Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lily May Ledford and White Oak Mountain

Hi,

Today we'll look at one of Lily May's songs, "White Oak Mountain." Many recent recordings including a guitar version by Pete Seeger and the Georgia Mudcat's version are based on Lily May's. New old-time bands have been covering her version and calling it "44 Gun." Initially I was curious about why the song was titled "White Oak Mountain" yet there was no mention of White Oak Mountain in the lyrics. This blog will give some related versions and answer a few questions about the title and origin.

Lily May Ledford learned White Oak Mountain from her cousin Lillie Branham. Lily plays it in A minor on the banjo.

WHITE OAK MOUNTAIN

Am Am G G G G Am Am

Am......... Am.......... G............. G
Don't you remember that rocky mountain side,

.........G........G..... Am..... Am
Where we sat down to rest.

You promised to be my blue eyed boy

While the sun goes down in the west.

Mary don't go, don't go little girl
Come back and see me once more.
Fifteen cents all the money I got
Honey don't you want some change
All I want is a 44 gun
To blow outside them trains.

I wish to the lord I've never been born
And died when I was young
Before I'd seen them pretty blue eyes
Or heard that lying tongue

Hand me down my old white hat
Its hanging there on a nail
Before this time tomorrow night
I'll ride out on that long, long trail

Oh I'll never believe what another man says
Though his eyes be blue or brown
Less’un (Unless) he’s on the scaffold to be hung
Saying darling I wish to come down.

In the second verse the lyrics are irregular (six lines). Perhaps the original lyrics that Lily May heard could have been:

All I wants is a 44 gun
To blow out someone's brains

Look at the same line in this variant:

MARY DON'T YOU GO

Woke up last night, heard a knock on the door,
I heard a rough voice say:
"I've come here tonight. I don't want to fight.
I just come to take Mary away."

CHORUS: Oh, Mary, don't you go, don't you go.
Come back and see me once more.

Fifteen cents is all the money I've got.
Mary, don't you want some change?
All I want is a forty-four gun
To blow out some dirty man's brains
. CHORUS

If you find me alive at your door tonight,
With a forty-four in my hand,
I'll tell you the reason that I killed myself
Was because you loved another man. CHORUS

Another version has this:

Now if you see me standin' on my porch,
With a forty-four in my hand,
Just tell them all I've killed myself,
'Cause you've gone to some foreign land.

FORTY FOUR GUN

From Wandering Ramblers recorded in 1991 on Marimac 9033. Key on Cassette C/Bb double tonic, no thirds in C chord. Tune only has one part, but is played both high and low. The same version has been recorded by the Tiger Maple String Band with the same melody and chords as Lily May's. The Ramblers attribute the song to Lily May Ledford, Powell County, Kentucky, and Clarence Hay Ashford, Kentucky.

Don't you remember on that rocky mountain side
When we lay down to rest
You promised to be my blue eyed boy
While the sun sank in the west (High instrumental)

Now hand me down my old grey hat
It's a hanging there on the nail
Before this time tomorrow morn
I'll be gone on that long, long, trail. (Low instrumental)

Now if you see me standing on my porch
With a forty four in my hand
Just tell them all I've killed myself
Because you've gone to some foreign land (High instrumental) Repeat first verse

I wish to the lord I'd never been born
Died when I was young
I never would have seen those two blue eyes
Or heard that lying tongue (High instrumental)

I never will listen what another man says
Let his hair be black or brown
Unless that he's on some scaffold high
Saying darling I wish to come down. (Repeat first verse)

Whether Lily May misheard, "All I want is a 44 gun; To blow outside them trains," we'll never know. She learned the song from her cousin.

Where did the song originate and where is the "White Oak Mountain" ?

The White Oak Mountain probably is a range in Hamilton County, Tennessee. It has an elevation of 1,495 feet. There's a White Oak Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Cleveland, Tennessee.

There's also a White Oak Mountain located in south central Virginia. This was made famous in the song:

WRECK OF THE OLD 97

They give him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Saying, "Pete, you're away behind time.
This is not Thirty-Eight, but it's old Ninety-Seven.
You must put her in Spenter on time."

He looked round, says to his black greasy fireman,
"Just shovel in a little more coal,
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain,
You can watch old Ninety-Seven roll.

Regardless of which White Oak Mountain it's hard to understand how Lily May's song became titled White Oak Mountain when there's no reference to the mountain in her song. The key to understanding this comes from the first recorded version of the group of songs by Luther Clark and his Blue Ridge Highballers recorded in 1926 for Columbia as "Wish To The Lord I'd Never Been Born." The lyrics, at times garbled, are from Coltman and others' transcriptions. You can listen here: http://honkingduck.com/78s/listen.php?s=20114A Corrections are welcome.

