateurs to suit a particular occasion, and have a short life. More often than not, they are simply new words to an older melody. A few such songs, however, have proven worthwhile enough in melody and lyric to be passed on by one generation of workers to the next. In reality though, there was never as much singing in labor unions as one might suppose.
The singingest union America ever had was the old Wobblies. Their official name was the Industrial Workers of the World--the IWW--and they were started right here in Chicago in 1905 by a man named Big Bill Haywood. Haywood, an organizer for the Western Federation of Miners, and others were dissatisfied with the lack of progress of the little old craft unions under Sam Gompers American Federation of Labor. So they organized the IWW and membership quickly grew to 150,000 nationwide before World War I. It was put down then by the government because of its opposition to the war, made an upsurge after the war, and then by the 1920s dwindled to a fraction of its old strength.
The Wobblies were a defiantly radical group, mostly anarchist-syndicalists of a sort, and they argued bitterly with Socialists as to the value of trying to elect working-class congressmen. Their idea was to eventually sign up all the workers into One Big Union, improve conditions, and eventually call a general strike to decide who was going to run the World - the working class or the employing class.
With every new union card they also handed out a little red songbook whose cover carried the motto: To Fan the Flames of Discontent. Inside were the words to about 50 songs, usually parodies of well-known melodies - pop songs of the day, hymns, or older tunes commonly sung.
Their best know songwriters were Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin, both of whom rose from the ranks to become full-time organizers for the IWW. Chaplins Solidarity Forever is still sung at labor meetings and conventions nation wide and has become a part of American folklore.
In 1941, long after the Wobblies had lost their punch, a revival in American unionism took place. The Almanac Singers, which included Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie attempted to carry on this tradition and as a result made the very first recording of American Labor music, Talking Union. One of the original songs included in this collection was Woody Guthires Union Maid.
Pete Seeger writes, I'm proud to say I was present when Union Maid was written in June, 1940, in the plain little office of the Oklahoma City Communist Party. Bob Woods, local organizer, had asked Woody Guthrie and me to sing there the night before for a small group of striking oil workers. Early next morning, Woody got to the typewriter and hammered out the first two verses of Union Maid set to a European tune that Robert Schumann arranged for piano (The Merry Farmer) back in the early 1800s. Of course, it's the chorus that really makes it - its tune, Red Wing, was copyrighted early in the 1900s.
Eleven months after I had copied down the song from Woody, I found myself in a recording studio with Lee Hays and Mill Lampell, recording one of Americas first albums of union songs. Woody was out west at the time - he joined the Almanac Singers a few weeks later.
Recordings on File by:
- The Incompleat Folksinger, by Pete Seeger, edited by Jo Metcalf Schwartz. Simon and Schuster.
- Sing Out! Magazine.
Judy Collins & Pete Seeger, Bobbie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Pete Seeger & Woody Guthrie.
A Final Note