The Woody Johnson Free Press

VOL. 1 -- NO. 2CALGARY, ALBERTA, CANADASaturday, July 13, 2024

Research & Technology

What's Inside (click any page number)


Lomax, Sandburg

Created Treasure

While researching the music of Blues in the Mississippi Night (Rounder Records - CDROUN1860 / 682161186023), Johnson came across John Lomax's American Ballads and Folk Songs Cover of The American Songbagand Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag. What was interesting in these books of collected songs (the music transcribed by Lomax's wife, and in Sandburg's case, arrangers/musicians transcribed the music) were the old blues and folk songs that no one seemed to have taken the time to cover: "Levee Camp Moan", "Hammerin' Steel", "The Ballad of Jesse James".

These and other tunes - and there are hundreds in these two volumes, recorded only once by the people Lomax and Sandburg interviewed - are there, ready for new interpretations and new arrangements. The fans of this genre will not be disappointed.

Using these transcriptions, Johnson has compared poetry from such diverse authors as James Edwin Campbell and Joel Chandler Harris to the rhythms and rhymes of songwriters such as Robert Johnson and Henry Thomas to see if there are any musical similarities in the lyrics, especially in terms of meter and beat.

Below are some poems Johnson has reproduced from several books of poetry written in the mid to late 1800's. Much of it, according to Johnson, has a clear musical lilt in its phrasing, meter, and form, which has set the muse in motion: He is currently composing music for these and many others:  

Uncle Eph's Banjo Song

(James Edwin Campbell)

Clean de ba’n an’ sweep de flo’,
    Sing, my bawnjer, sing!
We’s gwine ter dawnce dis eb’nin’ sho’,
      Ring, my bawnjer, ring!
Den hits up de road an’ down de lane,
Hurry, niggah, you miss de train;
De yaller gal she dawnce so neat,
De yaller gal she look so sweet,
     Ring, my bawnjer, ring!

De moon come up, de sun go down,
      Sing, my bawnjer, sing!
De niggahs am all come f’um town,
      Ring, my bawnjer, ring!
Den hits roun’ de hill an’ froo de fiel’– 
Lookout dar, niggah, doan’ you steal! 
De milyuns on dem vines am green,
De moon am bright, O you’ll be seen,
  Ring, my bawnjer, ring!

Ol' Doc' Hyar

(James Edwin Campbell)

Ur ol’ Hyar lib in ur house on de hill,
He hunner yurs ol’ an’ nebber wuz ill;
He yurs dee so long an’ he eyes so beeg,
An’ he laigs so spry dat he dawnce ur jeeg;
He lib so long dat he know ebbry tings
’Bout de beas’ses dat walks an’ de bu’ds dat sings–
Dis Ol’ Doc’ Hyar,
Whar lib up dar
Een ur mighty fine house on ur mighty high hill.

He doctah fur all de beas’ses an’ bu’ds–
He put on he specs an’ he use beeg wu’ds,
He feel dee pu’s’ den he look mighty wise,
He pull out he watch an’ he shet bofe eyes;
He grab up he hat an’ grab up he cane,
Den–“blam!” go de do’–he gone lak de train,
Dis Ol’ Doc’ Hyar,
Whar lib up dar
Een ur mighty fine house on ur mighty high hill.

Mistah Ba’r fall sick–dee sont fur Doc’ Hyar,
“O, Doctah, come queeck, an’ see Mr. B’ar;
He mighty nigh daid des sho’ ez you b’on!”
“Too much ur young peeg, too much ur green co’n,”
Ez he put on he hat, said Ol’ Doc’ Hyar;
“I’ll tek ’long meh lawnce, an’ lawnce Mistah B’ar,”
Said Ol’ Doc’ Hyar,
Whar lib up dar
Een ur mighty fine house on ur mighty high hill.

Mistah B’ar he groaned, Mistah B’ar he growled,
W’ile de ol’ Miss B’ar an’ de chillen howled;
Doctah Hyar tuk out he sha’p li’l lawnce,
An’ pyu’ced Mistah B’ar twel he med him prawnce
Den grab up he hat an’ grab up he cane
“Blam!” go de do’ an’ he gone lak de train,
Dis Ol’ Doc’ Hyar,
Whar lib up dar
Een ur mighty fine house on ur mighty high hill.

But de vay naix day Mistah B’ar he daid;
Wen dee tell Doc’ Hyar, he des scratch he haid:
“Ef pahsons git well ur pahsons git wu’s,
Money got ter come een de Ol’ Hyar’s pu’s;
Not wut folkses does, but fur wut dee know
Does de folkses git paid”–an’ Hyar larfed low,
Dis sma’t Ol’ Hyar,
Whar lib up dar
Een de mighty fine house on de mighty high hill!

