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Notes on the Songs in DREADFUL MEMORIES

Adapted by Dan Patterson chiefly from notes written by Archie Green for the booklet that accompanies "Sarah Ogan Gunning: 'Girl of Constant Sorrow,'" Folk-Legacy 26, published in 1965 and still obtainable from Folk-Legacy Records. Used with the permission of Archie Green and Sandy Paton of Folk-Legacy Records.


1. "Dreadful Memories." In 1952, when John Greenway visited Aunt Molly Jackson at Sacramento, California, she sang for him a poignant song modeled on the familiar hymn "Precious Memories." Molly placed the date of composition as 1935 and the "experience" as 1931. It was an exciting find for the folklorist, since Molly had not given this piece to previous collectors Alan Lomax or Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in the 1930's. Greenway used "Dreadful Memories" in American Folksongs of Protest and recorded it twice. Consequently, I was pleased and surprised to collect it from Sarah in 1963, for she generally eschewed her half-sister's material. Sarah told me that she composed the song in New York about 1938 and that Molly "learned it from her" when the Gunnings visited California during World War II. There is no question in my mind as to the veracity of Sarah's statement (although to document my belief would require an analysis of Aunt Molly Jackson longer than this brochure). Here it can be said that folksong students are in debt to the two sisters for this excellent example of variation within a single family tradition.

2. "Loving Nancy." Sarah, while very young, learned a number of songs from her mother, Sarah Elizabeth Lucas Garland, from "Lizzie's" sisters, and their children. Such pieces were known to the Lucases for many generations and were brought directly from the British Isles or absorbed from other Anglo-American singers in Kentucky. This particular variant of "Loving Nancy" is not found in standard collections; however, the text was transcribed in 1964 by Betty Garland from her own singing for a brochure in American Folk Ballads (Folkways 2307).
Since Nancy is a most common ballad name, it is difficult to place the "Lucas" variant in a specific ballad family. "Farewell Charming Nancy" (Laws K 14 in G. Malcolm, American Balladry from British Broadsides) has the hero steer his boat to the East Indies; Sarah's hero steers his boat to New Alena (Orleans). Jim Garland has suggested to his daughter Betty that Kentucky men who rafted logs out of the mountains sang "Loving Nancy." Perhaps we see here an ocean voyage localized to a trip down the Ohio-Mississippi. Before this piece is placed directly in the "Farewell Charming Nancy" category, one must note that Sarah's song ends with Nancy's death by heartbreak, exactly like many heroines in "William and Nancy II" (Laws P 5). Normally one would assume Sarah's song to be spliced out of these two ballads. However, her intervening stanzas contain commonplaces which appear elsewhere. I cite only the "write a fine hand" reference in Sharp's "Pretty Saro" and the "salmon" reference in Creighton's "Pretty Polly." This last figure suggests both the theme of animal disguise to escape pursuit in "The Two Magicians" (Child 44), and the imagery of chase and conquest in the amatory "Hares on the Mountain" collected by Sharp and others in England (see Cecil Sharp, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, and Margaret Dean-Smith, A Guide to English Folk Song Collections).

3. "Down on the Picket Line." Many of Sarah's topical songs were general commentaries on hardship or exploitation and were composed after she reached New York; however, some were labor-radical songs with a specific time-place setting. "Down on the Picket Line" stems from the 1932 National Miners Union strike on the left fork of Straight Creek, Bell County (Cary, Arjay, Glendon, Fox Ridge) where miners and their wives walked the coal-camp railroad track picket line. This is Sarah's first song; she composed it before she left Kentucky, when her own role as a trade union protagonist was vivid. She identified her melodic source as the widespread hymn "As I Went Down in the Valley to Pray" (The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, III, 610, and V, 348).

