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March 13, 2009

Texas Gladden - Ballad Legacy

"I don't think that a person who sang operetta should toy with these mountain songs"
- Texas Gladden

Like most musics, I suppose, the more you listen to folk music the more you develop a taste for it. But part of the fascination that's particular to folk music is that you'll hear bits and pieces of one song that you could have sworn you heard in a completely different song. And you'd be right. Because folk music is an evolved music, and like humans & chimpanzees, there are uncanny similarities lurking just below the surface that point to some invisible, unknowable ancestral precedent. And, like all things subject to evolution by natural selection, the essential parts are maintained and the extraneous, inconsequential bits fall aside. What this means in terms of folk music, particularly these old traditional ballads, is that while a song may be quirky and seemingly obtuse, at some level (often a non-conscious, irrational level), the song is deeply meaningful and helps people to negotiate the trials and uncertainties of this muddled mortal existence.

And, of course, since folksong-evolution is an organic process in an oral tradition, sometimes bits and pieces get lost along the way and we're left with only fragments (you could say this too is a product of natural selection: the part that remains is that which is most memorable). And since it is sung by people who weren't professional musicians, it had to relate to things that everyday people could relate to, rather that abstruse musical concepts and the self-indulgent wankery that professional artists are susceptible to. The universal subjects are thus revealed: love, death, nature, heartbreak, childhood, remorse, dream/spiritual encounters, and leaving home. These themes can be found recurring in folk music and most great narrative art across time, from Homer to Shakespeare to Stan Brackage. It's as if these subjects keep coming back because they're the moments in our lives that stay with us, and we need songs & stories like these to help mark those moments and distill meaning from them.

And while this music is rather difficult to listen to by modern standards, if you do take the time to listen to it, it'll work it's way under your skin and into the back of your mind, which is where it truly belongs. There it will take seed, whispering things to your irrational dream-mind, calling you back to time immemorial and rousing odd emotions like a broom rousing dust bunnies from corners and crevices.


Texas Gladden was born in 1895 in Saltville, a small town in the south-western corner of Virginia. She had a known repertoire of some two hundred songs, all of which she visualized during her performances. "I have a perfect mental picture of every song I sing. I have a perfect picture of every person I learned it from, very few people I don't remember. When I sing a song, a person pops up, and it's a very beautiful story. I can see Mary Hamilton, I can see where the old Queen came down to the kitchen, can see them all gathered around, and I can hear her tell Mary Hamilton to get ready. I can see the whole story, I can see them as they pass through the gate, I can see the ladies looking over their casements, I can see her when she goes up the Parliament steps, and I can see her when she goes to the gallows. I can hear her last words, and I can see all, just the most beautiful picture." This is a fascinating insight and reminds me of something that John Cohen once said about Walter Pardon, namely that Walter's life was 'encapsulated within the world of the ballads'. And the same, I think, may be said of Texas Gladden. Here was a singer whose life was infused with her songs and ballads.

In 1946 Alan Lomax invited the great ballad singer Texas Gladden, of Saltville, Virginia, and her brother, mountain Renaissance instrumentalist Hobart Smith (fiddle, guitar, banjo, and piano), to perform with Andrew Rowan Summers and Jean Ritchie at the McMillan Theater at Columbia University as part of a larger festival put on by the university. These concert recordings of the two are included here. Lomax interviewed Gladden and Smith extensively during their stay in New York and also introduced them to Moses Asch, who issued an album of four of their recordings on his Disc label (later Folkways), with powerful cover art by painter Ben Shahn. Gladden returned home to Saltville with the news that she had met Leadbelly. According to John Cohen, "Within a few years, Smith's guitar picking was heard in New York's Washington Square folk music scene, where "Railroad Bill" was especially imitated" (see Hobart Smith: Blue Ridge Legacy [Rounder 1799] and Texas Gladden: Ballad Legacy [Rounder 1800], with notes by John Cohen and Stephen Wade.)

Rounder product description:
The singing of Texas Gladden is one of the highpoints of American folk music. This Virginia artist put her own indelible stamp on everything she sang: ballads, comic material, game songs and early country music. This is the first album devoted exclusively to her singing, and includes priceless interviews and four rare performances on which she is accompanied by her brother, Hobart Smith. Remastered to 24-bit digital from the original field recordings.

