Friday, December 10, 2010

Hell Hath No Fury - "You're Gonna Miss Me/Leaving Home/Frankie & Johnny"

Two weeks ago, we looked at a song about a poor girl murdered by her lover; last week, we met two young women unfazed by men. This week, the logical progression proceeds to a lady who just will not be trifled with..."he was her man, but he done her wrong."

Both of my grandmothers played piano and sang, reflecting what was considered a proper social education for girls born as they were in 1892 and 1900. While most of their repertoires consisted of often long-forgotten popular songs from their childhoods, both occasionally drifted into performing what might be called a kind of derivative folk music, often Irish airs with rewritten American lyrics. Occasionally these ladies were capable of some surprises. My maternal grandma - a rather prim and conservative woman - would occasionally slip into a bit of honky-tonk or ragtime, and it was from her that I first remember hearing "Frankie and Johnny," a honky-tonk/ragtime classic if the genres ever produced one.

Most of the major folklorists like John A. Lomax and Carl Sandburg believe that F&J is very old for an American folk tune, probably pre-dating the Civil War, though others maintain that the spate of published versions in the first decade of the 20th century points to a later origin. It seems like a good bet, though, that the 1831 murder of Charlie Silver by his wife Frankie Stewart Silver (with an axe - ouch! - and in North Carolina again!) might well be the song's inspiration, since in the folkways of the region Mrs. Silver did in her husband in a jealous rage. In actual fact, Mrs. Silver (all of 17 at the time of the killing) pleaded self-defense in the face of an imminent threat from her drunken husband. While the jury initially refused to believe her, eventually seven of the members signed a petition to commute her death sentence on the grounds that she had in fact been abused. It didn't work, and Frankie Silver was hanged for the crime. A good brief summary of the case appears HERE.

An early version from 1927 of what has become the standard songbook version of the song is done here by Frank Crumit:

Now Crumit's lyrics are for the most part the old honky-tonk song, but fans of the "You're Gonna Miss Me/Leaving Home" version will recognize that Crumit interpolated some of those lines into the middle of his arrangement.

A chronological digression here. Around 1962, the great Bob Gibson rearranged F&J on his Where I'm Bound album that I profiled a few weeks back. Now the Bob Gibson Legacy site has uploaded a fine performance video of Bob doing the number HERE, but it can't be put on this page - so here is a trio called Dirty Dishes doing Gibson's arrangement:

In 1908, Frank Leighton and Boyd Bunch copyrighted a F&J version whose lyrics (some in Crumit's record) are very close to what banjo legend Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers came up with, again in the 20s:

I ran across of video of Fiddlin' John Carson doing this version at about the same time but lost it. If I find it again, I'll re-post it.

In turn, John Cohen, Mike Seeger, and Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers adapted (and copyrighted) Poole's lyrics with a respectful vocal and instrumentally skillful version in about 1959:

Mike Seeger of the group next introduces (1980s vintage, I'd say) The Stillhouse Reelers doing a rendition that they adapted directly from Charlie Poole* with one difference that I believe to be significant and will deal with below - they do it a lot faster:

It was the NLCR version of the song that was the clear and direct inspiration for the Kingston Trio's re-named "You're Gonna Miss Me." We know this because Dave Guard copyrighted the song, including the names of Cohen, Seeger, and Paley. There is a YouTube video of a fragment of the KT rendition (again, non-embeddable) HERE; the full studio version sounds like this:

The KT gives the number its trademark full-speed, hell-bent-for-leather treatment (with an able assist from producer Voyle Gilmore, who brings up the musicians' instruments at the precise moment of their vocal solos before nicely re-blending on the choruses). Perhaps it was this that excited some of the distaste that NLCR John Cohen expressed for the group. In fact, Cohen once remarked (on the Woodsongs radio program, I believe) something to the effect that the only tradition that the KT seemed to have any respect for was that of a frat party. That leaves open the question, for me at least, of why a similar adaptation of the song by The Stillhouse Reelers above does not come in for similar censure - or why all these versions are using unattributed material that clearly came from Poole (who in turn seems to have heard and used the Leighton version). It's not really important because all of these versions are enjoyable. Just wondering.


greenhawk46 said...

