Jeff Warner & Jeff Davis; Days of Forty-nine
Minstrel JD-206 (Released 1977)
singing and playing guitar, concertina, and Jew's harp;
Jeff Davis: singing and playing banjo, guitar, and fiddle;
Jay Ungar: fiddle and mandolin;
Gerret Warner: vocal;
Jerry Epstein: vocal, concertina.
9. The Wind and The Rain
Notes on the Songs
There is a strong suspicion on our part that Hot Corn did not emerge from a sophisticated culinary tradition such as that of China or France. Our extensive research shows that it was cooked up right here at home, from scratch. There is a black kids’ song from South Carolina called Green Corn which, for all we know, was an early argument for food preservatives and doesn’t sound particularly tasty. In concert, we often do this song as a kind of appetizer.
Some scholars have traced Young But Daily Growing back to an event in 1634 and think it might go back further than that. we’ll settle for 1634. It has a nice ring to it, and besides, neither us can remember much past 1714 anyway, so it’s all moot. This song is not so much a tale as a lament, though a story line there is to be sure. Its essence is the changing attitude of the young woman towards her child-husband. This version is from the Warner collection, learned from Lena Bourne Fish in 1941.
The hero of Johnny Grey is a descendant of one Peter Grey, from a ballad written about the time of the Civil War. Peter started in the parlors of America but migrated here and there, picking up some roughness along the way. The original, like any of its fellows, was a calculated effort to prevent atrophy of the tear ducts. This version has, well, another effect.
Its source was Uncle Dave Macon who farmed a healthy crop of disregard for such things as meter and inhibition, and whose style was a mixture of traditional, religious and contemporary music. His was not a performance to inspire comfort or calm palpitations in the hearts of polite society, but he was a much loved performer in the South. His career spanned several generations, and he kept on performing until a week before his death in his eighties. We won’t see his kind again.
Cold Drops of Rain is one of hundreds of versions of broken-token ballads that have been cooked up during the last two centuries, wherein the young man goes off to war, and when he returns decides to test his true love’s devotion. His announcement that her love is dead always provokes calamitous cries, tears and no end of anguish. Somehow the conclusion of this is a wedding, although a murder would be more appropriate. This version comes from Buenavista “Buny” Hicks, of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, a great singer whom the Warners met in 1938.
Days of ‘49 came originally from Old Put’s Golden Songster, put together by Old Put himself in Gold Rush days. He found that, while there was no money in the mines, there were plenty of miners willing to pay for any kind of music or entertainment, this being a scarce commodity. The real money in the gold fields was made by the grocers, dry good salesmen, saloon keepers, and, I guess, musicians. Put probably intended the song to be comic, but people have since found sad truth in it. I suspect that Mark Twain knew these characters, and Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin did too.
The Farmer’s Curst Wife does not evoke high seriousness, it may be that long ago the farmer entered into cahoots with the devil. In exchange for the soul of his wife he got years of good harvests. Whatever the origins of the story, the two thought they were generally pretty sly, but the woman took some pains to demonstrate otherwise. Kids love this song, mostly because the straightforward violence matches their perception of the world. Diddle-i diddle-i day.
Here is a small country church, once white, once new. The clapboards are deeply worn, time and weather have slowly worked at them. But the wood is no more, no less worn than those who assemble within. This tired, hand-hewn, nearly symmetrical structure houses the hope, the wonder of those who have no expectation of comfort or a full stomach. The real promise is in the next world: “Waked by the trumpet sound, I from my grave shall rise / And see the Judge with glory crowned and see the flaming skies.” Idumea is a shape-note hymn from the Original Sacred Harp, and was written in 1817. It is designed to be sung in a wild, untempered style.
Black culture has had a profound influence on the rest of the country. It has affected speech, music, dance, and probably even the way we move. In the exchange between black and white, the 5-string banjo was a cross-road item. Africans brought the banjo here, and for most of its history African music was played on it. Nowadays, of course, everything is different, and banjos have become heavy, metallic, expensive and White. Walking Boss was learned from Clarence “Tom” Ashley of Virginia, one of the greatest old-time banjo players. He learned it while working on railroad crews as a young man. It’s a simple and powerful song whose statement of loyalty to fellow workers is direct and uncompromising.
