Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Trip Down To "Columbus Stockade"

One of the most widely covered and often-performed of the early country/old-time (and eventually bluegrass) tunes, "Columbus Stockade Blues" is, like most good folk songs, of uncertain origin. The earliest recorded version (below) was copyrighted by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton in 1927, but they were almost certainly using an older and likely well-known tune as the basis for their song, because by the 1930s and through every decade since, a multitude of singers and groups have re-arranged and recorded this prison song. Like its Texas counterpart "The Midnight Special", "Columbus Stockade" (the real stockade today in the picture) works as everything from a Delta blues number to an Appalachian two-part harmony in thirds to a banjo-based bluegrass burner.

It's always nice to save time and space for the music, so I was delighted to find this YouTube video that gives the background of the building and the song better than I could hope to:

The few lines of the song heard at the end of that video are Darby and Tarlton, whose first recording of the song sold over 200,000 copies in 1927 and 1928, a truly amazing number for the day. Of interest here is that the original version is fairly slow and bluesy, and Tom Darby is using a technique on guitar called from his time until I learned it in the 1960s "bottlenecking" - called so because the originators of the style, African-American Mississippi Delta blues players, created that sliding, whining sound by using the broken-off neck of a whiskey bottle* across steel guitar strings in an open tuning. Native Hawaiian guitarists were doing somewhat the same kind of thing and were all the rage in 1927. Darby is the first white musician I've heard playing in this style, which becomes the ancestor of the dobro and pedal steel guitar guitars heard in country music today.

If for nothing else other than historical interest - from all places, The Lawrence Welk Show in 1956, before there was an actual pop-folk revival. This version is from Welk regulars Buddy Merrill and Buddy Hayes with guest star Mary Stadler:

The Kingston Trio recorded the song as "Columbus Stockade" for their 1964 Back In Town live album, their last release of more than 20 LPs for Capitol Records. Trio founder Bob Shane's 1981 edition of the KT included the late Roger Gambill on guitar and a talented and versatile banjoist, George Grove. Shane was within limits trying to reproduce the original sound and arrangements of familiar Kingston numbers, though here the addition of Oscar Cisneros on percussion seems to belie that - and though George Grove is following the basic banjo line of John Stewart, he provides some of his own original embellishments:

And now, as of June 2013 and thanks to Capitol/EMI as detailed to the left - we can hear Stewart and the original KT recording from 1964:

One great artist deserves another, and I've shown a predilection in these articles for posting Marty Robbins videos. Marty takes Trio manic and Darby/Tarlton original and blends it into that velvet-smooth pop country that he could do like no one else:

Now for a pop-country-blues version from the '50s by The Browns, who had a number of hits with folk and country tunes:

More truly remarkable versions from Japan. The first is from Yoshio Ohno and dated 1960 - Ohno is apparently catching the country/bluegrass/cowboy wave that started in Japan in the 50s. Ohno's phonetic vocals are very good, and he's an excellent yodeler:

More recently, our friends from the group Back In Town in 2008 doing a letter-perfect replication of the '64 Kingston version:

Finally and just because I like the group and hope to see them out in Western Colorado some day - a group I featured on the "The Colorado Trail" post, the Bar D Wranglers with guest Cheryl Pickering:

Country Hall of Famer and Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis had a pleasant take on the song as well - :

So many songs left to do, so little time.....

* My source was a beloved and long-lost book, Jerry Silverman's The Folksinger's Guitar Guide. It taught me, among other things, the rudiments of reading tablature, fingerpicking, bass runs - and bottlenecking.
Addendum, August 2013 

And I'm delighted to have found this 1963 version by Roy Rogers' old group, The Sons of the Pioneers:

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