Little Sadie – Old Time, Bluegrass, and Beyond

Clarence "Tom" Ashley - ca. early 1960's

Clarence “Tom” Ashley – ca. early 1960’s

Note: This is Part 3 of a three part series on “Little Sadie” – See also Part 1 and Part 2

Introduction

I went out one night for to make a little round
I met Little Sadie and I shot her down
Went back home, got into bed
Forty-four smokeless under my head

I‘d wager that any of you who know this ballad remember it because of this first verse.  It’s chilling in its casual violence, as if cold-blooded murder was just one more turn of events in any given day for the singer.  We’re in our third year of blogging and we’ve considered quite a few murder ballads here, but it’s fair to say this one holds a unique place.

Last week we looked at the oldest scraps of this ballad that we can find. We traced them back to its African-American roots, though the ballad is surely older than the 1912 fragment we found in the cane and cotton fields of the Brazos.  We followed that particular branch out to the southern penitentiaries between the great wars to find “Bad Lee Brown” (“Sadie’s” other common name) as a prison blues.  Then, early this week we found a major Anglo-American country music variant in “Cocaine Blues”, and we followed that one from the post-war country radio stations down into Folsom Prison in 1968.

Today though we’ll follow the most popular Anglo-American variant family, properly called “Little Sadie” and known in old-time, folk, and bluegrass, from 1918 to today.  Now, we’ve covered a good deal of the ballad’s history in the first two posts, so today will be more about the music.  But you know I can’t help myself, so I’ll be doing some sleuthing early in the post.  And we’ll spend a bit of time at the end looking at the song’s power again from a 21st century perspective.  Something happens to this ballad when a woman sings it, and it’s in today’s branches we find those voices.  Either way though, this post has the most music of the three!

Let’s get to making our rounds then.

White Blues and Old-Time Strings

One fact missing from my long historical post last week is mention of the earliest recording of “Little Sadie”.  I left that for today because it turns out that the earliest recordings, though obviously influenced by the African-American tradition, are from two white ‘old time’ musicians of the late 1920’s.

On October 23, 1929, in Johnson City, Tennessee, Clarence “Tom” Ashley cut for Columbia the earliest released recording of this ballad, issued in 1930.  Ashley hardly needs any introduction as one of the key figures of the Folk Revival, though his early work has until the last decade been less accessible.  Indeed, Spotify does not link to the 2001 Greenback Dollar that includes his early records.  However, a quick comparison with the sample available on Amazon reveals that this is indeed the track we want.  The recording quality is remarkably good.

Lyrics for Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (1929 version)

Ashley was a prolific talent and was exposed to a variety of musicians and styles from a young age and throughout his adult life.  His delivery of “Little Sadie” shows an influence that is clearly not that of traditional Anglo-American balladry alone.  Indeed, according to Professor Cecelia Conway in the entry for Ashley in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia

Much of Ashley’s song repertoire, including “Red Rocking Chair” and “Walking Boss,” reflected a strong African American influence, as did his banjo playing. His influential interpretations of “House Carpenter” and “The Coo-Coo Bird” in “sawmill” tuning were close in style to the versions played by his African American neighbor Dave Thompson.

You’ll recall from last week that Cecil Sharp found “Satey” in the western Virginia mountains in 1918, and Vance Randolph found “Bad Lee Brown” in the Ozarks only four years later.  There can be little doubt that the profound cultural exchange and diffusion between black and white folks in the Appalachians for decades after the Civil War included this ballad from its very early days.

Indeed, we now can identify even more evidence of all this with another recording.

Though unreleased until 1983 on a compilation by the Library of Congress, John Dilleshaw actually recorded a version of “Bad Lee Brown” seven months earlier than Ashley, on March 22, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia for Okeh.  It qualifies then as the earliest known recording of the ballad, though it can’t be called influential in any way as it was virtually unknown until recently.  Because it was unknown as the ballad developed in the 20th century, this stands as a singular variant, both lyrically and musically.

Lyrics for “Bad Lee Brown” by John Dilleshaw

Unique indeed! It’s in the third person and, though enough of the traditional elements remain that we can easily identify it as “Bad Lee Brown”,  the narrative details are rather different.   Lee Brown in this one is a man who is making time with another man’s wife.  It’s not clear at all from the early verses, but when Brown is caught in flagrante delicto, he goes home to get his gun then kills the married couple.  The rest of the song follows the traditional formula more closely.

