JD-202 Booklet
Bob Coltman;Before They Close The Minstrel Show

copyright © 2007-2010 Collegium Sound, Inc
all linked music  1975 Collegium Sound, Inc.


Meet Her When The Sun Goes Down
Banjo Sam
Fattening Frogs
The Mile To The Mountains
Skilly Skaw
Sweet Petunia
Jack's Red Cheetah
The Curtains Of Night
Bronco Buster
Chase 'em Home
I'm Almost Home
Before They Close The Minstrel Show
A Last Word
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One Place

It's Southern music that's been my teacher, with its bite, its taste of woodsmoke and sorrow, its long distances inside your mind. But I'm no Southerner, and though I live in the North, no Northerner either. I come from a place that hangs between, like an Aeolian harp, where the winds of both blow through. The songs I write are the ones that ask to be written because nobody has. And the traditional songs I sing? Let me tell you about just one place, one man. Everything comes down to that: one person in one time and place.

About twenty-five miles south of Lynchburg in south central Virginia is Altavista, and about two miles past that stood the house of R. Abner Keesee. Years before the day I met him, Ben Moomaw, a correspondent of the Virginia Folklore Society and one of the finest singers I ever knew, had struck upon Mr. Keesee. He wanted me to know him too, if he was still alive.

Abner Keesee is still alive and 79 years old on this day in September 1954, the road dust rising in the baking heat. A squat, wheezing man, he emerges onto his concrete porch and slumps into the creaky swing to entertain his company. His son, youngest of his ten children, and son's young wife and child all think it's pretty funny that somebody would want to come see old Dad.

Nearly all deaf, is Mr. Keesee, can hardly hear at all. He says everything like it was the Ten Commandments. That old saying about hearing yourself talk ... when your ears go back on you, and you used to be the champion singer at the White Top Festival, it takes on a little more meaning.

"Some people," he roars, "think they know a lot of songs. But it ain't everybody that knows nine."


He sang two of them to my Dad and me, in a voice that boomed and swooped and dove with the tyranny of deafness. How I wish you could hear that voice. It seemed to come from another world. Hard listening: gritty, full of adventure. But never lost, just finding new paths in the darkness of sleeping ears. The song about the Fisherman's Daughter, 'whose friends was dead and gone,' the words collapsing at the ends of lines, strange, unforgettable—and then the eerie vision of broken dying love that is Far Fanil Town:

He rode till he come to the middle of the town
Likewise to the middle of the street
Who did he meet but his own wedded wife
All wropt up in a winding sheet
He had a penknife drew in his hand
He ripped the seams all around
Her cheeks they looked of a pale crimson red
And her lips they looked smiling at him

We never did find out what the other seven songs were, for Mr. Keesee was gasping after two, and we were afraid for his very life. Once, he said, he'd won the White Top singing prize two years running, and would have made it three in a row if an English judge hadn't decided three in a row was one too many, and given him 2nd instead. But he won 1st prize in dancing that year, and that was better by five dollars: $15 instead of $10.

He'd breath enough to tell about the manganese mine he knew about on property owned by coal interests. Wouldn't let on where. Nor give particulars of the gold mine that was plowed up on his nephew's property, though he could if he cared to. The songs? He'd learned them as a child. His children didn't care anything about them.

'People have come here several times to get me to sing, and not give me nothing for it.' There are a couple of plain glass bottles lying empty in the yard's scant grass. Dad, who's wiser in these things than I, spots the hint and gives him enough for a full one. It's accepted, matter-of-factly. Folded inside the bib of his overalls in hopes the boy's wife won't find and confiscate it.

It took me a long time, me who knew hundreds of songs by heart and many more by reputation, to decipher the other message: that songs are living things. Too vital to drag around in the mud, to play in the background while doing something else, to stack on shelves or count up in columns, to breeze through and forget. Keesee knew less than one song for each child he had fathered. Two songs almost too much for one hot September afternoon. Nine the measure of a whole life. Each syllable to be handled with care, like dynamite, or fine crystal.

Mr. R. Abner Keesee never made it into a recording studio in his life. He had more important kinds of music to make: fierce, lonely, stubborn, infected in the blood. He is on this record, with all the other people who taught me to die and be born in every song I sing.
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Meet Her When The Sun Goes Down ... [mp3 of one verse]

I learned this breakdown from a Fiddlin'John Carson record. I've doctored it up some: added a third instrumental part where the song seemed to want it, and swiped some old verses to add to John's one. Carson's only now becoming appreciated, with his salty old rasp of a voice and his wild whiskey fiddling. In his own way he was a messenger to the 1920s from the flatland Georgia traditions of the last century, a toucher of vanished worlds with his endless old jokey songs and odd fiddle rhythms and voices, bits and fragments of old ballads and stories. He can be hard listening the first time, but I’ll tell you what: he goes in one ear and won't come out the other.

