Last year’s Halloween-themed post of roots music for ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night was a big hit. So on this week’s Saturday Soundtrack, we’re back for take two, only we’re posting this on a Friday to give you a weekend full of thrills and chills.
Ghosts, death, and farewell
Bringing Mary Home is a classic “ghost” hit by the Country Gentlemen, in part because the ending sneaks up on you. This version from a 1992 reunion show at Woodstock — featuring Eddie Adcock (banjo and backing vocals), the late John Duffy (mandolin and high tenor), the late Charlie Waller (guitar and lead vocal) and Tom Gray (bass) — is priceless. Yep, John Duffy’s pants are pretty scary on their own!
Last year I featured Ralph Stanley with his definitive version of O Death from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? In this year’s roundup, let’s turn to Rhiannon Giddens with a version from her recent album, They’re Calling Me Home.
Giddens, with partner Francesco Turrisi, base this version on a different source — Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. As the Bluegrass Situation (BGS) site notes, it is a good reminder of “just how much of American music and culture are entirely thanks to the contributions of Black folks.”
The Parting Glass is an Irish farewell song. “The singer must depart but where is he going? Does he simply have to leave the area or the town? Will he ever return? Or is he foreseeing that he does not have long to live and this really is the final farewell?”
It’s never made clear so we can interpret Freddie White’s version in our own way, depending on what suits our circumstances at any given time.
Murder and suicide ballads
Next up we have the Stanley Brothers singing Little Glass of Wine — a traditional mountain music murder/suicide ballad. The moral of this story: watch what drinks you accept from lovers!
The family bluegrass band Cherryholmes caused a stir with the modern murder ballad Red Satin Dress. I note the comment by the writer on the BGS website who pondered, “…with so many songs about murderous, deceitful women in bluegrass — the overwhelmingly male songwriters across the genre’s history couldn’t be bitter and misogynist, could they? Could they?”
Of course they could. If you have to ask you haven’t been paying attention.
Knoxville Girl is one of the classic murder ballads in the country/folk tradition. Here’s the Louvin Brothers languid version, which makes it creepier. In these songs the guys are always murdering “the girl I loved so well.” Jeez, guys, let me just say that’s not the way you express love.
Of course, leave it to national treasure Dolly Parton to recast murder and suicide ballads from the point of view of the abused, forgotten, and often murdered woman. The Bridge is a brilliant “sad-ass” Parton song*, focused on the last words of a pregnant woman about to jump to her death, on the spot she first kissed the lover who deserted her.
Also from BGS, here’s a take on Jake Blount’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night.
“In the Pines” is one of the most haunting lyrics in the bluegrass lexicon, but ethnomusicologist, researcher, and musician Jake Blount didn’t source his version from bluegrass at all — but from Nirvana. That’s just one facet of Blount’s rendition, which effortlessly queers the original stanzas and adds a degree of disquieting patina that’s often absent from more tired or well-traveled covers of the song. A reworking of a traditional track that leans into the moroseness underpinning it.
Blount’s version, as another commentator notes, goes back to a more authentic version of the song, removing the aspects of a love story and revealing the harsher truth about the lynching mobs and sudden disappearances in the woods. Chilling but brilliant.
The devil’s way
We’ll end with a song written by Stan Jones in 1948 and originally recorded by Burl Ives the following year. Johnny Cash had a definitive version, and I’ve chosen a video from the 1990s with Cash and Willie Nelson trading the lead vocals; Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings singing the backup harmony; and the amazing Reggie Young playing killer guitar fills on (Ghost) Riders in the Sky.
An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day / Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way / When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw / A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw
Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel / Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel / A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky / For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry
Yippie yi yaaaay / Yippie yi ooohhh / Ghost Riders in the sky
Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat / He’s riding hard to catch that herd, but he ain’t caught ’em yet / ‘Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky / On horses snorting fire / As they ride on hear their cry
As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name / If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range / Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride / Trying to catch the Devil’s herd, across these endless skies
Yippie yi yaaaay / Yippie yi ohhhhh / Ghost Riders in the sky
Trick or treat!
More to come…
Image of werewolf from Pixabay. Image of ghost from Stefan Keller on Pixabay. Image of pandemic tombstones from DJB.
*Parton self-described some of her work from the early years as “sad ass songs.” In those works, she was often taking traditional murder ballads like Knoxville Girl and recasting them from the woman’s (i.e., the victim’s) point of view.
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