Where Did Twelve Bar Blues Come From, Anyway?

In an interview with W.C. Handy, Dorothy Scarborough discovered that the blues songs as sung by itinerants and street musicians in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were originally 4 line verses.

The first line was repeated 3 times and a final 4th line resolved the first three. Handy admits that he found the 4th line in many of the songs he heard sung back then "monotonous", by which I think he may have meant "redundant", and in his famous "Memphis Blues", disregarded the traditional 4th line and wrote the song in three, thus establishing the 12-bar blues format. The song became wildly popular and the 12-bar format has influenced many artists from Charlie Patton to Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton.

Many of the poems Johnson finds were written prior to "Memphis Blues", and particularly those written by Dunbar, Harris, and Campbell seem to lend themselves to a 16 bar arrangement (for example "The Raggedy Man", by James Whitcomb Riley). Keeping in mind that the poems were written before 1912, Johnson's arrangements make perfect sense.

Negro Serenade

(James Edwin Campbell)

O, de light-bugs glimmer down de lane,
  Merlindy! Merlindy!
O, de whip’-will callin’ notes ur pain–
  Merlindy, O, Merlindy!
O, honey lub, my turkle dub,
  Doan’ you hyuh my bawnjer ringin’,
While de night-dew falls an’ de ho’n owl calls
  By de ol' ba’n gate Ise singin’.

O, Miss ’Lindy, doan’ you hyuh me, chil’,
  Merlindy! Merlindy!
My lub fur you des dribe me wil’–
  Merlindy, O, Merlindy!
I’ll sing dis night twel broad day-light,
  Ur bu’s’ my froat wid tryin’,
’Less you come down, Miss ’Lindy Brown,
  An’ stops dis ha’t f’um sighin’!

The Corn Song

(John Wesley Holloway)

Jes' beyan a clump o' pines,--
  Lis'n to 'im now!--
Hyah de jolly black boy,
  Singin', at his plow!
In de early mornin',
  Thoo de hazy air,
Loud an' clear, sweet an' strong
  Comes de music rare:

"O mah dovee, Who-ah!
Do you love me? Who-ah!
An' as 'e tu'ns de cotton row,
Hyah 'im tell 'is ol' mule so;
  "Whoa! Har! Come'ere!"

Don't yo' love a co'n song?
  How it stirs yo' blood!
Ever'body list'nin',
  In de neighborhood!
Standin' in yo' front do'
  In de misty mo'n,
Hyah de jolly black boy,
  Singin' in de co'n:

"O Miss Julie, Who-ah!
Love me truly, Who-ah!
Hyah 'im scol' 'is mule so,
W'en 'e try to mek 'im go:
  "Gee! Whoa! Come 'ere!"

O you jolly black boy,
  Yod'lin' in de co'n,
Callin' to yo' dawlin',
  In de dewy mo'n,
Love 'er, boy, forevah,
  Yodel ever' day;
Only le' me lis'n,
  As yo' sing away:

"O mah dawlin'! Who-ah!
Hyah me callin'! Who-ah!
Tu'n aroun' anothah row,
Holler to yo' mule so:
  "Whoa! Har! Come 'ere!"

Woody Johnson: The Search For Forgotten Tunes

Old blues and folk songs not previously recorded

"I've listened to a lot of folk, roots, blues, and Americana music over the years, music that is rare, that people haven't heard before, but is out there in museums and archives," says Woody Johnson.

Later, reading the works of Joel Chandler Harris, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others, he noticed similarities in the structure of some of their poems, repeating verses, refrains, and rhyme schemes, and concluded that these were actually written as songs – but without the music. Johnson began writing music for these based on late 19th century and early 20th century country blues melodies he learned from artists like Henry Thomas and Elizabeth Cotton. He continues looking for lost and forgotten tunes.

Oh, Miss Malindy

(Joel Chandler Harris)

Oh. Miss Malindy, you er lots too sweet for me;
I cannot come to see you
Ontil my time is free –
Oh, den I 'll come ter see you,
An' take you on my knee.

Oh, Miss Malindy, now don't you go away;
I cannot come to see you
Ontil some yuther day –
Oh, den I 'll come ter see you –
Oh, den I 'll come ter stay.

Oh, Miss Malindy, you is my only one;
I cannot come ter see you
Ontil de day is done –
Oh, den I 'll come ter see you,
And we 'll have a little fun.

Oh, Miss Malindy, my heart belongs ter you
I cannot come ter see you
Ontil my work is thoo'.
Oh, den I 'll come ter see you,
I 'll come in my canoe.

