For the first time in years, I've been spending some time in antique shops and second-hand stores — I just bought my first house, you see, and it needs stuff. Although I hadn't even noticed it before, I'm now startled and saddened to see that the shops always have family photos for sale.

There are formal portraits of men in suits, group photos of people gathered around a bride and her groom, teenagers in living rooms holding brass wind instruments. Occasionally, in the back room of an antique shop, I'll find a great groaning mass of photos, with landslides of first communions and summer days at the beach sloughing off its edges.

Naturally, I'm quite sensitive about it now, having dedicated myself to researching the lives of several obscure figures in the 1920's music scene in Minnesota. There are people whose lives I've labored over for hundreds of hours — I've lost sleep fearing that their lives ended in despair — without even having any idea of what the people looked like.

Every time I see another orphaned photo, I wonder if it's of Tom Gates, co-leader of a band with Frank Cloutier before Frank moved to the Victoria Cafe. Gates was 20 years Frank's senior, and had been the leader of a concert band in Mason City when Meredith Wilson — writer of The Music Man — was a boy there. I don't know what became of him, and I've never found a photo of him.

Maybe it's of Marguerite Lane, daughter of John J. Lane who ran the Coliseum and the Boulevards of Paris dance halls. When she saw her dad arrive, he used to flick the lights on and off so the band knew to switch from jazz to the old-fashioned dance music the boss preferred. I have no idea what she looked like.

Almost ten years ago, I read Martin Gilbert's A Complete History of World War One. A single passage sometimes comes back to me when I'm in an antique shop, confronted with an anonymous family photo. It relates an event from one of the earliest moments of the War, when nobody quite yet knew how to act or what they were supposed to be doing:

As Feuchtinger's regiment reached the Russian trenches, the Russians turned to flee. One of them, being closely chased, and apparently without his rifle, stopped all of a sudden, turned around, held out his right hand and put his left hand into his tunic pocket. As he did so, Feuchtinger plunged in his bayonet. "I see his blood redden his uniform, hear him moan and groan as he twists with the bayonet in his young body. I am seized with terror. I pull my blood-stained bayonet from the dead body. Wanting to fold his hands, I see in the left hand a crumpled photo of his wife and child."
A photograph, like a good war story, allows us to imagine the facts we thought we'd been taught. It turns data points — the sequence events in a battle, for example, or the branches in a family tree — into real knowledge.

By offering up his photograph, the Russian soldier was offering the one thing he carried that most reminded himself that he was still a person. He wasn't so much asking Feuchtinger to look at his wife and child, he was saying look at me — look at ME. It was supposed to be his membership card to the human race.

I sometimes wonder where that very photo is today — is it bearing witness as it was made to do? Or has it rotted into the Russian soil? Or is it for sale in a Minneapolis antique shop? Somebody really ought to at least know.


Note: The photo was courtesy Square America, a defunct and brilliant exhibit of "vintage snapshots and vernacular photography." As they said in Down By Law, it is a sad and beautiful world ...

Orphan Songs, Part 8:
Motherless Children Have a Hard Time


Much as in yesterday's story of misheard lyrics, Columbia recording engineers misunderstood the title of Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 recording "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" to be, instead, "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time," which is how it appeared in their notes and on the label of the publicly-released record.

The background to this story is perhaps less amusing than yesterday's. Willie Johnson's mother died when he was only a baby, probably just before 1905. His father's second marriage didn't go well — to punish Willie's father, his stepmother dashed a pan of lye into 7-year-old Willie's face, blinding him permanently. Willie soon dedicated his life to singing spirituals, and is today often considered one of the best ever recorded.

"Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" is arguably his most widely-known recording. Just on the face of it, the performance is great — its vocals are intense, and its slide "blues" guitar is dazzling. But in light of Johnson's biography, it's one of the most amazing 3 minutes in all of audio recording history. I actually find it a little shocking, as if it's perhaps too intimate a glimpse into Johnson's life. Here are the lyrics, as best as I can tell:

Well, well, well ...
Motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time,
When Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

Nobody on earth can take your mother's place
When Mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place
When Mother's dead
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place,
When you were starting, she paved the way
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Your wife, your husband may be good to you
When Mother is dead, Lord
Be good to you, when Mother's dead
Your wife, your husband may be good to you,
But they'll find another and prove untrue
Nobody treats you like Mother will when,
When Mother is dead, Lord

Well some people say that sister will do
When Mother is dead, Lord
Sister will do when Mother's dead
Some people say that sister will do,
Soon as she's married, she'll turn her back on you
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Father will do the best he can
When Mother is dead, Lord
Well, the best he can, when Mother's dead
Father will do the best he can,
But so many things a father can't understand
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Motherless children have a hard time
When Mother is dead, Lord
Motherless children have a hard time, Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

The misreading of "motherless children" as "mother's children" is no great sin. Johnson is admittedly hard to understand — I challenge you to confirm my transcription of the lyrics. It ain't easy.

But the well-heeled, white male recordists from up North apparently heard the song as mourning the fact that children have a hard time because they are "Mother's." Their misunderstanding, however unintentional, was neither random nor neutral. It replaced the story that already existed in the song with one that already existed elsewhere — in the ideas of race and gender that they took with them into the recording session. In doing so, they took the high regard for motherhood actually expressed in the song and turned it almost exactly up-side down.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Blind Willie Johnson: Revival

Blind Willie Johnson
The first musician of the 1920's I ever took an interest in was Blind Willie Johnson, and my interest grew directly from my interest in astronomy.

When I had just turned 16, PBS first aired Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series. Music was central to the show's mission, so I bought its soundtrack album and listened to it constantly. It included an excerpt of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (On Which Our Lord Was Laid)." Sagan had earlier edited an LP that was bolted to the side of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. The LP was a kind of timecapsule, designed to introduce the species that built the spacecraft to any civilization that might find it millions of years from now. It was Earth's greatest hits, and it included the full version of Johnson's "Dark Was the Night."

When I went off to college, I visited the University music library and listened to The Complete Blind Willie Johnson closely and repeatedly, and I was very moved by it. Johnson's voice was shreaded and harsh, sort of like Tom Waits or Louis Armstrong, but was capable of a huge range of tone and emotion. His guitar-playing — typically slide guitar — was extraordinarily expressive and could act as a rhythm section at the same time it played melody.

I read then, in college, that Willie Johnson was blind because his stepmother (his mother had died when he was very young) blinded him with a pan of lye. She did it to punish Willie's father for having beaten her, which he did after finding her in bed with another man. Like many blind black men then, Willie learned to play guitar on streetcorners to sustain himself. His father had always wanted his son to be a preacher, and Willie played religious songs exclusively. He was not a bluesman, but a gospel guitarist and singer — indeed, he's often thought of as the greatest ever recorded. Probably his best-known song is "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time."

For reasons I don't understand, this was the last collection of 78's I would hear for another 12 years. When I finally started buying such CD's in early 1996, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson was the first one I got.

The liner notes to that collection are written by the well-known jazz and blues historian Samuel Charters, who had owned a copy of "Dark Was the Night" as a teenager in the late 1940's. They are a riveting read:

For anyone who has grown up after the '60s, already knowing about singers like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt ... Memphis Minnie, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, there's no way to understand what so much of the American musical heritage meant to us when it was almost completely a mystery. The few records we knew about, the handful of names that we knew, were like a faint, distant light through a mist, and we had no idea what the light meant.

In 1953, Charters set off for Texas to try and find out about Blind Willie Johnson (this was very early in the history of such expeditions). When he finally found Johnson's home, Charters was informed that he had died only a few years before. Charters writes, "If I had known the way to the run-down house in Beaumont when I first heard Dark Was the Night, I could have asked him to play it for me."

