Tuesday, April 30, 2013

With a little pen knife held in her hand . . .

Weegee (Arthur Felig), Untitled, ca 1940

Blog News
10/14/12:Hello Darling 

Recent Songs
04/18/13: Henry Lee
2/5/13: Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender
1/1/13: Strange Fruit
11/14/12: Yet Another Look: Stagger Lee
11/11/12: Day of Rest: I Want Jesus to Talk With Me
11/7/12: El Paso

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Murder Ballads Project
04/18/12: Henry Lee
10/18/11 : Stagger Lee, Pt 2
10/10/11: Stagger Lee, Pt 1
9/13/11: Song of Joy

04/30/13: Farewell Possum
11/9/12: The Lonely Grave of Virginia Rappe
10/31/12 Quote of the Week
10/31/12: Happy Halloween

Farewell Possum.

George Jones wasn't a murder ballad type of guy, he was more of "drinking whiskey and crying 'cuz she left me" honky tonk guy.  But looking at his life, it's almost surprising that he didn't become the topic of a murder ballad: violence, drug addiction, divorce, occasionally singing like a duck on stage, more divorce, and a lot of booze.

I'm not kidding about the duck thing either:

In his autobiography "I Lived to Tell It All," country legend George Jones describes a mega-bender of booze and drugs that continued until his brain snapped and he found himself locked in a Donald Duck voice that he couldn’t stop using when he spoke. Let me reiterate: George Jones got so wasted that he was only able to speak in a Donald Duck voice for days on end. He performed several entire concerts in his Duck impression and, at one point, to make matter worse, he locked himself in his dressing room and wouldn’t hit the stage until he was introduced as Hank Williams.  - Holy Taco 

There's also this legendary tale:

Once, when I had been drunk for several days, Shirley decided she would make it physically impossible for me to buy liquor. I lived about eight miles from Beaumont and the nearest liquor store. She knew I wouldn't walk that far to get booze, so she hid the keys to every car we owned and left. 
But she forgot about the lawn mower. I can vaguely remember my anger at not being able to find keys to anything that moved and looking longingly out a window at a light that shone over our property. There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat; a key glistening in the ignition.
 I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did. -  George Jones, "I Lived to Tell All"1

But that voice:

I've been racking my brain trying to find words to describe it that haven't already been used.  Pure  heartbreak in a voice.  A national treasure. How about, "goddamn, that voice"?

Only a voice like that, could lyrics like this seem poinant:

I pulled the head off Elvis
Filled Fred up to his pelvis
Yabba Dabba Doo, the King is gone
And so are you

Eventually, with the help of his 4th wife Nancy, Jones cleaned up.  With the exception of a few stumbles (and one huge car crash) he pretty much stayed out of the news.  

He died April 26th 2012 at the age of 81.  With all the slick, pop driven, sugar coated crap that's being passed off as country music,  I can't help but thing that so much of the real thing has died with him.


1.  Jones, George with Tom Carter.  I Lived to Tell it All. Dell Publishing, 1996

2.  Ferris, Roger. D. The King is Gone and So Are You 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Murder Ballads Henry Lee pt 1

This version begins with Judy Henske's wonderful comic intro.

After almost two years, I have returned to the "Nick Cave and the Bad Seed's Murder Ballads" project, with the third track on the album, Henry Lee.  Originating in Scotland, Henry Lee has been Earl Richard, Love Henry, and Young Hunting.  Other variants sing of the Proud Girl as well.

(Note: this version is cut off at the end.)
A woman, often called "Lady Margaret" bids a man to stay the night with her.  He rejects her saying that he has a love in another land.  Sometimes this other woman is in Scotland.  Other times she waits for him in Merry Green Lea, and there's even one version that sings of Arkansas.   If this wasn't enough, Henry sometimes informs the woman that his love is "ten times fairer" than she.  Ouch. 

Despite having rejected her, Henry leans over to give her a kiss.  The woman stabs him with her pen-knife, apparently the number one choice for female killers.