[Harris:] The words of the singer, foolish and trivial as they are, do not give the faintest idea of the melody to which it was sung.


(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

When de fiddle gits to singin' out a ol' Vahginny reel,
An' you 'mence to feel a ticklin' in yo' toe an' in yo' heel;
Ef you t'ink you got 'uligion an' you wants to keep it, too,
You jes' bettah tek a hint an' git yo'self clean out o' view.
Case de time is mighty temptin' when de chune is in de swing,
Fu' a dah'kie saint or a sinner man, to cut de pigeon-wing.
An' you could n't he'p f'om dancin' ef yo' feet was boun' wif twine,
When Angelina Johnson comes a-swingin' down de line.

Don't you know Miss Angelina? She 's de da'lin' of de place.
W'y, dey ain't no high-toned lady wif sich mannahs an' sich grace.
She kin move across de cabin, wif its planks all rough an' wo';
Jes' de same 's ef she was dancin' on ol' mistus' ball-room flo'.
Fact is, you do' see no cabin—evaht'ing you see look grand,
An' dat one ol' squeaky fiddle soun' to you jes' lak a ban';
Cotton britches look lak broadclof an' a linsey dress look fine,
When Angelina Johnson comes a-swingin' down de line.

Some folks say dat dancin 's sinful, an' de blessed Lawd, dey say,
Gwine to punish us fu' steppin' w'en we hyeah de music play.
But I tell you I don' b'lieve it, fu' de Lawd is wise and good,
An' he made de banjo's metal an' he made de fiddle's wood,
An' he made de music in dem, so I don' quite t'ink he 'll keer
Ef our feet keeps time a little to de melodies we hyeah.
W'y, dey's somep'n' downright holy in de way our faces shine,
When Angelina Johnson comes a-swingin' down de line.

Angelina steps so gentle, Angelina bows so low,
An' she lif huh sku't so dainty dat huh shoetop skacely show:
An' dem teef o' huh'n a-shinin', ez she tek you by de han'–
Go 'way, people, d' ain't anothah sich a lady in de lan'!
When she 's movin' thoo de figgers er a-dancin' by huhse'f,
Folks jes' stan' stock-still a-sta'in', an' dey mos' nigh hol's dey bref;
An' de young mens, dey 's a-sayin', "I 's gwine mek dat damsel mine,"
When Angelina Johnson comes a-swingin' down de line.

Little Brown Baby

(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes,
Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee.
What you been doin', suh--makin' san' pies?
Look at dat bib--You's ez du'ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf--dat's merlasses, I bet;
Come hyeah, Maria, an' wipe off his han's.
Bees gwine to ketch you an' eat you up yit,
Bein' so sticky an' sweet--goodness lan's!

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes
Who's pappy's darlin' an' who's pappy's chile?
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
Fu' to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you's a scamp!
Whah did dat dimple come f'om in yo' chin?
Pappy do' know you--I b'lieves you's a tramp;
Mammy, dis hyeah's some ol' straggler got in!

Let's th'ow him outen de do' in de san',
We do' want stragglers a-layin' 'roun' hyeah;
Let's gin him 'way to de big buggah-man;
I know he's hidin' erroun' hyeah right neah.
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do',
Hyeah's a bad boy you kin have fu' to eat.
Mammy an' pappy do' want him no mo',
Swaller him down f'om his haid to his feet!

Dah, now, I t'ought dat you'd hug me up close.
Go back, ol' buggah, you sha'n't have dis boy.
He ain't no tramp, ner no straggler, of co'se;
He's pappy's pa'dner an' playmate an' joy.
Come to you' pallet now--go to you' res';
Wisht you could allus know ease an' cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes' a chile on my breas'--
Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes!

Elizabeth Cotton
Elizabeth Cotton is admired by Johnson. Photo of Elizabeth Cotton courtesy of the estate of Johsel Namkung.

Johnson finds his material in books, poems and out of print short story and poetry anthologies. The music is derivative of people like Henry Thomas (ragtime/country blues); Mississippi John Hurt (chord structures); Elizabeth Cotton and Etta Baker (Piedmont style - "fast paced, happy, joyous, finger-style blues using sevenths and droning bass strings"); as well as melodies derived from old hymns, some going back as far as the 18th and 19th centuries ("Amazing Grace"; "Holy God, Mighty God", "In Christ There Is No East or West", to name a few).

When Ol’ Sis’ Judy Pray

(James Edwin Campbell)

When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray,
De teahs come stealin’ down my cheek,
De voice ur God widin me speak’;
I see myse’f so po’ an’ weak,
Down on my knees de cross I seek,
When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray.

