[Although this blog entry focuses on suggestive songs in old-time music, if you are over 13 years old there should not be much that is overtly offensive here. However, if the very concept of off-color, ribald, explicit or risqué songs bothers you, please stop reading here!]
Although I had been listening to their records for years, it was around 1969 when I finally saw The New Lost City Ramblers in concert at Portland, Oregon’s Reed College. Thinking back on the concert, I definitely remember their sharp and twisted sense of humor; present throughout the show… especially when introducing songs, but in their choice of music as well.
I clearly recall them performing “Battleship of Maine,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “NRA Blues,” “Colored Aristocracy,” “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” and several “earthy” or ribald tunes such as “Sal Got A Meatskin.”
New Lost City Ramblers: “Sal Got A Meatskin”
So, when I recently came across a NLCR record I was unaware of, the musical content came as no great surprise: The record is: Earth Is Earth by The New Lost City Bang Boys. Earth Is Earth is a difficult-to-locate extended play (EP) disk of bawdy songs released by Folkways Records in 1961, and the name of the band, New Lost City Bang Boys is, of course, a very thinly veiled nom de disque for The New Lost City Ramblers.
EARTH IS EARTH
FOLKWAYS RECORDS FF 869
(click on photos/scans to enlarge)
This 7 inch mini-LP consists of four nominally off-color (or “earthy”) songs which the NLCR learned from prewar 78 rpm records. While it’s possible the Ramblers might have considered the songs a bit too suggestive for some in their record buying audience of fifty (plus) years ago, it’s more likely that their nom de disque was more of a tongue-in-cheek effort to mimic the practice many performers used when they recorded off-color songs during the 78 rpm era.
If my memory of their live show is accurate, the release of a record featuring ribald songs would not have come as a surprise to Ramblers fans… and supporting my memory, Bill Malone in his fine book, Music From The True Vine, Mike Seeger’s Life & Musical Journey, states that the Ramblers would often include risqué songs such as “Sal Got A Meatskin” and “Women Wear No Clothes At All” in their performance playlist.
The New Lost City Bang Boys are:
Wilbur (Mike) Seeger
McKinley (John) Cohen
Delmore (Tom) Paley
By the time this record jacket was autographed, Tracy Schwarz had replaced Tom Paley in the New Lost City Ramblers
Although we usually associate 1920s – 1930s double entendre songs with “jass” bands, jug bands and blues music, bawdy songs were also well within the “old-time” canon.
The four tunes on Earth Is Earth FF 869 are:
- My Sweet Farm Girl
- Bang, Bang, Lulu
- Then It Won’t Hurt No More
- Women Wear No Clothes At All
New Lost City Bang Boys: “My Sweet Farm Girl”
“My Sweet Farm Girl” is originally from Tom (Clarence) Ashley and Gwen Foster, recording as the Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers. Recorded in 1931 and reminiscent of Alberta Hunter’s “My Handy Man,” it has few explicit moments among its double entendre lyrics. “My Sweet Farm Girl” was released on the 78 rpm Banner, Romeo, Oriole, Perfect, Conqueror and Vocalion labels.
New Lost City Bang Boys: “Bang Bang Lulu”
Of the four tunes on Earth Is Earth, “Bang Bang Lulu” has lyrics which may be the most overtly bawdy, but even by today’s politically correct standards the lyrics heard here are childish or sophomoric at best (or worst).
“Bang Bang Lulu,” [which is said to date to the 1890s] was first recorded in 1936 by the Bang Boys (actually, Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans) on Vocalion 03372. At that time the song was apparently deemed too off-color for gospel-touting Roy and the boys to have issued it under their own name, so someone (prudently?) came up with the (equally offensive) nom de disque, “Bang Boys” rather than releasing it as by Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans … [note, Acuff was not yet calling his band The Smoky Mountain Boys, that was still two years away, coming only after the group joined the Grand Old Opry.]