I usually think of Willie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt at the same time, precisely because their biographies are so profoundly different from one another — especially the end of their biographies. For Johnson, there was no Folk Revival. Its absence in Willie's life vividly shows us what the Folk Revival really accomplished when it rediscovered 1920's musicians like Dock Boggs and John Hurt. Willie Johnson's widow Angeline describes the death of her husband in Beaumont, TX so soon before the young Samuel Charters knocked on her door, looking for his hero:

He died from pneumonia ... We burnt out there in the north end, 1440 Forrest, and when we burnt out we didn't know many people, and so I just, you know, drug him back in there and we laid on them wet bed clothes with a lot of newspaper. It didn't bother me, but it bothered him. See, he'd turn over and I'd just lay up on the paper, and I thought if you put a lot of paper on, you know, it would keep us from getting sick. We didn't get wet, but just the dampness, you know and then he's singing and his veins open and everything, and it just made him sick. [The hospital] wouldn't accept him. He'd have been living today if they'd accepted him. 'Cause he's blind. Blind folks has a hard time.

See also:
Dock Boggs: Revival
Mississippi John Hurt: Revival

Orphan Songs, Part 7
We Are The Folk

The New Lost City Ramblers: Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger, John Cohen
The New Lost City Ramblers: Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger, John Cohen

The most electrifying book I've read about folk music is certainly "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival." Sadly, I can't bring myself to shove the book into the hands of anyone I know. It's dense enough academic criticism that I don't know who'd find it a "good read" without having studied the humanities recently. But I also don't personally know any academics who like folk music enough to care. So, I have to enjoy it privately, like some kind of dirty book.

But it was Cantwell's book that first made me think very seriously about Orphan Songs. So, I'll try to gently summarize one short passage from the book, hoping to convey a little of why that might be ...
Who are these "Folk" who make all this music, anyway? Louis Armstrong said, "All music is folk music — I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."

Well, you have to consider the idea of "The Folk." It derives and survives from feudalism, and so from before what we know as trade, the town, science, money, mechanization, and mass production. The idea of the folk can't make sense without that other feudal principle, Nobility. The two ideas are inseparable, since the folk is what humanity looks like viewed from above — from the position of nobility gazing down upon its dependents.

This may sound disparaging, as if folk music is just an illusion in the minds of bigots. But remember that when feudalism gave way to more modern economic and cultural institutions, its principle of nobility was adopted with great romance by the new mercantile middle class — that is, by MY class — as an ideal to be aspired to. Ever since, the nobility ethic has shown itself in middle-class culture, philosophy, politics, spirituality, in our sense of Self.

What does this have to do with Orphan Songs? As long as there are folk to compare ourselves to, our nobility must be seen as an accident of birth. The things nobility implies — independence, gentility, fairness, being worthy of the folk's dependence and so also of your obligations — none can be claimed or understood without knowing, experiencing, confronting, or perhaps even becoming the folk. (This chapter in Cantwell's book is called "We Are The Folk.")

Here, astonishingly, Cantwell considers the career and, I have to say, identity of folk revivalist Mike Seeger. Seeger is a complex character with a career running now more than 50 years. I can't do Seeger justice here, so I'll only say that Cantwell's description is vividly, stunningly recognizable to me. He presents Seeger as a kind of self-orphaned nobleman whose nobility runs in the blood so that, as a foundling among the folk, he must discover his nobility.

I'll end with excerpts directly from Cantwell:

Seeger is, through that music, in lifelong revolt against his class — and hence permanently exiled to that strange zone where the very phenomenon of social differentiation seems to have exhausted itself.

Like the returned Ulysses or the exiled Edgar in Lear, like the blackface minstrel, Mike Seeger can come most fully into possession of himself only in disguise. This is the classic Byronic gesture, that of the nobleman recovering through a reckless and brilliant condescension, choosing virtue over power, the essence of his nobility. To have it and to repudiate it, and thus to have it back again in its authentic form: of all the tales that nobles tell about themselves, this essentially allegorical and religious story has been, from Luke and John to the Wife of Bath, John Milton, C. S. Lewis, and Hermann Hesse, the one most loved by the people of the town.

