Introduction – “re-ragged in red…”
In our first post this week, we looked at the historical event, the murder of Patrolman James Brady by Harry Duncan in 1890 St. Louis, that inspired the American ballad “Duncan and Brady” or “Been on the Job Too Long.” Our second post explored most of the musical and lyric traces of the ballad that exist from the time of the crime through the 1940’s.
Today’s post though will be short on history and analysis, and long on music. Our objective today then is simple: we want to get a wide sampling of what’s been happening with the ballad since 1947, the year of Lead Belly’s classic recording. Like its cousin “Frankie and Albert“, this St. Louis bad man ballad has translated well into multiple genres, and is a delight to hear in any. Make no mistake – this song likes to change clothes.
When the women all heard King Brady was dead
well, they went back home and they re-ragged in red…
From Folk Revival to Folk Rock
In researching this ballad, I found it often assumed that the bridge between the older and newer versions is Lead Belly’s 1947 performance. Given Lead Belly’s fame and popularity among the next generation of folk singers, there is surely truth in this; but we ought not assume his recording was the only inspiration. Given the diversity we see in the ballad today, the bottleneck of source material between the wars was probably not so narrow.
– Paul Clayton and Dave Van Ronk
I introduced Dave Van Ronk‘s seminal version from 1959 in my first post (and here again, with lyrics, for your reference and pleasure.) Van Ronk doesn’t mention Lead Belly in the liner notes for Dave Van Ronk – The Folkways Years: 1959 – 1961. Instead, he credits Paul Clayton as his source for the ballad. (He adds one more bit of historical trivia, not in need of discussion right now.)
“I don’t think there have ever been two singers as unlike one another as Paul Clayton and myself. Yet Paul had considerable influence on me, as he did somewhat later on Bob Dylan. I think it was the way he had with a lyric. He was not only a singer of great talent, but a folklorist and collector of songs in the field. Paul collected this song on one of his field trips, and taught it to me. The character “Old King Brady” was lifted from a popular dime novel series circa 1890-1900. The electric car image, and the refrain “He’s been on the job too long” strike me as especially vivid.”
Though I don’t know for sure when Clayton passed the song along to Van Ronk, we know that Clayton cut a version of “On the Job Too Long” for his album titled Wanted for Murder: Songs of Outlaws and Desperadoes (1957, though citations are not numerous to easily verify it.)
“On the Job Too Long” – Lyrics
I don’t know if this 1961 track is the same as his earlier one, but certainly the lyrics suggest that Van Ronk was right – this variant seems to be from a unique source, quite probably field notes or a recording from one of Clayton’s own collecting trips.
Clearly, Van Ronk’s version differs from Clayton’s and from Lead Belly’s as well. Whether or not Van Ronk rewrote the ballad or got his lyrics from another source, I don’t know. In fact, the line ‘gonna shoot somebody just to see them die’ may well have been inspired by Johnny Cash, who’d cut “Folsom Prison Blues” just four years before Van Ronk cut his record.
However, if Van Ronk got his lyrics elsewhere, his source is not obvious in the song’s historical footprint as far as I’ve tracked it. There are two possibilities that I cannot explore without access to some old vinyl. It seems in 1957, somewhere around the time of Paul Clayton’s release, two other folk singers cut versions of the song; Win Stracke on his album Americana, and Logan English on his album Gambling Songs. If anyone has access to those tracks, please comment below!
Clearly some more digging along these lines would be worthwhile, but today is about music and we’ve got a lot to hear. For now, we can say at least that the most common set of lyrics lifted for the ballad today seems to start with Van Ronk, or his immediate source.
– Dave Guard, Judy Henske, “Spider” John Koerner, and Tom Rush
Dave Guard, after parting ways with The Kingston Trio, formed a new band called The Whiskeyhill Singers and on their one and only album cut a bold version of “Brady and Duncan” in 1962. The track is not available to hear in full that I can find, but you can get a sample here.
Judy Henske, a member of Guard’s new band, got her version out there in 1963 after The Whiskeyhill Singers broke up; and she no doubt helped spread the sound. While her lyrics are Van Ronk’s, her performance is energetic and very much in her own inimitable and raucous style.
Tom Rush and Spider John Koerner both recorded “Duncan and Brady”, each waxing influential cuts. Rush beat Koerner by a year in the discography – 1963 and 1964, respectively – but he credits Koerner as his source for the ballad, so we should give Koerner the next spot.
