Previous month:
December 2005
Next month:
February 2006

Adieu False Heart

Arthur smith
Fiddling Arthur Smith

 

Today is the sixty-eighth anniversary of the recording of Adieu False Heart, by Fiddlin' Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers on January 26, 1938 in Charleston. Readers of The Celestial Monochord will recognize Adieu False Heart, of course, as one of the few pre-War hillbilly recordings about astronomy and cosmology.

It's a "heart song" — a very sentimental parlor song. You might dismiss it entirely, until you actually bid adieu to an actual false-hearted lover, at which point you think, "Now, how did that old song go again?"

Here are the lyrics, near as I can tell:

 

ADIEU FALSE HEART

Adieu false heart, since we must part
May the joys of the world go with you
I've loved you long with a faithful heart
but I never anymore can a-b'lieve you

I've seen the time I'd-a married you
And been your constant lover
But now I gladly give you up
For one whose heart's more truer.

My mind is like the constant sun
From the east to the west it ranges
Yours is like unto the moon
It's every month it changes

When I lay down to take my rest
No scornful one to wake me
I'll go straight ways unto my grave
Just as fast as time can take me

 

I've always thought the last line of the third verse should be "It's every night it changes." After all, the moon's phases change from night to night — from month to month, they're pretty much the same.

But that third verse is great. For one thing, its astronomical imagery sets up the final verse's mention of a fairly technical idea in cosmology — the speed of time. Coming after the previous verse, it gives a touching sense of the singer caught up in nature's relentless, remorseless clockwork — he's as much a victim of Isaac Newton's conception of time as of a lousy girlfriend.

That theme is emphasized by the recording's pace, which is set by a firm, metronome-like guitar. As Arthur Smith sings the very last line ("Just as fast as time can take me"), the clockwork rhythm ... gradually ... slows ... to a ... halt.

I've mentioned before, in the context of Tom Waits and Stephen Foster, that people who are grieving often become morbidly fixated on nature's small details. Think also of Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd. In a sense, Adieu False Heart gives us yet another person in deep emotional pain who becomes acutely aware of the natural world — and in this case, the "nature" that the mourner struggles to come to grips with is the very character of space-time itself.

--

By the way, both Fiddlin' Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers were members of the Grand Ol' Opry around the time of this recording. Smith's fiddling (along with that of Clayton McMichen and Curly Fox) was hugely influential to Bill Monroe as he was inventing bluegrass. You can maybe hear a hint of this in the solid, driving 4/4 time of the Delmore Brother's guitars and in the novel, extended use of the "five chord." About Adieu False Heart, John Fahey writes:

Most songs go to the four chord and then the five chord and quickly back to home base. This construction is quite rare and makes for an unusually beautiful ballad.

You can find the song on the "lost" fourth volume of Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," released on Revenant in 2000 for the first time. Chords and sheet music are available from Dylan Chords.

 


Scientists Say So

Flatow_peng
(science journalist Ira Flatow interviews penguins)

 

Set-up: How do you know that your son will grow up to be a scientist?

Punch-line: His first word is "So ..."
The joke here, of course, is that quite a lot of scientists seem to always begin speaking with the word "So." And not when they're giving the conclusions to an argument — they aren't using it to mean "therefore."

They just start from a dead stop with "So ... ". They seem to use it the way non-scientists might begin with "Um" or "Well". (I've heard computer professionals use "So", but I hear this as an attempt to sound more scientific.)

Because it's very common, I hate to pick on anyone in particular. In the most recent edition of NPR's Science Friday, 3 out of 5 scientists interviewed in the first hour used this kind of "So" at least once. Science journalist Ira Flatow and Dr. Tobias Brambrink had the following exchange:

Ira: Well then what goes wrong somewhere between the stem cells and the animal?

Tobias: Right, so, I think the most likely explanation lies in the mechanism of cloning. So, when you clone an embryo, what you do is you take a donor cell ...
This tic, which I'll call "The Scientist So," seems to be a recent development. I've spent 35 years listening very closely to scientists, but I first noticed it about 4 or 5 years ago. It's strange. I'd like to know why it happend, and why NOW.

