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When you get up into heaven, when you get up into heaven, you'll find a big stream of molasses and a big lot of flapjacks sitting on each side. And it's a lot of butter on each side and a big knife to cut the butter with. When you get down to the stream of molasses you're going to cut the butter with your knife, you're going to drag the butter through the flapjacks, you're going to drag the flapjacks through the big stream of molasses, you're going to drag them across your mouth and say, "A bow bow bow bow bow..." - Lead Belly, Sermon on Pancakes, 1941

Author Topic: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"  (Read 891 times)

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Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #15 on: June 04, 2018, 06:39:41 AM »
John

Dock Reed sang only religious songs. Alan Lomax did take him and Vera Hall to sing at a folk festival up North, but it was at  Columbia University, not at Newport. 

I can't play the link to Doc Reese, but there's a link on YouTube to Nathaniel 'Doc' Reece at Newport singing another song from Souther prisons Here Rattler. His voice is not like Dock Reed's, and he seems to have been at least a generation younger.

jphauser

I wrote to John before checking The Land Where the Blues Began and discovered how much I'd forgotten. Thank you for sending me back there.

Two things stand out: just how important the 1933 recording was to teenage Alan Lomax; and how invaluable Doc Reese's account is. As you say, It's a harrowing story ? all the more so because it's a thoughtful written first-person narrative by a man who turned his life round, got an education, and became a preacher.

On first hearing the prisoners sing Lomax writes:

Quote from: Alan Lomax
I was seventeen then, and their courage seemed to me somewhat more than mortal. Now, many years later, as I write this, my opinion has not changed.
He couldn't let the White guards see his reaction
Quote from: Alan Lomax
Therefore I hid my feelings. Nor could I discuss them with my father, who in spite of his intense sympathy for the prisoners and a genuine concern for black welfare, believed in the overall beneficence of the Southern system. Indeed, at the time, in fact, there were very few white Southerners, and not many Americans, who held different views. What we recorded that afternoon in the Central State Prison Farm in Texas ? The Midnight Special, Pick a Bale of Cotton. Little John Henry, Ain't No Mo Cane on the Brazos ?  would help to soften those time-hardened prejudices. Certainly, our own lives were changed. We returned again and again, my father in the thirties, myself in the forties and late fifties, to record in the Southern penitentiaries.

The radio broadcaster John Henry Faulk discovered Doc Reese

[While I was writing this, Lignite explained how this happened]

and introduced him to Alan, who took him to the Newport Folk Festival. During rehearsals, Doc (Lomax's spelling) told his story and Alan persuaded him to write it down. The full text takes up 26 pages in The Land Where the Blues Began.

Doc quotes many prison songs. The two most relevant for this thread were learned from an older convict called Old Bad Eye. the older man recalled red-heifer days ? when the guards wielded whips of raw hide with the hair still on:

Quote from: Old Bad Eye
It was in red-heifer days when we used to sing

You ought to been here in 1904,
You could find a dead man on ev'y turn row.

You ought to been here in 1910,
They was drivin the women like they do the men.

This theme features in the Penitentiary Blues recordings of Smokey Hogg and Lignin, Hopkins? as does this theme from the  first song that Doc heard from Old Bad Eye:

Quote from: Old Bad Eye
My mama called me, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd,
 And I answered, "Ma'am."
"Ain't you tire of rollin', O Lawd, Lawd,
For the big-hat man?"

My papa called me, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd,
 And I answered, "Suh."
"If you tired of rollin, O Lawd, Lawd,
What you stay there fuh?"

POSTSCRIPT on Clear Rock Platt
The backing to Ernest Williams was described as 'Iron Head Baker's quartet'. Several other recordings are described as by Iron Head, Clear Rock and two others (RD Allen and Will Crosby). So it's more than likely that Clear Rock is on the 1933 recording ? which would explain why he sang the same tune in 1939.
« Last Edit: June 04, 2018, 08:57:38 AM by DavidCrosbie »

Offline jphauser

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #16 on: June 04, 2018, 04:02:13 PM »
In addition to Lomax's Land Where the Blues Began, another good source for Ain't No Cane on the Brazos would probably be Bruce Jackson's Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues.  I believe the title is misleading and that it deals strictly with Texas prisons, and was originally published under a different title.  I don't have a copy of it and it's been a long time since I read it.  I got a peek at its table of contents on Amazon and it has a chapter titled "Should a Been on the River in 1910." 

