One title here is not available on Spotify (Handsome Family’s “Blackwatertown”), and one is only available in an alternate version (“Delia’s Gone,” here by Spider John Koerner rather than Koerner, Ray & Glover), but all other titles and versions are intact. This playlist is also available on CD.)
1. “Barbry Ellen (Barbara Allen)” (Jean Ritchie)
2. “Pretty Polly” (the Coon Creek Girls)
3. “Ommie Wise” (G. B. Grayson)
4. “Little Maggie” (Snakefarm)
5. “Frankie” (Mississippi John Hurt)
6. “Deliah’s Gone” (Koerner, Ray & Glover)
7. “Wreck of the Old 97” (John Mellencamp)
8. “Dead Man’s Curve” (Jan & Dean)
9. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues (I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say)” (Jelly Roll Morton)
10. “The Coo Coo Bird” (Clarence Ashley)
11. “Volver, Volver” (Vincente Fernandez)
12. “The Foggy Foggy Dew” (Burl Ives)
13. “Black, Brown and Beige, Part IV (Come Sunday)” (Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, Mahalia Jackson)
14. “El Paso” (Marty Robbins)
15. “Trial of Mary Maguire” (Bobby Patterson)
16. “Down from Dover” (Dolly Parton)
17. “Sail Away” (Randy Newman)
18. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (Bob Dylan)
19. “Nebraska” (Bruce Springsteen)
20. “Blackwatertown” (the Handsome Family)
Song notes (Marcus/Wilentz)
“Barbary Allen (Barbara Allen)” – The whole tradition might be present in this ancient British ballad of missed connections, which has turned up in more than 100 variants in Virginia alone. In 1961 Jean Ritchie, without accompaniment, shot the song out of a Kentucky hollow until it hung in the sky like a cloud.
“Pretty Polly” – An ancient ballad of a psychotic slaying, usually sung by a man, and given a frighteningly different cast in 1938 by The Coon Creek Girls of Kentucky.
“Ommie Wise” – This is one of many ballads based on an event we know actually happened—in this case a murder in North Carolina in 1807. G. B. Grayson sounds as if he were there, even though he recorded the song in Atlanta 120 years later.
“Little Maggie” – “Yonder stands Little Maggie” has been a favored line for performers ranging from The Stanley Brothers to Joyce Carol Oates’s Blue-Eyed Bill Brandy (in the book version of The Rose & The Briar). In this new version of the song, Anna Domino and Michel Delory, recording as Snakefarm, slide their own ideas about who Maggie was and is in and out of those of everyone else.
“Frankie (Frankie and Albert)” – Best known under the title “Frankie And Johnny,” this is the most famous example of the American jealousy murder ballad. Everyone from Pearl Bailey to Guy Lombardo has covered this song. Mississippi John Hurt recorded his version in 1928, less than thirty years after Frankie Baker shot Albert Britt in St. Louis.
“Delilah’s Gone (Delia) – An elliptical tale of irremediable injustice. Less a murder ballad than a trial ballad, as performed before a live audience in 1996 in Minneapolis by Koerner, Ray & Glover.
“The Wreck Of The Old 97” – John Mellencamp shifts the beloved American railroad crash song out of its usual form as a rollicking singalong into a story about a death that’s present in the first note.
“Dead Man’s Curve” – Jan & Dean’s L.A. crash classic from 1964. “The Wreck Of The Old 97” updated? You be the judge.
“Buddy Bolden’s Blues” – Probably first known as “Funky Butt Blues.” A ballad about soupy New Orleans dance-hall stench, composed by the cornetist Buddy Bolden around 1902, as rendered by the Crescent City pianist Jelly Roll Morton in 1939—slowly, cleaned-up, but with its bounce intact
“The Coo Coo Bird” – A mystical tale of estrangement and revenge, first recorded about the time recording began, most lately (the last time we looked) by Donovan for his 2004 Beat Café, and likely one of the last recordings logged when recording finally ceases, though chances are no one will ever go farther into the song than Clarence Ashley of North Carolina did in 1929.
“Volver, Volver”– Literally “To Return, To Return,” an American, and not only Mexican, mariachi classic, as belted, crooned, and shrieked by the modern king of the ranchero singers, Vicente Fernandez.
“The Foggy, Foggy Down” – The English (not Irish; that’s a different song) ballad of love, sex, death and sorrow, recorded in the 1940s by the young, genteel populist Burl Ives—before he became the Ives the world knows.
“Come Sunday” – In 1958, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Ellington’s orchestra collaborated on a prayer ballad that stands as one of the milestones of modern American music.
“El Paso” – Marty Robbins insisted that his most famous composition, a number-one hit in 1959, was not a country-and-western song, as advertised, but a cowboy song. “It’s not an old song—I wrote the song,” he said, but it might as well have been written in 1880.
“Trial Of Mary Maguire” – A soul ballad you’ve never heard of that flopped in 1969; decades later it sounds like the news.
“Down From Dover” – A jaw-dropper from the Tennessee mountains, this is one of Dolly Parton’s early compositions. Parton has said she prides herself as a songwriter above all else, and this is one reason why.
“Sail Away” – Randy Newman’s lush, sinister song about the nation’s original sin. Y’all gonna’ be an American.”
“Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” – Is the Jack of Hearts for real, or only cardboard? And if he’s real, what ever became of him? Bob Dylan’s 1975 saga of love and fortune moves by indirection, like a Herman Melville story plunked down in the Black Hills of South Dakota and sung to the cabaret crowd.
“Nebraska” – Bruce Springsteen’s dream of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate’s murder spree in 1957 and 1958, from the 1982 album of the same name, a portrait of a country where the only acts that make sense to anyone are murder and running away.
“Blackwatertown” – Paul Muldoon, today’s bard from Armagh, reimagines “The Bard Of Armagh” aka “The Unfortunate Rake” aka “St. James Infirmary” aka “The Streets Of Laredo.” Beginning with a syphilitic’s funeral, pausing here—because the song has many more lives to lead—as a cautionary bidding of good luck.
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