And so, here are a few wild speculations:

Because it makes so little sense, The Scientist So reminds me that science is a subculture. Subcultures do develop funny tics that seem to have no practical purpose — handshakes or dreadlocks or backward baseball caps. Although such tics seem to simply exist to exist, they provide a way to identify and control membership in the group. They do a job, whether they make any sense in themselves or not. Maybe The Scientist So marks the speaker with a cultural affiliation — that of "Scientist."

In a lot of ways, over the past few years, science has been dragged against its will into the Culture Wars. Scientists themselves must be more conscious of being members of the scientific subculture. Through the The Scientist So, perhaps scientists have found a way to "sound like scientists," like an unconscious wearing of the tartan. Perhaps it's even a circling of the wagons, part of a nascent Sci-Pride impulse, a science-shibboleth.

As I hear it, some scientists do manage to make The Scientist So convey an actual meaning. It almost makes sense when some scientists say it. By training, scientists like to start at the very beginning, with first principles, and then recostruct the reasoning behind things. But journalists and other civilians like to have the final conclusions right off the bat. Cut to the chase.

Thus, I can almost hear certain scientists thinking "I'm fast-forwarding very rapidly through a line of reasoning here." They're looking for a kind of off-ramp that's near enough to the conclusion the listener is hoping for, and they want you to understand that.

In this sense, The So is an audible "therefore" at the end of an inaudible explanation that the scientist has to think through, but which he/she isn't allowed enough time to share. The So tells the listener that something really important has been skipped for their convenience.

If The Scientist So were understood this way by the general public, I think it would be a useful reminder of what they're NOT getting from their radios and TVs and newspapers.

If more scientists are having to trim their ideas down to very simple conclusions, it would make sense that the community would develop a verbal notation, or spoken emoticon, to reflect what they're doing. Just maybe, therefore, the recent development of The Scientist So is a by-product of a positive trend — scientists are trying harder to share their findings and their methods with the news media, policy makers, and the general public.

In a way, The Scientist So may be the sound of gears grinding — torque suddenly being applied — as scientists translate the way scientists think about information into the way journalists do.

 


Look Away From The Cross

Sara Carter
Sara Carter (photo by David Gahr, from Dunson and Raim)

 

In early March 2004, I first heard the original Carter Family's 1940 and 1941 recording sessions — their final sessions together as a trio. By coincidence, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" happened to be Number One at the box office that week. So, the Carter Family's "Look Away From The Cross" sounded to me like a sharp crack of thunder.

I can always count on the original Carter Family to send my mind reeling. They always seem to dissipate some thick fog of nonsense the world has become so accustomed to that we've forgotten it even existed. They seem to get directly into the core of something, though I'm never able to predict just what that something's going to be.

Of course, whether they're "really" getting to the heart of something is separate question, but regardless, their music powerfully projects that effect. No wonder the folk revival of the 1950's and 1960's — always seeking antidotes to American Cold War culture — so lovingly embraced the original Carter Family.

Anyway, I won't rehash the media noise generated by "The Passion of the Christ." I'll only mention that the Gospels themselves spill very little ink on the suffering of Jesus — they even emphasize that he suffered less that most people executed by crucifixion. What really interests the Gospels is the resurrection. As I understand it, the fetish for fluids, whips, and naked men is primarily Medieval.

I guess "Look Away From The Cross" is probably a Negro spiritual of the Holiness Church variety — it ain't German Catholic, I can tell you that from personal experience. Below, I've repeatedly written out the chorus instead of just writing "Chorus" in order to give you a feel for how insistently Sara Carter cries out "look away." In customary Carter Family fashion, Sara sings lead and plays autoharp, Maybelle plays guitar and "seconds" the lyrics with rejoinders (shown in parentheses), and A.P. Carter just kinda sings when he's good and ready. The overall effect is as bright and catchy as any advertising jingle.