If you want to know more about the Texas prisons which were the "home" of "Midnight Special" "Ain't No More Cane" and "Go Down O' Hannah", you should learn about Albert "Racehoss" Sample.   His book Racehoss: Big Emma's Boy covers his years in the Texas prison system, and the book makes it abundantly clear why inmates referred to their place of incarceration as "the burnin' hell."  Sean Ferrer (son of Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn)  filmed Sample telling his incredible story before a live audience and the complete film is available free on Youtube and for purchase on Amazon.com.  The book was praised in the Chicago Tribune as having stories worthy of Twain, Faulkner and Lardner.  Sample received similar praise from Studs Terkel after appearing on his radio show.  A WC post from a few weeks ago brought out the fact that Terkel's shows are being put on the web.  Unfortunately,  the interview with Sample is not yet available per the link below.

https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/programs/albert-race-sample-conversation-studs-terkel-0

I have a recording of Sample which I believe contains a good number of excerpts from Terkel's show.  Whether or not it's from his show, it's incredibly moving and would be one of the last things I'd ever part with. 







« Last Edit: June 04, 2018, 07:12:39 PM by jphauser »

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #17 on: June 04, 2018, 05:14:57 PM »
In addition to Lomax's Land Where the Blues Began, another good source for Ain't No Cane on the Brazos would probably be Bruce Jackson's Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues. 
Thanks once more! I was half-wondering if this was worth buying. You've convinced me that it is.

Meanwhile, while waiting for delivery, I've gone one better than you with Amazon LOOKINSIDE!. Here's part of Jackson's note to a transcription of one recording of No More Cane on the Brazos:

Quote from: Bruce Jackson
...the song in its older versions is complex in the relation between the lead singer and the group. As a result it is almost never sung anymore. I met a few men who knew it, but only two or three who could sing it now. This group started and very quickly decided they didn't want to stay with the song, so they shifted into "Godamighty."

Offline jphauser

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #18 on: June 05, 2018, 07:09:37 PM »

Quote from: Old Bad Eye
My mama called me, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd,
 And I answered, "Ma'am."
"Ain't you tire of rollin', O Lawd, Lawd,
For the big-hat man?"

My papa called me, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd,
 And I answered, "Suh."
"If you tired of rollin, O Lawd, Lawd,
What you stay there fuh?"


David,
I checked my files and found a page I copied from page 3 of Bruce Jackson's Wake Up Dead Man that I believe ties in to the theme in the verses above.  As you noted, this theme is found in other songs including Smokey Hogg's "Penitentiary Blues."  In the past, I puzzled over these verses over and over again because obviously an inmate is not free to leave prison.  But then I came across Jackson's book and read something which suggested to me an explanation.  The book describes an incident in which a prison guard taunted an inmate by asking him if he was going home on the weekend.  The inmate responded that he didn't think he was because the warden told him he had to work.  Clearly, the inmate had to play along with the guard and pretend that he was free to come and go as he pleased.  (I imagine the consequences resulting from getting angry and not playing along could be severe.)   

After reading this, the following thought occurred to me:  It may be that the verse in which an inmate's mother (or father) asks him why he's not leaving the penitentiary is not nonsense but a protest.  It's not that the parents didn't recognize the difference between being in and out of prison, but that there was no difference.  While imprisoned black men had clearly lost their freedom, black people who were not incarcerated were not really free either.  They were victims of an oppressive system which was totally stacked against them and exploited them to almost the same degree as the prisons did through peonage, sharecropping, etc. 

Of course, I'm sure that many will not agree with my interpretation, and it's not likely we will ever know for sure what these verses are really about.

Offline alyoung

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #19 on: June 06, 2018, 03:46:16 AM »
Doc Reese sang at the Newport Folk Festival July 23-26, 1964. Three songs -- Old Hannah, Hey Rattler and Oh My Lord -- were issued on vinyl album Vanguard VSD-79180, The Blues At Newport Pt 1; Hey Rattler and Oh My Lord were also on Vanguard VCD-77/78, Great Bluesmen, Newport. In his introduction to Old Hannah, he says: "Twenty five years ago I was part of the prison system of Texas as (brief pause) an inmate." Cue laughter. Great singing, well worth checking out.

