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Sleeve Notes for Poor Ellen Smith by Rattle on the Stovepipe

Poor Ellen SmithRattle on the Stovepipe sing and play American traditional ‘Old Timey’ music with a classic line-up of guitar, banjo and fiddle. This is their sixth album on the WildGoose label and it comprises a selection of their current favourites. Dave Arthur, Pete Cooper and Dan Stewart are all master musicians and they are completely at home with the music they love.


Dave Arthur, Pete Cooper and Dan Stewart are all master musicians, but there is no sense of ego, no promotion of themselves as stars, although they certainly can dazzle. They are completely at home with the music they love, and can switch comfortably from American to English songs and tunes. They know their material, they honour their sources and Dave and Pete have written comprehensive  notes for each track, both interesting, and invaluable to anyone wanting to learn and perform the piece. Dave is a great story-teller too and that is evident in his handling of ballads in particular. Both he and Pete have that rare gift of drawing you into a song.

The cover painting is The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley (1934) by Thomas Hart Benson, egg tempera and oil on canvas - Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas. As well as a painter, Benton was a harmonica player who in 1941 recorded an album for Decca, Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s. The band’s members included his celebrated pupil Jackson Pollock, here depicted in the foreground playing harmonica.  

Track Notes

1 Dead-heads and Suckers

Dave vocal, banjo, Pete fiddle, chorus, Dan guitar, chorus Learnt originally in Athens, Georgia, by Dave from the doyen of Old Time banjo, Art Rosenbaum. No-one knows what the Dead-heads and Suckers of the title refer to although, of course, this hasn’t stopped people speculating. Fish or flowers seem to be popular choices. Our preference is for the theory that the song (which seems to have appeared in the first quarter of the 20th century) refers to general layabouts and ne’er-do-wells - shirkers who didn’t sign up and do their bit in the First World War. To this effect we’ve written some new lyrics to give it more of a narrative than the original floating verses, and added a First World War reference in the last verse. But, fish, flowers or shirkers, it’s a great ass-kicking song to sing and play.

2 Little Billy Wilson

Pete fiddle (AEAE), Dan banjo, Dave, guitar Based on ‘Billy Wilson’ (in the A-part at least) as recorded by Tennessee fiddler ‘Uncle’ Jimmy Thompson (1848-1931), the tune became popular in the 1970s Old Time revival as a three-part tune - ‘synthesised’, it is said, by fiddler/musicologist Joel Shimberg. Pete had certainly heard the Critton Hollow String Band’s version on Poor Boy (1979), but it was another ten years before he learned it from banjo-player Candy Goldman of Seattle, Washington.

3 Hang Me, Oh, Hang Me

Pete vocals, Dave banjo, Dan guitar Justis Begley, the Sheriff of Hazard, Kentucky, recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in October 1937, sang ‘I’ve Been All Around This World’, the original of this song. Grandpa Jones recorded it in 1946 and Dave van Ronk in 1967 - the latter inspiring Oscar Isaac’s soulful performance in the Coen Brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis. ‘It’s not the hanging that I mind, it’s laying in the grave so long,’ van Ronk sings, but it’s ‘laying in the jail so long’ as Pete learned it c. 1979, suggesting the influence of the Grateful Dead’s more up-tempo 1973 West Coast version.

4 Swannanoa Waltz / Julianne Johnson
(Rayna Gellert, Willow Garden Music, ASCAP/ trad. arr. Rattle on the Stovepipe)

Pete, fiddle (ADAE), Dave banjo, Dan guitar/ fiddle Swannanoa, N. Carolina, five miles from Asheville, was a booming mill town in the 1920s when fiddler Marcus Martin (1881-1974) moved from the country to work at Beacon Manufacturing. ‘Factory jobs not only brought together people who would hear and remember the tunes but also allowed the tradition bearers free time to develop and promote their art.’ – Anne Chesky Smith, Swannanoa Valley Museum. Today the annual Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College is a good place to meet the N. Carolina Old Time community. Fiddler and singer Rayna Gellert, who composed this waltz in Ohio while homesick for Swannanoa, often teaches there. The source of the reel that follows, which Pete also first got from Rayna (and which Dan, who switches to fiddle here, reminded him of recently), is the great Emmett Lundy (1864-1953) of Grayson County, S. W. Virginia. He recorded it in 1941 (as ‘Julie Ann Johnson’) for Alan and Elizabeth Lomax of the Library of Congress in a session later issued by Topic Records in 1977.