LOOK AWAY FROM THE CROSS

Look away from the cross to that glittering crown
From your cares, weary ones, look away
There's a home for the soul where no sorrows can come
And where pleasure will never decay

LOOK AWAY! LOOK AWAY!
(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
LOOK AWAY! LOOK AWAY!
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Though the burdens of life may be heavy to bear
And your crosses and trials severe
There's a beautiful hand that is beckoning "Come"
And no heartache and sighings are there

LOOK AWAY! LOOK AWAY!
(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
LOOK AWAY! LOOK AWAY!
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Mid the conflicts of battles, of struggles and strife
Bravely onward your journey pursue
Look away from the cross to that glittering crown
That's a waiting in heaven for you

LOOK AWAY! LOOK AWAY!
(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
LOOK AWAY! LOOK AWAY!
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown


Recorded October 4, 1941, New York City

 

 


Fifty Miles of Elbow Room

Rev. Ford Washington McGee

I'm listening again to the original Carter Family's final, brilliant sessions of 1940 and 1941. It turns out they recorded "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," which I mostly know from Harry Smith's Anthology, performed in 1930 by Rev. Ford Washington McGee and his congregation. It's currently also available at the great music blog Long Sought Home.

I never understood the song before because of the chaotic revival meeting atmosphere created by McGee and company, which makes the lyrics pretty impossible to decipher. I mean, what ABOUT fifty miles of elbow room?

Well, focusing on the version by Sara and Maybelle Carter — with all the loving orderliness and earnest precision we've come to expect from them — the words are easy to figure out.

It turns out the song has pretty much the same theme, or belongs to the same gospel tradition, as the Tom Waits song "Down There by the Train," which was recorded by Johnny Cash on his first American Recordings album. In this tradition, the purpose and the power of the song are in the limitless, extreme, radical inclusiveness of salvation.

Maybe a kind reader can help out this old Catholic-atheist with the terminology and a Biblical passage ... in any case, these songs insist that your station in life doesn't matter, your race or gender don't matter, and not even the gravity of your sins matter — NOTHING can keep you from living in paradise, so long as you repent, so long as you meet us "down there by the train."

The emotional power of these songs is in the radical character of the forgiveness they promise. They are all about the total and extreme nature of the idea that heaven is open to ANYBODY. There's so much room for absolutely everybody in Heaven that its gates are a hundred miles wide — entering Heaven, you have fifty miles of elbow room.

If you're in need of a reminder that there's something good in Christianity, turn off your TV and spin some old 78's.

FIFTY MILES OF ELBOW ROOM

Twelve hundred miles its length and breadth
The four-square city stands
Its gem-set walls of jasper shine
Not made with human hands
One hundred miles its gates are wide
Abundant entrance there
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus:
When the gates swing wide on the other side
Just beyond the sunset sea
There'll be room to spare as we enter there
Room for you and room for me
For the gates are wide on the other side
Where the flowers ever bloom
On the right hand on the left hand
Fifty miles of elbow room

Sometimes I'm cramped and crowded here
And long for elbow room
I want to reach for altitude
Where fairer flowers bloom
It won't be long til I shall pass
Into that city fair
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus
[ Recorded by the Carters, October 14, 1941 in New York, NY ]

I insist that Tom Waits' song "Down There by the Train" is loosely based on an old negro spiritual, "When The Train Comes Along." Versions of this earlier song were recorded by Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas and by Uncle Dave Macon. The lyrics below are from Uncle Dave Macon's recording in Richmond, IN on August 14, 1934. Macon provided the vocals and banjo, with Kirk McGee also on banjo and Sam McGee backing up on guitar.

WHEN THE TRAIN COMES ALONG

Some comes walkin' and some comes lame
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Some comes walkin' in my Jesus' name
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus:
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh lord, I'll meet you at the station
When the train comes along

Sins of years are washed away
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Darkest hour is changed to day
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Doubts and fears are borne along
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Sorrow changes into song
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Ease and wealth become as dross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my boast is in the cross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Selfishness is lost in love
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my treasures are above
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along


Don't Plug In — Bluegrass and the Folk Revival

Gibson ETB150 Banjo  Electric Banjo
(Gibson ETB-150 Model Electric Tenor Banjo, 1940)

 

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970's and 80's, I knew some lovers and practitioners of bluegrass music. They all loved rock n' roll too, and seemed a lot more worried about electricity running microwave ovens than musical instruments. I remember laughter at the thought that folkies had turned on Bob Dylan for "going electric."