The Highballers version is in a major key: G G G C D D D G but it still could be sung in the minor key with Lily May's melody.

WISH TO THE LORD I'D NEVER BEEN BORN

Wish to the Lord I'd never been born
Or died when I was a baby.
Wouldn't been left to shed a tear
Or to eat so much old gravy.

Wisht I'd never been a co-op
Or listened to T. H. Wilson.
I'd a-been riding a four day sale
And a-paying my bills and a-whistling.

Never sold on an open floor
You just wait till fall,
I'm a-gonna ride to Vanaware House
I can hear old Sam Rob's call.

I want to hear Sam Robinson say
I'm gonna drive in the White Oak Mountain.
You been a durn fool all of your life.
You can drink right at this fountain.

Henry Payne carries the mail,
Sometimes drives a mule.
Ain't got time to cuss no more
He's busy in that pool. (Repeat First Verse)

This has been recorded by Bob Coltman, based his version on Charley LaPrade/Blue Ridge Highballers version, sung by band member Luther B. Clarke from the Martinsville and Danville, VA, Spray NC area of Charlie Poole fame. The main point of interest is that this similar song has the White Oak Mountain mentioned. At one time Lily May's song probably was sung with the White Oak Mountain lyric in it but when it was passed around the mountains that verse was forgotten.

Kinney Rorrer's sleeve note to 'Blue Ridge Highballers' County 407 perhaps sheds some light:
Clarke sang on the remaining three sides. Clarke, who was blind, recorded two traditional mountain ballads, 'I'll Be All Smiles Tonight' and 'The Bright Sherman Valley' plus a composition of his own, 'Wish To The Lord I Had Never Been Born'. This last song was particularly interesting since it dealt with a local farm problem. Many tobacco farmers in the area had joined 'co-ops' in order to sell their tobacco directly to the tobacco companies without having to go through the middlemen at the locally-owned tobacco warehouse. The 'co-op' warehouse system was largely a failure by the mid-1920s. Clarke sang the song from the point of view of a farmer who had lost money through the 'co-ops' and was now regretting he had not sold his crop through the regular warehouse system. In the song, Clarke mentions several local people who were then involved in the 'co-op' controversy.


Similar lyrics appear in the song "Long Lonesome Road." This was recorded by NLCR on their 'Gone to the Country' album. In respect of the title line, John Lomax recorded Fields Ward in 1937 in Galax, Virginia, singing 'Long Lonesome Road' which has stanzas expressing similar sentiments to Clarke's opening stanza.

LONG LONESOME ROAD by Fields Ward

Oh, I wish to the Lord I had never been born,
Or died when I was a baby,
Or died when I was a baby

No, I wouldn't a been a eatin' this old cold corn bread
Soppin' in this salty gravy,
Soppin' in this salty gravy


So Lily May's White Oak Mountain comes from the larger family of True Lover's Farewall songs that include the Turtle Dove songs. The first Turtle Dove lyrics appear in "My Mary Ann" by M. Tyse with lyrics by Barney Williams. Published in Baltimore: Henry McCaffrey, 1856.

The song is categorized by Guthrie Mead as "Hard to Love" first found in Johnson and Powers’ Little Moke Songster in 1873.

Another related version is Lunsford's 1928 song Little Turtle Dove which can be heard here: http://www.archive.org/details/Dove

It has the "All I want is a pretty little girl to feed them when I'm gone" lyrics found in Bill Monroe's "Pig in a Pen," first recorded by Arthur Smith in 1937.

Another related song is "I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man" which again relates to "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet" part of the large group including White Oak Mountain. The Monroe Brothers recorded a similar song titled "Little Red Shoes" in 1936. Here are some recordings of "I Truly Understand":

1. Garcia, Jerry; and David Grisman. Shady Grove, Acoustic Disc ACD 21, CD (1996), trk# 10
2. Molsky, Bruce. Warring Cats, Yodel-Ay-Hee 011, Cas (1993), trk# 8
3. Montgomery, Blanche. Scarborough, Dorothy (ed.) / A Song Catcher in the Southern Mountains, AMS, Bk (1966/1937), p125 [1930]
4. New Lost City Ramblers. New Lost City Ramblers, Folkways FA 2396, LP (1958), trk# 3
5. New Lost City Ramblers. Cohen, John, Mike Seeger & Hally Wood / Old Time String Band Songbook, Oak, Sof (1976/1964), p 24
6. Roark, Shortbuckle; and Family. Kentucky Country; Old Time Music From Kentucky, Rounder 1037, LP (1983), trk# 4 [1928/11/04]
7. Roark, Shortbuckle; and Family. Going Down The Valley; Vocal & Instrumental Music from the South, New World NW 236, LP (1977), trk# 1 [1928/11/04]
8. Roark, Shortbuckle; and Family. Gambler's Lament, Country Turtle 6001, LP (1970), trk# 11 [1928/11/04]
9. Roundtown Boys. Deadheads and Suckers, Swallow 2001, LP (1978), trk# A.06
10. Seeger Family. Folk Songs with the Seegers, Prestige PR 7375, LP (1965), trk# 21
11. Seeger, Peggy. Three Sisters, Prestige International 13029, LP (1960s), trk# A.03
12. Strange Creek Singers. Strange Creek Singers, Arhoolie 4004, LP (1972), trk# 6
13. Wry Straw. From Earth to Heaven, June Appal JA 0028, LP (1978), trk# 2