When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray,
De thun’ers ur Mount Sin-a-i
Comes rushin’ down f’um up on high–
De Debbil tu’n his back an’ fly
While sinnahs loud fur pa’don cry,
When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray.

When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray,
Ha’d sinnahs trimble in dey seat
Ter hyuh huh voice in sorro ’peat
(While all de chu’ch des sob an’ weep)
“O Shepa’d, dese, dy po’ los’ sheep!”
When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray.

When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray,
De whole house hit des rock an’ moan
Ter see huh teahs an’ hyuh huh groan;
Dar’s somepin’ in Sis’ Judy’s tone
Dat melt all ha’ts dough med ur stone
When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray.

When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray,
Salvation’s light comes pourin’ down–
Hit fill de chu’ch an’ all de town–
Why, angels’ robes go rustlin’ ’roun’,
An’ hebben on de Yurf am foun’,
When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray.

When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray,
My soul go sweepin’ up on wings,
An’ loud de chu’ch wid “Glory!” rings,
An’ wide de gates ur Jahsper swings
Twel you hyuh ha’ps wid golding strings,
When ol’ Sis’ Judy pray.

Various - Untitled

(Joel Chandler Harris)

' Oh, says de woodpecker, pec kin' on de tree,
Once I courted Miss Kitty Kill - i -dee,
But she proved fickle en fum me fled,
En sence dat time my head bin red'

Some likes cake, en some likes pie,
Some loves ter laugh, en some loves ter cry,
But de gal dat stays single will die, will die
De drouth ain't wet en de rain ain't dry,
Whar you sow yd wheat you can't cut rye,
But de gal dat stays single will die, will die.
Some wants de gal dafs atter a sign,
I wants de gal en she mus' be mine —
She 'II see 'er beau down by de big pine.

Katy, Katy ! won' you marry?
Katy, Katy ! choose me den !
Mammy say ef you will marry
She will kill de turkey hen;
Den we 'll have a new convention,
Den we' ll know de rights o' men

De old Dominicker Hen

(Joel Chandler Harris)

Aigs I lay eve'y day en yer dey come en take um 'way;
I lay, I lay, I lay,
En yit I hatter go
bare-footed, bare-footed, bare-footed!
Ef I lay, en lay twel doomsday,
I know I 'll hatter go
bare- footed, bare- footed, bare-footed!

[Harris:] Uncle Remus managed
to emphasize certain words
so as to give a laughably accurate
imitation of a cackling hen.
He went on:

Now, den, w'en de rooster year de Dominicker hen a-cacklin',
I boun' you he gwine ter jine [right] in.
He 'll up en say, sezee:

' Yo' foot so big, yo' foot so wide, yo' foot so long.
I can't git a shoe ter-fit-it, ter-fit-t, ter-fit-it !'

En den dar dey 'll have it, up en down,
qua'llin' des like sho'-nuff folks.

A Note About Joel Chandler Harris

Joel Chandler Harris has written some of the most beautiful poetry in 19th Century literature.
It is unfortunate that his writings have been controversial, due to accusations of 'appropriation of voice', but he has also been highly praised for his efforts
at capturing the unique dialect of the rural south, spoken by both white and black people from the era.

A Death Song

(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch'll go a-singin' as it pass
  An' w'en I's a-layin' low,
  I kin hyeah it as it go
Singin', "Sleep, my honey, tek yo' res' at las'."

Lay me nigh to whah hit meks a little pool,
An' de watah stan's so quiet lak an' cool,
  Whah de little birds in spring,
  Ust to come an' drink an' sing,
An' de chillen waded on dey way to school.

Let me settle w'en my shouldahs draps dey load
Nigh enough to hyeah de noises in de road;
  Fu' I t'ink de las' long res'
  Gwine to soothe my sperrit bes'
If I's layin' 'mong de t'ings I's allus knowed.

Jump Back Honey, Jump Back - A Negro Love Song

(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

Seen my lady home las' night,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hel' huh han' an' sque'z it tight,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,
Seen a light gleam f'om huh eye,
An' a smile go flittin' by--
Jump back, honey, jump back.

Hyeahd de win' blow thoo de pine,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Mockin'-bird was singin' fine,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
An' my hea't was beatin' so,
When I reached my lady's do',
Dat I could n't ba' to go--
Jump back, honey, jump back.

Put my ahm aroun' huh wais',
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Raised huh lips an' took a tase,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Love me, honey, love me true?
Love me well ez I love you?
An' she answe'd, "Cose I do"--
Jump back, honey, jump back.

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