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American Anonymous
UN-published notes
by Joel Mabus

(click here to return to the American Anonymous CD page)

(click here to read the PUBLISHED liner notes to American Anonymous)

Below are some "liner" notes for American Anonymous that were just too copious to be included in the folder that comes with the CD. Now that the internet is everywhere, I figured I'd throw these notes up here on my website, while the pithy essentials will do for the hard package. So consider the thoughts on this page "non-essential" but perhaps worthwhile, nonetheless. I'm glad you found them.

For most anonymous traditional music we usually assume the original author's name or names are simply lost to memory after years of oral transmission. With every re-telling of the song comes the natural editing of the folk process, so that the song at hand is expected to be significantly changed over many years. But in some cases, an old song's author is deliberately obscured for reasons known only to some long-dead publisher. Perhaps the author was of another race, sex or class, or the subject matter indelicate or politically hot. Or perhaps a royalty was being denied. These things are hard to know sometimes.

Sometimes an assumption of anonymity arises from sheer laziness. There are many Victorian era songs with clear authors and publishers that are now considered traditional - and hence "anonymous" - simply because the copyright has expired. Songs like "Wildwood Flower" or "Nelly Gray" come to mind. But when comparing today's versions against their original sheet music, you can usually see the changes the folk process has wrought over the years.

In choosing the 14 songs for this album, I chose songs that are truly anonymous creations - at least as far as I can tell. Some scholar may prove me wrong perhaps, and certainly one might quibble about a verse here or there. (Yes, I penned a line or two in my versions of these songs - but not enough to claim authorship.) But by and large these are all songs pretty deep in the well of folk tradition.

More than a few of these titles will seem very familiar to long-time folk music devotees. Some would say songs such as "Betsy From Pike" are simply too familiar to revisit. But I think there comes a time in a song's life cycle - after a generation or two passes - when it is time to listen with fresh ears to something long ago shoved in the closet & locked in the file drawer. I have brought my own sensitivities as a songwriter and performer to this old material, and at this stage of my life and career find a lot of vitality yet in these old songs.

I don't know how a younger person will hear this album. (Putting aside the question of how many younger persons will actually listen to it.) I came of age hearing and singing these songs. The stories, attitudes and moral lessons are embedded in me just as clearly as the tuneful melodies. It is in my warp and woof. I can't possibly know if this box of songs will have the same impact on someone not walking in my shoes, but I believe it is potent stuff, nonetheless. And I feel the need to pass them on. Old tales have survived and thrived since the earliest days of humanity and are retold with every generation - the quest to slay the beast, the fool's wisdom, the star-crossed lovers, the dignity of the honest laborer. The media have evolved - fireside tales, epic poems, sacred text, novels, plays, film, video, online games. Those changes will never end. But music has survived. Human song with vibrating strings beside it is what I have to offer here, even if it arrives on a stream of digits captured and replayed on any number of contraptions.

A lot has been said and written throughout my life about what is and what is not folk music. There is the scholar's point of view, the music industry's point of view and the average consumer's point of view, not to mention this folksinger's point of view. Well, my original working title for this album - an album I've been threatening to do for 20 years or more - was "Joel Mabus Sings Folk Songs." That being a shout-out to the many LPs (a lot of them on the Folkways label) that were published in the 1950's and 60's with that title, excepting the name of the singer then was Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, etc. In that era, "folk" was a hot marketing tool, and sure to sell records on that tagline alone. But now the sizzle has cooled, the era has passed, and "folk" is an often confusing label. Anymore, calling something "folk" doesn't tell you where a song comes from. It more likely tells you the singer has a certain fashion sense or brand of guitar - or a particular record producer.

Yes, this collection is all truly folk music, by my weights and measures. But one cannot simply say "folk music" these days without a qualifying paragraph defining it further. And so this album is called American Anonymous. And with that the definitions stop.

The songs:

1 Betsy From Pike
Folks of a certain age - make that my age - learned this song in grade school. A standardized melody was chosen for the school books with an edited and sanitized text and the obligatory nonsense-syllable refrain. I guess I should be grateful that my public school had a full-time music teacher, as that is deemed an expendable luxury for schools today. We were taught a lot of folk songs back then. But we didn't get taught the idea of the fluid folk process. Nope, these are the words, kids - this is the melody, boys and girls. It wasn't many years later I learned that the same "song" can have different melodies and that lyrics can float from one tune to another like clouds in the sky.

And so it is with old Betsy here. Like the tough old girl herself, my melody likes to wander a bit. Betsy is a bit less sweet-natured on this album than in the school books, and the 'twiddle-dee-dee' refrain takes a powder. A few years back I did the the trek to the west coast in my 4-cylindar 4-door, taking the old pioneer route all the way, now a solid ribbon of concrete. The long drive made me want to take a new look at this old chestnut. By the way, the Pike County of song is that in Missouri, north of St. Louis, south of Hannibal, and a stone's throw from my old home place in Southern Illinois. At least that is the way I tell it.