This kind of analysis in "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival" has pretty fully reworked how I think about not only the Folk Revival, but most musicians I love (see the anecdote about Dylan at the end of Part 3), plus the Beats and the so-called 60's counterculture, among other post-World War II cultural movements. Looking for Orphan Songs? You won't have to look far.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

See also The New Lost Times


Orphan Songs, Part 6:
The Orphan Trains

Orphan train

Folksongster Utah Phillips wrote a song called "Orphan Train," which I first heard at the American Banjo Camp 2004. I'd forgotten about it until Celestial Monochord reader Marjorie G. suggested I write about Orphan Trains. Today's entry is based almost exclusively on the results of her research for the Monochord.

Once I had a darling mother, though I can't recall her name
I had a baby brother who I'll never see again
For the Children's Home is sending us out on the Orphan Train
To try to find someone to take us in

Take us in, we have rode the Orphan Train
Take us in, we need a home, we need a name
Take us in, oh won't you be our kin?
We are looking for someone to take us in

The UK had long engaged in various forced migrations of orphaned, delinquent, or just plain poor children. Since at least Shakespeare's time, kids were kidnapped from the streets of London and shipped off to "people the colonies" of the Americas and Australia. In the form of the "farm school movement," the practice continued in the UK through WWII.

I have stolen from the poorbox, I've begged the city streets
I've swabbed the bars and poolrooms for a little bite to eat
In my daddy's old green jacket and these rags upon my feet
I've been looking for someone to take me in

The Children's Home they gathered us, me and all the rest
They taught us to sit quietly until the food was blessed
Then they put us on the Orphan Train and sent us way out West
To try to find someone to take us in.

In 1854, the newly-formed Children's Aid Society started running orphan trains out of New York and Boston, carrying children from what Society founder Charles Loring Brace called "the dangerous classes." Conditions in these cities were indeed horrifying for homeless and orphaned children who had often immigrated from their native lands to escape similar conditions. Prominent businessmen funded Brace's orphan train project in an effort to head off the social turmoil they feared would result from such conditions.

The Catholic New York Foundling Hospital joined in, sending thousands of its "foundlings" west. Believing a strict policy of anonymity would help to save the most children, the hospital set up a kind of turntable near the hospital entrance. An "unwed mother," presumably, would place her infant on the table, ring a bell, and the baby would disappear into the hospital without mother and nun ever having to see each other.

Nobody knows how many orphans were shipped west. The 200,000 often quoted by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America is considered very conservative. In 1910, the Foundling Hospital reported that it alone had sent 2700 children just to Wisconsin — and the Orphan Trains went everwhere there were railroad tracks.

The farmers and their families they came from miles around
We lined up on the platform of the station in each town
And one by one we parted like some living lost-and-found
And one by one we all were taken in

Now there's many a fine doctor or a teacher in your school
There's many a good preacher who can teach the Golden Rule
Who started out an orphan sleeping in the freezing rain
Whose life began out on the Orphan Train.

In the accounts given by the riders of the Orphan Trains, they universally thought they were sent out on the only Orphan Train. Only decades later did they realize there were at least hundreds of such trains.

The riders also consistently report that the scene at the train stops was terribly anxiety-producing. The Children's Aid stops were highly publicized in advance to maximize the number of adopters, and the children were displayed, studied, groped and then usually rejected. But they feared being still on the train at the end of the line. Girls older than toddlers were the last to be picked.

Unquestionably, some riders didn't do well, suffering beatings, neglect, and all manner of abuse while also being used on farms as chattel slaves. But the president of the Orphan Train Heritage Society objects that most writing about the riders emphasize horror stories, while it seems most riders did fairly well. Apparently, Utah Phillips' hopeful song isn't too unrepresentative. A lot of ordinary and extraordinary people in twentieth-century American towns started out riding the Orphan Trains.

Thanks, Marjorie, for your help on this. Thanks also for taking in a lot of strays over the years, on top of raising the rest of us yahoos.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Orphan Songs, Part 5:
Row Us Over The Tide

Kelly Harrell, a Virginia textile factory worker, never learned to play an instrument. But when he heard Charlie Poole's popular stringband records of 1925, Harrell decided he could sing better than Poole. He took some musicians with him to audition for the Victor label.

