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MOTHERS BEHAVING BADLY

 

If you are of a certain age, and are a rock music aficionado, you will recall a time when super groups walked the earth. One of the foremost of these was Cream, whose existence was but short but resounding. One of their most popular and successful albums was Disreali Gears, released in 1967 and ending up as the number one album of 1968 in the U.S., according to Cash Box. Bringing up the rear in this collection of rock classics that featured “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Strange Brew”, and their smash hit “Sunshine of Your Love”, was an eyebrow raising departure from the rest of the album: a tragic ditty sung a’cappella by the three lads in outrageous cockney accents. “Mother’s Lament” describes a poor mother’s shock at finding her undernourished infant washed down the drain while trying to bath it.

 

It had been recorded before, in 1963 by the godfather of English folk, Martin Carthy, as “Your Baby ‘as Gorn Dahn the Plug’ole”, and later by ex-pat English folkies, John Roberts and Tony Barrand as “Dahn the Plughole.” One would certainly take it for a traditional staple of the London music halls of the nineteenth century. Shockingly however, its origin is much more recent. 

 

It was written in 1944 by Jack Spade. That is a bogus name however. It is a combined pseudonym of the guilty parties: Elton Box, Desmond Cox, and Irwin Dash (who further complicates things with his own pseudonym of Lewis Ilda.) The trio also turned out “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” using yet another pseudonym, Fred Heatherton, also in 1944. Dash (who was born in Baltimore) teamed up earlier with an entirely different group of collaborators to produce “Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?” in 1924.

 

The lyrics vary with each performer, according to where they stole it from, but the gist of the tale remains the same. So while there are indeed, variations of lyrics, here is the version by Cream, who you have to admit, do a blinding job of it:

 

Mother’s Lament:

 

A mother was washing her baby one night

The youngest of ten and a delicate mite

The mother was poor and the baby was thin

'Twas naught but an skeleton covered with skin

The mother turned 'round for a soap off the rack

She was only a moment but when she turned back

Her baby had gone, and in anguish she cried

"Oh, where has my baby gone?", the angels replied

 

Oh, your baby has gone down the plug hole

Oh, your baby has gone down the plug

The poor little thing was so skinny and thin

He should have been washed in a jug

Your baby is perfectly happy

He won't need a bath anymore

He's a-muckin' about with the angels above

Not lost but gone before

 

 

The Cruel Mother

 

It has been inferred that the people of the British Isles have a rather fatalist sense of humor when it comes to misfortune, either self-induced or natural.  

 

In the late nineteenth century, many musical narratives of the British Isles were floating freely, re-interpreted by whatever minstrel had a mind to. Apparently, nobody bothered to create a data base of this material, because it never occurred to anyone to do so. But Frances James Child felt it was his calling to collect as many of these loosely connected stories as possible, whether anyone wanted them or not.

 

The son of a Boston sailmaker, Child was born in 1825 and rose from his lowly social standing to distinguish himself as an excellent student. He so excelled that he was admitted to Harvard (with a little help from private sources, and scholarships). After graduation, he became the school’s expert in English literature, writing and teaching the works of the classic authors. A distinct love of old ballads led him to start publishing his own and existing collections which led to ten volumes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Its publication continued even after his death in 1898. Because of the tremendous variations inherent in each of the songs, he identified them by number. It is not however, a comprehensive collection of every known Scottish and English folk song; at 305, he had barely scratched the surface. It’s not clear why he chose certain selections, while rejecting others. He took that question to the grave.  

 

Coming in at number 20 is “The Cruel Mother”, also known as “The Greenwood Side”, or “Greenwood Sidey.” Child acknowledged 16 more versions including “The Lady of York”, “Fine Flowers in the Valley”, “There Was a Lady Dressed in Green”, etc.

 

It’s a gruesome tale both of domestic violence and the supernatural handled in a rather off-handed manner. The basic gist of the story is that a young woman who is either a) a princess, b) a poor commoner, or c) a rich man’s daughter has a roll in the hay, or the weeds, becomes pregnant and gives birth to one or more children, who she then kills with a penknife. As a portent of things to come, the blood from the knife refuses to be washed off. Shortly after, as the homicidal mother is out walking, she meets a child (children) and remarks that if they were hers, she would dress them in the finest clothes. To her horror, they reply that she did not do that while they were alive. The children then taunt her with visions of her future in Hell. Sung to a very lovely tune.

