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Little Birdie

Bedside Book of Birds

 

If I hadn't noticed it myself, I'm not sure I would have believed it either.

Mike Seeger recorded a common-enough old banjo turne, Little Birdie, for what might be his masterwork, Southern Banjo Sounds. Various other versions of the song exist and mix together in interesting ways, as these old Appalachian songs tend to do.

But Seeger's choice of style and lyrics seems to bring out something profound in the old song. His version comes off as a densely woven little contemplation on how art and death, and art and love, and love and death can all seem to circle around each other, amplifying each other's importance.

I'd heard the song plenty of times before, but this potential had never dawned on me. By comparing this version with an older one, I think I see hints of how he brought out these deep, far-ranging implications in the song, how he got that fledging bird to take flight.

Here's the lyrics as Mike Seeger sings them, I think:

Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing to me your song.
Got a short time to stay here
And a long time to be gone.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?
Dissatisfied, dissatisfied
And a-caring never a bit to die.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes your wings so blue?
It's nothing else but grieving,
But grieving over you.

Fly down, fly down, little birdie,
And sing to me your song.
Sing it now, while I'm with you,
Can't hear you when I'm gone.
Like everything else on Southern Banjo Sounds, it's a solo performance, played on an old banjo, in an old style — in this case, an 1860's resonator banjo with a curious hybrid of two-finger picking and clawhammer. The long instrumental passages between verses have the smooth, flowing feel of flying — I guess a little like "Flying" from Magical Mystery Tour or John Hartford's song "Steam Powered Aereo Plane."

Thirty-seven years before this recording, when he was only 26 (and maybe less experienced in love, art, and death), he performed the song with the New Lost City Ramblers during a concert in Boston. A recording of it is available on 40 Years of Concert Performances.

To my ears, the earlier version is unusually "folkie" for the Ramblers, with the kind of bright, proud, collegiate sound you find in someone like the Kingston Trio. But being the Ramblers, of course, the musicianship is excellent, with a taste of Mike Seeger's mandolin skills and Tom Paley's firm, syncopated, snappy banjo picking.

The text is a little elusive. Who is the narrator talking to, a bird or a woman? In fact, the identity of the narrator seems to move around from character to character without warning — first a young man speaks (he's either a married woman's lover or a bird watcher), and then at the end, the bird (or the woman) talks back.

Despite the marchy, declarative sound and the shifting viewpoint, the lyrics are touching — a snapshot of youthful need and loss.

(Chorus)
Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing me your song.
Got a short time for to be here
And a long time to be gone.

Married woman, married woman,
Come and see what you done done
You have caused me for you to love you
Now your husband's done come.

(Chorus, then mandolin solo)

I'm a long ways from old Dixie
And my old Kentucky home,
And my father and mother are both dead,
Got no one to call my own.

(Chorus)

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?
It's because I have a true little heart
And I do not care to die.
In the later Southern Banjo Sounds recording, Mike has removed the married woman and the husband, the father and mother, and Kentucky — and with them goes any hint of a story line. He leaves us, then, entirely in the realm of abstracted notions, the imagination, and the pure emotional force of the music. The lyrics have been stripped down to nothing but a conversation between singer and bird — between artist (or lover, or mortal) and what matters most to him. What used to be a youthful complaint in the Ramblers version is now an older man's contemplation.

I guess to take away a lesson from all this, you could do worse than the lesson taught in almost every writing workshop (and which, some day, even The Celestial Monochord might learn) — less is more.

 


Hollis Brown's South Dakota

Hollissmall

When Bob Dylan was 13 years old, one of the century's worst epidemics of black stem rust struck the upper midwest — particularly North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Up to 75% of the wheat harvest was lost to the disease, which blackens the crop with a powdery, sooty fungus. The economic consequences were severe, and the incident became legendary within the science of plant pathology. There's no way young Bob Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota wouldn't have heard about it.

But there were plenty of other diseases to blacken your crops, or kill your animals or you. I'm not an expert in any of them. Ergot can blacken wheat, barley, and other cereals and causes "bad blood" in cattle and humans — convulsions, gangrene, derangement. An invisible fungus in a common grass leads to tall fescue toxicosis, with grotesque symptoms like "fescue foot" and nasty birthing problems. Maybe Bob had heard of such diseases as well.

Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" is an exercise in empathy — its power is in the vividness of its vantage point within the head of a desperately bad-luck South Dakota farmer, and in the way the song dares you to turn away. Having lived in Minnesota for almost 20 years, or about as long as Dylan did before he moved to New York, and I can almost see how the young songwriter might have found the empathy to write such a convincing song.

Even in fairly cosmopolitan Minneapolis and St. Paul, farming is always a presence — to this day, grain mills and breweries (or their ruins) are lined up along the Mississippi River. They're a constant reminder that the cold climate used to limit the viable crops to stuff you could grind or brew, plus animal feed — wheat, barley, oats, alfalfa, sorghum, various kinds of hay. When you fill your gas tank in Minnesota, you have a good chance of being reminded that farmers have more options today, such as President Bush's switchgrass. Fully 200 of the nation's 600 ethanol ("E-85") gas pumps are in Minnesota.