Koerner’s talking blues is unique among all, and not to be missed – it is as good a way as any to introduce oneself to the most common version of the fictional history of the murder. The audio is quite clear and, truly, a transcription wouldn’t do the delivery justice anyway. Koerner gets around to the lyrics just after minute three of the recording, and those are in fact quite familiar. Koerner’s lyrics are those that Lomax published in 1941 and Lead Belly sang in 1947, minus a couple of verses and with only the smallest of stylistic changes. The tune though stands alone among all the versions I can find.
Rush’s version on the other hand seems very much inspired by Van Ronk’s, though it is excellent in its own right and is often cited as seminal. I can’t link to the 1963 track, but I have it on vinyl. Here are his lyrics. The performance is tame and polished; I’m sure the record company thought it more appealing to the gentle folk. Should you want the album, you can buy it here as a CD… However, you can hear a live, much less tame, version of the song wherein Rush delivers a talking blues in the style of Koerner’s.
– Quicksilver Messenger Service and New Riders of the Purple Sage
One interesting thing about all this interest in the ballad during the Folk Revival is that it translated into material for the San Francisco psychedelic music scene. We’ve already seen how the Grateful Dead plucked “Cold Rain and Snow” from its happy home in the acoustic folk world and amplified it in to one of their enduring signature ballads. Quicksilver Messenger Service did something similar with “Duncan and Brady” sometime before early 1967. With a guitarist named Gary Duncan, perhaps the song choice was unavoidable. Anyway, check it out; and don’t tell me you can’t hear Henske’s influence here!
Here again we see the clear preference for Van Ronk’s lyrics. The same is true for another classic folk rock version – this time by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, from their 1972 album Powerglide. They credit their arrangement to Koerner, but their truncated lyrics are clearly Van Ronk’s even though the Riders do add some of their own twist to it all.
The New Riders’ performance leads us in another obvious direction. We saw in the last post that this African-American ballad was collected among rural southern whites in 1908, and that the first known recording of the ballad (1929) was from Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles, a white southern string band. So, mix ragtime, blues and high lonesome mountain singing and what do you get? I think you know where I’m going with this…
“Brady’s in Hell with his Stetson on…” – Country Roots and Branches
The sampling here is tremendous, so bear with me. I’m going to leave the chronological approach behind now and, rather than get truly crazy with subheadings that break up the flow, just list some of the possible labels one might use to describe the variety among the broader genre. There are acoustic and electric performances; there’s country blues, ragtime country, bluegrass, honky-tonk, rockabilly, and… well, you get the picture. I’m really only going to get to a few of the finest examples. Suffice it to say this song can get as country as you want it and still work *just fine.* Pretty damn good for a ballad that started out essentially as a black folks’ taunt to Irish policemen, eh?
– Eddie Pennington and Joel Mabus
I’m not truly familiar with Eddie Pennington‘s work, though I’ve known of him and his 2004 album for Smithsonian-Folkways, Walks the Strings and Even Sings, for awhile. The liner notes tell the basic true story of the murder, though their source gets the date wrong and a few other details, at least when judged against court records. Pennington credits this lyrically singular version to “music fan Jake D. James”, though I can find no more on him.
Here, as in Watt’s version from 1929, Brady is a worker on the telephone line. Duncan though is a gambler, and little else lyrically except the trip to Hell generally resembles Watts’ version. The conflict is clearly defined as related to love, or lust at least. “Just one pretty woman and two hard men. Lord, Lord, Lord here we go again!” The two moralistic verses that end the song, besides being original and evocative, are unique in tone among the sources I’ve studied. This ballad generally does not wag fingers. Clearly, a ‘rationalizer‘ got hold of the ballad somewhere along the way, after the advent of televangelism!
But, of course, the best story here is Pennington’s picking. You just can’t top it for ragtime country, or I’ve never known better myself at least. As for that ‘thumb-picking’ style, though we can hear its obvious adaptability to ragtime, it is described by Joe Wilson in the liner notes as being native to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and derived from the parlor guitar ‘craze’ that took hold after the Civil War, particularly with middle class white women. Merle Travis, a native of Muhlenberg County, popularized this Kentucky technique but didn’t create it. Wilson argues that it’s a tradition original to women.
It always amazes me how easy it is to mix and match musical traditions in America when it was almost always the opposite socially for the carriers of those traditions if their skin color was different. Here, I suppose, is such an example for gender as well.
