100 Year Old Songs for a 100 Day Old Oath
15 years ago I was walking home from the boat shop where I worked when I tripped over the melody. The good ones do that, come to you like something dropped in your path. They just arrive. You only have to pick it up and carry it home.
Before the lunch hour was up I had written I’m On My Way Back Home and typed it out. It would be another decade before I recorded that song.
It is (loosely) a gospel song and didn’t really fit with other recordings I’d been making. But in 2011, we decided to record a 5 song EP, 4 of them modern renderings of old holy blues and gospel folk songs. The 5th, and final song, is the one I wrote on a sidewalk in Rockland, Maine while on my way back home.
Why am I now promoting an album that’s 6 year old? Back in January when our newly inaugurated President began talking about stripping funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, we committed 100% of sales during the first 100 days to support the work the NEA does. Because Art Works. (links to purchase at bottom)
I thought it’d be interesting to compare the other 4 songs, side-by-side, with the versions I first heard:
#1. Bound For Glory (Why’n’t You Pray)
Recorded in Vernon Parish Louisiana on May 17, 1939 during John and Ruby Lomax’s Southern States Recording Trip, the song was performed a cappella by a quartet featuring Sam and Charlie Hickman, Rufus Spearman, and Sylvester “Deacon” Johnson.
I found it by accident under the title, Why’n’t You Shout Like You Know You Bound For Glory, while digging through the archives of the American Folklife Center’s collection on the Library of Congress website.
(Click on image for recording)
#2. Jesus on the Mainline
Before Katrina, before kids, before I’d even turned 30, I lived in New Orleans and split time working as a cabinet maker and street musician. Once, near midnight and just before I’d closed my case for the evening, a guy walked up with a beat up guitar of his own and a 12-pack of Steel Reserve. He asked if I knew Jesus on the Mainline. I didn’t. But after a Steel Reserve tall boy and a quick lesson I did.
In lieu of a recording from that street corner in the Quarter, here’s Ry Cooder’s version.
#3. Up To Canaan Land
The music from the film Elmer Gantry earned an Oscar nomination for Best Score in 1961. It didn’t win. But one song from the movie had such an immediate impact on me that the first time I saw the film I stopped and rewound the scene several times.
#4. This Train
The first time I heard the Blue Sky Boys was on a cassette tape in a yellow sedan riding around looking for breakfast in Boston. I don’t know the driver’s name (friend of a friend), but I do know he took us the wrong way down a one way street, and I do know he liked the close harmony of the Bolick Brothers.
The earliest recording of This Train dates back to 1922, and it has been covered by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Woody Guthrie to name a few, but the version I’ll always remember is the one that led me to home fries and pancakes.