She then disposes of him:

She took him by his lilly-white hand
She drug him to the well,
Which you know was cold and deep 1

Like the verse up above, she often does this herself, and sometimes maid helps her with this task:

She called unto a maid of hers:
Keep a secret, keep a secret on me
All these fine robes on my body
Shall always be to thee

One takened him by his long yellow hair
And the other one by his feet
And they threw him into the deep well waters
Which was so cool and deep 2

After that a woman calls to a bird.  A talking bird.

Come down, come down my pretty little parrot 
And sit upon my knee,
And you shall have a cage of pure, pure gold
Instead of a willow tree. 3

The bird, wisely, is having none of it:

I won't come down, nor I shan't come down
To sit upon your knee
For you have murdered your true love Henery,
More sooner you would kill me 4

One striking difference between the "Scottish" and "Appalachian" versions is that the former versions tend to be much longer and often take on a supernatural element.  Once Young Hunting crossed over the pond, the story was cut short, often ending in the bird flying away.  But in the Scottish ballad the story continues as shown in this version by James Findlay.

The bird, which serves as a voice of morality in the song, plays greater role, assisting in bringing Lord Henry's killer to justice:

Then up and speaks that pretty little bird
A-sitting up high in the tree,
Saying, “Oh, cease your diving, you divers bold,
For I'd have you to listen to me.”
“And I'd have you to cease your day diving
And to dive all into the night.
For under the water where his body lies
The candles they burn so bright.”
So the divers ceased their day diving
And they dived all into the night.
And under the water where his body lay,
The candles they burned so bright. 5

The killer's guilt is also prove through otherworldly forces.  Her maid, condemned for the killing is thrown on the fire:

But the fire wouldn't take upon her cheek
And the fire wouldn't take upon her chin,
And nor would it take upon her hair
For she was free from the sin.
And when the servant girl touched the clay cold corpse,
A drop it never bled.
But when the lady laid a hand upon it
The ground was soon covered with red.
Having been found guilty by God, the lady is now placed on the stake instead of her maid:
And the fire took fast upon her cheek,
And the fire took fast upon her chin,
And it sang in the points of her yellow hair,
And 'twas all because of her sin.

As I've discussed before, there seems to have been a habit of condensing ballads once  they made it to the states.  Supernatural elements, and back stories are shortened or even outright removed: Henry rejects her, she stabs him, she throws him in a well, end scene.  For me the omission of the fate of our lady, makes the tale even more disturbing.  Henry rots at the bottom of the well, while his lost love waits for him, never knowing what happened.  No supernatural justice, just, a woman scorned, murder and a talking bird. 

Next up.  Henry Lee pt 2, or "what's up with the talking bird?"


1. Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version E).  English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917.  Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2012.

2.  Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version D).  

3. Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version D).  

4.  Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version E).  

5. Rose, Tony.  "Young Hunting"

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender

The concept of "love matches", marrying someone because you're both in L-O-V-E is a fairly modern one.  For many years marriages were arranged to increase wealth, or social standing.  They were formed to forge alliances between families and countries. 1  No one married for love.  That doesn't mean that poets, musicians and writers were unaware of the concept of love.  They wrote and sung of lovers all the time, and often of the tragic results.  One of these tales is "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender" (or Ellinor/Eleanor/Ellendry) which tells of a love triangle that ends with three bodies dead on the floor.

Like many old ballads, lyrics vary, but I'll be using the version found in Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as Sung by Jean Ritchie as my primary source.

The tale begins with Lord Thomas posing a question to his mother:

Oh mother, oh mother, come riddle it down
Come riddle two hearts as one
Say must I marry fair Ellender 
Or bring the brown girl home? 2

 It should be noted that "brown" in this song more than likely suggests a olive or tanned complexion.  Up until the 20th century, fair or light skin was associated with wealth, while darker skin was associated with those of a lower class, meaning, people who had to work outside in the sun.