Acuff’s Bang Boys: “Bang, Bang, Lulu”
It should be noted here that the two known recorded versions of “Lulu” are relatively tame compared to most of the 50+ verses quoted in The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs, Ed Cray’s 435 page, 1992 compendium of the ribald and forbidden in American folk songs. Of “Lulu,” Cray says:
“There is no standard version of “Lulu;” like so many other songs from the Southern Appalachians, “Lulu” has hundreds of floating verses. Each singer knows only a handful, to which he will add new stanzas as he thinks of them or as his neighbors sing them.”
An additional 20-odd “Lulu” verses appear in Vance Randolph’s Roll Me in Your Arms: Unprintable Ozark Folksongs and Folklore Vol.1.
“New Lost City Bang Boys: It Won’t Hurt No More”
“It Won’t Hurt No More” is from Buster Carter, banjo/vocal & Preston Young, guitar. (with the Charlie Poole group’s Posey Rorer on fiddle). It was recorded in 1931 and is a hokum tune, similar to those heard from Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey. The 78 was released on Columbia 15702.
New Lost City Bang Boys: “Women Wear No Clothes…”
“Women Wear No Clothes At All” is a catchy fiddle tune which describes a new standard for travel attire. The entire lyric is: “Women wear no clothes at all, but they get there just the same,” repeated multiple times… The Ramblers took the song from a 78 recorded in 1928 in Memphis by Fiddling Bob Larkin & His Music Makers. You can find the song on OKeh 45309.
The exact number of Folkways Records FF 869 produced and/or sold is not known, but is thought to be somewhere in the lower end of the 500 – 1000 range… Roy Allen in his terrific book: Gone To The Country, The New Lost City Ramblers & The Folk Music Revival states that the album did not sell well, but does not list numbers.
For comparison, 1960 sales numbers of NLCRs four Long Play albums were as follows:
The New Lost City Ramblers………297
Old Timey Songs For Children……..46
Songs From The Depression……….340
The New Lost City Ramblers II……407
Current auction/sales indicate the value of Earth Is Earth is in the $75 – $200 range, depending on the condition of the record and jacket.
A brief addendum… Two recent books concerning the NLCRs and Mike Seeger:
I would like to close by mentioning two recently published books that I read this winter… both books are great and were timely, in that they helped inform the above subject.
The first, written by Ray Allen and published in 2010 is titled: Gone To The Country, The New Lost City Ramblers & The Folk Music Revival. The second is written by Bill C. Malone, published in 2011 and titled: Music From The True Vine, Mike Seeger’s Life & Musical Journey. Both books are well worth a read, and much to my surprise there was a good deal less content overlap than I had initially supposed.
While each of these fine books warrants a full blog entry/review, I will instead offer a thumbnail impression… The titles say it all.
If your primary interest is the NLCR then the Allen book is the one for you. It is an exhaustive look at each of the Ramblers, their individual strengths and the dynamics within the group, as well as the New Lost City Ramblers relationship to the folk music revival.
Malone’s book keeps its focus on Mike Seeger and does an excellent job of detailing his coming of age within his musical biological family and his position within the Ramblers. Also, it nicely illuminates his solo work as well as his group work outside of the New Lost City Ramblers.
It’s without reservation that I recommend an immediate trip to your favorite bookstore or library to secure copies of these books!
And finally, a totally unnecessary addendum… “Bang, Bang Lulu” in pop culture:
From the official website of the World War Two 447th Bomb Group Association, here’s a B-17 bomber built by the Boeing company in October 1944, and assigned to the 708th squad.
“Coincidence? Or did John Stanley (creator of the Lulu comic strip) know the song “Bang Bang Lulu” and decide to include this double entendre panel as an inside joke? We may never know.”
Lulu goes to Jamaica… Bang, Bang, Lulu, reggae!
http://www.reggaecollector.com/en/detail/index.php?number=248250 — then click on: 1) A Side Track # 1
The fine print:
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Bill Boslaugh email@example.com