Review by Matt Fink
A wonderfully comprehensive overview of the recordings of traditional ballad singer Texas Gladden, Ballad Legacy is a near-essential document for fans of the near-extinct genre. Although somewhat ethnomusicalogical in its bent, the set and its superbly assembled accompanying booklet never come off as overly academic, though the average folk music enthusiast may not be enthralled with 78 minutes of largely unaccompanied ballad singing. Still, the material presented is nothing short of first rate, presenting Gladden's nuanced Appalachian styling in all its hauntingly sweet and aching earnestness. As she originally came to the public's attention at Virginia folk music festivals in the late 1930s for her renditions of a storehouse of antique songs from the British Isles, Gladden drew the attention of Alan Lomax, who saw her as one of the greatest examples the genre offered. With her notoriety peaking with a performance at the White House at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt, Gladden again faded into obscurity, only to be rediscovered by artists such as Joan Baez in the early 1960s. The 37 tracks here, with a few selections featuring her brother Hobart Smith on guitar and a few comprised of interviews, should provide an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn the gorgeous old tunes, or simply experience the vibrancy of the stories and truisms lost to the collective American past.


One of the finest releases in the extensive Alan Lomax Collection thus far, this album gathers together on a single disc 37 tracks recorded in 1941 and 1946 by the highly-rated Virginia singer Texas Gladden (born 1895). Hitherto known from just a few tracks on assorted anthologies, this full-length album of mostly previously unreleased material at last presents us with a long overdue chance to properly assess her stature. And extremely impressive she proves too; quite simply, an outstandingly fine singer and interpreter, notably of traditional ballads (on which this collection necessarily focuses). Her versions of these ballads were used as source material by many of the singers from the American revival ranging from Tom Paley to Joan Baez. But despite Texas' limited opportunities for public performance, her interpretations were always fully informed and properly considered, and the interview extracts included on this release provide a fascinating insight into her approach.

Her performances are imposing, feisty and fiery; quite stark, yet full of warmth and understanding, and these nuances shine through the often rather indifferent recording quality. Her singing style is quite plain and unadorned, though she makes extremely effective (albeit wholly subconscious, judging from her comments when interviewed) use of grace notes. Texas sings unaccompanied for the most part, but on a handful of tracks she's backed by her slightly younger brother Hobart Smith on banjo, fiddle or guitar (check out his amazing Blue Ridge Legacy release too). The performances are uniformly fascinating and deeply satisfying, and it's impossible to select highlights. In short, this is an essential release for anyone seriously interested in the ballad tradition and its place in the music of the Appalachians, and comes with great notes by John Cohen – an excellent presentation.

Texas Gladden with Hobart Smith and 'Pres'

According to John Cohen, Alan Lomax considered Texas Gladden to have been, 'one of the best American ballad singers ever recorded'. Elsewhere, Lomax wrote, 'Texas Gladden sings in such fine style. With such fire and, at the same time, with such restrained good taste'. Over the years a few tracks by this Virginian singer have appeared on a number of 78s and LP anthologies. Now we have a whole CDs worth of material so that, at last, we are able to see whether or not Lomax's praise was right and justified.

Texas Gladden was born in 1895 in Saltville, a small town in the south-western corner of Virginia. She had a known repertoire of some two hundred songs, all of which she visualized during her performances. "I have a perfect mental picture of every song I sing. I have a perfect picture of every person I learned it from, very few people I don't remember. When I sing a song, a person pops up, and it's a very beautiful story. I can see Mary Hamilton, I can see where the old Queen came down to the kitchen, can see them all gathered around, and I can hear her tell Mary Hamilton to get ready. I can see the whole story, I can see them as they pass through the gate, I can see the ladies looking over their casements, I can see her when she goes up the Parliament steps, and I can see her when she goes to the gallows. I can hear her last words, and I can see all, just the most beautiful picture." This is a fascinating insight and reminds me of something that John Cohen once said about Walter Pardon, namely that Walter's life was 'encapsulated within the world of the ballads'. And the same, I think, may be said of Texas Gladden. Here was a singer whose life was infused with her songs and ballads.

