“Simple and soulful versions of old mountain music, Civil War songs, coal-mining melodies, tunes of love and loss and haunting murder ballads from the American South.”
Text by Amos Libby.
1. AM I BORN TO DIE?
This dark reflection on the impermanence of life is attributed to prolific English poet Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and appears in Wesley’s 1763 hymnary “Hymns for Children”. The tune made its way to the New World both as a folk and liturgical hymn. The Ghosts of Johnson City have recorded this piece with the lyrics in full. While they may exist in private collections, we are not aware of any other modern public recordings of this hymn expressing the complete original.
2. DOWN IN THE WILLOW GARDEN
‘Down in the Willow Garden’ is a traditional American murder ballad popularized in Appalachia and thought to have originated in Ireland (where an early version appeared in Coleraine in 1811 under the name ‘Rose Connelly’). One theory of the meaning of this song is that the singer is lamenting that he fell in love with Rose, a girl his family believed to be beneath them in status. When Rose became pregnant, the singer’s father encouraged him to kill her to avoid the public embarrassment the situation would cause, believing that he could eventually free his son with his money and influence.
The song concludes with the father watching his son mount the gallows for murdering Rose. The strange reference to “burglar’s wine” seems to refer to the killer plying Rose with drugged wine before stabbing her so that she could she could resist his attack.
3. THE MURDERED BROTHER
This is a very old murder ballad that has appeared in various forms in numerous Northern European traditions (Irish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish) before being found in early America. The melody of this song has been heavily adapted by The Ghosts of Johnson City, and the lyrics have been reworked very slightly in several places to reflect time and place.
There are many versions of this song with dramatically different lyrical content but each shares the core narrative of a young man slowly divulging to his mother that he has killed his own brother in a petty dispute and that he plans to flee, never to return to his mother again.
4. DARLING COREY
Melodically adapted by The Ghosts of Johnson City, the first collected text version of this Appalachian bootlegging song was made by Cecil Sharp in 1918 in ‘English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians’.
This song goes by many names and the lyrics vary greatly from version to version, but the ‘dig a hole in the meadow’ and the ‘revenue officers (or highwaymen)’ verses appear in each variation of the tune.
5. JACK MONROE
This logging tragedy song is another tune that appears in many places with varying lyrics. The Ghosts of Johnson City have adapted the melody of this traditional song and modified some of the lyrics to fit time and place. In this song, the word ‘shanty’ (a term usually referring to the sea) in the lyric ‘shanty boy’, is also a term used to refer to lumbermen. This is a very well-known but rarely performed logging song that is believed to have originated in Northern New England (probably in Maine) though some sources say it’s origin is Canadian. One of the most dangerous jobs for the shanty boys on a log drive was to break ‘jams’ in which thousands of logs would form a temporary dam in the river, costing the logging companies time and money by delaying or damaging their timber.
The logs would have been held in place by the explosive power of millions of gallons of water, and when the shanty boys removed (often unknowingly) the key logs causing the jam, the lumber and vast amounts of water would burst downstream, killing the workers clearing the jam instantly through blunt force trauma and drowning. ‘Young Monroe’ is the story of one such tragic incident, which many believe follows the details of an actual event.
6. THE DYING CALIFORNIAN
The lyrics of this song are believed to be based on a letter which told of the death of a New Englander at sea while on a voyage to California as part of the Gold Rush of 1849. The letter was published in December 1854 in the temperance magazine ‘New England Diadem’. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California in 1848 many thousands of prospectors in United States were swept up in a rush to the California Gold fields. There were three main methods of passage: overland via the Oregon and California Trails, by sea to Panama where passengers had to cross the dangerous swampland of the isthmus to reach another vessel, and also a final route by ship around Cape Horn.
Many ’49’ers’, as they came to be called, died from starvation, disease, accident, exhaustion or shipwreck. Countless others left everything behind to search for gold and never found even a handful of the precious dust.
7. POOR WAYFARING STRANGER
The origins of this extremely popular traditional song vary; some say it can be found as far back as the 1780’s and some say as late as the 1800’s. Theories of its thematic origins vary as well, with some saying it may have come from an African-American spiritual, been based on an indigenous American song or perhaps even developed from a song brought by nomadic Portuguese settlers in the southern Appalachian mountains. We know that this song first gained fame in Appalachian revivalist sermons before making its way west and becoming popular with early American pioneers.
The singer, contemplating better times with his departed family in the afterlife, expresses a familiar sense of alienation and being aware that he is inhabiting this physical world only temporarily.
