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The Titanic and Folk Music

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Bob Dylan’s latest studio album, Tempest, includes a 14 minute song, also called “Tempest,” about the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a fine song, but I find it more interesting as a piece of musical folklore and history. “Tempest” is Dylan’s go at a broadside & disaster ballad, which has a long and fine tradition in American music.

I often think of folk music as something as old as the hills — that songs like “Barbara Allen” and “Coo-Coo Bird” have no author but their players. But that’s only part of the picture. Other equally famous and wide-spread songs, like “Frankie and Johnny” or “Jesse James” or “Delia,” are based in real people and events, made legendary for the purposes of song. You can visit Old Dan Tucker’s grave right here in Georgia.

The Titanic provides a particularly recent, concrete and fertile example of this process. Within just a few years of the 1912 sinking, there were dozens of songs circulating in the America. These songs are old enough now that we call them “folk music,” but at one point, it was just “music.”

The disaster has so many allegorical elements — the class struggle, the band nobly playing “Nearer My God to Thee,” the hubris of man to call anything unsinkable — that it can give rise to many different kinds of song. And the same song can find different emphasis in the hands of different players.

I’ll link to a few of my favorites here, as well as some other resources if you’d like to learn more.

Pete Seeger’s cheery rendition of a famous Titanic song

The Carter Family with the same song

Lead Belly

Art Rosenbaum’s “Backroads and Banjos” podcast on songs from the disaster:
Part 1
Part 2

I have a long personal fascination with the Titanic, which began when I built a large-scale plastic model of the ship. It took weeks, and I got to know every floorboard it seems. Since then, I’ve read several books about the disaster, marveled over the crockery pulled up from the ocean floor, seen stained dressing gowns in an Edinburgh museum that were worn by survivors plucked from lifeboats, and been the only visitor who was not a teenage girl at the Titanic Experience in Orlando.

Written by timwestover

September 12th, 2012 at 5:49 am

Posted in folklore

Radium Springs, GA

One of my hobbies is visiting old and forgotten tourist attractions in Georgia. The kinds of places that we value now either didn’t exist or weren’t valued in years gone by. One can learn a lot about a culture from its leisure activities.

Among my favorites of the places I’ve visited is Radium Springs, located near Albany, GA.

Radium Springs

Radium Springs

Radium Springs is a natural spring that wells up only a few hundred yards away from the Flint River. The springs, under the name Blue Springs, were popular in the 19th century, but the name was changed in the 1920’s following the discovery of trace amounts of radium in the water. Radium was thought to be a miracle cure for all kinds of medical ailments, and many fad treatments and quack recipes boasted of their radium content.

Radium Springs

Radium Springs

The water is very clear and very blue. You can see the bottom of the river bed through the water much more easily than in the nearby Flint River. I still wouldn’t drink it, though…

An elaborate hotel and casino were built at the edge of Radium Springs, which was the site of relaxation, dining, and dancing. The casino survived into the 1990’s and was finally demolished after historic flooding in 2003.

Radium Springs Casino

Radium Springs Casino


The county purchased Radium Springs and maintains a small parking area and overlook with informational signage. In 2010, the county also renovated a portion of the original spring area, including walkways, gazebos, gardens, and more. Alas, the casino has not been restored. There’s no admission charge, so if you’re ever in Albany, stop by!

Radium Springs Today

Radium Springs Today

Further reading:

Written by timwestover

December 21st, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Posted in folklore

Occupy Pike Street, circa 1915

Fed up with the puddles on Pike Street, a number of Lawrenceville, GA, citizens make their displeasure known:

Protest on Pike Street, Lawrencevile GA, 1915

Protest on Pike Street, Lawrencevile GA, 1915

At the far left, two men are dredging the puddle with a seine. In the middle, the ringleaders – Charles Mason and his son Clarence – are using the tried-and-true “firearm” method of fishing (e.g. they have shotguns). The most successful is the boy on the far right, who’s hauled up a respectable fish using watermelon as bait.