Collectors such as Alfreda Peel, Arthur Kyle Davis and Richard Chase recorded songs from her throughout the 1930s. Alan Lomax first recorded her, on behalf of the Library of Congress, in 1941. Fourteen of the fifteen songs recorded in 1941 are included on this album. In 1946 Lomax invited Texas and her brother, Hobart Smith, to New York where they performed in a concert held at Columbia University. While in New York they also recorded a number of interviews with Lomax and extracts from some of these interviews are also included. Lomax introduced Texas to Moe Asch, who recorded enough material from her to fill three 78s, which he issued on his Disc label. This material is also included here in its entirety. Texas Gladden: Ballad Legacy also includes a couple of tracks recorded by Lomax when he returned to Virginia in 1959, as part of his Southern Journey project. In all, there are thirty-seven tracks, comprising nine classic ballads (including two versions of The Devil and the Farmer's Wife - the first recorded by Lomax in 1941, the second recorded by an unknown person at the National Folk Festival in Washington, in 1938), six extracts from interviews, eleven songs from the Anglo-American tradition, fragments of a further nine songs, plus, finally, one spoken ghost story.

Texas Gladden is perhaps best known as a ballad singer. This was, after all, the way that Lomax presented her to the 'outside' world. And, yes, she was a very good ballad singer indeed. On the CDs opening track, The Devil and the Farmer's Wife, she is accompanied by Hobart Smith on guitar, who plays melody - rather than chords - behind his sister's voice, and the effect is simply stunning. Texas and Hobart clearly knew each others songs and her version of The Two Brothers is extremely close to Hobart's version, which can be heard on his Rounder CD Blue Ridge Legacy (CD 1799). Hobart can also be heard playing banjo behind Texas on the murder ballad Pretty Polly, and the fiddle on the Rose Connelly track. Anyone who plays clawhammer banjo should listen to Pretty Polly. There is a drive and intensity here that has seldom been bettered by any other player. Rose Connelly is, of course, the song that Grayson and Whitter recorded in 1927 as Rose Conley (reissued on Document DOCD-8054) and it seems clear that Hobart was aware of this recording, his fiddle sounding remarkably like G B Grayson's.

We are told that Texas Gladden learnt her version of The Devil's Nine Question from the collector Alfreda Peel, who had previously noted the songs from a Mrs Rill Martin of Mechanicsburg, VA, before passing it on to Texas. The notes, however, are unclear about where Texas learnt the ballad Mary Hamilton. Texas says that she picked it up, 'after one hearing'. As Alfreda Peel had learnt the ballad from the singing of her grandmother, Mrs Marion Chandler who was born in Bristol, England, I suspect that this is the version that Texas Gladden later came to sing. I think that Professor Child was the first to cast doubts on the Scottish origins of this ballad (which could be based on events that occurred in the Russian Court), though the version sung here clearly places the tragic story in Edinburgh, and even mentions Canongate, a street which today forms part of Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile.

Four of Texas Gladden's other ballads, The Three Babes, The House Carpenter, Barbara Allen and Gypsy Davy may be termed 'standard' versions, with little to distinguish them from countless other versions collected across America. However, her version of Lord Thomas is carried to a tune far removed from the one normally associated with this ballad and is a joy to hear. John Cohen describes the melody as, 'simpler and more regular than many of her songs. There is less of the ornamentation, flatted notes, and odd phrasings that she often uses'. Ignoring, for a moment, the curious term 'odd phrasings', that John uses, I must say that I find his assumption that this tune, 'might (once) have accompanied a dance as well' to be unproven. Speculation, yes. Hard fact, no.

Elsewhere, Debbie McClatchy has written that, 'Traditional Appalachian music is mostly based upon anglo-celtic folk ballads and instrumental dance tunes. The former were almost always sung unaccompanied, and usually by women, fulfilling roles as keepers of the families' cultural heritage and rising above dreary monotonous work through fantasies of escape and revenge. These ballads were from the British tradition of the single personal narrative, but the list was selective; most of the one hundred or so variations of the three hundred classic ballads found in American tradition are to do with sexual struggles from the female standpoint, as Barbary Allen, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, and Pretty Polly. One is less likely to find Scottish ballads of rape and dominance, or those with men as heroes. A large percentage, perhaps almost half, of the American variations tend to be about pregnant women murdered by their boyfriends.'

Interestingly, Texas Gladden sings all of the four ballads mentioned above on this CD. There are also three folksongs, The Scolding Wife, I'm Never to Marry and My Lovin' Old Husband which would probably fall within Ms McClatchy's definition. (Incidentally, in the song My Lovin' Old Husband, which comprises sung verses interspersed with spoken comments, Texas says "chimney corner" and not the meaningless "in the corn" following verse 4). John Cohen says that Alan Lomax 'suggested that the pioneer women actively cultivated such songs because they were "vehicles for fantasies, wishes, and norms of behaviour which corresponded to...(their) emotional needs...(These ballads) represented the deepest emotional preoccupation's of women who lived within the patriarchal family system of their close-knit society".'