Now, all this variance suggests the possibility Dilleshaw took the traditional ballad and rewrote it for the purposes of selling his record to a white audience.  Both the lyric and musical changes he makes move it towards a more Anglo-American type of balladry.  It’s certainly not a stretch.

In fact, there’s no doubt that Dilleshaw learned his earliest performance music directly from African-American source material.  As a young man in northern Georgia sometime around 1914, he ended up shooting himself in the foot while hunting.  While spending time recovering from this serious injury, he learned to play guitar and several songs from his friend, an older black gentleman who lived nearby named Bill Turner.  It’s reasonable to imagine that “Bad Lee Brown” was one of those songs.

Historical Marker - Briceville, Tennessee

Historical Marker – Briceville, Tennessee

I think as well there’s an interesting clue to this version’s black roots in the last verse.  “Forty four feet down under the ground / you remember the day you shot your woman down…”  Odd, no?  Not forty four days, or years, but feet.  However, as we discovered last week, “Bad Lee Brown” was an African-American prison blues.  And, though our stereotype of chain gangs compels us to imagine a group of men pounding rocks along the road, one common use of convicts in some areas of the South was to work the local coal mines.  If you think of it that way, boy does that last line strike sparks!  I think that’s likely a line from a prison blues, and an early one at that.

From a different part of the South, a couple of other recordings from later in the 20th century and a full version collected in the 1930’s reinforce what is plain enough to see from Ashley’s and Dilleshaw’s early tracks – “Little Sadie” flourished in white communities and, in a different context, found as much life and energy as it had earlier in African-American communities.  The recordings, along with Clarence Ashley’s version from his work in the early 1960’s with Doc Watson, helped bridge the gap from the early days to the Folk Revival; however, they are clearly rooted in traditional styles.

Louise Foreacre, presumably a relative of Ernest “Pop” Stoneman and from western Virginia like him, recorded a short but compelling banjo version of “Little Sadie” on the Stoneman Family’s 1956 Folkways album.  Her use of the term “high sheriff” is an obvious trace of an African-American source for this variant, as is the term “sports”, referencing black men involved in what was known as “the sporting life.”  But the penultimate verse seems just as clearly an Anglo-American graft of the ‘come all ye’ variety.

Come all young men take my advice
never take another poor girl’s life
It’ll cause you to weep, it will cause you to moan
It will cause you leave your home sweet home

Lyrics for “Little Sadie” by Louise Foreacre

Frank C. Brown collected a quite similar version of “Sadie” in the 1930’s from Heaton, North Carolina – only 75 miles from Stoneman’s birthplace in Carroll County, Virginia – that lacks the term “high sheriff” but uses the term “sports” and includes a close variant of that cautionary verse as its last. A version collected in the 1930’s, on pps. 597 and 598 of Vol II of his massive Collection of North Carolina Folklore, includes that last verse. Cambiaire as well collected one with that ending in 1934, and published it in his East Tennessee and Western Virginia Mountain Ballads.  Clearly then, Foreacre’s version from the 1950’s has deeper, traditional roots in the eastern Appalachians.

Finally, it’s worth listening to Wade Ward‘s short instrumental fiddle version, recorded in 1956 by Mike Seeger at Wade’s home in Grayson County, Virginia, directly to the southwest of Carroll County on the North Carolina border. Without lyrics there isn’t much to pick apart, as I can’t speak intelligently about the ins and outs of various fiddle styles. But even I can hear this is the good old stuff.

Folk and Bluegrass

Let me get through the next sections without much comment, as they really only contain commercial music patterned after the authentic versions we’ve already studied.  We’ll get back to a bit of analysis in the last section, but for now I’ll just share just a few of the most interesting versions (in my opinion of course) from the last half century.  If you don’t like being ‘curated to’, then by all means have at my full Spotify playlist and skip to the Coda!