2 Love Somebody
You may recognize the tune here. It is usually called "Soldier's Joy" (I recorded it as such as a banjo instrumental about 20 years ago). But like a lot of the really great tunes, it has various titles - "The King's Head" and "Payday in the Army" are two. Over the years it acquired a few home-grown lyrics, and that's what I am featuring in this version. In America's bible belt, a lot of fiddle tunes took on lyrics so they could be sung a cappella for "play parties." A play party was a dance for children, very much like a square dance. But since dancing was deemed sinful by certain preachers, the children were only allowed to "play" at their party. And only IF the music came from pure singing - the "sacred harp." The devil's box - the fiddle - and it's barbaric cousin, the banjo, were not to be tolerated by proper Christians. But the music survived, in spite of them all.

3 Sweet Evelina
This song was first published in 1863, with anonymous authors - lyrics by "M." and music by "T." It was actually published twice that year. In both versions the sheet music was arranged for piano forte by a "Mrs. Parkhurst," adding the boast "as sung by all the minstrel bands." (In version one, "like the eel she is sleek." Version two reads "like the lamb she is meek.") It became very popular among both armies in the Civil War, and remained so for many years after. My grandfather, Oscar Ishmael Lee, sang the song as a lullaby to his little daughter Ruby - my mom - who was born in 1913 in the old copperhead region of Southern Illinois. (Oscar always rebuffed Southern sympathies with a stern "I'm a blue-bellied Yankee!") This song marks my recording debut as an autoharp player. It seems to fit the song.

4 The Farmer Is The Man
I first learned this song when I was a kid, going through an old Grange songbook I found in my mom's piano bench. It appears to be an anonymous - and overtly political - parody of "The Farmer Feeds Us All," an idyll written by hymnist Knowles Shaw (d. 1878), author of "Bringing In The Sheaves." The song here dates to the 1890's or thereabouts, a period when the grange movement and the progressives joined forces.

5 Sally Gal
The great ones have lots of titles. This one has many titles, and also many cousin melodies. "Sally Ann," "Sally in the Garden," "Sandy Land," "Sal's Got a Meat Skin," "Sail Away Ladies," "Big Fat Taters In Sandy Land" are but a few. I first heard this as a banjo instrumental when I was about 9 years old. I've collected these lyrics over the years from lots of sources, high and low.

6 In The Pines
This song has always given me the shivers, as it is well-calculated to do. Sometimes called "Little Girl" or other titles, iconic performances recorded by Bill Monroe and Leadbelly are well remembered. But it was the big chords on the autoharp that drew me back to this song I loved as a kid. My favorite line is the enigmatic "asked my captain for the time of day; said he throwed his watch away." Now, that's timeless.

7 Rising Sun Blues
The most popular version of this one was of course recorded by 60's brit-pop group The Animals as "House of the Rising Sun." The story goes they stole the arrangement from Bob Dylan, who lifted it from Dave Van Ronk, who invented the familiar five-chord changes (not the ones I do here) that every beginning guitar player since 1964 has fretted over. Van Ronk was dressing up a song first recorded by Appalachian singer Clarence Ashley in 1933. Leadbelly recorded it later - twice - with two different melodies, perhaps learned in prison. My melody is inspired by a 12-string guitar lick in one of Leadbelly's tunes, and is less a song of doom, than one of celebration. I've been singing it this way for more than 40 years. According to some scholars the lyrics have their roots in the old ballad "The Unfortunate Rake" which also spawned "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary." Maybe. Only wikipedia knows for sure.

8 Drunken Hiccups
Also known as "Rye Whisky" or "The Moonshiner" or some half dozen other names. Once I figured the trick of making the clawhammer banjo hiccup, I knew where I wanted to take this one. A more non-alcoholic cousin of this song is "The Wagoner's Lad" wherein we visit the travails of womankind on the frontier. The melody is often called "My Horses Ain't Hungry" by folklorists and is also the tune used by many (including myself) for "Old Smokey" which I recorded some ten years ago. The instrumental hiccup is usually an old-time fiddler's trick, giving a pizzicato pluck to the high string. Normal clawhammer technique seems like a hiccup to many, anyway, I suppose. But here I lightly mute the first and fifth strings with my left hand while knocking them with my right in usual clawhammer fashion, blended with a short intake of air on beat. Got that?

I put this back-to-back with Rising Sun on purpose. Rising Sun celebrates social drinking. Hiccups is about anti-social drinking. What follows next is a stiff dose of religion.