 

 

Welia Walia

 

A pen knife is also featured in this, another equally disturbing infanticide story. But this has a lighthearted gallows humor treatment that was very popular with children. On Recorded Live. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in Ireland  from 1964, the boys let loose with their arrangement that would be well received in any playground.

 

There was an old woman who lived in the wood

Weela Weela Walya

There was an old woman who lived in the wood

Down by the river Saile.

 

She had a baby three months old

Weela Weela Walya

She had a baby three months old

Down by the river Saile.

 

She had a penknife three foot long 

Weela Weela Walya

She had a penknife three foot long

Down by the river Saile.

 

She stuck the penknife in the baby's head

Weela Weela Walya

The more she stuck it, the more it bled

Down by the river Saile.

 

Three big knocks came a'knocking on her door

Weela Weela Walya

Two policemen and a man

Down by the river Saile.

 

"Are you the woman what killed the child?"

Weela Weela Walya

"Are you the woman what killed the child?"

Down by the river Saile.

 

"I am the woman what killed the child"

Weela Weela Walya

"I am the woman what killed the child"

Down by the river Saile.

 

They took her away and she got hung

Weela Weela Walya

They took her away and she got hung

Down by the river Saile.

 

The moral of this story is

Weela Weela Walya

Don’t stick knives in baby’s heads.

Down by the river Saile.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Farmer's Curst Wife

 

Gentlemen, if you’ve ever had evil thoughts concerning your wife, just remember she’s thought even worse about you. And with that in mind, it’s on to Child Ballad number 278, “The Farmer’s Curst Wife.” This tune, like many other British ballads, transitioned to the new world mostly intact but with variations. Here’s an American take:

 

Now there was an old man lived under a hill

If he ain’t moved away he’s living there still

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

He took out his horse and began to plough

But how he got around he didn’t know how

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

Now the Devil came to his house one day

Says, "Your old wife I’m going to take away"

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

"Take her on, take her on, with all of my heart

I hope, by golly, that you’ll never part"

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

So the Devil took the old woman up on his back

The old man says, "Don’t you ever bring her back!"

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

Now they hadn’t gone half a mile down the road

When the old Devil says, "You’re a hell of a load"

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

But when they got to the gates of Hell

He says, "Punch up the fire, we’re gonna toast her well"

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

So the Devil built the flames up higher and higher

She up with her foot and kicked him in the fire

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

There was three little devils a-dragging their chains

She up with a hatchet and split out their brains

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

There were nine more devils a-running through the hall

They says, "Take her back, Daddy, she’s a-murdering us all!"

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

Now the old man was peeping out of a crack

When he saw the Devil come a-wagging her back

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

She found the old man sick in his bet

She up with the butter-stick and beat him on the head

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

So that shows you what the women can do

They can outwit the Devil and their old man too

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

And that’s one advantage women have over men

They can go down to Hell, they can come back again

Hi, diddle-aye diddle-aye fie

Diddle-aye diddle-aye day

 

No explanation needed.

Hal Taylor

6/16/2023

farmerswife.jpg

From the top

 

This is not my first blog. I started one years ago to promote the release of my first book, “The Illustrated Delaware River.” I posted excerpts from the book that were pretty much entire chapters, including illustrations. But it was pointed out to me that there would be little reason to buy the book when it could be read online. After being struck with this harsh dose of reality, I pulled the plug on my blog. It didn’t really matter since the book has not broken any sales records. But enough of my  whining, it’s time to embark on a new adventure.

 

Ramblinotes is going to be all over the place. And I mean that in a good way. Some topics will veer off into left field, some into right, and a few might even stay right up the middle. There will be plenty of music, music history, other history, art, observations of the human condition, some useless but entertaining crap, a recipe or two, and perhaps a guest contributor now and then.

 

Here’s a sample of the line-up: We’ll be delving into the myth and mystery of arguably the oldest folk song in the English language– “Barbara Allen”, a tune that is still with us 500 years on; Bad Mothers: It’s not just men who get drunk and eat their young; Leadbelly: a musician’s musician; “My Old Kentucky Home” and other places Stephen Foster never set eyes on; a song about hats, and much more. So stick with it, I’ll try to do my best.

 

To kick things off, here’s the back story of one of my favorite obscure tunes.

moneyart.jpg

Ive had certain songs rattling around in my head for a long time. And you probably have too: songs that you’ve heard only once, but spring into your consciousness from time to time when you least expect it,  like a smoke alarm that tells you to change the battery, only not that annoying. They’re songs that stay with you for some unexplained reason. I suppose it’s similar to when your eyes take an indelible picture of something that you only spot for a second.

