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