The resulting 43 records over the next 4 years are wildly uneven. As I hear them, two-thirds just don't stand up over time — not well chosen, awkwardly arranged, listlessly sung. But sometimes ... sometimes something magical happens in the recording room. Everything comes together, and those recordings are some of the best ever recorded. It is a mysterious and wonderous thing.

On August 12, 1927, Harrell recorded "Row Us Over The Tide" as a duet with Henry Norton, a tenor he had never met before and would never meet again. They're accompanied by banjo, guitar, and the strange and beautiful fiddling of Lonnie Austin. The vocals are corny and maudlin, even humorous. But I also find them uncannily moving.

The song seems to have been a widely-known gospel tune, dating from around the Civil War. In it, two children beg a mysterious boatman to row them over a mysterious tide. It's hard to avoid the interepretation that the exhausted Orphans are begging to be taken to Heaven — that is, they're begging to die:

Two little children were strolling one day
Down by the river side.
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
"Row us over the tide."

"Row us over the tide,
Row us over the tide,"
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
"Row us over the tide."

"Be kind to us, mister, dear Mother is dead;
We have no place to abide.
Our father's a gambler and cares not for us,
Please row us over the tide."

"The angels took Mother to her heavenly home,
There with the saints to abide.
Our father's forsaken us, he's left us alone,
Please row us over the tide."

"Mama and Papa told Willie one day,
Jesus would come for their child.
We are so tired of waiting so long,
Row us over the tide."

Thinking of this song, with its dream-like detachment from any specific time and place, I'm often reminded of Abraham Lincoln's recurring dream. He talked about it at his last cabinet meeting, only hours before he was shot at Ford's Theater. In the dream, according to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, "he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore."

As a money-saving measure, record labels increasingly preferred to pay for solo acts instead of bands. But as a matter of pride, Kelly Harrell refused to learn an instrument, which ended his recording career.

On July 9, 1942, to show his co-workers how fit he was despite being 52 years old, Harrell hopped out of the first-story window of the textile factory where he worked onto the sidewalk below. He took a couple steps, collapsed, and died. According to his wife, Lula, "He never was a farsighted man."

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
Part 2: Slave Culture

Slaves on American Currency
Slaves on American currency

Years ago, reading the arguments in the 1800s over the abolition of slavery, I was struck by how often the debate turned to the religious beliefs of the slaves themselves. Pro-slavery types argued that slaves could not possibly grasp the notion of God or appreciate the stories in the Bible — and so slavery was OK.

After a while, this concern sounded almost desparate and obsessive, growing from fear: If slaves know who God is and God knows who slaves are, and if they pray to Him and He can hear them praying to Him, and they know He can hear them and He knows that they know He can hear them ... well ... well, white folks are going straight to Hell.

I'm very knowledgable about neither the Bible nor Negro spirituals. But it's clear even to me that African American slaves didn't merely understand the Bible, they related to it with a personal, creative passion that produced one of the most relentless, intense, complex, and beautiful musical traditions on Earth. This must have been troubling to some people, to say the least.

Both the Bible and Negro spirituals are basically examples of "slave culture" — their authors naturally understood each other. That's what I suspect. I came to the realization when researching the many and varied versions of the Ezekiel story in Negro spirituals. I even resorted to reading the Book of Ezekiel ...

To make a long story short, God takes his reluctant prophet Ezekiel to a field of very dry human bones. He tells Zeke to get those bones to get up take a little walk, and Zeke isn't sure he can get that done. So God tells him "Look, I'm God, and I ain't kidding around":

Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.

Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

My mind reels, imagining the impact such a story must have had for an African American slave. In comparison, their white counterparts must have found the story rather, I don't know ... interesting?

Part 1

Orphan Songs, Part 4:
Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

The Carter Family, via The Country Music Hall of Fame

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is one of the best-loved, most-recorded songs ever. I've always loved it, but never quite understood it — it's rather oblique. What circle are we talking about, exactly?

