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Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932

Band A3

In his New York Times articles, reprinted in 1938 by the WPA as Folk-Songs of America, Gordon referred to the recordings he made in North Carolina during the fall and winter of 1925 as "The Asheville Collection." This reflected his appreciation for the interest and support shown his recording project by the Chamber of Commerce and various private citizens of Asheville. One of the most helpful among this latter group was the young lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Lunsford already was known for his large collection of mountain songs. Frank C. Brown of Duke University had recorded him on cylinders in 1922 (Jones, p. 7) and when Gordon met him, Lunsford had just made his first commercial records. Gordon published a version of "Cindy" in Adventure for Jan. 30, 1926 (pp. 191-92). There he mentioned that another Lunsford song was available on Okeh phonograph record 40155, thus showing his gratitude to Lunsford by publicizing his record. Several years later, when Lunsford recorded again for Brunswick, that company publicized Gordon's work with him through a blurb in their "Brunswick Record Edition of American Folksongs," which stated that Lunsford had the "largest collection of Southern Mountaineer Songs in the World" and that "Hundreds of them were recorded for Harvard university for their historic value" (Green, pp. 73-78). During the twenties folklorists and the record companies often shared informants, but rarely was either aware of the other. This is probably the only instance in which each publicized the activities of the other.

Gordon had published a text of "The Old Gray Mare" in Adventure for March 20, 1925 (p. 192) and had received another text from a reader shortly after that (Gordon MSS 911). He was no doubt pleased to find the same song in the repertoire of Lunsford. Lunsford and Stringfield (pp.36-37) later published it in their 1931 folio, and Lunsford recorded it again in 1935 for the Library's Archive of Folk Song (AFS 1787 A1). The song has been encountered by several other collectors in the South: E. C Perrow (p. 123), Frank C. Brown ( III, p. 217) and Leonard Roberts (pp. 190- 91), whose text is very similar to Lunsford's. The line "I took it home and put it in the ooze" refers to the pasty mixture of hardwood ash and water in which the green hide is soaked to remove the hair.

THE OLD GRAY MARE [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A19, ms. NC19
Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Asheville, North Carolina
Oct. 19, 1925

Oh, once I had an old gray mare,
Once I had an old gray mare,
Once I had an old gray mare,
And I hitched her in and I thought I'd plow.

Chorus:
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

I hitched her in and I thought I'd plow,
Hitched her in and I thought I'd plow,
Hitched her in and I thought I'd plow,
She swore by golly that she didn't know how.

Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

Down the meadow I followed her track,
Down the meadow I followed her track,
Down the meadow I followed her track,
Found her in the mud hole flat on her back.

Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

I took a notion I was so stout,
I took a notion I was so stout,
I took a notion I was so stout,
Took her by the tail and I snaked her out.

Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

I took a notion, It wa'n't no sin,
I took a notion, and it wa'n't no sin,
I took a notion, and it wa'n't no sin,
Took out my knife and I ripped her skin.

Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

I took it home, I put in the ooze,
Took it home, and I put in the ooze,
Took it home and I put in the ooze,
Saved it to make my winter shoes.

Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

Took it out and I put it in a log,
Took it out and I put it in a log,
Took it out and I put it in a log,
Some old fool come snaked it off.

Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

My old gray mare is dead and gone,
My old gray mare is dead and gone,
My old gray mare is dead and gone,
The darned old rip was-a hard on corn.

Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore,
Not a-gonna work for a nickel anymore.

Spoken by Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who just sung the foregoing, learned it from Curtis Miles at Alexander, Buncombe County, North Carolina, near the home of Governor Zeb Banks, about Nineteen hundred.

This is Lunsford's only recording of "Hesitation Blues"; he recorded relatively few blues during his career. In the September 23, 1926, issue of Adventure, Gordon wrote, "I am still much interested in early ‘blues' and ‘rags' and in those curious combinations made up partly of genuine folk material and partly of vaudeville or stage songs" ( p.189). This song surely fits his description of a "curious combination."