Cheeks as red as the blooming rose,
Eyes of the beautiful brown,
Her hair hangs down like a waterfall,
Meet her when the sun goes down.

Oh boy, she's a daisy (3)
Meet her when the sun goes down.

Had a little banjo,
Its strings were made of twine,
And the only song that it would play,
I wish that gal was mine.

I asked her if she loved me,
She said she loved me some,
Throwed both arms around me
Like a grapevine round a gum.

When I go to fishin'
I fish with a hook and line,
When I go to marry
I'll marry Caroline.

Wish I was in Tennessee
Sittin' in my own armchair,
Jug of whiskey in my hand,
Sporting to my dear.

Eyes like a morning star,
Cheeks like a rose,
How I love that darling girl
Godamighty knows

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Banjo Sam

Wilmer Watts was born at Mount Tabor in Columbus County, North Carolina shortly before the turn of the century, and was a textile worker in Belmont, near the center of the Gastonia labor troubles. He played fiddle, guitar and banjo inventively, finally turning to gospel music; his daughters are still singing as the Watts Gospel Quartet. He died at St. Paul, N.C. in 1943, having produced some of the most unusual, galloping, rusty-sounding, powerful flatlands music ever recorded, including this. It is an elaboration of Hook and Line, one of the dozen or so basic pieces considered to be starters for kids learning to play oldtime banjo in the South. It also borrows from Old Dan Tucker and the Jaw Bone song family, with Samson's favorite weapon changed to mine.

My name is Banjo Sam.
Hello, Banjo Sam.

Banjo ring, banjo sing,
Banjo tell me everything.

Banjo walk, banjo talk,
Banjo eat with a knife and fork.

Gimme the hook, gimme the line,
Gimme the girl they call Caroline.

Throwed my hook in the middle of the pond,
And the catfish got my hook and gone.

Yon comes Ezell, dressed for town,
Ridin' a billygoat, leadin' a hound,
And the hound bark, billygoat jump,
And throwed ol' Ezell up straddle of a stump.

Throwed my hook to catch me a shad
But all I caught was my old Dad.

Throwed my hook in the middle of the hole
And,the catfish got my hook and pole.

My wife died in Tennessee,
Sent my banjo back to me,
Hung my banjo on the fence,
And I ain't seen nothin' of my banjo since.

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Fattening Frogs

In the 1950s an oldtime jook band turned up in Alabama: the Mobile Strugglers, who got a tremendous sound out of two fiddlers, a guitar player, a bass player and a washtub man who doubled on banjo-mandolin. I learned Fattening Frogs from some takes made of the band at the time. The song's much older; some say it's one of the earliest blues, and it was recorded earlier by Virginia Liston and others. But nobody did it with the Strugglers' flair, and that's where I hear it coming from. I added the wig verse from a song by Cannon's Jug Stompers; it belongs here.

Cooked my own breakfast this morning, pretty mama,
Cook my dinner on time,
You took my last dollar
Like you took my last dime,

I'm getting tired
Fattening frogs for snakes.
It takes me so many years
To leam my mistakes.

When I first knowed you, pretty mama,
You didn't have them fine clothes,
You owed your house rent,
You's almost sleeping outdoors.

Take that wig I bought you,
Let your head go bald,
When I first knowed you, pretty mama,
You didn't have no hair at all.

When I first knowed you, pretty mama,
You would drag me in your door,
Now I'm getting old
You don't want me no doggone more.
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The Mile To The Mountains

© 1969 Bob Coltman

I suppose this song came from times of finding out that what ought to blow like breezes has a habit of getting stuck fast. We all talk about love, and say we like it, and yet we let it become a way of getting other things, and ruin it and break it and leave it gathering cobwebs. Many people would rather admire the view from a distance. And yet the mountains are there.

The mile to the mountains I must go
Because my fortune I don't know,
Fair girl, fair girl, just come and see,
I'll take you along with me,
The mile to the mountains it must be.

Oh no sir, no sir, I can't go,
Go and ask my sister though,
Traveling don't agree with me,
I'll stay by the banks of the sea.
The mile to the mountains never ca» be.