I was standing by the window
On one cold and cloudy day
And I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away

Can the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

Lord, I told the undertaker
Undertaker, please drive slow
For this body you are hauling
How I hate to see her go

I followed close beside her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave

Went back home Lord my home was lonesome
Missd my mother she was gone
All my brothers sisters crying
What a home so sad and lone

It's no wonder I've been puzzled. It turns out that this version was based on an earlier song that gave a full explanation, but the story given in the earlier version has now been mostly forgotten, thanks to the new, familiar one.

A. P. Carter, of the great Original Carter Family, pieced together the more familiar version a couple of days before it was first recorded, during a session on May 5, 1935. He completely re-wrote the original song's verses — the storyline of the song — but left the chorus essentially unchanged. So, today, we all know the original refrain, but not the narrative that gives the refrain a literal meaning. (This was probably an improvement, songwriting-wise.)

The original song seems to have been first published in a hymnal in 1907. The idea of the verses was that, back in the good old days when our family was all together and happy and harmonious, we all literally sat in a circle — maybe around the hearth — warmly enjoying each other's loving presence. (You remember that, don't you?)

But now, years later, many of us have died and gone to heaven, breaking that circle. The chairs are emptying, one by one. But don't despair! In Heaven, that circle is slowly being re-assembled — member by member, as we all pass on — and some day, the circle will be unbroken once again.

But there's a catch ... well, beyond the fact that you'll have to die to complete the story, there's an even more serious catch. It's not a sure thing that everybody in the family will wind up in heaven to help complete the circle. Some of us may wind up ELSEWHERE.

So the song was written to ask, in essence: Will you go to Heaven when you die? Or will your loved-ones sit in Heaven, in their broken circle, looking mournfully at that empty chair where [ your name here ] should have sat, but was instead led astray? Will the circle be unbroken? It's up to you! It will be unbroken, but only if you quit your sinful ways and are saved!

Both versions of the song are "alter call" songs, used to invite you to come forward to the alter to be saved. Here's the lyrics to the original:

There are loved ones in the glory,
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior
Now they dwell with Him above.

You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

You can picture happy gatherings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below.

One by one their seats were emptied,
One by one they went away;
Here the circle has been broken—
Will it be complete one day?

Note that both versions have nearly the same melody as the old Negro spiritual, "Glory, glory, Hallelujah, Since I Lay my Burden Down," which you'll find on your copy of the Harry Smith anthology.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Orphan Songs, Part 3
They All Pretend They're Orphans

They all pretend they’re orphans
And their memory is like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away

— Tom Waits, “Time”

She made up someone to be
She made up somewhere to be from

— Tom Waits, “Dead and Lovely”

In Orphan Songs, Part 2, I speculated about why I've found so many songs about orphans and being parentless. Here's one last possibility.

When we're young, parents are sometimes an embarrassment — a reminder of who we used to be, or that we're not yet who we hope to become. You often see this embarrassment in memoirs of the experiences of immigrants. Here you are in your American clothes with your American attitude, accompanied by your father in his black suit and yarmulka, or your mother with her sari and her bindi on her forehead.

To fantasize about being an orphan, of sorts, is to play with the idea of escaping your class, your status, and your cultural (sometimes even fanancial) inheritance.

Memory is an act of imagining, and to be an orphan is to “remember" (i.e., imagine) your parents, which is also to idealize yourself as someone able to advance your artistic, political, financial and other goals. It's the old story of leaving home, going to the big anonymous city, and becoming somebody else.

In a post — which is no longer online — to the unofficial Martin Guitar forum, journalist Don Hurley once wrote about an encounter with Bob Dylan in England, during the filming of Don’t Look Back:

“I took a photographer to his suite to do a profile for the next day's paper. I questioned him on his background and about supposedly running away from home at the age of eleven. He confirmed it all and said he could not remember when he last saw his parents, that he was “just an orphan of the road.” We finished the interview and made for the elevator which my photographer and I shared with an older couple and their son, who turned out to be Dylan's parents and his brother David. They were literally in the suite next to his!”

I'll write more about such "orphans" — in the context of the Folk Revival — in a future installment of this Orphan Song series.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Orphan Songs
Part 2: Why so many?