Source: Stancil, W. Dorsey. Vanishing Gwinnett. Lawrenceville, GA: Gwinnett Historical Society, 1984.

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October 20th, 2011 at 7:06 pm

That’s One Big Collard Plant

Here is Mr. and Mrs. Homer Tuggle’s epic collard plant, circa 1951:


If it’s just one giant collard leaf, is it still a “mess” of collards?

Source: Stancil, W. Dorsey. Vanishing Gwinnett. Lawrenceville, GA: Gwinnett Historical Society, 1984.

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October 17th, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Catchy Jingle for Nu-Grape circa 1926

I was listening to Art Rosenbaum’s podcast, “Backroads and Banjos” today. He opens the 4/29/2009 show with this jingle recorded in 1926 by the Nu-Grape Twins.

“I Got an Ice-Cold Nu-Grape” by the Nu-Grape Twins (MP3)

Now I want to buy a Nu-Grape, which I’ve never before had in my life (though I used to get sick on Welch’s grape soda when I was a kid). Fortunately, it’s still for sale, in stores and online!

The Nu-Grape Twins apparently recorded another track, City Built of Mansions, that has no connection to Nu-Grape. Maybe it was the B-side? Source

“City Built of Mansions” by the Nu-Grape Twins (MP3)

I love that some drinks survive from the turn of the century: Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, of course, but also Royal Crown and Moxie and Nu-Grape and Cheerwine and Dr. Enuf and a dozen others. The patent medicine tradition is alive and well.

Written by timwestover

October 16th, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Posted in folklore

The Whacking Cane – A Lawrenceville Legend

The new city council of Lawrenceville, GA, is putting up new signs in the downtown square. No longer does one have to go hunting in poorly mimeographed books for local lore — it’s posted right at the place it happened. Love it! Here’s the story of Mrs. Philadelphia Winn Maltbie and her famous anti-liquor advocacy.

The Whacking Cane

The Whacking Cane

The Whacking Cane story is right beside McCray’s tavern, a local saloon and American-standard restaurant. Saloon -> pharmacy -> bar and grill.  I do like McCray’s, though. Good burgers.

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October 8th, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Shifting Attitudes Towards Appalachian Songs

I’ve been reading a lot of folk song collections and essays on Appalachian music recently. Some are from the 1890’s to 1940’s, some are modern (or, at least, dating from the folk revival). The attitudes from the two time periods are very different, and, to me, quite striking.

Scholars of both time periods clearly care very much about the material — they have taken tremendous time and care to discover, collect, annotate, and compare ballads and folk songs. But it seems the earlier scholars are looking for artifacts of a previous civilization. They see in Appalachian music the fading remnants of some glorious English past. Part of this attitude is contempt for the contemporary singer of these songs, who is the unworthy inheritor and imperfect protector of the tradition.

Comments like these from Folk-Songs of the Southern Highlands (ed. Mellinger Edward Henry) from 1938 are representative of what I’ve read:

“[‘The Perjured Maid’], when I first saw it, impressed me as being what Child would call a ‘blurred, enfeebled, and disfigured form’ of something quite old and good.” (147)

“[‘My Pretty Little Pink’] is worthless as literature…. It is an extreme example of the patchwork of odds and ends so often found in these ‘love lorn songs.’ … It is really nothing at all but an illustration of the way minds of a certain sort work when they meet reverses in love; they think they are making poetry — instead they make up this sort of thing.” (262)

By contrast, the folk revival writers want material that is authentic to America. They have much more respect for the artistry and poetry of the American singer / interpreter of the material. Discovered artists are treated with reverence; many (deservedly) were plucked from mountain cabins and cotton fields and delivered to Carnegie Hall. They are perfect performers, and they need no antecedent.

For these later scholars, lyric coherence and stability is an argument against authenticity; the folk process hasn’t operated on songs that are too neat. A song written by “Anonymous” (or at least arranged by him / her) is better than a song with a noted author. Local variations are celebrated. There is no definitive version, nor definitive tune.

