An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
"Got The Farm Land Blues" - The Carolina Tar Heels
Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Thirteen: "Got The Farm Land Blues" performed by The Carolina Tar Heels. "Vocal solo with harmonica, banjo, guitar." Recorded in Memphis on November 19, 1930. Original issue Victor 23611A.
The last track on the "Ballads" set is performed by the Carolina Tar Heels, minus Clarence Ashley. For information on the Carolina Tar Heels, see the entry for "Peg and Awl." This song features Garley Foster on vocal, harmonica and guitar and Doc Walsh on banjo.
"Got The Farm Land Blues" simply describes a series of travails that befall farmers; from thieves to natural disasters.
I woke up this morning Between one and two. Woke up this morning Between one and two. Heard a chicken squalling Down at my chicken roost.
I rushed down there, But a little too late. I rushed down there, But a little too late. Thief has got my chickens And made his getaway.
Went out to my corn crib for to get some corn. Went out to my corn crib For to get some corn. Thief had broke in my corn crib. Took away every ear of my corn.
Went to get my car For to go get the sheriff. Went to get my car For to go get the sheriff. Thief had took every tire Right off of my car.
Well, along come a storm. Tore down my corn. Along come a storm. Tore down my corn. While the bean beetle in the bean patch, Eatin' up the beans. Boll weevil in the cotton. He tearin' up the bolls.
Got the farm land blues. Got the farm land blues right now. Got the farm land blues. Got the farm blues right now. Not another fur a-will I found.
Gonna sell my farm. Gonna move to town. Gonna sell my farm. Gonna move to town. Got the farm land blues. Right now.
"Got The Farm Land Blues" is a straightforward song, similar to "Down On Penny's Farm" and "Mississippi Boweavil Blues" in that it describes the tribulations of farmers. Unlike "Down On Penny's Farm," however, it lacks any political or social critique. In that regard, it is more like "Mississippi Boweavil Blues," although there are also some differences. Charlie Patton's song simply describes the effect of the boll weevil on cotton farmers in the south. It makes no value judgments. "Got The Farm Land Blues," however, is a lament. "Hard luck!" shouts Garley Foster after the fourth verse. And, indeed, the song is about "hard luck." It is more specifically about the "hard luck" of the Great Depression, which brings the Anthology (and the "Ballads" volume specifically) into the present tense of the performers. The Carolina Tar Heels are no longer singing about the "days of eighteen and one." Instead, they are singing about things happening right outside the recording studio.
The "Ballads" volume, from "Henry Lee" to "Got The Farm Land Blues," spans over four hundred years of history. Yet the songs remain and are specifically being sung in a very particular moment in time. All of the recordings on this volume were made between 1927 and 1932, when the Depression impacted the recording industry. I would argue, therefore, that the Anthology is in many ways about how the past and the present are continually intermingled. For whatever reason, these songs about events past have survived and they survived to be sung by these artists in this particular time period (regarded as many to be the most fertile in terms of the recording of American Folk Music). We must also recall that when Harry Smith was collecting these sides, he was doing so in the late 1940s and early 1950s; barely thirty years after the songs were recorded. The music of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles is older today than the music collected on the Anthology was when Smith was listening to it. Yet it already sounded ancient to the listeners of the early fiftes. Why? The answer is partly technological: The early fifties saw the emergence of the long playing record and the adoption of magnetic tape, putting an end to direct disc cutting. Recordings could be longer. It was possible to edit and to overdub (making possible such albums as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon). But that is only part of the story. Between the day that the Carolina Tar Heels sat down to record "Got The Farm Land Blues" and the day when Harry Smith listened to it, two catastrophic events had occurred that effectively destroyed the world preserved by the Anthology. The first of these was the Depression. Hard times drove Americans from the South to the North. African-Americans, in particular, made a great exodus from the Jim Crow South to the industrialized North, filling cities like Chicago and Detroit. With them came jazz and the blues, and these forms were changed by their new environment. McKinley Morganfeld left Mississippi. It was Muddy Waters who came to Chicago.
Similarly, the Dust Bowl drove many people to the West Coast. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were two transplanted Okies who helped develop what became known as the Bakersfield sound. We should remember that Chet Baker, too, was an Oklahoman who moved to California. The cultural map in America was forever changed.
The physical map was changed as well. The Depression brought the WPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority. These agencies helped to modernize the South, bringing electricity to millions of rural dwellers.
The second great calamity was the Second World War, which transformed America from a second-string World Power into one of the world's only Super Powers.
I'm not trying to argue that the changes wrought by these events were all negative. I'm simply observing that the world had gone through more changes in the thirty years since these records were originally recorded than it has - in many ways - since the Anthology was first released. We have all, after all, been a part of the Post-War Era, whether we were born in the forties, the sixties or the seventies. It is only in the last several years, with the popularity of the internet, that we have seen changes as rapid and as profound as the changes that occurred between 1929 and 1945.
When Harry Smith listened to these records during the late forties, he recognized that something of the world he heard had been lost and needed to be preserved. It is important to remember that the music recorded on these fragile shellac discs was regarded as hopelessly old fashioned. As artifacts, the records themselves were threatened by shellac drives during the war, and from simply being treated as trash by their owners. Collectors like Harry Smith (and, even more importantly, like Joe Bussard and Gayle Dean Wardlow) were instrumental in the preservation of Pre-War American culture in the Post-War era. Many of them performed this herculean labor one record at time, by canvassing flea markets, junk sales, and by going house to house. In this way a treasure trove of Americana was rescued, but it would have sat unheard in the record rooms of collectors if it hadn't been for Harry Smith and his Anthology.
This brings us to the end of the first volume of the Anthology. In our next entry, we will begin to explore the second volume, titled "Social Music."
On The Road to the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?
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Amazingly, there doesn't seem to be any available video of a later performances of "Got The Farm Land Blues." If anyone knows of such a video, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instead, here's some video of Harry Smith's hand-painted films. These were films made in the late forties and fifties, around the same time he was collecting the music that eventually wound up on the Anthology. According to Smith's recollections, he was interested in animation, but didn't have a camera. He began painting on blank strips of film. These "Early Abstractions" were the result. Several of his later films employ collage and stop animation. These are all very worth watching...