Several hundred versions of The Wind and Rain have been collected, some long, some short, all telling a similar story of love, jealousy and murder. Some of the versions tack on a mystical ending in which the miller attempts to conceal the crime by making a fiddle of the parts of the body. Woe to the wrongdoer, however, for that fiddle will ultimately reveal the crime and identify the murderer. It is the kind of story our own culture would like to hide away as antiquated nonsense. But these old ballads are dreams of ourselves and only as foolish as nightmares. Hopefully, they will resist whitewashing for more centuries.
A large number of our songs come from Anne and Frank Warner who have traveled around the East Coast since 1938, meeting people and learning songs. Frank is one of the best singers of old songs. His determination to carry on the tradition by singing the songs as he heard them has had a powerful and lasting influence on us. It has given us a kind of conscience. The Warners learned Press Gang Sailor from Lena Bourne Fish from New Hampshire, who knew hundreds of songs and was anxious to sing them. This arrangement literally happened one day, after months of wondering what to do with the song.
It’s easy to get all choky and weepful about the old ships and their era. We do it all the time. Nothing could be quite as easy as drifting off and seeing yourself free in the rigging with boundless space all around, a few bright clouds floating dreamily by in the faultless heaven. This is a trip on the good ship Fantasy. It sails often, tickets are cheap, and it leaves at your command. The old sailors were not so fortunate: the sea was an unfeeling skipper. The work was tedious and the voyages as infinite as the sea, punctuated by stops in Liverpool, perhaps Honolulu, but marked, too, by disease, amputations, floggings. Black Ball Line is one of the work songs sung by the sailors, with a striking melody that still sends shivers up our spines when we sing it.
In southern Indiana there is a sign that says: “Louisville - 8 miles.” Jeff Warner was there so he should know. Grandpa Jones may have been there too and got inspired to write Eight More Miles. The words are all his own, but the tune is an old one. It was used for an election song back in the 1840’s and probably goes back further than that. We heard it so long ago, we don’t remember whom we learned it from, and, if the truth be known, we never heard Grandpa Jones do it. It may be very different now, so I hope he is a forgiving sort.
Most of the songs that we sing are either American or thoroughly Americanized by the time we get to them. Salisbury Plain is 100% English and was never sung here at all. Ralph Vaughan Williams collected this song in 1904. It’s a chilling melody, especially the third line which seems to uproot predictability. But more than that, the tune seems to connect the present to a pagan, less rational past. Many of the old English melodies are like that, seemingly ancient beyond memory. The last verse is remarkable too. Most of the song is simple narration, but suddenly the verse jumps to the present tense and finally to animated immediacy: her lover dies with the tolling of the bells. The execution has occurred during the singing of the song.
Frank and Anne Warner made a trip to the Southern mountains in 1959, most of the time spent In Reese, North Carolina. They had been there before, but this trip was different because they took their two sons along. Jeff Warner remembers that trip clearly including one afternoon when a man named Homer Cornett came down from the hills, mostly to size up the folks from the city. He was a shy man, not anxious to talk much or sing for just anybody, but the Warners talked him into it eventually. He sang two songs that day, and Wild Stormy Deep is one of them. It’s a white gospel song, probably from the turn of the century. We don’t know where he learned it, and we’ve never heard it anywhere else.
Much of the rural South was isolated enough that things tended to arrive there late. Once there, bits of music or song traveled at a rate that would make Congress comfortable. For example, Goin’ Back to Dixie was recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in the 30’s, but my guess is that it had been written decades earlier. We learned it from friends who learned it from friends who learned it from that old record, so it’s changed a bit. We like to sing this song most on a cold winter nights, and In March when the flowers are starting to blossom in Carolina, and the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament is in full bloom.
-notes by Jeff Davis
Collegium Sound, Inc.
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