Welcome to Mellow's Log Cabin. This blog's purpose is to supply information on a diversity of American southern music - ranging from country, blues, old-time and folk to R&B, rock'n'roll and rockabilly. I regularly present my research results about artists, labels, shows and also give guest writers a chance to publish their texts here on occasion.


• Jack Turner recordings available here.
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• Thanks to Bob more info on Bill Harris.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Guest essayist's thoughts on the American musical melting pot

Folk musicians from different countries: "Urfideles Oberbayrisches Schrammel-Quartett" under the direction of Hans'l Lahl from Germany (left) and two unidentified old-time musicians from the USA, possibly 19th century or early 20th century. American folk music was not only the product of Irish, English and Scottish musical traditions melted with the Afroamerican influences, but also borrowed many elements from Middle European folk music. The polka style for example is a traditional musical style from Germany, Poland, the now called Czech Republic and other countries. The following essay about European and American folk music was written by a guest writer of this blog, known as bob'sluckycat. I hope you all enjoy reading it.
The writer of this blog in his first two posts in the series concerning Germanic origins of American folk/country songs states that "She'll Be Coming Around The Mountain" sound to him a lot like "Von den blauen, blauen Bergen" and it may very well could be that it is. American tracings of the song date back to an old, mainly, Negro Spirtual entitled "When The Chariot Comes," but with very different lyrics from the later, mid-19th century, version in the Southern US of A. version. However, it's just possible that a Germanic cleric wrote the original hymn and lifted the melody from the original folk song just as easily. We'll never know.

"Under The Double Eagle" is easier to trace. It was composed as a march by Josef Franz Wagner in the late 19th Century as "Unter dem Doppeladler". Wagner was an Austrian composer and bandmaster and the title of his composition refers to the "double eagle" on the coat of arms of Austria-Hungary under Emperor Franz Josef. Americans on the other hand, took "double eagle" to mean a slang term for the American $20.00 gold coin in common use at the time, which made it a more acceptable premise. John Philip Sousa, American bandmaster and noted march composer considered this tune to be one of his favorites and his various recordings as well as public performances spread the song far and wide. It was easily adaptable to the rural groups and instruments of the day, especially the fiddle (violin), piano and many other instruments as well. The song is now considered a country music classic and has evolved into Bluegrass, Western Swing, and other Country music styles over the years. Where Herr Wagner got his original inspiration for the song is anybody's guess.

The United States Navy Band - "Under the Double Eagle (Sousa arrangement)
Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys - "Under the Double Eagle" (1961)
Don Reno & Red Smiley - "Under the Double Eagle (1962)
The traditional Sousa arrangement by The U.S. Navy Band is pretty much exactly as you would have heard it one hundred years ago. The Bluegrass version is the best in that genre, as is the Western Swing version which features Merle Travis on lead guitar and joined by Hank Thompson, himself, on the twin guitars part.

If I had to pick what is the most famous Germanic folk song ever written, my pick would have to be "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" or simply in English "Silent Night". This Christmas carol written between 1816 and 1818 by Fr. Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber in Orbendorf Austria is so simple and yet so sweet, reverent and uplifting all at once, sung in any language. It is the true spirit of Christmas. The superior German language version by Herr Herbert Ernst Groh (1905 - 1982), a very popular Swiss tenor in Germany and throughout Europe, in his day, is posted in the previous post and can be heard there to great advantage. I submit a powerful 1963 version by Jim Reeves to showcase what a superior English language version can sound like.

Jim Reeves - "Silent Night" (1963)

Prior to 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, music across America, while always important enterainment at various gatherings, was mostly not written down and played by ear and spread by itinerent musicians to each other or handed down from one family member to another. Of course as that happened, melodies and lyrics got changed along the way and expanded upon. In the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century, and especially in the rural enclaves far flung across the land the most important places that music florished was in the home, Churches and various hymnals (where some formal traing could also be picked up), saloons and taverns and whorehouses. It sounds cliché now, but the music progressed mainly by people asking the musicians "Do you know so and so?" and the reply being "Sing or hum a few bars and see if I know it or can play it." The "so and so" could have been anything from anywhere and much could also be lost or added in the translation. However, once it was learned it stayed in the repetoire as is, especially if it got popular. Later commercial American songs coming out of "Tin Pan Alley" in New York were being written by immigrants, mostly, from Europe and Russia, Irving Berlin being the best example, these songs put all sorts of old folk song melodies to use in various new songs. Those earliest mechanical sound recordings did not lend themselves to subtle music, but did work with brass bands, pianos, loud voices and music hall type music. Rural recordings were almost non-existant until July of 1922, when E.C. "Eck" Robertson and Henry C. Gilliland, two Confederate Civil War veterans and by now very old men, came to New York to record for Victor Records. Robertson's version of "Ragtime Annie" was a certifiable hit in it's day and his fiddle playing was a major influence. Listen to Asleep At The Wheel's version to see how far the song evolved by 1975.

A.C. Eck Robertson - "Ragtime Annie" (Victor 19149), 1922
Asleep at the Wheel - "Ragtime Annie", 1977
With the coming of the electric, carbon microphone and electric recording techniques in the mid-1920's the lid was off. Engineers and producers fanned out across the entire US of A searching for rural musicians to record and issue records of. Other musicians bought and listened to those recordings and learned the music more note for note than ever before. Radio was also a major factor. Reams and reams have been written about the origins of the songs that American musicians and singers recorded, most of it by scholars who connect a large part of it to older Anglo-Saxon and Irish origins, so I won't go there. America is a great melting pot in many ways including music. I'll leave it at that.

Footnote 1: I use the word "Germanic" to cover old German states such as Prussia, Bavaria, and others as well as Austria, Hungary and Switzerland.
Footnote 2: The songs used in this essay are from my personal collection.
Footnote 3: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all from bobsluckycat@att.net in the USA. 

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