Clearly, in some of these songs I would suggest that we are seeing remnants of once commonly held European beliefs in female subjugation. Dave Harker has already pointed out that such beliefs lie behind the ballad of The House Carpenter in his article 'A Warning' (Folk Music Journal, 1992. Vol.6, no.3. pp.299-338), and the situation is a far more complex one than either McClatchy or Lomax seem to have realized.

I have already mentioned the tune to Lord Thomas. In 1918, having already collected songs in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, Cecil Sharp felt that, 'the Virginian tunes are the best I have yet got' and many of Texas Gladden's songs are, indeed, sung to beautiful tunes. One Morning in May, a version of The Unfortunate Rake, has a splendid modal tune coupled with one of the most arresting first verses you're likely to hear:

When I was a young girl I used to see pleasure
When I was a young girl I used to drink ale
Out of the alehouse and into the jailhouse
Right out of a bar-room and down to my grave.

Kind Sir, I See You've Come Again, which Sharp called The Courting Case, is sung to a version of the tune which Scottish singers have used repeatedly for the ballad Lang Johnny More. The fragment Cold Mountains uses the same fine tune that Fiddlin' Arthur Smith used for the song Adieu, False Heart which he recorded in 1938 (reissued on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music - Volume 4. Revenant CD RVN 211).

In one of the interviews Texas Gladden speaks of using 'grace notes' in her singing, adding that her mother, "had a knack of putting in little grace notes like I do sometimes". Mention is also made of the composer John Powell (the right-wing nutter who founded the White Top Festival with Annabel Morris Buchanan), who is described by Texas as 'the greatest authority on musical compositions in Virginia'. Texas knew Powell, through attending the Whitetop Festivals, and I would suggest that she picked up the term 'grace notes' from him. Both Alan Lomax and John Cohen speak of Texas's use of ornamentation (not forgetting that strange 'odd phrasings') in her singing. Actually, it seems to me that Texas Gladden did not use a great deal of ornamentation. In her ballads she does use the occasional appoggiatura grace note. But, in general, she is quite a plain singer. Don't get me wrong. She is a good singer, at times a great ballad singer, but she just does not sound like, say, Dellie Norton or some of the other Sodom Laurel singers that I met in the late '70s and early '80s. Interestingly, though, Texas did change her style in a few of her songs. Take, for example, the song Old Kimball, which began life in Ireland in the early 1800s. The song quickly travelled to America where, by the late 1860s, it was being sung by Negro singers, and Texas's version clearly shows a black influence, as did many of the songs and tunes that Hobart Smith sang and played.

Sadly there are no notes attached to the song fragments. Love's Worse Than Sickness is related to Dellie Norton's version of Black is the Colour, while I Am a Man of Honor is a fragment of the song that Sharp called The Virginian Lover and which Dellie Norton called The Silkmerchant's Daughter. Always been a Rambler is the opening verse to the song The Girl I Left Behind, in the version recorded in 1928 by Grayson and Whitter as I've Always been a Rambler. Several of the other fragments were also recorded commercially during the 1920s and '30s. Roving Cowboy was noted by a number of American collectors and was recorded by Frank Jenkins in 1927 (reissued on Document DOCD-8023). In the Shadow of the Pines was recorded by Kelly Harrell, The Wreck of the Old '97 by Vernon Dalhart (and countless others), and Wild and Reckless Hobo by Burnett and Rutherford. This latter, incidentally, is of interest to British listeners in that the song is based on a broadside published by James Catnach of London's Seven Dials in the early 1800s. Catnach's sheet, which was titled Standing on the Platform (Waiting for the Train), was reprinted extensively in the States in the 1860s and '70s, a fact which would help explain its popularity with American folksingers.

Today there seems to be as much interest in the telling of folktales as there is in the singing of folksongs. Luckily, Lomax recorded at least one of Texas Gladden's folktales - here simply titled Ghost Story. In fact, it is a short version of the story The Haunted House that I recorded in 1979 from Matt Burnette of Meadows of Dan, VA. Matt's tale was set locally and was without any specific date, whereas Texas Gladden's version is supposed to have happened sometime during the Civil War. In a way it reminds me of parts of James Lee Burke's excellent novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

No doubt Alan Lomax was thinking of Hobart Smith, a professional musician for much of his life, when he asked Texas Gladden "You never have made any professional use of your singing at all, have you, Texas?" I doubt if he was surprised by her answer. "Been too busy raising babies. When you bring up nine, you have your hands full. All I could sing was lullabies!"