Personally, I agree with the latter scholars. I think the existing forms of Appalachian songs have artistic value in themselves, not just as clues to a “better” precursors. I like the disorder, remixing, and borrowing, and adaptation that created new songs out of European originals. Some of my favorite Appalachian songs aren’t descendants of Child ballads, nor are they even sensical, at least lyrically. The performer’s additional artistic choices — his selection of verses, his style of singing, his instrumental accompaniment (or lack thereof) — give additional coherence and meaning to the lyrics. And a looser overall structure doesn’t negate the impact of individual images and couplets, even if these couplets are used and re-used in different songs. It’s the sampling and name-checking of the 19th century.

Cecelia Conway in African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia makes a similar argument, though the text she chooses to champion is “puzzling, brief, and elliptical” (243). To call this song by Dink Roberts “cohesive” is a stretch:

Put poor John back in jail
Said, “I’d ask my captain for fifteen cents”
“Throw the time away”
“All I want is my .44 gun”
“Go out to Judge–”
“Go out to Judgement Day.”
Yeah, old John Hardy gonna be hung
Steel-driving man. (243)

Conway says “Some might interpret these songs as deteriorated or incoherent fragments of longer narrative songs about a public figure or historical event, by I do not. Dink consciously and intentionally performs these texts; his family enjoys them as they appear and considers them satisfying and complete, and, as I will show, their structure is meaningful and cohesive” (243). What follows are cultural and hermeneutic acrobatics to justify this claim. Some of her arguments are interesting, but still, the song really feels like assembled fragments. “John Hardy” and “John Henry” are completely different songs with antithetical protagonists: John Hardy is a desperate little murder, and John Henry is the “steel-driving man” that out-hammered the steam drill. In the lyrics that Conway quotes, they are conflated, and while I can’t call it a mistake, I can’t see the artistic reason for it, either.

I suppose the final decision rests with the listener; each makes his or her own determination about what’s meaningful and coherent.

Sometimes, a song isn’t about the words. “High ho, diddle dum day” and “King-kong kitchy ky-me-oh” are just as good for dancing as any other.

Written by timwestover

October 8th, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Posted in banjo,folklore

A Few Appalachian Snake Tales

Dwellers of the north Georgia mountains have to contend with an array of poisonous snakes, including rattlesnakes and copperheads, but their folktales contain even more perilous serpents…

The coach whip snake’s mechanism of killing is to fascinate its victims with its hypnotic powers and then tickle them to death. So say the optimists; tellers of darker tales say the coach whip snake operates more like its namesake. It attached itself to its victim by putting its head down the victim’s throat, which has the added advantage of silencing any cries for help, then lashing the victim with its thin, whip-like body, like a coach driver lashing his horses, until its victim expires.

The hoop snake overcomes a snake’s typical absence of vehicular speed by tucking its tail into its mouth, forming a wheel out of its body, and then rolling downhill at great speeds towards its victims.

Snakes have powerful poisons, too. Once, a man’s walking cane was bitten by a snake, and the cane swelled up so much from the venom that the man sold it to a saw mill, which made ten miles of railroad ties out of it. When the rain came and washed out the poison, the ties shrank back down, with disastrous consequences for the railroad tracks. But the enterprising man collected the shrunken splinters and sold them for toothpicks.

Another poisonous serpent bit a watermelon on the vine; the watermelon swelled and burst, causing a flood of watermelon juice through the valley. Only those who clung to the seeds survived.

The easiest way to get rid of snakes, of course, is to get a second snake of equal size and strength. The two snakes will get into a fight, and each will start to swallow the other, starting with the tail. And as each snake keeps swallowing, working its way forward — suddenly, they’ll both be gone! They’ve swallowed each other up.

Most of these snake tales come from A Treasury of Georgia Folklore, collected by Killion and Waller.

Written by timwestover

September 17th, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Posted in folklore

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Hungarians in Georgia

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In the 1880’s, the population of Georgia couldn’t be called diverse, especially in comparison to the proliferation of ethnic groups now found in Atlanta and environs. But the 1880’s did see the arrival of a Hungarian colony in Haralson county, which is west of Atlanta, halfway to the Alabama line, at the very edge of the Appalachians.