Still, I also remember sharing with bluegrassers a special affection, even reverence, for the acoustic quality of bluegrass instruments. I'm reminded of John Hartford's drawn-out, playfully grandiose introduction to his tongue-twister "Tater Tate and Allen Mundy":

Bluegrass music a-playin' in the park
Bluegrass music picking way past dark
Bluegrass music, it don't butt in
Don't need an amp and don't plug in
I thought of all this last night while reading the introduction to Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History." In a section entitled "Bluegrass — What Is It?", Rosenberg insists on a paradox. Bluegrass has always been a commercial and professional form designed for radio and records, and its sound was shaped by a 20th-century electric invention: the microphone. Nevertheless, the non-electric stringed instruments of bluegrass are usually the first thing mentioned by its followers when trying to describe the genre:
... [as] can be seen from a joke told by Ricky Skaggs ... "How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a light bulb? One, and three to complain because it's electric!" [taken from Rosenberg's book]
I've finally begun reading Rosenberg's history of bluegrass because, over the past year or so, I've become aware of a lot of such paradoxes and surprises. That's what good histories are always for — "the past" always turns out to be nothing like the way our presumptions lead us to believe.

For example, I've recently realized how important the Folk Revival of the 1950's and 60's was to the survival of bluegrass. The first-ever bluegrass LP was released in 1957 by Folkways Records. It was recorded and compiled by Folk Revival future-heavyweight Mike Seeger, and its liner notes mark the first use in print of the word "bluegrass" to refer to a genre of music.

The author of these liner notes, Ralph Rinzler, would eventually found the Smithsonian's annual Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C. — but first, he helped revive Bill Monroe's stalled career by becoming his manager. Some of Monroe's new band members were soon to be Northern "citybillies" who first encountered bluegrass in Greenwich Village coffee shops or at folk music concerts on college campuses.

This surprises me, both comin' and goin'. On the one hand, today's officianados of "Old Time" music think of Mike Seeger and his New Lost City Ramblers as champions of authentic folk alternatives to post-WWII commercial inventions like rock n' roll and bluegrass. It is definitely not widely known in the Old Time community that Seeger, Rinzler, and Alan Lomax helped rescue bluegrass from obscurity (if not oblivion) by forcefully asserting its legitimacy as an authentic American folk genre.

On the other hand, it's surprising coming from the other direction, too. An acquaintance from West Virginia once expressed suspicion about the fact that I, a Chicago native, have an intense interest in "her" music. From what I gathered, she might have been surprised to learn that Monroe's invention only dates from the mid-1940's, and that its commercial prospects nearly died a decade after they were born. Not only the finances, but the very values and identity of bluegrass were shaped by us Northern revivalists. Rosenberg writes:

Until the mid-fifties the acoustic aspect of bluegrass was not unique within country music, and in that sense the use of acoustic instruments in bluegrass is a historical accident. But because it was performed on such instruments, particularly the antique five-string banjo, it was virtually the only form of contemporary country music acceptable to the folk boom of the late fifties and early sixties, where electric instruments were considered inauthentic and symbols of the alienation of mass culture. Through the folk boom bluegrass gained new audiences and recognition as a distinct musical form [that is, became thought of as "bluegrass"]. Today the insistence upon acoustic instruments has become a philosophical position.
By the way; thinking about bluegrass and the folk revival, it's interesting that other branches of country music in the post-War years dealt directly with social problems facing southern expatriate "urban hillbillies," such as adultery, divorce, depression, and alcoholism. But bluegrass chose to deal with these same pressures by evoking feelings of an alternative — and idealized — place and time. Rosenberg:
Because the content of the bluegrass repertoire is so often clearly symbolic (rather than directly oriented toward current concerns), it is more accessible to people from very different cultural milieux who relate to the music as an art form, enjoying it as many enjoy opera sung in languages they do not comprehend.
I may report more about these and other matters as I get further into "Bluegrass: A History".