Sara Grey and her son, Kieron Means, play American music, as distinct from Americana - theirs is the real deal. Old-time ballads, cowboy songs and Primitive Methodist hymns are all grist to their individual mill. Sara's unique frailing banjo style and Kieron's blues-inflected guitar are in perfect harmony and this, instinctive, family symbiosis is what sets them apart. Passionate and heartfelt vocals are the icing on the cake.
Kieron and I wanted to make this CD together….just the two of us as a statement of our love for old songs and tunes.
I have racked my brain to try and recall where I learned the wonderful old-time song that I have known forever and, for the life of me, I cannot remember. Back in the dim recess of my mind I wonder if I learned if from Joe Newberry, but I don’t think so, more likely it came from my friend Chester James from Indiana. Anyway it’s a great old-time song.
This song is also known as “The Honest Farmer” derived from a dialect song by a person called Phorns Westend of but not as plaintive and haunting. This is a rare version from the singing of Everett Pitt, a backwoods man from the eastern Ramapose in New York State. He eventually recorded it in the 1940s. He learned it from his family.
Elk River Blues
This lovely soulful little tune was composed by West Virginia fiddler Ernest Carpenter who made it into a lament for his homestead which was flooded over when the Sutton dam was built on the Elk River. What I love about this tune is that it went through a migration to the west, and I learned it from three wonderful musicians from Prescott AZ; Warren Miller, Tony Norris and Bill Burke of Flagstaff AZ. To me it seems like the slow sad way they play it out in AZ fits the background of the tune better than the sprightly pace that is played in WV.
Partly from the singing of Maggie Parker Hammons of WV. In this version the heroine never reveals her true identity but her lover knows it is her. There is another fine version from Mary Sawels of NC and the version from Roy Palmer’s “Oxford Book Of Sea Songs” is far more complete and clear particularly about the cannibalism of castaway mariners. Deli North from Madison County, NC also sings a ballad called “The Silk Merchant’s Daughter” but it is a totally different version and tune. The ultimate sources seem to indicate that it is a lengthy 18th Century broadside with the common motif of the female in disguise in search of her lover. In this version the scene is initially set in Fore Street in Liverpool Docks.
I learned this wonderful song from Benedict Gagliardi and Armand Aromin from RI. They in turn got it from a small fragment sung by a woman called Jessie Grindell from Providence RI 1945 and also from Helen Harkness Flanders collection. They came across a fuller version sung by a Ms Shipman in East Jaffrey, NH from where they took the refrains and more lyrics. There is a lot of strength in these lines especially the last verse “Better days a Comin’” We are all waiting for this.
Written by our dear friend Joe Newberry. It began its life as a Rudyard Kipling poem called “Mother o’ Mine”. His poem was read at Sara Carter’s funeral. The original is “If I Were Hanged On The Highest Hill I Know Whose Love Would Follow Me Still” Joe added three other couplets and the melody.
A mysterious bachelor who knew hundreds of songs from Madison County, NC. He sang with precision and often a strong sensual undercurrent. His songs gravitated to murder, revenge, infidelity and abandoned children. This is a version of “Daniel and The Lion’s Den” and also of “The Lady’s Fan”
From the collection “Going Down To Raleigh” old-time North Carolina Piedmont music from late 70’s, 80’s, 90s from two great musicians and singers; A. C. Overton and Jack Jones. This is a wonderful quirky old-time song. There was a lot of “whistling through the teeth” when they were singing! Not sure which fellow was minus a few teeth.
We learned this beautiful NC version from our good friend Joe Penland of Marshall NC. There are many common motifs in this song that appear in many other mountain ballads such as “Heart of Glass”. Joe in turn learned this version from Mary Sands of Madison County NC. She gave the second highest number of songs, 29 in all, to Cecil Sharp when he was collecting in Madison County NC.