Offline Stuart

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #20 on: June 06, 2018, 10:30:10 AM »

After reading this, the following thought occurred to me:  It may be that the verse in which an inmate's mother (or father) asks him why he's not leaving the penitentiary is not nonsense but a protest.  It's not that the parents didn't recognize the difference between being in and out of prison, but that there was no difference.  While imprisoned black men had clearly lost their freedom, black people who were not incarcerated were not really free either.  They were victims of an oppressive system which was totally stacked against them and exploited them to almost the same degree as the prisons did through peonage, sharecropping, etc. 

Of course, I'm sure that many will not agree with my interpretation, and it's not likely we will ever know for sure what these verses are really about.

Only tangentially related, but here's a link to an earlier thread:

https://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=6535.msg51929#msg51929

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #21 on: June 06, 2018, 12:22:10 PM »
In the past, I puzzled over these verses over and over again because obviously an inmate is not free to leave prison. 
I've always understood them to be a bitter prison joke. The first time I heard then was from Lightnin' Hopkins, who is often sardonic. And I'd already discovered prison humour on the Murderers' Home LP. This was the title of the UK issue. The same album is now Rounder CD Prison Songs Volume One

Out of an interview which was generally quite serious, Lomax edited out this bit to make a track on the LP. Here 'Bama' made a joke of his upbringing and how he became a 'habitual' prisoner. The humour seems to have made the story more bearable. Besides, it made the white guard laugh.

Quote from: Alan Lomax
How I got in the Penitentiary. I asked one of there singers whether he had learned this song on the farm. Looking to make a joke at his own expense and thus please the white guard who was listening to the recording, he quipped : "On the county farm, boss," that is, the county penal farm. This tickled the guard immensely and the prisoner followed up his advantage by giving a burlesque account of his own unfortunate career, to amuse the white guard and myself. In spite of the story and the setting, i was forced to laugh as well ...
... I learned that song in Tennessee ...
Question : You raised on the farm?
Answer : Yessuh, county farm. (laughter).
Question : Well, how come you got in so much trouble?
Answer : Well, boss, the way I got in trouble the first time, the folks was barrin' me and I just got in the penitentiary and just worked and worked and worked so much ... I had to work, cut up the fellow, shoot 'em up and then, when I got out of the penitentiary, I thought I had worked enough, and I decided I could make my living' without workin' and I commenced with puttin' pistols on folks and that wouldn't do and I commenced to stealing' everything that wasn't hot and nailed down and the police commenced to runnin' me every whichaway, every way I turn, so, after i got 'em started runnin' me, i just kept on doing wrong, ? fighting', stealing', you know, an' robbin' an' sometimes I wouldn't be done nothin', but I been doin' so much till that when they get me, I'd due to been got anyhow. An' one, two times they 'rest me and I told 'em I hand't done nothin' an they said "Arrest you in egvance, you gonna do sumpin'." So that why i stayed in the penitentiary all the time, boss... In and out, in and out, for the last eighteen years ...
« Last Edit: June 06, 2018, 12:28:18 PM by DavidCrosbie »

Offline jphauser

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #22 on: June 06, 2018, 07:26:46 PM »
In the past, I puzzled over these verses over and over again because obviously an inmate is not free to leave prison. 
I've always understood them to be a bitter prison joke. The first time I heard then was from Lightnin' Hopkins, who is often sardonic. And I'd already discovered prison humour on the Murderers' Home LP. This was the title of the UK issue. The same album is now Rounder CD Prison Songs Volume One

Out of an interview which was generally quite serious, Lomax edited out this bit to make a track on the LP. Here 'Bama' made a joke of his upbringing and how he became a 'habitual' prisoner. The humour seems to have made the story more bearable. Besides, it made the white guard laugh.


Yes, prison humor sounds like a highly likely possibility.  Thanks, David! (By the way, Bama's version of "Stackerlee" is one of my favorites.  That great voice with no accompaniment.  What a powerful and beautiful recording!)

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #23 on: June 07, 2018, 06:24:09 AM »
jphauser

'Bama' really knew how to use laughter. You know his crazy ending to Stackolee, but have you heard him on the second album? On two, perhaps three tracks he enjoys himself telling lies. And he was tickled by I'm Going Home ? both for the silly verses and  the ridiculous idea of a convict choosing to move freely from where he was..


You can listen online to the unedited recordings from which the albums were compiled

http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-ix.do?ix=session&id=PR47&idType=abbrev&sortBy=abc

'Bama' features on the 1947 link.
« Last Edit: June 07, 2018, 06:56:40 AM by DavidCrosbie »

Offline alyoung

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #24 on: June 07, 2018, 06:25:22 AM »
I always heard the last sentence ("in and out, in and out for the last 18 years") as being delivered in a quite different tone to the rest of the monolog. Sounds to me that the rest of it is humor, but that last bit is the cold hard reality, spoken with a tone of resignation and regret.