Haralson county entrepreneurs of the 1880’s wants to encourage Georgia’s native wine-making industry. They invited Hungarian immigrants (some arriving from Pennsylvania and other US locations, other emigrating directly from Georgia). I don’t know why Hungarian immigrants specifically were invited, but I suppose virtually any ethic group would have more experience with wine making than Georgia mountaineers.

Hungarian Vineyard in Haralson County, GA

The Hungarian colony established a Catholic church, built houses, worked vineyards, lived, and buried their dead in the Georgia clay. The swift end of the community, though, was Prohibition, which destroyed the local industry in an instant. The Hungarian residents scattered away, many to coal mining regions, where work could still be found.

Budapest Cemetery, Waco, GA

Budapest Cemetery, Waco, GA

The only traces of the Hungarian community that can be found now are a historical marker and the Budapest cemetery near the I-20 town of Waco, GA.

Hungarian Colony Historical Marker

Hungarian Colony Historical Marker

Because diversity and immigration are so much in the news today, and because opinions are so vitriolic among many “native” Georgians, I find these stories about earlier immigrants very interesting. In their day, the Hungarians were mistrusted by “native” Georgians (who had arrived after expelling the Cherokees in 1820s and 1830s) because of differences in language, religion, industry, and other customs. Prohibition was partially motivated by a desire to strike a blow at certain ethnic groups that had cultural history associated with alcohol — I’m sure many Georgians at the time were happy to see the “foreigners” leave. Now, I think few Georgians would be bothered by a wine-making Hungarian colony (in fact, Atlantans would probably take quaint drives out into the country to sample their products), but other ethnic groups make them rage and fume.

Someday, every human will have the freedom to live where he or she chooses. Ideally, immigration should be a formality — pay for a little paperwork, then pack your bags — for any citizen to move to any country. Fortunately, I think this is the trend of human history. Generation after generation, each tribe opens up a little bit.


Written by timwestover

September 16th, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Posted in folklore


Are your slaves rebellious or continually trying to escape? Can’t seem to get them to settle down and honor their masters and mistresses like the Fifth Commandment says? They may be suffering from drapetomania. Any slave that wants to escape must be mentally ill, and drapetomania’s one and only symptom in slaves is the desire to escape.

Drapetomania can also affect slave masters, too. In the master, the illness manifests as weakness of discipline, sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Thus, a good whipping solves two cases of drapetomania: the slave is cured by being whipped, and the master is cured by doing the whipping.

These are the sorts of things that happen when religion, politics, and science get together. The influences of one poison the others. Bad politics and bad interpretations of religion make for bad science, institutionalized racism, and another shameful item in 19th (and 20th and 21st) century race relations.

I’ve just finished Dunaway’s Slavery in the American Mountain South. If her conclusions can be trusted (I’ve already noted a few errors), then most slaves who went missing from their owners weren’t attempting to escape. More often, they were temporarily missing, to visit spouses, children, and other relatives from whom they’d be separated, or to go courting or participate in religious services. These slaves had every intention of returning — not, of course, because they enjoyed their captivity, but because permanently escaping would separate them from other relatives or expose them to retribution.

To the patrollers and other slave catchers, temporarily missing was just as bad as trying to permanently escape. But a little literacy could help slaves combat these patrollers. I’d thought that restrictions placed on education and literacy among slaves was meant to prevent slaves from communicating / coordinating and being exposed to notions of freedom (perhaps abolitionist tracts or the actual Bible). But there was another motive as well. The poor whites who staffed the slave-catching patrols were themselves illiterate; if they were presented with a leave pass or excuse letter by a slave, the patrollers often couldn’t tell if it was legitimate or a forgery. If slaves could easily generate these documents, escape (whether temporary or permanent) would have been easier. Many slaves did use forged papers (prepared by a literate slave or sympathetic white ally) to aid their escape.

Written by timwestover

September 3rd, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Posted in folklore