4. "Come All You Coal Miners." In his Only a Miner (pp. 433-435) Archie Green writes that the tension in this song comes from the mixture of "a mournful traditional tune," usually paired with "The Texas Rangers," and "a revolutionary text" ending in a "flaming call": "Let's sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of Hell." Sarah explained to him that when she composed it she did not think of it "as a political or protest song." She wrote it when her husband Andrew Ogan was dying of "miner's consumption." She "identified her sorrow in sectarian terminology which was at that time new to her and but dimly understood."
She recorded the song for the Library of Congress in 1937, but it did not gain the attention, "even in radical circles," given to the similar "Which Side Are You On" or "The Death of Harry Simms." In 1965 Mike Seeger recorded it for Tipple, Loom & Rail, a Folkways LP about industrialization in the South. Green did not believe that it had by in 1972 sold a thousand copies. He thought this detail underscored how small the audience was at that time for traditional material, whether performed by folksingers themselves or by interpreters. However, he wrote, "in November, 1968, Seeger's rendition of 'Come All You Coal Miners' was heard in hundreds of thousands of American homes by virtue of its inclusion as background music in the National Educational Television documentary, 'Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People.'"
While he was editing this NET film, its producer-director Jack Willis looked for an incisive musical selection "to show the historical continuity between the region and industrial America." He used this single coal-mining piece, Green wrote, "to establish a needed tone" in the TV film. Sarah Gunning's Library of Congress field disc of "Come All You Coal Miners" was "a poignant statement of her condition," and Mike Seeger's secondary Folkways performance was "a faithful re-presentation of this cry, but in a form available to anyone with a record player." NET producer Jack Willis' use of Seeger's LP, Green wrote, widely extended the song's audience "but with much loss of intensity. On a film soundtrack the song functions fleetingly to set mood, and it is part of an impressionistic portrait of American poverty." He concludes, "Perhaps in tracing the movement of Sarah's coal-mining song from a virtually inaccessible, low-fidelity field disc, through a technically fine and inexpensive LP, to a sensitive TV documentary film track, we have wrought a parable on an excellent use of folk material by the mass media, as well as on our own problems in coping with recorded sound at its many levels."

5. “I Hate the Capitalist System” About 1939, Moe Asch-later the proprietor of Folkways records-first heard Sarah sing this piece. He complimented her by commenting that it was the most radical composition he had ever heard in his life. It is sometimes sung and called "I Hate the Company Bosses," but the original title was "I Hate the Capitalist System"; the song was recorded as such for the Library of Congress. Sarah thought of it as autobiographical-a response to the death of her loved ones-and not polemical. Although she stated to me that the music was made up out of her mind, it is clearly related to at least two tunes known in mountain tradition: a Carter Family melody for a broadside usually called "The Sailor Boy" (Laws K 12); a haunting air printed by Josiah Combs from his mother's singing on Troublesome Creek, Knott County, Kentucky, about 1889 ("On the Banks of that Lonely River" in Folk-Songs from the Kentucky Highlands).

6. “I'm Going Around This World, Babe of Mine.” Not all of Sarah's labor material is somber. This song, also called "I'm Going to Organize," seemed to appeal particularly to Woody Guthrie, and when he recorded it, he became the first person to "cover" any of her songs after her Library of Congress sessions. Guthrie met Sarah soon after his arrival in New York. When she was in the hospital in the summer of 1941, he recorded (and altered) this song, and titled it "Babe O' Mine." It was released by the small Keynote firm, backed with the Almanac Singers and Pete Seeger's "Song for [Harry] Bridges." In this form the song reached a number of CIO trade unionists during World War II. The Daily Worker (November 10, 1942) printed the first verse and music for a maritime re-composition of Sarah's coal mining song without credit to her.
"I'm Going to Organize" has intrinsic interest as a union song; it is also one recent branch of the "Baby Mine"-"Banjo Girl" family tree. Sigmund Spaeth and Douglas Gilbert trace this popular love song back to the 1880's. The former identifies it in Weep Some More My Lady as an "idyll of wedded happiness," while the latter in Lost Chords places bandit Jesse James in an early parody of the song. In hillbilly tradition the text is usually secondary to the tune, which has become a lively vehicle for a banjo instrumental.

7. “I Am a Girl Of Constant Sorrow.” In recent years, the Appalachian lament "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" has become popular in urban folksong circles, in part through the performances of the Stanley Brothers and Mike Seeger. No study of this haunting piece is available; the earliest text I have found was printed about 1913 in a pocket songster hawked by Dick Burnett, a blind singer from Monticello, Kentucky. During 1918 Cecil Sharp collected the song and published it as "In Old Virginny" (English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, II, 233). Sarah's re-composition of the traditional "Man" into a more personal "Girl" took place about 1936 in New York, where her first husband, Andrew Ogan, was fatally ill. The text was descriptive of loneliness away from home and anticipated her bereavement; the melody she remembered from a 78-rpm hillbilly record sung by Emry Arthur (Vocalion 5208), which she had heard some years before in the mountains. During 1937, Alan Lomax recorded Sarah's "Girl" for the Library of Congress in a six-stanza version which was subsequently transcribed (words and music) in the People's Songs Bulletin (April, 1946) and reprinted in 1961. It was also printed (words only) by Greenway in 1953 in American Folksongs of Protest. Three "revival" singers picked up the song from print; Sarah, herself, recorded it again at the 1964 Newport Festival (Traditional Music at Newport 1964, Part I, Vanguard Records 9182). Sarah's "Girl" is a unique coal mining song; however, the traditional "Man" has itself been sung from a girl's perspective by Kentucky folksingers and was collected as such by D. K. Wilgus. Urban artists (for example, Judy Collins) have also recorded the "old" feminine form.

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