Craig Johnson was a member of the Double Decker String Band and consummate musician and singer from the Midwest, later settling in Michigan and Virginia. In addition to his traditional repertoire, Craig wrote songs with tremendous insight into our culture. This song describes the lives and challenges of Southern workers who moved up to Detroit to work in factories during the war effort when every factory and car manufacturer had to contribute. ‘Henry’s lines’ were those of Henry Ford.
The tune and text is a variation of “Buffalo Skinners” from Woody Guthrie but Woody’s version is more likely derived from this version. This is one of my favorite songs – so plaintive such a common theme. I heard this version from Roscoe Holcomb, it’s ironic the way songs can move in opposite directions. We doubt Roscoe ever travelled west, someone probably had migrated back to the South East and he heard it there.
I have added on to the song a wonderfully quirky tune from Doc Boggs. I use his “Last Chance” tuning on the banjo and the song and tune seem to fit perfectly together.
John Jackson was a Piedmont blues guitar player and singer from Fairfax Station, Virginia. The late Chuck and Nan Perdue met John at a gas station where he was picking with friends and introduced him to the greater folk scene. Steamboat Whistle is likely a version of Charley Patton’s Pea Vine Blues.
Derroll lead a very nomadic life in his early years and often he and his step-dad and mom lived in the back of an old Chevy, they never knew where the next bite of food would come from. The psychological effect of his childhood experiences influenced his song writing tremendously. Songs like “The Sky” in particular, the line that says “ And in that old car and it’s Christmas time, filled with kids and they all were cryin’, they had no place to go, I know” This line brings me to tears every time I sing it. When Derroll was discharged from the Navy for health reasons he took up painting and went to art college and also took up collecting songs. He was a political activist before leaving America and often toured with Rambling Jack Elliot. He eventually settled in Antwerp, Belgium where he lived out the rest of his life. He was a fine man and a fine writer of songs and more fun to play the banjo with than any one I could think of.
We learned this version from my dear friend Alice Wylde, originally from rural West Virginia, now living in the UK. An Irish/American song concerning work on the Arkansas railroad, and the migration of Irish coming to America and taking their songs into the logging camps and onto the railways. In this case, an Irishman desperate for work is duped into taking a job onto the Arkansas railroad with a promise of good wages but he almost starves to death working for a pittance as the last verse suggests “I grew so thin on sassafras I could hide behind a straw”. My Dad said that this expression was very common amongst the Irish loggers in Northern New England and Canada. On the surface there’s humor in some of the fine descriptive words, but they are deceptive. It’s a multi-layered ballad with undertones of abject poverty and deception. I am so attracted to these types of song.
Sometimes called “Rainbow Mid-life’s Willows” This version is from the singing of Ollie Gilbert of Timbo, AR. She and her fellow singer and companion Almeda “Granny” Riddle each had their own version of this ballad. We are convinced more than ever that often a singer will unconsciously gravitate to a version that suits their personality and circumstances. The ballad has it’s origins in Ireland and England and it is known as “Locks and Bolts”.
Many versions are so dark and they end in a total blood bath. Almeda’s version is slower and more of a lament with a very plaintive tune and text but all does not work out well for the fellow. His sweetheart is taken away by her brothers but no blood bath ensues. However, strangely enough, Ollie Gilbert’s version ends quite pleasantly. The two lovers walk away from a potential blood bath hand in hand! Ollie lead a much happier life and this is often reflected in her choice of songs and style whereas Almeda had so many tragedies befall her, she lost her infant son and husband in an AR tornado and her songs sometimes reflect the dark side of her life.
(Child 90 adapted by Bob Coltman)
This is a rare ballad – few version have been found: one in Scotland and one in the Appalachians. In this reworking of the ballad Coltman gets rid of all the complicated versions – with witchcraft – with sisters of the dead woman educating the child. The ballad is made up of other ballads indicating it’s probably not that old, maybe 19th century.
When This World Is At Its End
We heard this old gospel song years ago on a compilation of gospel vinyl recording and I can’t for the life of me remember who sang it and I can’t find background on it