An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
"Henry Lee" - Dick Justice
Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track One: "Henry Lee" performed by Dick Justice. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Chicago on May 20, 1929. Original issue Brunswick 367.
When considering the music in the Anthology, one immediately recognizes that each selection consists of layers of meaning and narrative. Each story has a story of its own. There is, as discussed in my previous post, the story of Harry Smith, who compiled the Anthology for Moe Asch of Folkways Records. Then there are the stories of the individual singers. Finally, there are the songs themselves. In examining the this music, we will examine all of these stories in an attempt to glean meaning and it put the music in its proper context.
In his book, Invisible Republic, music critic Greil Marcus coined a term in reference to the Anthology which has been overused to the point of cliche: "The old, weird America." In my opinion, Marcus is guilty of romanticizing and exoticizing the music of the '20s and '30s, which is simply the flip-side of the condescension of the record companies which led them to label the music of poor whites as "hillbilly" and that of poor blacks as "race" music. This music may sound "old" and "weird" to ears accustomed to music recorded after the advent of magnetic tape (which put an end to the disc cutting technique of the 78 era), but it was simply the music sung by the people of the American Southeast. Isolated in the mountains of West Virginia, the Mississippi Delta, the bayous of Louisiana, the plains of Texas, or the Lost Provinces of North Carolina before the ascension of mass media, music took on the character of the people who sang it. This regionalism made performers in one part of the country distinct from their neighbors of even a few counties over. The blues singers of Memphis would not be confused with their peers in Atlanta, even if the music both were singing was recognizably "blues." And while we may mourn the passing of a lost world, we should not make the mistake of romanticizing it. The lives many of these singers lived was largely one of hard work, trouble and tragedy. This reality was reflected in the songs they chose to sing.
One more comment before we begin: All of the music presented on the Anthology was recorded by American record labels for commercial use. No field recordings were used (for some excellent examples of field recordings, see the collected works of John and Alan Lomax, Dr. Harry Oster's recordings of Robert Pete Williams, and the amazing work of Art Rosenbaum, whose two volume The Art of Field Recording is available on the Dust-to-Digital label). These records were made for the purpose of enticing poor whites and blacks to buy record players, the reasoning being that such consumers would want to hear familiar music. The music of poor white was sold as "Old Time" music (the songs themselves being old at the time they were recorded) or "Hillbilly" music. Black music was sold as "Race" music (the theory being that people would not buy music that was labeled as "Black" or "Negro"). In his notes for the set, Smith carefully recorded the original record label and matrix number for each selection, but he did not make any mention of race. It was important to Smith that black and white music be presented side by side, and even hoped to encourage confusion on the subject.
Born in Logan County, West Virginia in 1906, Richard "Dick" Justice spent most of his life working as a coal miner. He recorded ten sides for Brunswick in 1929, including this version of "Henry Lee," sometimes recorded as "Love Henry."
Francis James Child included this song as #68 (under the title of "Young Hunting") in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The song was selected by Smith to open his Anthology because it was the lowest numbered Child Ballad in the set (despite the fact that Smith didn't think it was a "good record"). Much has been made over the years of Smith's sequencing, with many observers pointing out that the songs in the set are not in any apparent order (except for Smith's tendency to juxtapose thematically related material). While this may be true in the other volumes, the "Ballads" volume is sequenced in chronological order...not in order of recording, but by the age of the song in question. "Henry Lee" dates to the Middle Ages and has its origins in the British Isles (as do all of the ballads collected by Child). It tells the story of a young man (a knight in some versions) who spurns a lady's affections and is murdered by her in revenge.
"Get down, get down, little Henry Lee, and stay all night with me. The very best lodging I can afford will be fare better'n thee." "I can't get down, and I won't get down, and stay all night with thee, For the girl I have in that merry green land, I love far better'n thee."
She leaned herself against a fence, just for a kiss or two; With a little pen-knife held in her hand, she plugged him through and through. "Come all you ladies in the town, a secret for me keep, With a diamond ring held on my hand I never will forsake."
"Some take him by his lily-white hand, some take him by his feet. We'll throw him in this deep, deep well, more than one hundred feet. Lie there, lie there, loving Henry Lee, till the flesh drops from your bones. The girl you have in that merry green land still waits for your return."
"Fly down, fly down, you little bird, and alight on my right knee. Your cage will be of purest gold, in deed of property." "I can't fly down, or I won't fly down, and alight on your right knee. A girl would murder her own true love would kill a little bird like me."
"If I had my bend and bow, my arrow and my string, I'd pierce a dart so nigh your heart your warble would be in vain." "If you had your bend and bow, your arrow and your string, I'd fly away to the merry green land and tell what I have seen."
Note the striking use of color in the song (Henry Lee's "lily white hand", the "merry green land" where Henry's love resides, the cage of "purest gold"). Note also the talking bird which threatens to expose the murderess. Justice's performance of the song is detached, although there is an occasional catch in his voice. His performance on guitar is simple but effective.
Later versions have been recorded by Peggy Seeger, John Jacob Niles, Bob Dylan, and Nick Cave.
Here's a live version of Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey performing the version of "Henry Lee" they recorded for Cave's Murder Ballads LP.