5 Poor Ellen Smith

Dave vocal, banjo, Pete fiddle, chorus, Dan guitar, chorus Like so many other girls who must have heard countless traditional murder ballads, Ellen Smith ignored the warnings concerning unfaithful and cruel sociopath lovers and paid the ultimate price, along with those other unfortunate N. Carolina victims Omie Wise and Laura Foster. Ellen’s murderer, in Winston-Salem, July 1892, was Peter DeGraff, a working-class fantasist with delusions of grandeur. He hung around bars and clubs dressed as a wealthy plantation owner, sporting pistols and boasting of being prepared to use them. With an apparent split-personality, DeGraff callously shot Ellen when she became an ‘inconvenience’, but then carefully laid out her body on a bed of greenery and covered her face with her apron. At a later date he performed a ritual at the murder scene to raise her spirit and try to ensure that her soul would go to Heaven. He fled town, crossed the State line to Mount Airy thirty five miles away, and worked in a sawmill. Stupidly he returned a year later and was arrested. He denied the murder right up to his last moment on the scaffold, when he confessed theatrically, and told the vast crowd of spectators that corn-liquor, cards, dice and bad women had brought him to that place. There are two main strands of the Ellen Smith song. In the earliest, printed by the local newspaper, The Sentinal, during the trial as ‘The Song of Peter DeGraff’ by Charles Pepper, a cell-mate of DeGraff in Winston gaol, DeGraff proclaims his innocence: ‘I know they will hang me at last if they can But God knows I’ll die as an innocent man.’ In the later, better known, versions he admits he’ll never be free of his sins of the past. Although first recorded by Henry Whitter in 1924 and Dykes Magic City Trio in 1927, it’s Molly O’Day’s driving banjo-led 1949 recording that seems to have influenced most subsequent recordings, including ours.

6 Bonaparte’s Retreat

Pete, fiddle (DDAD), Dan banjo, Dave tambourine and guitar This celebrated tune, with the fiddle in DDAD - or ‘Dead Man’s’ - tuning, is from William Hamilton ‘Bill’ Stepp (1875-1947) of Magoffin County, Kentucky, recorded in 1937 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. His performance, transcribed by Ruth Crawford Seeger and orchestrated by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), became the ‘Hoe-Down’ section of Copland’s ballet score Rodeo, and is sometimes ironically referred to by Old Time musicians as ‘Copland’s Fancy’. Emerson, Lake and Palmer also had a crack at it.

7 Black Bottom Blues

Dave vocal, guitar, Dan banjo, Pete fiddle ‘Black Bottom Blues’ (not to be confused with Blind Boy Fuller’s ‘Black Bottom Blues’) and ‘Deep Elem Blues’ are basically the same song with interchangeable titles and verses. Over the last few years a few Old Time musicians (especially banjo players) have opted for ‘Black Bottom Blues’ as the title, as have we, after adding a ‘tweak’ to the chorus. Black Bottom could simply be a generic term for an African-American downtown area or, as in Detroit, the rich marsh-soil ‘bottom-land’ left when the Savoyard River was piped underground and where the black community settled and music clubs sprang up. Deep Ellum (Elm Street & Central Track area) was a ‘red-light’ downtown area in early 20th century Dallas, Texas, a magnet for blues and jazz musicians, good-time girls, gangsters and purveyors of booze and drugs. A hot time could be had as long as you took notice of the song and kept your pistol in your pocket and your money in your shoes! In an alley called ‘Death Row’ someone got killed every Saturday night. In 1927 the Georgia Crackers recorded the song ‘Georgia Black Bottom’, whose first verse goes: ‘If you go down to Black Bottom, put your money in your shoes The women in Black Bottom got them Black Bottom blues.’ In 1933 the Lone Star Cowboys released ‘Deep Elm Blues’ - same tune but with some newly-written lyrics based around the Crackers’ ‘shoes-blues’ verse. It was later recorded three times by guitar and mandolin duo the Shelton Brothers (ex-Lone Star Cowboys) as ‘Deep Elem Blues’ and became the basis for most subsequent recordings from Doc Watson and Tom Paley to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Grateful Dead.