Joel Mabus has a similar but equally compelling rendition that opens with lyrics from Sandburg’s Version A. (Here are Mabus’ lyrics.) It’s not available to hear in full as far as I can tell, but you can sample the ballad or buy the track or CD here.
– Hoyt Axton and The Johnson Mountain Boys
Let’s step back to 1963 and consider Hoyt Axton’s take on this ballad, from his album Saturday’s Child. His has something in common with Henske’s performance, but it also stands apart and on its own creative ground. The muted trumpet could be from a New Orleans jazz saloon, the guitar from a folk song circle, and the singing from a St. Louis honky tonk. It’s just creative old country music, really. But instead of taking more time thinking about labels, just listen to it. You won’t regret it.
Lyrics (same as Van Ronk’s except for small changes)
I don’t know when the first bluegrass version of “Duncan and Brady” or “He’s Been on the Job Too Long” was delivered on stage or around a festival campfire, but the recording that first gained national attention was the 1993 track by the Johnson Mountain Boys. Let it stand for the power of this ballad in that genre. The performance is virtuoso. As with Axton above, the lyrics are essentially Van Ronk’s.
– Harvey Reid and Big Smith
A couple of performances show us again just how adaptable this ballad can be. Harvey Reid released Steel Driving Man somewhere around the time I moved to the Berkshires, in 1992. “Duncan and Brady” is one of the most vibrant tracks on the album. It’s a well-oiled rockabilly/blues/folk engine with a full head of steam that will move you for sure.
Again, the lyrics are basically Van Ronk’s. The same is true for the next track as well.
Of course there are more ‘countrified’ versions to be heard, and you can check all that out on my Spotify playlist at the bottom of the post if you want! But for now, there’s more to highlight!
“You shot King Brady, gonna shoot him again!” – Singer / Songwriters Take Aim
Another development I find interesting in the evolution of “Brady” after Lead Belly is its adaptation to the ‘singer-songwriter’ style that emerged out of the late ’60s, distinct from both the rock and folk styles (commercial or traditional.) It seems an unlikely pairing; a ballad which is basically a collective flipping off of the St. Louis police department and the usually mellow styling of some groovy dude or lady. And yet, as is more often than not the case when it comes to American music, the weird mix works.
Two of my favorite recordings of this ballad fall in to this category. Chris Smither delivers an excellent, punchy live version on his 2004 Chris Smither Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. It’s well worth checking out, but unavailable to stream/embed at the moment. (I’m not as wild about Smither’s studio version on Drive You Home Again, but check it out here if you want.)
I’m not wild about this next one, but we can go back to 1970 to find the quintessential singer-songwriter interpreter of “Brady”; none other than James Taylor! It seems to be from a live performance on 2/6/70 in Syracuse, New York but I’m not sure.
I’m getting tired of saying it and redoing the link, but the Morrissey/Brown track, Taylor’s, and the next one all use some variation of Van Ronk’s lyrics.
If Taylor’s version is too mellow for you but you like the approach overall, let me turn you on to this awesome track, and a live performance on Youtube to boot, by Martin Simpson. It’s our only sample here in a British voice, though Simpson’s artistry makes that irrelevant. Still, such things always get my ‘history mind’ spinning – here’s an Englishman playing an African-American tune written to celebrate the murder of an Irish police officer, both groups compelled to journey to America in part by English economics and politics. Then both groups after the Civil War… Aw, what the hell, just listen. Music transcends it all.
I count over a dozen new tracks linked above, and I introduced four other key recordings in my earlier posts. I’ve made mention of several others to which I can’t link. Frankly, I could keep going. It’s a bit overwhelming when one dives into a classic ballad.
Bob Dylan has a version. And a few women do this ballad too; Rhonda Vincent, Tina Chancey, and Retta Guest Choate. Paul Brady even does an awesome Irish skiffle/rock version, though it’s not the only St. Louis bad man ballad he plays!
Here’s a thorough, if not complete, discography. Actually, you can check out many of the tracks from the discography if you want at the playlists linked below; first Spotify and then Youtube.
“Duncan and Brady” may not have followed the path to popularity of its cousins “Frankie and Albert” or “Stagger Lee”, but I hope this post and the last two convince you that it’s earned its place of honor in American music. It sure isn’t getting stale.
Thank you all for reading and listening this week! It’s been a blast for me to write and curate.