What will you have to persuade your mind?
A golden vessel and silver wine?
A hair-comb made of the sunbeam strong
And a gale to carry you along?
The mile to the mountains can never be wrong.

Oh sir, oh sir, and don't you know
That mile is the last I ever could go,
Many's the girl was bold and free
That walked that mile with thee
Never came back to the banks of the sea.

A mountain mile is a damned hard road,
And many's the girl the way you've showed,
You may talk of beauty fine and rare,
But you know I'll never go there.
The mile to the mountains I can't bear.
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Skilly Skaw

© 1975 Bob Coltman

We kids would walk a mile over cornfields and pastures and dirt roads to get to the little one-room school they made us go to, and none of us liked it. We would stop along the way and dream of getting lost, kicking the ice out of the puddles and throwing stones at trees, even sometimes at each other; I think we must have wanted to disable ourselves so we could be romantic invalids and not have to go to school. And especially when it was spring there were a thousand invitations to be out and gone. Well, and I have always been partial to girls too. So here is a girl-and-hookey love song.

My mama advised me to go to school,
But I did not go.
I walked with my paper bag of lunch
In the woods where the flowers grow,
I played I was hunting of game
And a pirate on the sea,
Till I met with a pretty little girl
Who smiled all over me.

Ring ting skilly skilly skaw,
Skilly skilly skaw skaw skee roo.

Oh love, I have been a-hunting here,
But I found me no game.
I could not bear to go to school,
So I walked on away.
But I don't mind if I do learn
Out here in the wind and the sun,
I'd rather go to school to you,
For you are the darlingest one.

So we set down on a bit of a rock
Low down by the stream,
And we never set so far apart
That a knife could pass between,
We told each other secrets
And stories of renown
Till long, long after the school bell rung
And the sun was a-going down.
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Sweet Petunia

Charlie Lincoln came to Atlanta around 1920 from his birthplace, Lithonia, Georgia with his kid brother Robert Hicks to see what good times were. Both of them played 12-string guitars and liked the rowdy life blues singing led to. They washed windshields and served ribs at a drive-in stand, and Bob got the nickname "Barbecue Bob" and went on to be a lot better known than Charlie. But bad luck broke them both; Bob was dead by 1931, and Charlie survived only to be put in the pen for murder, dying there in the early 1960s. He'd only recorded a few songs in his dark bitter-hued voice; this was one of them.

I got a gal, she's got a Rolls-Royce,
She didn't get it by usin' her voice,

I'm wild about my ‘Tunia, (2)
Only thing I crave,
Oh, sweet Petunia,
Gonna carry me to my grave.

Every time my gal walks down the street,
All the boys holler, 'Tunia's so sweet.

I got a gal, she lives up on the hill,
You can't get to 'Tunia without an automobile.

I woke up this mornin', 'bout a half past four,
Was a long tall gal rappin' on my door,

She was singin' sweet Petunia. . .

Come on, little 'Tunia, you can pass the test,
A long tall gal can shake it the best.

I'm tellin' all you men, I have been well blest,
If I can have 'Tunia, you can have the rest.
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Jack's Red Cheetah ... [mp-3 of one verse]

©1975 BobColtman

The old abandoned roadhouse for which I named this song still stands somewhere on the rattiest old back lot in the world facing the Boston and Maine tracks in Bridgeport or someplace like that in southern Connecticut—it's hard to be sure just where from the window of a train when you've just waked up. It's all boarded up, paint flaking, and a big black sign over the broken door that says JACK'S RED CHEETAH for all the world to see. A joint like that, even if it wasn't really wild, still must have tried extra hard. So I put it together with my memories of juke joints and dives and pine-shanty hot spots and the thoughts of a kid who can't wait to sample the wild women and loud music.

Down below the amusement park
Where the hoboes play cards,
All broke down shanty town
Meets the railroad yards,
See them guitar players go in
Where they drinkin' and carryin' on,
Down to Jack's Red Cheetah
Till the cold grey light of dawn.

Now when I get a little better grown
I'm gonna sing and play
On a great big bad guitar,
I'm gonna go down to Jack's,
I'm gonna have my way,
Get on my long coat, get my bottle and go,
Gonna learn to skoodle-do-do,
And them wild women gonna find it out
What a brand-new man can do.

Now I went down there last Saturday night
And oooh, my Lord,
That joint was rockin' like a washin' machine
And a-rollin' like a Henry T. Ford,
I heard 'em singin' and laughin' and cryin' the blues
As I peeked in through the crack,
You wouldn't believe the things I seen,
But I know I'm goin' back.