A few years ago, a friend of mine moved from the University of Minnesota to New York — just like Dylan, you might say, only forty years later. On her first day in Manhattan, a shopkeeper mentioned the lack of rain, and my friend, forgetting herself, asked if the farmers upstate were suffering. The shopkeeper gave her a look as if she'd just evidenced a severe case of Tourette's Syndrome.

But that awareness and empathy, which so animated Dylan's "Hollis Brown" in 1964, has its limits. In fact, "Hollis Brown" is primarily about those limits. For that reason, it's convenient for Minnesotans that the song is set next door, in South Dakota.

South Dakota's leaders have worked to make the state's economy, and perhaps its conscience, better insulated from the booms and busts of farm life. In 1980, South Dakota was in desperate financial straits and took action by eliminating all laws against usury. Citibank, among other credit card companies, moved operations to the state almost immediately, leading to an explosion of growth in Sioux Falls and, some say, to a lot of South Dakota farmers declaring bankruptcy.

I happened to hear "Hollis Brown" on the same day the South Dakota governor (born the very year of the black stem rust epidemic) signed the bill designed to ban almost all abortions in the state, and ultimately, to overturn Roe v. Wade nationwide. That's what got me thinking about the song again. It seemed like yet another example of Dylan's uncanny foresight that he set the song in South Dakota even though, in 1964, Mississippi played the role in folksong that South Dakota now seems eager to play.

Dylan got the melody of Hollis Brown from "Pretty Polly," as Greil Marcus has pointed out. "Pretty Polly" is about a young man named Willie who murders his girlfriend for reasons which the song leaves completely unaddressed and which therefore seem to take on a menacing profundity. But as Rennie Sparks points out, at least one of Pretty Polly's 16th-century sources explains the motive simply and without ambiguity: She was pregnant and Willie doesn't want the birth to take place. At least partly, this is the origin of "Hollis Brown" — a story about the murder of a woman as a de facto abortion.

The best-known version of "Pretty Polly" (the version Rennie Sparks calls "cold as a cockroach") was recorded by Dock Boggs in 1927. In 1963, Boggs was rediscovered by Mike Seeger who then recorded and traveled extensively with him. In 1993, Bob Dylan made a studio recording of "Hollis Brown" accompanied by Mike Seeger playing banjo in Dock Boggs' very singular style. Really, the banjo part on the recording is basically just a sped-up version of Boggs' "Pretty Polly." The effect of the recording is to return "Hollis Brown" to its family tree, to explicitly situate it within its lineage.

In writing "Hollis Brown," then, Dylan surely wasn't looking ahead to 2006. He was looking back to the old Appalachian murder ballads, which the song so convincingly resembles. Marcus seems to claim the song was also inspired by a newspaper report of a mass murder in South Dakota, but I haven't been able to track that down (Charles Starkweather?). Perhaps the more inspiring history took place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota's most notorious mass murder and part of the Indian Wars in which Minnesota also played an unfortunate role. Given the history of this South Dakota farm — where the buffalo no longer roam — I wonder if Hollis Brown and his family aren't merely the most recent seven people to have died there.

It makes little sense to try to enlist "Hollis Brown" in a contemporary political fight. Or anyway, that's simply not The Celestial Monochord's schtick. Besides, the song is striking as an early hint of the full-blown poetic strategies Dylan was about to unleash — strategies that revolve around undecided meaning, meaning as an unfinished art for the listener to complete, meaning not as autocratic rule but as democratic process. To claim that "Hollis Brown" is somehow against South Dakota's new abortion law is to pretty much miss the song entirely.

Still, it's in the character of Dylan's art to keep coming around, over and over, asserting itself in new contexts. I think this uncanny relevence comes from reaching as deep into empathy as he can, and from his willingness to share with us the work of meaning. Or, maybe the more you're able to encounter the world with the past very much alive in you, the more you're able to anticipate the future. Maybe this is why Dylan continues to mystify, particularly in America where memory is notoriously short and empathy often runs thin.

 

Editor's Notes: The following is transcribed from the 1993 recording with Mike Seeger. Also, the coyote is the official state animal of South Dakota.

 

THE BALLAD OF HOLLIS BROWN

Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children and his cabin breaking down

You looked for work and money and you walked a ragged mile
You looked for work and money and you walked a ragged mile
Your children are so hungry, man, that they don't know how to smile

Your babies' eyes look crazy there, a-tuggin' at your sleeve
Your babies' eyes look crazy there, a-tuggin' at your sleeve
You walk the floor and wonder why with every breath you breathe

The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your mare
The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your mare
Is there anyone that knows, is there anyone that cares?