8. UNQUIET GRAVE
This traditional song recounts the story of a bereaved lover sitting and weeping at the grave of his beloved for a year and a day, after which time her ghost arises and advises him to mourn no longer and to seek happiness until he is called away to death himself. Detailed information on this deeply sad song can be found in Volume II of The Traditional Tunes Of The Child Ballads With Their Texts, according to the Extant Records of Great Britain and America, by Bertrand Harris Bronson, which was published by Princeton University Press in 1962.
This volume states that this song dates from the 1800’s but there is other evidence that this song existed in some form as far back as the 1400’s.
9. THE SOUTHERN GIRL’S REPLY
The melody of this traditional Civil War song is based on the Civil War tune ‘The Bonny Blue Flag’ and details the response of a girl from a southern Confederate family to a northern Union man’s marriage proposal. Apart from the surface-level narrative of the song’s wrenching lyrics, we also get a sense of the reality of life for a young woman in a hellish post-war Victorian atmosphere with its rigidly defined gender roles and, in the case of the south, a defeat-centered sense of collapsed nationalism.
The singer clearly differentiates herself from other ‘happy’ girls, and it could be argued that she puts nationalism over love; she also appears to forgive those responsible for her lover’s and her youngest brother’s deaths by stating she ‘holds no hatred in my heart’ and that ‘many a gallant soldier fell upon the other side’. We think this beautiful lament is sad and defiant, and speaks with a unique and powerful voice from the depths of conflict.
10. FADED COAT OF BLUE
This traditional Civil War song comes to us from the northern side of the conflict, and is dated by the Library of Congress as arising in 1865 in Caledonia, New York. The ‘faded coat of blue’ refers to the Union military uniform, and the lyrics recount the last wishes of a dying Union solider who hopes his mother and sister will somehow come to know what has become of him and will eventually find his grave.
The last verse seems to change perspective to that of the dying soldier’s mother, who, although ‘long long years have vanished’ still looks and hopes for him when she hears ‘each footfall at my door’.
11. REBEL SOLDIER
This traditional Confederate Civil War song from southern Appalachia is sung from the perspective of a defiant but seemingly sadly introspective southern soldier pining for his family and sweetheart, Polly.
The graphic nature of the violence of the time and the soldier’s surrender to his fate ‘If the Yankees don’t kill me I’ll live until I die’ paint a picture of a harsh conflict and a young man and his family who represent just a small fraction of those who suffered so grievously during those years of war.
12. RYE WHISKEY
This very popular traditional American tune extolling the virtues and the evils of whiskey has been performed and recorded by countless artists over the years.
Originally called “Jack of Diamonds”, the recorded and performed versions of this song vary greatly in lyrical content, but the equally playful and solemn message of the tune clearly speaks for itself.
13. KNOXVILLE GIRL
This disturbingly dark southern Appalachian murder ballad is believed to date back to Old World sources as early as the 1600’s. Recorded many times by various artists and appearing in numerous lexicons under different names, we hear in this song the tale of the unfortunate and untimely fate of a girl from Knoxville, Tennessee with “dark and roving eyes” at the hands of her violent young lover who believes she “can never be my bride.”
There has been much scholarship on the meaning of the dark narrative in this song; in this case, we’ll leave it to the listener to decide how these terrible events came to pass
14. THE TRIPLETT TRAGEDY
With a melody created by The Ghosts of Johnson City, the lyrics of this song tell the real-life cautionary tale of a pair of terrible murders on Christmas day in 1909 in Elk, North Carolina. On Christmas morning of that year, Marshall Triplett was stabbed to death by his brother, Columbus Triplett (who also went by ‘Lum’) during an argument that is said to have begun over one brother accusing the other of not sharing his whiskey. Lum reportedly then attempted to surrender to Marshall’s son, his nephew Granville (who went by ‘Gran’), a deputy. Gran ignored his uncle’s pleas for mercy and beat and kicked him severely and locked him in a cell in Boone, where he died as a result of the injuries he received in the beating.
Granville Triplett was tried and sentenced to 18 months on the chain gang but it is said that he served only 3 months of his sentence. The song ends with an admonition in which the listeners are urged to avoid ‘strong drink’ and to live a good life in which they ‘mind’ their ‘kind parents.’
15. LAST OLD SHOVEL
This classic bluegrass song (originally composed by Jim Scott) doesn’t need much by way of explanation. The Ghosts of Johnson City close Am I Born to Die? with a raucous, yet dark tune expressing the singer’s wish to join his beloved in her grave ‘on that mountain far away’, and recounting that he cried at her burial until ‘the last old shovel was laid down.