Children in yard of Home for the Friendless
New York City, about 1870

I’ve cataloged a lot of songs about orphans (or the death of parents) from the old 78s of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as later songs inspired by them. I've begun to wonder — why are there so many of these songs?

For starters, there simply used to be a lot of orphans around to sing about. Today, I suppose they would be in state-run foster care systems and wouldn't be called "orphans" at all. Contraception and safe and legal abortions probably keep their numbers down. Certainly, parents are kept alive and families are kept together longer by less dangerous childbirth, safer working conditions, and a longer life expectancy.

But there must be a more permanent reason to sing about orphans, considering that the songs are still well-loved today. Maybe it's that, as I said in Part 1, parents usually die before their children, so we are almost all “orphaned” at some point. And most of us, in turn, make more orphans when we die. It’s almost the fabled “universal experience.”

These songs seem to have blossomed in the 1800's, when Americans had a peculiar obsession with Death, fetishizing and sentimentalizing it in ways rarely seen today. The outpouring of public grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln was an expression of this, as were momento mori, the gothic novel, and the many sentimental death-songs that appeared then. The artists of the 1920s and 1930s plundered the sheet music of the 1800s in search of material for the new recording industry, so I think a lot of these attitudes got a "second wind" as a result.

Most of all, though, I think life in pre-WWII America was just plain lonesome and arduous for most people. Feelings of abandonment are part of what it means to be poor, especially in a country so full of other promises. It would seem natural to empathize with The Orphan.

America was, and is, a place of hard work, empty spaces, and physical displacement. It’s no wonder we love media like recorded music like we do — they keep us company. When they brought songs about how "sometimes I feel like a motherless child" and how "motherless children have a hard time," wondering "will the circle be unbroken," it’s no wonder they were welcomed into the home and taken to heart.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
Part 1: Dem Bones

Third Man Ferris Wheel
(from "The Third Man")

During a recent morning commute, a small-time public radio station played "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" by the obscure Selah Jubilee Quartet. Sounding like an intensely cool, rhythmic barbershop quartet, they sang about how the prophet Ezekiel saw a wheel "way in the middle of the air." I'd heard such songs before.

But suddenly, they changed direction and broke into "the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone's connected to the knee bone ..." The station then played two other Ezekiel songs from the quartet tradition, and they all sang about dry bones in the valley and how they're connected.

Maybe you're way ahead of me here, but ...

It turns out all those Ezekiel songs (with their wheel in the middle of air), and "Dry Bones" by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (it's on the Harry Smith Anthology), and "Dem Bones," which I grew up thinking of as a secular children's song (shin bone connected to the knee-bone, etc.) are all part of the same song complex, held together by the Book of Ezekiel.

You know, maybe I should read that Bible thingy someday ... NAH!

Part 2

Orphan Songs
Part 1: Poor Orphan Child

The Carter Family's 1927 "Poor Orphan Child" is a jaunty jingle about how Death kills everybody. The sound of the recording — its melody, tempo, harmonies — are as friendly and memorable as any advertising jingle. But the lyrics build a morbid argument:

Think of the many children, now
poor little boys and girls
who once had mother's loving hands
to smooth their golden curls

The verses of the song obsess over the lonesomeness and poverty that result when dead parents leave orphans behind. And its chorus prays for those orphans to muddle along until they themselves "all reach that glittering strand" — that is, until the orphans too are dead.

It's hard to think of a more pessimistic sentiment. It lays everyone to waste. But then, come to think of it, so does Death. Doesn't Death turn almost everyone into orphans eventually? And don't most of us wind up orphaning children of our own, in turn? Remember: the Carters sing it with an irresistible jauntiness.

It's amazingly common for the old folk/blues records of the 1920's to have some kind of startling friction between their "sound" and their meaning. So often, the performances seem to have a kind of public face at odds with an interior life, revealed only when you take the time to really think about them. That is, what you notice on first listening (the arrangement, the key, the affect of the singers, etc.) begins to seem alien to the song once you've paused to "get" the lyrics.

I'd like more of this in contemporary music, please. I'll write more about it on another day.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8