You prayed to the Lord above, "Oh please send you a friend"
You prayed to the Lord above, "Oh please send you a friend"
Your empty pockets tell you that you ain't a-got no friend

Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on your brain
Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on your brain
Your wife's screams are stabbin' you like the dirty drivin' rain

Your grass is turning black, there's no water in your well
Your grass is turning black, there's no water in your well
You spent your last lone dollar on seven shotgun shells

Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that's hangin' on the wall

Your brain is a-bleedin' and your legs can't seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin' and your legs can't seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that you're holdin' in your hand

There's seven breezes blowin' all around your cabin door
Seven breezes blowin' all around your cabin door
Seven shots ring out like the ocean's pounding roar

There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewheres in the distance there's seven new people born

 


Take the Star Out of the Window

Starwindow
(from Military Sheet Music)

 

(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough:   Everybody  The Torch Singer  Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues  Sour Grapes  Billy The Bum  The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You  Take the Star Out of the Window  The Great Compromise  Clocks and Spoons  Rocky Mountain Time

 

Take the Star Out of the Window seems to have a public face and a private life, and they're fiercely at odds with each other.

On its face — that is, its overall sound — the recording is a catchy sea chanty, among the most gleeful and snappy guitar-mandolin duets I know of. But inside its head — that is, in the text of its lyrics — it's a grim portrait of what the Vietnam War had come to feel like in America by 1972.

Take the lyrics first. The verses are written in the third person and in past tense. Prine's narrator is a distant observer telling us a fairy tale or parable — but in telling it, he can't hide his rage and grief. And if you can clear your head of the melody, this narrator has a very bitter sense of humor indeed:

Robert was a sailor for the best years of his life
His captain was his mother and the ocean was his wife
Only fresh out of the cradle, life's one and only spring
He was sworn to do his duty and got blood on his high school ring
On the other hand, the chorus is written in the present tense, first person — Robert the sailor himself is speaking, and he has an problem. He's faced with the soldier's age-old dilemma of having to confront that blue star in his family's window — that is, of trying to reassure a relieved family that its son is back safe and sound, while knowing that the son they raised didn't really survive the war after all:
And it's a hello California, hello Dad and Mom
Ship ahoy, your baby boy is home from Vietnam
Don't you ask me any questions about the medals on my chest
Take the star out of the window and let my conscience take a rest
So the Vietnam War divides this sailor from his family and from himself — it even puts the song's verses in another world from that of its chorus. I was a child during the Vietnam War, but Prine's songs (and my own feelings about Iraq) suggest that a lot of people must have felt agonizingly estranged from their own country — which is to say, from themselves.

Most striking to me is that the SOUND of the song is at odds with its SENSE. The recording has the soul of sea chanty, played in up-tempo bluegrass time — it's deliriously fun to hear, even if the lyrics are among Prine's more bitter social commentaries.

But this public/private split is exactly what attracted me first and most to the old southern music of the 1920s and 1930s — like the stuff on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Its public face rarely matches its private thoughts. The first words Sara Carter ever recorded were "My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow," but the song was an irresistibly jaunty jingle. Whether Prine knew it or not, Take the Star Out of the Window taps into the estranged character of American folk music to portray America's mindset during Vietnam.

—————————

One reason for the long pause in this series on Diamonds in the Rough is that it's taken me a while to decide what Take the Star Out of the Window really is, musically. Is it bluegrass stripped down to just John Prine's guitar and David Bromberg's mandolin? Jazz in the style of Django Rhinehart and Stephan Grappelli with the fiddle transcribed to mandolin? The closest recording I could think of was "Is It True What They Say About Dixie," recorded by Steve Goodman and Jethro Burns five years later. Did Prine, Goodman, and his running buddies invent their own fully-developed genre of duet?

Reading Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History" has been the right thing to do. I now think Take The Star Out of the Window is in the tradition of the early country brother acts of the 1930s — The Delmore Brothers, The Dixon Brothers, The Rice Brothers, etc. Homer and Jethro inherited this tradition, making Jethro Burns a direct link from Prine and Goodman back to its beginnings in, I suppose, acts Burnett and Rutherford in the 1920s.

Ultimately, the most influential of all the brother acts was The Monroe Brothers, whose junior member would "invent" Bluegrass during and after World War II. But back in the 1930s, what mattered most about Bill Monroe was his fiddle-influenced handling of the mandolin, which almost immediately revolutionized the status of the instrument:

They sang higher and played faster than the others. Charlie's bass runs on the guitar were snappy and attracted attention; Bill's mandolin playing, with its speed and dexterity, was unique. He showed how versatile and potent it could be as a lead instrument. Bill Bolick, then just beginning his career with his brother Earl as the Blue Sky Boys on WWNC in Asheville, recalled: "People kept writing in and wanted me to play the mandolin more, so in a very short time, I discarded the guitar entirely and we did practically all the numbers with the mandolin and guitar. This I attribute to the popularity of Bill Monroe's mandolin ... Bill Monroe was making the mandolin a popular instrument." [Rosenberg, pages 34-35]