Thursday, September 14, 2017

*****In The Time Of The Second Mountain Music Revival- "Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies"-Maybelle Carter-Style

*****In The Time Of The Second Mountain Music Revival- "Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies"-Maybelle Carter-Style

From The Pen Of Josh Breslin 

Listen above to a YouTube film clip of a classic Song-Catcher-type song from deep in the mountains, Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies. A song-catcher is an old devise, a mythological devise for taking the sound of nature, the wind coming down the mountains, the rustle of the tree, the crack a twig bent in the river, the river follow itself and making an elixir for the ears, simple stuff if you are brave enough to try your luck.  According to my sources Cecil Sharpe, a British musicologist looking for roots in the manner of Francis Child with his ballads in the 1850s, Charles Seeger, and maybe his son Peter too, in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Lomaxes, father and son, in the 1930s and 1940s)"discovered" the song in 1916 in the deep back hills and hollows of rural Kentucky. (I refuse to buy into that “hollas” business that folk-singers back in the early 1960s, guys and gals some of who went to Harvard and other elite schools and who would be hard-pressed to pin-point say legendary Harlan County down in Appalachia, down in the raw coal mining country of Eastern Kentucky far away from Derby dreams, mint juleps and ladies' broad-brimmed hats, of story and song insisted on pronouncing and writing the word hollows to show their one-ness with the roots, the root music of the desperately poor and uneducated. So hollows.)     

Of course my first connection to the song had nothing to do with the mountains, or mountain origins, certainly with not the wistful or sorrowful end of the love spectrum about false true lovers taking in the poor lass who now seeks revenge if only through the lament implied in the lyrics, although  even then I had been through that experience, more than once I am sorry to say. Or so I though at the time. I had heard the song the first time long ago in my ill-spent 1960s youth listening on my transistor radio up in my room in Olde Saco where I grew up to a late Sunday night folk radio show on WBZ from down in Boston that I could pick up at that hour hosted by Dick Summer (who is now featured on the Tom Rush documentary No Regrets about Tom’s life in the early 1960s Boston folk scene while at Harvard hustling around like mad trying to get a record produced to ride the folk minute wave just forming and who, by the way, was not a guy who said or wrote "hollas," okay ). That night I heard the gravelly-voiced late folksinger Dave Van Ronk singing his version of the old song like some latter-day Jehovah or Old Testament prophet something that I have mentioned elsewhere he probably secretly would have been proud to acknowledge. (Secretly since then he was some kind of high octane Marxist/Trotskyist/Socialist firebrand in his off-stage hours and hence a practicing atheist.) His version of the song quite a bit different from the Maybelle Carter effort here. I'll say.

All this as prelude to a question that had haunted me for a long time, the question of why I, a child of rock and roll, you know Bill Haley, La Verne Baker, Wanda Jackson, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and the like had been drawn to, and am still drawn to the music of the mountains, the music of the hills and hollows, mostly, of Appalachia. You know it took a long time for me to figure out why I was drawn, seemingly out of nowhere, to the mountain music most famously brought to public, Northern public, attention by the likes of the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, The Seegers and the Lomaxes back a couple of generations ago.

The Carter Family hard out of Clinch Mountain down in Virginia someplace famously arrived on the mountain stage via a record contract in Bristol, Tennessee in the days when fledgling radio and record companies were looking for music, authentic American music, to fill the air and their catalogs. Fill in what amounted to niche music since the radio’s range back then was mostly local and if you wanted to sell soap, perfume, laundry detergent, coffee, flour on the air then you had to play what the audience would listen to and then go out and buy the advertiser’s products once they, the great unwashed mass audience, were filled into how wonderful they smelled, tasted, or felt after consuming the sponsors' products. The Seegers and Lomaxes and a host of others, mainly agents of the record companies looking to bring in new talent, went out into the sweated dusty fields sweaty handkerchiefs in hand to talk to some guy who they had heard played the Saturday night juke joints, went out to the Saturday night red barn dance with that lonesome fiddle player bringing on the mist before dawn sweeping down from the hills, went out to the Sunday morning praise Jehovah gathered church brethren to seek out that brother who jammed so well at that juke joint or red barn dance now repentant if not sober, went out to the juke joint themselves if they could stand Willie Jack’s freshly brewed liquor, un-bonded of course since about 1789, went down to the mountain general store to check with Mister Miller and grab whatever, or whoever was available who could rub two bones together or make the rosin fly, maybe sitting right there in front of the store. Some of it pretty remarkable filled with fiddles, banjos and mandolins.

