Sunday, July 03, 2005

Bluegrass Lyrics: Even More Interesting than Norm or Tim think

Norm Geras recommended an interesting post by Tim Newman close for its "close textual analysis, on a 'journey through the lyrics and origins of Appalachian bluegrass music'. " Norm even adopted a blog headline ("Six Coaches Long") from Tim's discussion of the lyric about a train which is "sixteen coaches long" which appears in several pre-bluegrass songs , including the Carter families "Worried Man Blues."

Tim has done a good job of tracking down lyrics, but he misses an important and intriguing story when he attributes "Mystery Train, " to Elvis Presley. Elvis did cut the most famous version of the song, but it was a cover of a record by Memphis bluesman Junior Parker.

A possible African-American source for the lyric is even older. According to the website of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance

Leslie Riddle : This African-American guitarist and singer was a friend of the Carter family and was a frequent dinner guest in their home. He helped A. P. locate obscure songs, brought material from his repertoire to the A. P. Carter Family , and taught blues guitar styles to hugely influential guitarist Maybelle Carter.
As Bill Malone and Elijah Wald stress in their recent books on country (Don't Get above Your Raisin: Country Music and the Southern Working Class ) and blues (Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues) there was close interplay and interchange between white and black musicans.

And there's yet another twist in this story. While the Carter's are credited with being songcatchers who captured folk and traditional songs, some of the "folk songs" were actually the products of the Tin Pan Alleys of a generation or two previous. For instance, Wildwood Flower was "written in 1888 by Maud Irving and J.P. Weber, and popularized by the Carter Family.

And another twist, Wildwoodflower formed the musical basis for a song by Woody Guthrie, The Sinking of the Reuben James. Woody, of rourse, was close to the CPUSA and pretty much followed twists and turns of the party line.

And Tim Newman started his bluegrass lyrics post by
wondering if there can be any greater swing in sequential blog topics than that between Soviet symbols and hillbilly lyrics...

So, it seems the circle is unbroken.

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