9 Grieve My Lord No More
Origins are very obscure for this one, though I assume it was an African American spiritual that has entered the larger world and sometimes met with comic parody. A first cousin to both "Walking Cane" and "Study War No More," the catchy tune and singalong structure of the song has lent itself to the accumulation of dozens, if not hundreds, of couplets running from the sacred to the absurd. The few I sing here lean to upright side of life. Most of the couplets used in this song you could hear zippered into any number of other spirituals, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Mary Don't You Weep," or "No Hiding Place Down Here."

10 Sinners Lose All Their Guilty Stains
An old hymn tune from the Sacred Harp (aka Southern Harmony). The melody is anonymous, while the unsung text is from William Cowper (pronounced 'Cooper'). His poem was published in 1779 in John Newton's famous Olney Hymns, titled "Praise for the Fountain Opened," with the stark opening line: "There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins." The poem was written in common meter so as to be readily sung with any number of "C.M." melodies. The words have been set to many different compositions over the centuries, but the one that seems to have stuck is the early American camp meeting tune I play on the autoharp here. In singing school (shape-note) books the melody is called "Cleansing Fountain." In later, mostly denominational, hymnals the custom was to use the first line of text as the hymn title, whatever the musical setting. So it is usually published as "There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood." As cheery as that sounds, I like the title I use here best - it comes from Cowper's first refrain. I have seen this tune attributed to Lowell Mason, but that is not correct. The prolific Mason wrote a much different - and less memorable - setting to the hymn, better suited to pipe organ than to group singing.

11 Get Along Little Dogie
This well-known cowboy song sounds a little more lonesome with this blue melody than it does with some others. Woody Guthrie sang it something like this, as I recall. I feel the need to clear up a common misunderstanding. Dogies are not "doggies." Dogie, with the long "o" sound is the cowboy's affectionate nickname for a "dough-gut" - a term for a motherless calf. If a bovine is weaned too soon, the grass it eats binds up like bread dough in his gut. Just keeping you in touch with your food chain. It's your misfortune and none of my own. Only doing my job.

12 The Fox
One of the few so-called "children's" songs that celebrates thievery and bone-chewing. A few verbs, nouns & notes different than Seeger and Ives versions, I like to sing it at a good clip, a little faster than a fox-trot. My version is mostly derived from the one commonly sung during the American folk revival, but earlier versions of the song can be found in Scottish collections in the mid 19th century with Mr. Fox out to "grease his beard," while the gray goose is all "a-fear'd." It has been traced back in English to the 15th century and still counting.

13 Ebenezer
A good old fiddle tune I play here on the banjo. Some claim this is a Virginia tune - ok, could be. It's harder to prove provenance for these old dance tunes than songs with traceable lyrics, despite the origin stories some lantern-jawed fiddlers may assert with fist & spittle. There is a blood sport among certain contemporary old-time musicians I call the "provenance game." The object is to offer up the most obscure version of a tune as "old-timier than thine." Extra points awarded for being rhythmically crooked. One usually gets his first pile of chips by sitting at the feet of an acknowledged master on sacred turf, learning tunes warts and all. The more warts the better, in fact. Of course, no one ultimately wins the competition until you can render that pristine twang of Apollo's lyre.

I don't play that game. I learned most of my tunes on the fiddle from other work-a-day fiddlers while playing for community square dances over some 40 years - played hundreds of tunes like this one, just hanging out there in the communal ether with Old Joe Clark and Sally Goodwin. I would refine "my" version of a tune by playing it some 40 times at a crack until the dancers drooped, making the bow and fingers whittle away the awkward edges off the frame of the thing, polishing it down to a neat package. Once tunes were in my brain to stay, I banjoized some of them like Ebenezer here. I am surely not the first or last to work this way. Usually done in the key of G, I play it in A here, because it sounds better that way on my short-scale banjo with the strings screwed up a little tighter.

14 A Closer Walk With Thee
As with a lot of African American spirituals and hymns, one wonders if this song was "author unknown" or may have had an author lost to history simply because of some racist publisher in the Jim Crow era. We'll never know. It is one of the few hymns that made the leap from the black community into white church hymnals early on - listed as "author anonymous." A favorite hymn of jazz musicians and bluesmen, it has always been one of my favorites, too, since my childhood, where we sang it in a storefront Pentecostal church. I still appreciate the humble theology of the lyrics that asks for nothing more than a fellow companion - a guiding spirit - in this walk of life, and ultimately pleads a simple "let it be."

In the jazz funeral tradition in New Orleans, this hymn rivals "When The Saints go Marching In" in popularity, and is famously played dirge-like on the walk to the graveyard, but it's a knees-up celebration on the way back to town. And so, a fitting end to this walk of ours.

Joel Mabus
May 2011

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