Now I may look like a little kid
But I been growin' some,
I got enough sense to look after myself
And I can tell when the time has come,
I been in short pants long enough,
I been workin' up to goin',
I can tell the time, I can tie my own shoes,
And my mama can't keep me home.
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The Curtains Of Night

As I'll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers, this was written in 1869 by Will Hays, who was the author of all sorts of songs including We Parted By The Riverside, Nora O'Neale, Nobody's Darling, and Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane, and who deserves to be better remembered than he is. The song was only a few years old when it spread westward to become a cowboy favorite, very durable during the 1870s and 1880s and just right for night herding, with its dreamy lilt. Surely it must be one of the most magnificent love songs ever, with all the heavens for a canopy and this angelic tune, the prettiest of the four or five I've heard attached to it. In the 1920s, remembered from the singing of turn-of-the-century mothers and aunts, it had a modest vogue among country singers, including the Tenneva Ramblers and Walter Smith. This version comes from a recording by the Blue Ridge Mountain Singers.

When the curtains of night are pinned back by the stars
And the beautiful moon sweeps the sky,
And the dewdrops of heaven are kissing the rose,
It is then that my memory flies
As if on the wings of a beautiful dove
In haste with the message it bears,
To bring you a kiss of affection and say
I'll remember you, love, in my prayers.

Then go where you will, on land or on sea,
I'll share all your sorrows and cares,
And at night when I kneel by my bedside to pray
I'll remember you, love, in my prayers.

I have loved you too fondly to ever forget
The love you have spoken for me,
The kiss of affection still warm on my lips
When you told me how true you would be.
I know not if fortune be fickle or fair,
If time or your memory wears,
But I know that I love you wherever you go
And remember you, love, in my prayers.

When the heavenly angels are guarding the good
As God has ordained them to do
In answer to prayers I have offered above
I know that one's watching o'er you.
And may its bright spirit be with you tonight
And guide you up heaven's bright stairs,
And be with the one who has loved you so true,
And remember you, love, in my prayers.
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Bronco Buster

© 1975 BobColtman

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, summer 1959, was my first trip west. I went there with Bill Briggs and we lived in the park, sustaining ourselves with Teton Tea and music till dawn. We sang under bridges and anywhere they didn't throw us out of, worked in the then-new Pink Garter Theater playing melodrama, almost fell off any number of horses, and finally vanished in the direction of Mexico and some other things I may write about someday. While there I saw the fringes of rodeo life, with its phony glamor and hard knocks. The working cowboy's life is lousy enough so that staying on crazy broncs looks glittery by comparison. But there's only room for a few hands on the brass ring. The riders I saw had a look around the corners of their eyes that said: what a hustle.

You bronco buster, you gotta know how to fly,
'Cause when you leave that leather you'll be tastin' the sky,
Got to roll and be ready on your way back down,
'Cause there's nothing underneath you but the cold, hard ground.

You may rise up easy but you'll come down hard,
If you ain't built to take it, stay out back in the yard,
For these broncos'll know it, they will drag off your skin,
Dig a grave to contain you and then trample you in.

Got a fast little pickup, but I can't afford gas,
Got a hot dog budget and an appetite for class,
This racket I'm in ain't no get-rich scheme,
I can't wear weather and I can't eat dreams.

Take a look, Angelina, from your hotel high,
You ain't very pretty, but then neither am I,
Your heart may be fickle, but it's soft enough to lay
A bronc-rider's head on till the coming of day.

Cost me fifty good dollars just to enter this show,
If I don't win nothing I'll be fifty in the hole,
And I ain't won nothing since July in Bell,
And this brute they fixed for me looks meaner'n hell.

But this old gate's a-risin', so here we go,
Folks, here's the boy wonder, are you likin' the show?
Fightin' pure bolt lightnin' and a-losin' the war,
But I got to stay on him just three seconds more.

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Chase 'em Home

© 1975 BobColtman

Two or three times every spring the neighbors' cows would get wanderlust, and they wouldn't care about fences any more. The fence was electrified, but it was only a light jolt—we kids often grabbed it just for a thrill—and the cows just knocked it down. And then they'd spread out through our woods and cross the stream in the early wet weather and come trooping along and sink up to their knees in our lawn and make a comfortable breakfast off the new grass. We'd have to call out the farmers and all of us get together and circle and coax and shove and drive those cows back through the woods and across the stream and through the break somehow. When I came to write the song it got changed to pigs and they somehow became our pigs, though really we never kept any.

