Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You
My Lobotomy

Cold Cold Ground

Tom Waits in a tree    Stephen Foster not amused
Tom Waits (in a tree) and Stephen Foster (not amused)


A collection of thousands of recordings originally made on cylinders has just gone online. I've only just begun to explore the collection, but it seems like a gold mine.

For one thing, the audio quality is often surprisingly good. The medium is often casually called "wax cylinders" — at first they were only playable a dozen times or so before they wore out. But listening to this collection reminds me that the technology improved quickly — the wax was made harder and was then replaced with early plastics. The Wikipedia entry for cylinders is well worth the read.

Anyway, point is ... the collection includes several versions of Stephen Foster's plantation song (or coon song, or ethiopian song) "Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground." There's an impressive 1916 banjo instrumental, a 1914 quartet that sings the lyrics, a 1912 military band that puts the song in a medley, and a 1903 version that's in the collection but not online, apparently. [Editor's Note: See comment below.]

When I first heard "Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground" in December 2000, I immediately felt that a favorite Tom Waits song, "Cold Cold Ground," was probably directly inspired by it — although, if that's the case, Waits thoroughly re-imagined the old Foster version.

Musically, the two melodies both have a mournfulness and that "formal feeling" Emily Dickinson wrote about. There may be more specific musical similarities that I'm not bothering to shake out — their key, a chord progression, etc.

Lyrically, the two songs are clearly siblings. They share that almost morbid interest in nature that people sometimes have during a time of great loss (I think of Walt Whitman's elegy to Abraham Lincoln). The two songs are also fully fixated on The Grave.

In a 1987 interview, Tom Waits said his song is "Just kind of a harkening back to earlier times; a romantic song thinking about home, and all that" — not a bad summary of Stephen Foster's signature themes. Waits' work has often reminded me of Stephen Foster, in that it seems rescued from some crumbling sheet music lost in an old piano bench somewhere.

I should mention that Waits ditched Foster's racist condescension and the fake black dialect. But Waits is at least as maudlin and nostalgic ... and is that a bad thing?


Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground
(by Stephen Collins Foster)

Round de meadows am a ringing
De darkeys' mournful song,
While de mockingbird am singing,
Happy as de day am long.
Where de ivy am a reeping
O'er de grassy mount,
Dere old massa am a sleeping
Sleeping in de cold, old ground.

Down in de cornfield
Hear dat mournful sound:
All de darkeys am a weeping
Massa's in de cold, cold ground.

When de autumn leaves were falling,
When de days were cold,
'Twas hard to hear old massa calling,
Cause he was so weak and old.
Now de orange tree am blooming
On de sandy shore,
Now de summer days am coming,
Massa nebber calls no more.

Massa made de darkeys love him,
Cause he was so kind,
Now dey sadly weep above him,
Mourning cayse he leave dem behind.
I cannot work before tomorrow,
Cause de tear drop flow,
I try to drive away my sorrow
Pickin on the old banjo.


Cold Cold Ground
(by Tom Waits)

Crest fallen sidekick in an old cafe
Never slept with a dream before he had to go away
There's a bell in the tower, Uncle Ray bought a round
Don't worry 'bout the army in the cold cold ground

Cold cold ground
Cold cold ground
Cold cold ground

Now don't be a cry baby when there's wood in the shed
There's a bird in the chimney and a stone in my bed
When the road's washed out, we pass the bottle around
And wait in the arms of the cold cold ground

The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground

There's a ribbon in the willow and a tire swing rope
And a briar patch of berries takin' over the slope
The cat'll sleep in the mailbox and we'll never go to town
Till we bury every dream in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Give me a Winchester rifle and a whole box of shells
Blow the roof off the goat barn, let it roll down the hill
The piano is firewood, Times Square is a dream
I find we'll lay down together in the cold cold ground

The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Call the cops on the Breedloves, bring a Bible and a rope
And a whole box of Rebel and a bar of soap
Make a pile of trunk tires and burn 'em all down
Bring a dollar with you, baby, in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Take a weathervane rooster, throw rocks at his head
Stop talking to the neighbors until we all go dead
Beware of my temper and the dog that I've found
Break all the windows in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground



David Seubert

The 1903 version is now online, as are a couple of additional versions.

The collection keeps growing, so check back.


Ernesto Del Mundo

I first heard Cold, Cold Ground in the summer of 1990 playing over the sound system at a restaurant in Perce, Quebec, while taking in the most spectacular cliff-top view of the Atlantic coast I've ever seen. I could have sworn it was Muddy Waters singing it. Twenty five years later I searched on youtube and found Tom Waits and a bunch of cover versions, but still no Muddy Waters version.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)