Folk

Before singers took on “Little Sadie” in the Folk Revival, there was a version waxed by one of its granddaddies – Woody Guthrie.  It certainly isn’t a cut that has the power or influence of his better known songs, but it’s compelling – and Woody in this one is clearly looking back to the traditional black “Bad Lee Brown.”  His last line is the same as the one John Lomax recorded by a convict at Parchman in 1933.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Kingston Trio, and I’m even less so after hearing their folked up version of “Sadie” that they called “Bad Man’s Blunder”.  However, they made much more money than I ever did singing and I think respect for the Folk Revival demands at least one listen to this.  You can make up your own mind as to whether it’s a diamond in the rough or it’s just rough.

Clarence Ashley helped bring Doc Watson to prominence during the Folk Revival, and Doc of course recorded several outstanding versions of “Little Sadie”.  I’m partial to this one from Doc Watson on Stage, recorded at a performance in 1970.  Doc plays the banjo and sings, while his son Merle plays guitar.

Bluegrass

These days, “Little Sadie” is certainly best known as a bluegrass standard.  As has been true throughout this ballad’s long life in any genre it has inhabited, there is great variety and virtuoso musicianship. There are a couple of examples here that are essential listening as I hear them.  Interestingly, both of them deviate from a strictly traditional bluegrass sound, though I love “Sadie” done that way too.

The first bluegrass version I heard of “Sadie” was that recorded by the stellar Tony Rice Unit on their groundbreaking album Manzanita.  Here we have a performance with roots grounded in the banks of the Mississippi and leaves that reach out into the solar system.  Amazingly, the traditional and experimental elements cohere perfectly.

To my ears, the best version of “Little Sadie” I’ve ever heard comes from Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien on their 2000 album Real Time.  Now, I realize all such statements are subjective.  What’s not up for debate though is the heart and energy these two men pour into this ballad.  It may not be your cup of tea, but don’t tell me the brew isn’t strong enough for you.

Coda – “Little Sadie” in a Woman’s Voice

So, we’ll close our series with the sort of philosophical question that makes us want to write about murder ballads in the first place.  This is a ballad about a horrible person who commits a heinous crime.  It’s violent and misogynist in every iteration I can find.  And I love the song.  If you’ve read this far, I’m going to bet you love it too.  And I bet you and I have one more thing in common – we’re not horrible people guilty of heinous, misogynist crimes, nor do we admire or celebrate such things.

So, why do we love this song?

Oh, we’ve gone over and over several possible meaningful answers as we’ve blogged over the last two years.  But I don’t propose today to answer the question in words.  Music suffices.

Just by singing this song, by intoning the narrative of this horrible crime, women move it far away from that place expressed in that one line of the 1933 prison blues – “Here for the rest of my natural life, and all I ever done is kill my wife.”  Women’s voices can simply imply the explicit warning in the mountain version by Louise Foreacre above, but do so in a way that is deeply creative and not at all moralistic.

This song is just different when a woman sings it.  You don’t believe me?  Just listen…

Crooked Still takes this song to a new level on their 2006 album Shaken By a Low Sound – actually, Aoife O’Donovan turns this song’s pit of Hell into a dozen different clouds in Heaven.

Ruth Gerson also sings the Hell out of “Sadie” on her 2011 album Deceived, a work that indeed aims squarely at understanding the heart of murder ballads and misogyny.

“Speaking for myself, the allure of the music has to do with a desire to understand why, when we come face-to-face with another, we can annihilate. I can understand an impulse to want to, but I cannot understand where, once met with the face of another who holds no threat to me and could not defend herself, I would get the ability to do what’s done in these songs. I have grappled with and studied violence since I was in high school. I sing about it because I want to talk about it. Trying to understand it is part of who I am.”  – “The Allure Of The Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson Does ‘Delia’s Gone’ by Ann Powers, May 17, 2011”

Of course, though these two versions are 21st century performances, there’s nothing new about women singing this song.  Louise Foreacre proves that and I believe we must consider that this song, when it hit the Appalachians, found itself in countless women’s throats, and probably for much the same reason Gerson chose to take it on.

I mean, let’s put it this way.  You tell me.  What works better for you when confronted by the reality that “we can annihilate”; wagging fingers and preaching, or singing?

I’ll let Hedy West give you my answer, after I tell you good people this.  Thank you for reading and listening this week!

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