But back to the answer to my haunting question. The thing was simplicity itself. See my father, Prescott, hailed (nice word, right) from Kentucky, Hazard, Kentucky, tucked down in the mountains near the Ohio River, long noted in song and legend as hard coal country. When World War II came along he left to join the Marines to get the hell out of there, get out of a short, nasty, brutish life as a coalminer, already having worked the coal from age thirteen, as had a few of his older brothers and his father and grandfather. During his tour of duty after having fought and bled a little in his share of the Pacific War against the Japanese before he was demobilized he had been stationed for a short while at the Portsmouth Naval Base. During that stay he attended like a lot of lonely soldiers, sailors and Marines who had been overseas a USO dance held in Portland where he met my mother who had grown up in deep French-Canadian Olde Saco. Needless to say he stayed in the North, for better or worse, working the mills in Olde Saco until they closed or headed south for cheaper labor in the late 1950s and then worked at whatever jobs he could find. (Ironically those moves south for cheaper labor were not that far from his growing up home although when asked by the bosses if he wanted move down there he gave them an emphatic “no,” and despite some very hard times later when there wasn't much work and hence much to eat he never regretted his decision at least in public to this wife and kids)

All during my childhood though along with that popular music, you know the big band sounds and the romantic and forlorn ballads that got many mothers and fathers through the war mountain music, although I would not have called it that then filtered in the background on the family living room record player and the mother’s helper kitchen radio. 

But here is the real “discovery,” a discovery that could only be disclosed by my parents. Early on in their marriage they had tried to go back to Hazard to see if they could make a go of it there. This was after my older brother Prescott, Junior was born and while my mother was carrying me. Apparently they stayed for several months before they left to go back to Olde Saco before I was born since I was born in Portland General Hospital. So see that damn mountain music and those sainted hills and hollows were in my DNA, was just harking to me when I got the bug. Funny, isn’t it.            

[Sometimes life floors you though, comes at you not straight like the book, the good book everybody keeps touting and fairness dictates but through a third party, through some messenger for good or ill, and you might not even be aware of how you got that sings-song in your head. Wondering how you got that sings-song in your head and why a certain song or set of songs “speaks” to you despite every fiber of your being clamoring for you to go the other way. Some things, some cloud puff things maybe going back to before you think you could remember like your awestruck father in way over his head with three small close together boys, no serious job prospects, little education, maybe, maybe not getting some advantage from the G.I. Bill that was supposed lift all veteran boats, all veterans of the bloody atolls and islands, hell, one time savagely fighting over a coral reef against the Japanese occupiers if you can believe that, who dutifully and honorably served the flag singing some misbegotten melody. A melody learned in his childhood down among the hills and hollows, down where the threads of the old country, old country being British Isles and places like that. The stuff collected in Child ballads back then in the 1850s that got bastardized by ten thousand local players who added their own touches and who no longer used the song for its original purpose red barn dance singers when guys like Buell or Hobart added their take on what they thought the words meant and passed that on to kindred and the gens. The norm of the oral tradition of the folk so don’t get nervous unless there had been some infringement of the copyright laws, not likely.  

Passed on too that sorrowful sense of life of people who stayed sedentary too long, too long on Clinch Mountain or Black Mountain or Missionary Mountain long after the land ran out and he, that benighted father of us all, in his turn sang it as a lullaby to his boys. And the boys’ ears perked up to that song, that song of mountain sadness about lost blue-eyed boys, about forsaken loves when the next best thing came along, about spurned brides resting fretfully under the great oak, about love that had no place to go because the parties were too proud to step back for a moment, about the hills of home, lost innocence, you name it, and although he/they could not name it that sadness stuck.

Stuck there not to bear fruit for decades and then one night somebody told one of the boys a story, told it true as far as he knew about that father’s song, about how his father had worked the Ohio River singing and cavorting with the women, how he bore the title of “the Sheik” in remembrance of those black locks and those fierce charcoal black eyes that pierced a woman’s heart. So, yes, Buell and Hobart, and the great god Jehovah come Sunday morning preaching time did their work, did it just fine and the sons finally knew that that long ago song had a deeper meaning than they could ever have imagined.]         


(A.P. Carter)

The Carter Family - 1932

Come all ye fair and tender ladies

Take warning how you court young men

They're like a bright star on a cloudy morning

They will first appear and then they're gone

They'll tell to you some loving story

To make you think that they love you true

Straightway they'll go and court some other

Oh that's the love that they have for you

Do you remember our days of courting

When your head lay upon my breast

You could make me believe with the falling of your arm

That the sun rose in the West

I wish I were some little sparrow

And I had wings and I could fly

I would fly away to my false true lover

And while he'll talk I would sit and cry

But I am not some little sparrow

I have no wings nor can I fly

So I'll sit down here in grief and sorrow

And try to pass my troubles by

I wish I had known before I courted

That love had been so hard to gain

I'd of locked my heart in a box of golden

And fastened it down with a silver chain

Young men never cast your eye on beauty

For beauty is a thing that will decay

For the prettiest flowers that grow in the garden

How soon they'll wither, will wither and fade away



Come all ye fair and tender ladies

Take warning how you court young men

They're like a star on summer morning

They first appear and then they're gone

They'll tell to you some loving story

And make you think they love you so well

Then away they'll go and court some other

And leave you there in grief to dwell

I wish I was on some tall mountain

Where the ivy rocks are black as ink

I'd write a letter to my lost true lover

Whose cheeks are like the morning pink

For love is handsome, love is charming

And love is pretty while it's new

But love grows cold as love grows old

And fades away like the mornin' dew

And fades away like the mornin' dew

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