Although W. C. Handy (p.94) copyrighted a "Hesitation Blues" in 1923 (He also recorded it), only the chorus bore much relation to the familiar song performed by Lunsford here. And versions of that song had already been collected by Frank C. Brown (III, p. 564) and Newman I. White (pp. 391, 325, 339, 398). White suggested that the song came from a "Hesitation Waltz" which was popular about 1914. Whatever the origin of the song, it was well known by the twenties. Handy did with this song as he did with a number of others—used it as a basis for his own more sophisticated composition. Other sophisticated performers included the song in their repertoires. Vaudeville comedian Al Bernard made two recordings of it during the twenties, and it was recorded in 1925 by Art Gillham, "The Whispering Pianist." In 1930 another white singer from North Carolina, Charlie Poole, recorded a version of the song under the title "If the River Was Whiskey." And there have been a number of other recordings and collections of the song since then. Gordon collected a version in California (Cal. 292A & B), received one from an Adventure reader (2120), and recorded another in North Carolina (A116, NC173).
Each of Lunsford's stanzas is a floating verse which has appeared in other songs, generally blues. The formula "I ain't no _______ nor no _______'s son" was collected by White (p.398) and Scarborough (B, pp. 276-77) in various forms, and appears in Poole's recording. Bluesman Bo Carter constructed an entire song, "All Around Man," using this form.
The second verse is most commonly found with the ballad "The Boll Weevil" (see Laws, p.255), which dates from the early twentieth century and was collected widely in the South during the twenties and thirties.

The final verse is likewise a floater, but has turned up in recent years as a verse in the song "Big Ball's In Town" (NLCR, pp. 216-17) as recorded by North Carolinian J. E. Mainer and such groups as the Mountain Ramblers. The significance of the reference to "Coolidge meat skin at fifty cents a pound" is obscure, but it is interesting that Georgia singer Fiddlin' John Carson also used "Hesitation Blues" for two political compositions: "Tom Watson special" for the 1924 Georgia gubernatorial campaign and "Georgia's Three-Dollar Tag" for Eugene Talmadge's 1932 campaign for the same post.

HESITATION BLUES [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A41, ms. NC60
Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Asheville, North Carolina
October 19, 1925

Now I'm no teacher nor no teacher's son,
But I can teach you how ‘til my papa comes.
So say boys, how long must I have to wait?
Can I get her now or must I hesitate?

Talk about the boll weevil flyin' up in the air,
Wherever he lights, he leaves his family there.
Oh say boys, how long must I have to wait?
Can I get her now or must I hesitate?

Workin' on the railroad, sleepin' on the ground,
Eatin' Coolidge meat skin at fifty cents a pound.
Oh say boys, how much longer must I have to wait?
Can I get her now or must I hesitate?

"Not A-Gonna Lay My Religion Down" probably came to Lunsford directly or indirectly from Afro-American traditions. In a spoken announcement, not reproduced on this LP, Lunsford remarks only that he learned it from a "Mrs. Graniver at Marion." In tune, stanza form, and text it resembles a number of spirituals. See, for example, the songs "Hell and Heaven" published by the Lomaxes (pp. 588-91), and "I've Been Buked and I've Been Scorned" recorded in 1917 or 1918 by the Tuskegee Institute Singers. Lunsford made another recording of this song in 1935 for the Archive of Folk Song (AFS 1830 B1).

NOT A-GONNA LAY MY RELIGON DOWN [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A13, ms. NC13
Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Asheville, North Carolina
October 19, 1925

Ain't but one thing grieves my mind,
Ain't but one thing grieves my mind,
Ain't but one thing ‘at grieves my mind,
Judgement day am a tryin' time.

Chorus:
Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down.

My poor mother's dead and gone,
My poor mother is dead and gone,
My poor mother is dead and gone,
Left me here to follow on.

Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down.

I've been tempted and I've been tried,
I've been tempted and I've been tried,
I've been tempted and I've been tried,
Been to the river and I been baptized.

Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down,
Not a-gonna lay my religion down.

God made me a living soul,
God made me a living soul,
God made me a living soul,
Trained me [?] to sing while the ages roll.

 

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