Offline jphauser

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #25 on: June 07, 2018, 01:42:03 PM »
According to a post on the folk music forum mudcat.org, "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos" tells the story of a monumental crop failure which occurred in 1928.  Here is the post and a link to the thread.


Strange no one looked into the origin of this song, which originated on the Texas State Prison Farms near the Brazos.
From the 1880s to 1899, private cane fields and farms with corn and other crops were worked largely by prisoners.
Between 1899-1915, the Texas Prison System acquired a huge holding on the Brazos, a part of it over 5000 acres acquired from the Imperial Sugar Company. The total holdings of farm land were about 81,000 acres in 1921, total lands over 100,000 acres.
Women prisoners (mentioned in some versions of the song) were domiciled on the Goree Farm.
The farms were profitable only in a few years of their operation.

In 1928, the cane fields on the Brazos failed because of disease, and were not re-planted to cane. To feed the mills on the farms, raw sugar was brought in. A federal tax on cane sugar effectively ended cane sugar farming in the area.

"Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos" was the song that told of this monumental crop failure.

From various articles in The Handbook of Texas.

https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=39464



Also, a Texas State Historical Association webpage states the following:

The last sugarcane crop in Fort Bend County was harvested in 1928. Plant disease and the high federal protective tax on cane sugar ended local cane farming, and thereafter raw sugar was imported for the refinery.

(Sugar Land is in northeastern Fort Bend County.)

https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hfs10

Offline Rivers

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #26 on: June 07, 2018, 05:36:46 PM »
Wow, thanks jphauser for the origin story there.

Apropos of nothing I first heard it on The Basement Tapes, and have always thought it sounded much older, somehow archetypal and pre-blues. It's quite unusual in its chord melody. I do like Chris Smither's take on it as previously mentioned in the thread. Austin's Band Of Heathens do a good version also.

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #27 on: June 08, 2018, 06:01:07 AM »
In 1928, the cane fields on the Brazos failed because of disease, and were not re-planted to cane. To feed the mills on the farms, raw sugar was brought in. A federal tax on cane sugar effectively ended cane sugar farming in the area.
Wow! So in 1933 It Ain't No More Cane was a topical song!

This suggests to me that the definitive version was perfected by ? perhaps originated by ? just a handful of great singers: Mexico Williams, Iron Head Baker and Clear Rock Platt. (The other two singers may or may not have contributed.)

If I'm right, it might also explain how the song eventually became too difficult for most prisoners to sing. It had been shaped to be sung by a leader and a close-knit, musically sophisticated chorus. The 1933 recording works so well in part because the other men are listening and responding so closely to Mexico.

Quote from: Rivers
...have always thought it sounded much older, somehow archetypal and pre-blues.
Not really a contradiction. The men who created the song used the idiom you describe because that was what they knew. And they put recent history into the context of the history they knew ? remembering 1928 in the same breath as remembering 1904 and 1910.
« Last Edit: June 08, 2018, 06:23:18 AM by DavidCrosbie »

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #28 on: June 08, 2018, 12:46:33 PM »
In Wake Up Dead Man, Bruce Jackson usefully describes song-types as they are affected by the work they accompany. This explains a lot about cane-cutting songs like It Ain't No More Cane.

Quote from: Bruce Jackson
Unmetered group work, such as cotton picking or sugarcane cutting, is associated with the songs which are most complex melodically and lyrically, with the most intricate vocal ornamentation on the part of the lead singer, and with the most likelihood of harmonisation by other participants. It also produces the largest group of solo songs. This work does not time the group, but it does time the individual worker ? that is, he can work at several different paces, depending on how he chooses to read and relate to the meter of the song, but a half-dozen men singing will not be moving the same way at the same time. Metric control, the relation of rhythm to body movements, is least present in these songs of all the kinds of convict worksongs.

Offline Rivers

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Re: SOTM - June 2018 - "No More Cane on the Brazos"
« Reply #29 on: June 09, 2018, 05:32:25 PM »
No More Cane warrants a mention in the old "minor chords" thread. All the versions I'm familiar with, including the acapella one, land the last syllable of, for example, "molasses", on the relative minor. The more I listen to it the more it sounds like a gospel melody, secularized.

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