Texas Gladden really was one of America's great ballad singers. Her songs came to her from her parents and family, from the radio and from gramophone records. Most of her singing was done at home. During her life she never achieved the fame that she deserved. She died in 1967, without becoming involved in the American folkmusic revival. I can think of no better memorial to her than this essential CD.
- Mike Yates - 5.11.01

The Alan Lomax Portait Series
Texas Gladden - Ballad Legacy

Recorded 1941-1946
Released 01/01/2001

1 - The Devil and the Farmer's Wife - 03:30
2 - One Morning in May - 03:19
3 - Mental Pictures (interview) - 01:06
4 - Mary Hamilton - 03:49
5 - Kind Sir, I See You've Come Again - 01:46
6 - The Devil's nine Questions - 02:42
7 - I'm Never to Marry (the Girl That I Hated) - 02:50
8 - My Mother (interview) - 01:07
9 - Rose Connelly - 02:49
10 - Been Too Busy Raising Babies (interview) - 00:17
11 - Hush, Baby, Don't You Cry - 00:42
12 - The Three Babies - 02:29
13 - Od-Time Love - 01:12
14 - Barbara Allen - 04:50
15 - Lord Thomas - 02:24
16 - The Two Brothers (interview) - 01:07
17 - The Two Brothers - 04:13
18 - Old Kimball - 01:55
19 - The Scolding Wfe - 02:05
20 - My Lovin' Old Husband - 01:40
21 - The House Carpenter - 03:07
22 - Gypsy Davy - 01:52
23 - Poor Ellen Smith - 02:27
24 - Songs and Singing (interview) - 02:55
25 - Ghost Story - 05:02
26 - I Am a Man of Honor - 00:24
27 - Roving Cowboy - 00:47
28 - Dark Island - 00:24
29 - The Wreck of the Old '97 - 02:05
30 - Always Been a Rambler - 00:33
31 - Wild and Reckless Hobo - 01:26
32 - Once I Knew a Pretty Fair Miss - 00:39
33 - Love's Worse than Sickness - 00:50
34 - In the Shadow of the Pines - 00:59
35 - Dark Scenes of Winter - 01:50
36 - Cold Mountains - 01:19
37 - The Devil and the Farmer's Wife - 04:19

death is sharper than a thorn.

mp3 128kbps | w/ cover | 70mb

for gadaya


Bernie Stocks said...

Fanstastic stuff yet again! Likewise the Hobart Smith.

Gadaya said...

Oh, thank you very much for this Pirate, you really responded very kickly to my demand and did a fantastic job as always by presenting the music with interesting reading and photographs. Did you wrote yourself the introductory notes? It's really well written and express well what i feel about this music...

Gadaya said...

If it's not asking too much, is there's a way you can post the booklet of this Rounder cd? Most of the time i make an effort to buy the records i really want just to have the liner notes and informations inside that helps me put the music in context. And Rounder records makes a good job at this, like Smithsonian/Folkways and other record companies i try to support.

The Irate Pirate said...

glad you liked it, Bernie & gadaya- i feel a lot of gratitude to both of you for your blogs.

and yes, i did write the introduction myself. i always try to write something that will give people a way to enter and appreciate the music, and i do research and gather pictures and copy other reviews for the same purpose. which is why i don't post as much as some blogs.

and it's not asking too much at all, but unfortunately i don't have the booklet because i never bought the actual cd, i downloaded it from a japanese server a while back. i like to support rounder too, but they have so many releases i concentrate on the living artists like Norman Blake, besides I feel that all the Lomax collection was already paid for: it was publicly funded by the people of America as a way of preserving our heritage. most of the artists didn't get any payment or royalties. and the important thing is that the music isn't lost, so i have no moral qualms about acquiring and distributing it freely.

but if i ever come across it at a library or something, i'll scan the booklet and send it your way :)
and feel free to request anything you like, either of you.

Gadaya said...

hello Pirate, i took the liberty to quote your introductory notes to this post in my blog "The old,weird America" and put a link to your fantastic blog.

Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...

I would like to share it with all my friends and hope they will like it too.