I TRULY UNDERSTAND by the Roark Family

I wish to the Lord I never been born,
Nor died when I was young,
I never would've seen them two brown eyes,
Nor heard that flattering tongue, my love,
Or heard that flattering tongue.

CHORUS: I truly understand that you love another man,
And your heart shall no longer be mine.
I truly understand that you love another man,
And your heart shall no longer be mine.

Who will shoe your little feet,
Who will glove your hand,
Who will kiss your red rosy cheeks,
When I'm in the foreign land, my love,
When I'm in the foreign land? CHORUS:

Remember what you told me, dear,
As we stood side by side,
You promised that you'd marry me,
And be no other man's bride, my love,
And be no other man's bride. CHORUS:

I never will listen what another woman says,
Let her hair be black or brown,
For I'd rather be on the top of some hill,
And the rain a-pouring down, down,
The rain a-pouring down. CHORUS:

My father will shoe my little feet,
My mother will glove my hand,
And you will kiss my red rosy cheeks,
When I'm in the foreign land, O love,
When I'm in the foreign land. CHORUS

Here are some recordings of the "Hard to Love" songs under Meade [Me II-E17:

1. Block, Allan. Alive and Well and Fiddling, Living Folk LFR 104, LP (197?), trk# 4
2. Coltman, Bob. Lonesome Robin, Minstrel 9022, LP (1973), trk# 1 (Wish to the Lord I'd Never Been Born)
3. Reams, James; and the Barnstormers. Barnstormin', Copper Creek CCCD 0195, CD (2001), trk# 2
4. Shepherd, Hayes (Appalachian Vagabond). Kentucky Country; Old Time Music From Kentucky, Rounder 1037, LP (1983), trk# 2 [1930/04ca] (Hard for to Love)
5. Shepherd, Hayes (Appalachian Vagabond). Country Blues, Revenant 205, CD (1997), trk# 19 [1930/04ca] (Hard for to Love)

Another Turtle Dove song which has a different melody is "All the Good Times are Past". It has similar lyrics:

ALL THE GOOD TIMES ARE PAST AND GONE

I wish to the lord I'd never been born
Or died when I was young
I never would have seen your sparkling blue eyes
Or heard your lying tongue

All the good times are past and gone
All the good times are o'er
All the good times are past and gone
Little darling don't weep no more

Don't you see that turtle dove
That flies from pine to pine
He's mourning for his own true love
Just like I mourn for mine

Come back, come back my own true love
And stay awhile with me
For if ever I've had a friend in this world
You've been that friend to me

The last related song we'll look at is "Red Rosy Bush:"

RED ROSY BUSH

Go dig up that red rosy bush
Stands by the willow tree.
And it will show to the wide world around
That she's forsaken me.

Go show me the crow that is so black
It surely will turn white.
If I forsake the darling girl I love
The day will turn to night.

Oh, it's hard to love and can't be loved,
It's hard to change your mind.
You broken up the heart of many a poor boy,
But you never will break up mine.

I'll take my knapsack on my back,
And a parasol (parcel) in my hand.
I will travel this wide world over,
Until I find some better a land.

Till I find some better a land, my little love,
Till I find some better a land.
I will travel this wide world, my love,
Till I find some better a land.

Oh, it's who will shoe your pretty little foot,
And who will glove your hand?
Or who will kiss those red rosy cheeks
When I'm in a foreign land?

When I'm in a foreign land, my little love,
When I'm in a foreign land,
Oh, who will kiss those red rosy cheeks
When I'm in a foreign land?

My papa will shoe my little foot,
My mama will glove my hand,
And you may kiss my red rosy cheeks
When you return from the foreign land.

When you return from the foreign land, my little love,
When you return from the foreign land.
And you may kiss my red rosy cheeks
When you return from the foreign land.

Oh I wish I'd died when I were young,
Or never had been born,
Before I seen those red rosy cheeks,
And heard that flattering tongue.

This is from Frank Warner, Collected from Lee Presnell, TN in 1951. It is yet another turtle dove song with some Annie of Loch Royal added in.

These are some of the many songs that have similar lyrics. Hope this sheds some light on Lily May's "White Oak Mountain."

'Til next time,

Richard

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