8 Take Me Back to Georgia

Pete fiddle, mandolin, Dave banjo, Dan guitar Booked by an airline to play at the launch of a new direct Manchester to Atlanta flight, the band mugged up on Georgia tunes. This one’s from fiddler Lowe Stokes (1900-1983), who played with The Skillet Lickers and recorded it in Atlanta in October 1929 with Mike Whitten, guitar. The following year on Christmas Day Lowe’s right hand was blown off in a shooting accident… The tune was a hit with the passengers at the airport check-in. A water-cannon salute for the plane arriving on the tarmac did not, however, go as planned. The jets shooting out of the fire engines were not water, it turned out, but fire-suppressant foam, which disabled the plane for the rest of the day. Presumably it took off eventually. We got the train back to London… Lowe Stokes had a special hook made to hold his bow and by the early 1930s had resumed his playing career.

9 Wild Bill Jones

Pete vocal, harmonica, fiddle (tuned ADAE), Dave banjo, Dan guitar A moment of sexual jealousy, a weapon to hand, this tale of crime and punishment has been recorded by singers and musicians from Eva Davis, Burnett & Rutherford, Dock Boggs and Frank Profitt to Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Kirk Sutphin and Bruce Molsky. Pete first got the lyrics from the New Lost City Ramblers’ Old-Time String Band Songbook. The death toll from shootings in the USA between 1968 and 2011 alone has been estimated at 1.4 million - more than the 1.2 million US deaths in every military conflict from the War of Independence to Iraq.

10 Going Over the Mountain/ Old Jimmy Sutton

Dan minstrel banjo, Dave drum, tambourine, Pete fiddle A pair of tunes played by Dan on a copy of a 19th century minstrel banjo. ‘Going Over the Mountain’ or, as it appears in Briggs Banjo Instructor (1855), ‘I’m Gwine Ober de Mountain’, was written (words and music) by the famous white ‘blackface’ performer Dan Emmett, co-founder in 1843 of the Virginia Minstrels, the first minstrel group to put together a full length blackface show, which premiered on February 6 1843 in the Bowery Theatre in New York. Later that year the Virginia Minstrels played in Britain, opening the door to decades of regular tours by popular American minstrel groups, described in Punch in 1847 as a ‘glut of Ethiopians’. By the mid-1850s several British broadside printers had produced ‘Ober de Mountain’ songs obviously inspired by Emmett’s lyrics, and in 1906 folksong collector George Gardiner noted three verses from a James Brown of Basingstoke, Surrey (not the soul singer!), which began: ‘Fare thee well my own true love Fare thee well my darlin’ Fare thee well my own true love I’m going over the mountain.’ Surprisingly, blackface minstrel shows enjoyed continuous popularity in the UK for over 130 years until the Black and White Minstrel Show was finally given the coup-de-grace by BBC TV in 1978, bringing a fascinating, if bizarre, era to an end. ‘Old Jimmy Sutton’, especially popular in Virginia, was first recorded in 1928 by the Old Time fiddle/guitar duo G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter. Fine versions have been collected from such banjo-pickers as Wade Ward and Vester Jones from Buck Mountain, Grayson County, who declared it to be a tune from the ‘covered wagon days’ and that he was going to ‘go at it the old time way.’ ‘Here’s a tune called Old Jimmy Sutton If you don’t play this, you don’t play nuthin’ ’ It was described in The Journal of American-folklore (1888) as a typical hillbilly dance tune and some lyrics were published in Thomas Talley’s collection Negro Folk Rhymes (1922). Dan resisted the temptation to bleat or ‘baaaa’ as some traditional players do when the rhyme ‘Sutton/Mutton’ crops up in song versions.