Gonna be trouble as sure's you're born (2)
Hogs got out in the garden,
Eatin' on the neighbors' corn.

Get you a rake,
Get you a rake and chase 'em,
Good Lord, little boy, can't you run?
Gotta chase 'em home.

They don't make fence like they used to do (2)
All tore down and dragged around,
Busted a post off too.

Here comes the neighbor man runnin' up the hill (2)
Wisht he would see reason,
But I don't expect he will.

Never shoulda got out of bed (2)
Wisht I'd a-took the covers,
And yanked 'em up over my head.

Hogs, you gonna be bacon and ham (2)
This time I'm fed up,
You bet your hocks I am.

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I'm Almost Home

Staying overnight in Beckley, West Virginia on the way home from Tennessee in the fall of 1973, Amba Lee and I weren't looking for a song. But Beckley, which has been a center for oldtime music for 50 years, gave us one. I'd turned on the motel TV, because it was Sunday morning, and things you shouldn't miss happen on Sunday morning TV in West Virginia. A teenaged trio was singing a song I just caught the chorus of. Later I wrote the mission that sponsored the program; Rev. and Mrs. Evan Dewey Russ kindly wrote back enclosing the words I'd missed. It was extra trouble for busy people, but they were most gracious and pleased to do it; it's through their goodness that I can let you hear the loveliest new gospel song I know. I added the third verse because the song seemed just too short and over too quickly.

I'm almost home, I'm almost home,
I've got a mansion waiting and I'm almost home. (2)

They took the Apostle Peter, and stoned him o'er and o'er,
But he would not deny the Lord as he had done before,
They hung him by his feet to die, they thought he was alone,
He turned his face toward heaven and said, I'm almost home.

They took the prophet John out on the isle to die,
But he had good connections with that Man up in the sky,
God showed him the new Jerusalem, they thought he was alone,
He said. It's not so hard to die when I can see my home.

Oh Lord, keep me reminded, I'm trusting in that vow,
I've got a mansion waiting, I can almost see it now,
Although they may revile me, I know I'm not alone,
I'm nearly done my journey and I'm almost home.

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Before They Close The Minstrel Show ... [mp-3 of one verse] ... [mp-3 of complete song]

© 1971 BobColtman
In the four years since I wrote it, this song has put me through the most changes of any. I never expected it to do well; it's a risky song so that if you don't listen carefully it calls up a fringey set of reflexes having to do with the old blackface shows. But when you know your music and where it's been, you know what a debt we all owe to the old traveling shows which, even before the radio and phonograph, carried songs and ways of playing from place to place, setting up by kerosene light in schoolhouses and off of wagon gates in town squares. We move our music around differently today, which is both a gain and a loss, like any other change. There is something to mark in the passing of the old minstrel men, and no stereotypes are adequate to deal with their reality. And when did you last hear anybody play anything pretty out in front of your house?

I had the pleasure of sitting in with Ed Trickett when he made his beautiful, really definitive, version. Since then Ed and I have tried it another way, with guitar and piano, which you ought to hear sometime. But for this album I wanted to hear the lonesomeness come out front, and Jay's fiddle said it exactly right.

The poster's peeling underneath
Last summer's morning glory vine,
An old white hat and a stump of cigar
And an empty bottle of wine,

Lay me down, Carolina, lay me down,
Don't want to wake up in the morning no more,
Sing me one slow sad song for this one last old time
Before they close the minstrel show.

Banjo's got a broken string,
Don't 'spect I'll get to fix it now.
Won't be no more chance to sing,
I'm rusty anyhow.

Daddy Bones is dead, I guess,
You probably don't know or care.
And Frank and Arch has gone away
Somewhere, I don't know where.

The money and the crowd run out
Before we left the last town.
This old show done played its run
And rung the curtain down.

I don't know where we go from here,
Come to that, I just don't care.
Maybe we'll go to a better place
And the minstrel show'll be there.

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A Last Word In Edgewise

 Special thanks to very special people. Theirs is music that makes my feet unsteady and my heart pound, music like it ought to be made. When we sat down together it was like first love and horseback, ice cream and peaks where the rain runs off in both directions. You know, the good music doesn't hang out on the radio. It lives off at the end of a dirt track somewhere dark, in places that have been lived in hard, where the faces still know how to light. That's where the hello music is, the smile music, the music that won't leave you in the lurch when you most need it.

Minstrel Records let all this happen, and Jay, Lyn, Abby, Ed, Lorraine and Estelle saw to it that it did.

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