 

This is one of those tunes. I heard it only once, in the early 1990s, broadcast on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania radio station located on their campus in Philadelphia. But I was able to play it and sing all the verses the first time I tried it. I’m not a savant; the song is just simple enough to easily recall. 

 

Ostensibly, the theme strikes close to the bone: the endless quest to find money, wherever it may be. As catchy an old time ditty as you’re likely to hear, “Lookin’ For Money” seems to have been custom made for claw hammer style banjo. I heard it on that one occasion from the Chicken Chokers, a composite band from the Boston area that no longer exists. If you would like to hear them rip into it, here you go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADDd8x-phOw

 

If this is your first encounter with the song, you would probably bet that it was conceived long ago in Georgia or South Carolina. But you would lose that bet. It was actually born and bred in Texas, written by a Rockabilly singer/songwriter named Al Urban. 

 

Urban was born in Gonzales, Texas in 1935. Raised on a farm, he learned to play guitar as a teenager and formed The Daybreakers, his first band in the early 1950s. Success for them at the time meant a steady gig at the popular Log Cabin Inn north of Luling, Texas. Since “the stars at night are big and bright–clap, clap, clap, clap–deep in the heart of Texas,” Urban tried to grab one of them. And he actually came pretty close.

 

In 1954-55 he recorded a few of his original songs on his own Dixie label at Gold Star Studios in Houston. (Owner Bill Quinn opened the studio in the 1940s recording everything and everyone from Cajun to blues to Country to Rock including Lighting’ Hopkins, George Jones, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and B.J. Thomas. The studio gained further legendary status in the 1970s when it acquired new ownership and was renamed SugarHill Recording Studios.)

 

Urban returned to the studio in 1956 to record more of his tunes including “Lookin’ For Money” and “I Don’t Want to Be Alone.” He took the masters to Sarg Records owner Charlie Fitch who had been recording many local artists including Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm. Fitch released the tunes on Sarg in 1956 with “Money” as the A side. It was a minor hit that sold reasonable well. But what really brought Urban attention was an encouraging review in Billboard magazine, landing him an appearance on the extremely popular, hillbilly-centric TV show, Louisiana Hayride.

 

Urban did more out of pocket recording of his own songs, often crossing paths with “The Possum” (George Jones) who used the same studio. They would even share the same backing band. Urban offered his songs to Charlie Fitch again, who released four of them, but passed on others. Urban eventually became dissatisfied with Fitch and established his own label, Fang. He also recorded on a couple of smaller labels, Kash and Tennessee.

 

To promote his songs, Urban took to the road but soon tired of the grind and returned to his cattle ranch in Gonzales to concentrate on his songwriting. His big break came in 1971 when Charley Pride included “I’m Beginning to Believe My Own Lies” and several more of Urban’s songs on his Grammy winning album Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs. Urban continued writing and recording, releasing an album I Just Dropped in to Say Goodbye in 2008. He passed away in 2012.

 

•••

 

The Chicken Chokers were a generation away from Al Urban, both musically and geophysically; you can’t get much further from Texas than Boston. Formed in the 1980s, they were essentially an old-timey string band, but with elements of reggae, punk, and rap hiding around the edges. Their version of the tune is probably what they thought it should sound like: primitive vocals accompanied by a break-neck, up-tempo, foot stompin’, party on the back porch jam. A good bit different from Urban’s original.

 

The Chokers, Chad Crumm, Paul Strother, Chip Taylor Smith, Stefan Senders, and Jim Reidy left us with two albums on the Rounder label before disintegrating: Shoot Your Radio from 1987, and 1990’s Old Time Music. Some of the fellows continued in various configurations with other players which resulted in the bands Primitive Characters and Twang. Smith worked on and off through 30 years with bluesman Spider John Koerner and as a solo performer. Paul Strother also played bass with Spider John, as well as with a salad of  other musical projects. By day, he is a research Professor of Paleontology at Boston College. Stefan Senders has played banjo in a variety of groups, one of which, the Wildcats, toured Southeast Asia, and played and taught West African drums. Chad Crumm, artist and composer, can be found just about anywhere, anytime.

 

But it’s been said that around every 20 years on certain nights when the moon is holding water, that the Chokers reunite and emerge with their crazed rhythms and patented ‘air-raid siren’ vocals, ready to raise the dead, or a least pique their interest.

 

If you enjoy comparisons, you should give a listen to Urban’s original version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuORVgCxodc

Hal Taylor - 4/29/23

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