11 Southern Soldier
(Dave Arthur)

Dave vocal, banjo, harmonica, Pete fiddle, mandolin, Dan guitar Despite what we hear in Western films, an ‘American’ accent was by no means the U.S. norm in the 19th century when every town, ranch, mine and army unit welcomed immigrants speaking in a variety of accents and dialects. A ten-year-old boy from Manchester, Birmingham or east London could end up at twenty as a Mancunian, Brummie or Cockney-sounding gunfighter, sheriff or farmer. Men newly emigrated from Kent, still with a Kentish burr, fought and died at the Alamo and at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In the South many independently-minded British incomers fought for the Confederacy. Not necessarily because they were slave owners or anti-abolitionists but simply in defence of their adopted state, their county, and the bit of land they worked. ‘Southern Soldier’, written by Dave, is about such a man caught up in the War Between the States who believes the whole thing will soon be over and he can get back to working his Georgia farm in peace. Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, however, had other plans when he determined to ‘make Georgia howl.’ The verse referring to Confederate President Davis’s white horse and Abe Lincoln’s mule is a traditional fragment that Dave heard in North Carolina in 1972.

12 Waiting for the Federals

Dave melodeon, Pete fiddle, Dan guitar AKA ‘Seneca Square Dance’, ‘Georgia Boys’, Shelby’s Mules’ and ‘John Hoban’s Polka’. Sam Long (1876-1931), the first Ozark country musician to make a commercial recording, called it ‘Seneca Square Dance’ when he recorded it (with ‘Echoes of the Ozarks’ on the B-side) in 1926 for Gennett Records of Richmond, Indiana, a subsidiary of the Starr Piano Company which released hundreds of Old Time recordings between 1925 and 1934. Sam Long retired from mining due to lung problems and earned money organising and fiddling for square dances. He only ever recorded six tunes - check them out on YouTube. His ‘Seneca’, with guitarist Ray Kastner, was re-issued by Challenge records under the pseudonym ‘Fiddling Dave Neal’. Ry Cooder popularised the tune for a later generation on the soundtrack of a 1980 western, The Long Riders, and it is frequently played in Old Time sessions today, but rarely with a melodeon in the line-up, even though the melodeon (Dwight Lamb), accordion (Carter Family), harmonica, pump-organ, piano (Sam Long) and even the musical saw (The South Georgia Highballers) have all been pressed into service by Old Time traditional musicians less proscriptive than some of their modern revival counterparts.

13 The Devil’s in the Girl
(Roud 1480)

Dave, vocal, guitar, melodeon, Pete fiddle, Dan banjo A cautionary tale of seduction and abandonment, collected by Cecil Sharp on January 12th 1904 from farmer William Nott of Parsonage Farm, Meshaw, N. Devon. Nott, the source of a number of fine songs, died just three years later in January 1907 and is buried in Meshaw parish churchyard. The lyrics were popular with the printers around London’s Seven Dials area in the 19th century and virtually identical broadsides were sold by J. Pitts, W. S. Fortey and H. Disley. Dave came across a typewritten copy of the song, minus a tune, in Bert Lloyd’s papers while writing his biography. Bert had altered a couple of lines but never, as far as we know, sang or recorded it. Dave had put a tune to it before discovering Sharp’s transcription of William Nott’s version. Having got used to our original arrangement the band saw no reason to change it, other than to make a fetish of ‘authenticity’ in traditional music, which as we all know is subject to infinite variation. Anyway, for purists, Sharp’s version is always there to refer to if one is so inclined.