I like the Chillyb Winds version-nice job slan, Jim

Jim Moran said...

Thanks, Jim, for this and the other comments. This song is certainly one of our all time favorites.

Linkmeister said...

Jim, have you ever spent any time fully explaining the copyright claims early folk groups seemed to make on previously-published songs? I really don't see how they could do so, and I'd love an explanation.

Jim Moran said...

Stephen, that exact question puzzled me on this song because what Charlie Poole did was simply an adaptation of the Leighton Brothers' original take on the song from only about 20 years before.
I say only because....working from memory here...earlier copyright law was the printed works could be copyrighted for (I believe) 17 years, renewable once - meaning that in 34 years, most works would become public domain unless there was a reason to extend it further (which there was in the case of many top-selling books or songs).

Since the origins of folk songs are so generally obscure, unless a group took a specific and copyrighted arrangement - as the KT unknowlingly did with "Tom Dooley" - you could work off of any extant arrangement of a PD song, change it a bit, and then call the new arrangement your own and copyright it. The KT in general and Dave Guard in particular were famous for this.

But when guard and fellow Hawai'ian Shane were doing Polynesian material, even their own arrangements, they had to attribute copyright to the real composer - George Archer is a name that comes to mind for writing two of three songs that the KT did.

Other folkies followed suit - and all were following the Weavers, who pioneered the arrangement and then copyright of PD songs. If the KT or Brother Four or any of the rest wanted to do a Weavers-copyrighted song, they could work off of the record, make some changes, and then claim that THEY were re-doing a PD song.

Part of the resentment that real mountain-type folkies had for the pop folk groups was the amount of money that the latter made for arranging and singing songs that the mountain folk had learned at grandma's knee.

Linkmeister said...

I had forgotten that copyright has been extended over the past 20-30 years (thanks, Disney!) to its current virtual "life plus 100 years" or whatever it is. That's probably as good an explanation as there is.


Pete Curry said...

Jim: The “unnamed group” in the video is the Stillhouse Reelers. There’s a lot of information about them on the internet. More important, the NLCR did NOT copyright their version of this song (or any of the old-time songs they recorded). They simply did not believe in it. Therefore, Dave Guard did not have to make any changes to the NLCR version, substantive or not, in order to copyright it. And, absent a NLCR copyright, he could have copyrighted the song in his name only. But as you know, he put the names of the members of the NLCR along with his own on the copyright. So I think you might want to reconsider your suggestion of “shenanigans” on Dave’s part. Rather, I see his sharing of the copyright with the NLCR as a testimony to his integrity, not as a sign of any lack thereof. Sincerely, Pete Curry

P.S. In the book, “Wasn’t That a Time: Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival,” folk and country music writer and historian Dave Samuleson compares the Charlie Poole, NLCR and KT versions of “Leaving Home” and comes out squarely on the side of the KT version. Me, I’m not surprised.

Jim Moran said...

Great to hear from you again, Pete, and I appreciate your help again. I couldn't find the name of the Reelers because it wasn't on the YouTube video and there was no digital download available at Amazon. I'm happy to stand corrected on the copyright issue because it always bothered me. I'd like your permission to quote you when I rephrase/re-edit that section of the article - it represents insights that I didn't have into the song and that I don't want to portray as my own. As a Trio fan, I can't be other than delighted about the integrity that you point out - it's been called into question in several places, including Wikipedia. I don't know Samuelson's book - I knew of one titled Wasn't That a Time?: Growing Up Radical and Red in America by Schrank - again I'm delighted and will check it out.


Paul Ritscher said...

The Stillhouse Reelers version of Leaving Home was taken directly from Charlie Poole's version, rather than the New Lost City Ramblers' version. I personally have never listened much to the NLCRs, and while playing banjo and singing lead with the Reelers I don't believe I had ever heard them. I knew Mike Seeger as mostly a solo act.

Jim Moran said...

Thank you, Paul Ritscher, for the correction, which I will make to the article immediately. I wasn't pleased that the video of your excellent performance was posted without any identification of the group whatsoever. Glad to know how you formulated your rendition.

Jim Moran said...

*Paul Ritscher of The Stillhouse Reelers offered the correction immediately above. Thanks to him and again to Pete Curry for their observations and the consequent improvements to the article.