The mother, when posed with the question of who Lord Thomas should take for a wife responds with cruel common sense.  Marrying a woman of wealth will not only benefit Lord Thomas, but his family:

The brown girl
She has houses and land
Fair Ellender she has none
So the best advice I can give you my son
Is bring me the brown girl home 4

Before going off to find the wealthy brown girl.  Lord Thomas decides to break the news to his pale, rosy cheeked, beloved:

I come to ask you to my wedding
Now what do you think of me? 5

Lady Ellender, distraught asks her mother:

Oh mother, oh mother, come riddle it down
Come riddle two hearts as one
Oh must I go to Lord Thomas' wedding
or stay at home and mourn? 6

Ellender's mother, wisely tells her:

Oh, the brown girl she's got buissness there
You know you have got none
So the best advice I can give you my daughter
Is to stay at home and mourn. 7

Of course, the fair skinned, beautiful maid doesn't listen.  Instead she pulls a stunt that would probably fit right with in with a bad chick flick:

She dressed herself in a snow white gown
Her maids they dressed in green
And every town that they road through
They took her to be some queen. 8

 While the wearing of a white dress to a wedding didn't hold the same meaning then as it does now 9,  dressing like a "queen" is still an insult. Not only does Ellender arrive at the wedding, but Lord Thomas brings her in and sits her down in a place of honor.  So Ellender, dressed in her finest clothes, sitting among the guests decides to humiliate the brown girl by proclaiming.

Is this your bride, Lord Thomas? She cried.
She looks so wonderful brown. 10

Keep in mind, brown, tanned skin was associated with poverty.  Ellender is not simply calling the bride ugly; she saying that despite her wealth she looks poor, she looks "low class".

Lord Thomas doesn't try to defend his new wife.  Instead he proclaims his love for Ellender, and proceeds to heap a few more insults upon the brown girl:

Dispraise her not, fair Ellender, he 
Dispraise her not to me
For I think more of your little finger,
Than of her whole body 11

Now, I hope I'm not the only one who feels some sympathy for the brown girl here.  Her only crime was saying yes to a man who was only interested in her wealth.  Not only does she have to deal with some wedding crashing bimbo calling her ugly, but she has to deal with her brand new husband agreeing with the girl.

I also hope I'm not the only one who takes some satisfaction at the brown girl's response.

The brown girl had a little pen 
It being both keen and sharp
Betwixt the long ribs and the 
Pierced fair Ellender to the heart 12

Got to love a girl who always carries a knife with her.  You know, just in case.

 Naturally, Lord Thomas responds to the death of Ellender in a rational manner:

Lord Thomas he drew his sword from
his side
As he run through the hall;
He cut off the head of his bonny
brown bride
And kicked it against the wall 13

Ponder that image.  Just take a moment and ponder that slightly hysterical image.

Another version, found in Olive Arnold Campbell's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians is even more graphic:

Lord Thomas had a sword by his side
With a blade both keen and sharp
He cut this brown girl's head smooth off
And cleaved the body apart 14

After dispatching the brown girl Lord Thomas impales himself with his own sword.  His final words are this plea:

Oh mother, oh mother 
And dig it both wide and deep
And bury fair Ellender in my arms
And the brown girl at my feet 15

Now that's what I call an entertaining wedding.

Most versions seem to side with Thomas and Ellender; this one which can be found here even invokes the "rose and briar" motif.16  But, if you do side with the brown girl,  you can take comfort in this ending, found in Olive Campbell's book, in which the living decide to deliver an eternal insult to the dead lovers:

Go dig my grave both wide and deep
and paint my coffin black
And bury fair Ellendry in my arms,
The brown girl at my back

The dug his grave both wide and deep
And painted his coffin black,
And buried the brown girl in his arms
And fair Ellendry at his back 17

 While not all the Child Ballads end like "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender", anyone who takes the time to read a collection of them will quickly notice that most ballads concerning young lovers don't end well.  Why didn't Lord Thomas ignore his mother and bring Ellender home?  Why couldn't have they rode off into the sunset?  As romantic as the tale of Ellender and Thomas might have been to some, what they did violated the norms of the time. Passionate love, did not a marriage make:

.  . . the social order rests entirely on marriage and because marriage is an institution, a legal system which unites, alienates and imposes obligations ensuring  the continuity of of social structures, particularly the stability of power and wealth.  It is not fitting that marriage should embrace frivolity, passion, fantasy and pleasure[.] 18
- Georges Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages

 To allow them to live happily ever after, would also mean condoning such behavior.  Killing them off allowed musicians to sing of romantic love, but keep the social order intact.

Or maybe people enjoyed a blood splattered tale then as much as the do now.


1. Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. trans Jane Dunett. The University of Chicago Press. 1994. pg 3

2. Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender".  Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians. University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

3. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2001/03/01/249992.htm?site=science/greatmomentsinscience

4. Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender"

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_wedding

10.  Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender"

11. ibid

12. ibid

13. ibid

14. Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor" (version B).  English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917.  Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2012.

15. Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender"

16.  "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor". http://www.contemplator.com/child/thomas.html

17.  Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor" (version A).  English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917.  Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2012.

18.  Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. trans Jane Dunett. The University of Chicago Press. 1994. pg 32

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Strange Fruit

"That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard, ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country." 
-  Nina Simone (1)

Suffering and art have an uneasy balance. While humanity often dreams of eliminating the horrors of war, death, disease and violence, it is hard to deny that those very things have inspired great works of art.  The bombings of the city of Basque inspired Picasso's Guernica (2).  Angels in America sprung from the AIDS crisis.  And the lynchings in the American South inspired the protest song, Strange Fruit.

 In 1871,  in response to restoration, and the lost in the Civil War (3) "whites roamed the countryside, hunting and lynching Negros"(4). This started a legacy that lasted into the 1960's.  An act of homegrown terrorism "[l]ynching a black man taught other black men to say in their places at the bottom of the economic ladder."(5)  Criminals, murders where never punished and remained free to brutalize black Americans at will.

It was this violence that led Jewish academic Abel Meeropol to write the poem Bitter Fruit, which first ran in the union backed which first ran in the New York Teacher in 1937.  When he latter it adapted Bitter Fruit to music, became Strange Fruit (6)(7).  Writer Dorian Lynskey calls this name change "inspired" saying that it "It puts the listener in the shoes of a curious observer spying the hanging shapes from afar and moving closer towards a sickening realization"(8).  The idyllic myth of sleepy plantations, sweet tea, and southern belles crumbles to reveal decay.

While she did not write and others have recorded it (including singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone),  it is Billie Holiday who is forever linked with Strange Fruit:

'Strange Fruit' was a landmark recording but of a very different kind that was perceived at the time. It was one of first examples of a popular song becoming impossible to disentangle from a single, specific recording  of it. (9)

This is with good reason; listen to the way she sings "pastoral scenes of the gallant south."(10)  The way anger undercuts the sweetness of her voice.  Much like the magnolias in the song, she lures you in for a closer look, and then makes your blood run cold.

Strange Fruit remains a beautiful, yet ugly testimony to the horrors that men do.


Strange Fruit live:

Nina Simone's version:
1.  Lynskey, Dorian.  33 Revolutions Per Mintue: A History of Protest Songs From Billie Holiday to Green Day.  Harper Collins, New York. 2011

2. Cohen, David.  Hidden Tresures: What's So Controversial About Picasso's Gurnica? Slate Magazine: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_gist/2003/02/hidden_treasures.html 2003.

3. Watson, Bruce. Freedom Summer.  Penguin Group, New York. 2010

4. Ibid

5.  Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Defying Dixie. The Radical Roots of Civil Rights: 1919 - 1950.  WW Norton & Company, New York. 2008

6.  Thomson, Graeme.  I Shot a Man In Reno: A History of Death By Murder, Suicide, Fire, Floor, Murder, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure As Related in Popular Song. Continuum, New York. 2008

7.  Lynskey, Dorian.  33 Revolutions Per Mintue

8. Ibid

9.  Nicholson, Stuart.  Billie Holiday.  Northeastern University Press, Boston. 1995

10. Meeropol, Abel. Strange Fruit.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Yet Another Look: Stagger Lee

I know you're all probably getting tired of old Stagger Lee but . . . this blew me away:

The Collins Kids. Larry and Lorrie.  Larry is probably around twelve or thirteen here. All the little teenyboppers of today ain't got nothing on this kid.  Lorrie is pretty stellar as well.

This has nothing to do with murder but here's another one of their songs:

Larry went on to write such songs as  Delta Dawn and You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma (1).  Not bad.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Day of Rest: I Want Jesus to Talk With Me

As I type this, Sunday is about ten minutes away from being over. I hope that everyone had a good one.  I also hope you enjoy Homer Quincy Smith's 1926 recording of I Want Jesus to Talk With Me.  

If you're interested in this song, it can be found here.