14 Rodeo Man
(Bob McDill, Universal Music Publishing Group)

Pete vocals, fiddle, Dave melodeon and chorus, Dan guitar and chorus The great Texan Country & Western singer Don Williams (b.1939) released ‘She’s in Love with a Rodeo Man’ in January 1974, and it’s long been a favourite of Pete’s. Dave’s melodeon adds a little Tex Mex flavour. The barmaid’s favourite song referred to here, ‘San Antonio Rose’, is, of course, the Bob Wills classic.

15 Stackolee

Dave vocal, banjo, Dan, guitar, Pete fiddle SHOT IN CURTIS'S PLACE William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan streets, by Lee Sheldon, also colored.
 St Louis Globe-Democrat, December 26, 1895 Billy Lyons and Lee ‘Stack Lee’ Shelton, a carriage-driver and pimp, got into a political argument during which Billy snatched Stackolee’s Stetson hat and refused to return it. A large John B. Stetson and flash clothes were the sign of a successful pimp and not to be disrespected. Stackolee, with a reputation to keep up in the violent red-light districts of Deep Morgan and Chestnut Valley, drew his .44 and shot Lyons, picked up his hat, and calmly left the bar and went home to bed, where he was arrested the next morning. A number of Stackolee’s ‘clients’ were local politicians and civic dignitaries so it’s no surprise that he escaped the gallows for his first-degree murder. Songwriters, however, felt differently and in the songs that started to emerge soon after the affair, he swings for his sins. They even credited him with being so bad that he kicked the Devil out of Hell and took over himself. In reality he ended up serving 12 years of a 25 year sentence and left Missouri’s Jefferson City Penitentiary in 1909. He died three years later from TB. There were several other killings over that Christmas in St Louis but, for some reason, this one caught the popular imagination. Hugely popular, over the years more than 200 versions of Stackolee have been recorded, but few as fast as Dan likes to play this version.

16 Walk Along John to Kansas

Dan fiddle (AEAE), Pete fiddle (AEAE), Dave guitar A wild tune introduced to the band by Dan. Collected by John Lomax in Hebbonville,Texas in 1941 from Mrs F. E. Goodwyn (fiddle) and Frank Goodwyn (guitar), it’s a tune that seems to sound better the more fiddles you put on it. It’s also in Dan ‘Clawdan’ Levenson’s Old Time Favourites for Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay 30224 and its fiddle companion 30225) taken from the Arizona fiddler Kenner ‘KC’ Kartchner (b. Snowflake, AZ. 1886). A great tune for flat-foot clogging.

17 Blood Red Roses
(Dave Arthur)

Dave vocal, guitar, Pete fiddle, chorus, Dan banjo, guitar, chorus Flowers? 19th century red-coated British soldiers? Bloody flower-like spume from the blow-hole of a harpooned whale? Who knows? Nobody. So we’re free to interpret the enigmatic chorus as we like. In fact, the poetic imagery of the ‘blood-red roses’ can be traced back no further than 1956 when Bert Lloyd sang it in the John Huston film Moby Dick. So the line that has caused such conjecture is simply, like so many other memorable folk revival lyrics, another example of Bert’s fertile imagination. His source was almost certainly ‘Come Down, You Bunch of Roses’, printed with the tune in William Doerflinger’s 1951 collection Shantymen and Shantyboys: Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman. With a re-written chorus line and the addition of some generic shanty verses, Bert launched the song on its way to becoming a folk standard. Many years later Doerflinger did say ‘I doubt that the movie version, with a “blood-red roses” chorus, is authentic folklore.’ Dave, inspired by Bert’s song but not wanting to sing a shanty, wrote our version a few years ago while working on his biography, Bert: The Life and Times of A. L. Lloyd.