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Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

John Hardy - The Genesis of a Song

Jim Beaver has suggested a "definitive" version of John Hardy, a 1961 recording by the Lilly Brother's and Don Stover. Here it is: 

I like this rendition, but suggested that looking for a "definitive" telling of the John Hardy story might take the life out of it. Here's my response to Jim:

"Thanks very much for posting this, Jim. I think one of the points my piece was trying to make is that the search for a "definitive" version of a song is both futile and unnecessary. For instance, I can't count the number of times I've heard this song. It never occurred to me that John Hardy himself might have been black. How can a "definitive" rendition of a timeless song miss this truth about the story? Whatever Leadbelly's version might have added to the story, has been erased. Selecting a "definitive" version suggests that all others who sing (interpret) this song should now, forever, copy Lilly's version. Would that kill the song, or keep it alive. I suspect that it's the creative act, the one of changing the song to fit the performer's own experience and sensibility, which keeps a song's legacy growing."

What do you think about finding and agreeing to a definitive way of rendering a song? How should (or can) each person seeking to produce a particular song for self or others go about developing their own understanding of it?

good article

Thanks, Jim. I really enjoyed writing it. 

Lead Belly recorded "John Hardy" on 12 string guitar, but also twice in 1943 on accordion. This is interesting because accordion was his first instrument, starting when his uncle gave him one in about 1906. Most of the five accordion recordings he made recall the earliest dance music he heard in his youth. "John Hardy" is the only tune he recorded twice on the instrument, a shorter version gets cut off at 2:45, and has a spoken intro, "John Hardy was a negro and he was a desperate man, and he carried two six-shooters. I'm gonna sing this song in here the (?) accordion."

Lead Belly's work on what he called his "windjammer" is a reminent of what had been more widespread use of accordions among English speaking African Americans before the development of blues music. The instrument fell from favour when you couldn't play blues scales on simple ten-button accordions. Ballads like "John Hardy" worked though, as did many square-dance and fiddle tunes black string-bands were playing when Lead Belly was a child. (The other squeezebox tunes Lead Belly recorded were dance numbers, "Laura," "Corn Bread Rough," and "Sukey Jump.")

Since he picked up the 12 string guitar from Mexican-American players later, this accordion version of "John Hardy" suggests a connection to earlier music that fell away. Lead Belly was one of the few players who have recorded a wider variety of "pre-blues" styles representing what many people were listening to before the coming of phonograph records spread blues more widely. I only wish Alan Lomax and others had asked more in depth questions about Lead Belly's early music. (Lomax had a hate-on against accordions in particular which didn't help.) And I wish Lead Belly had recorded it more; five tunes out of the hundreds he recorded is a sad legacy from the earliest roots of his music.

So, that's my "John Hardy" take.

I did see some more history about the actual guy here: http://www.wvculture.org/HISTORY/thisdayinwvhistory/0119.html

(Much credit to Jared Snyder's work on Lead Belly and larger African American accordion traditions.)

Thanks so much, Bruce, for adding this interesting additional material to the story. It's amazing to me how much one song can teach us about music. Here's the recording you were talking about:

 

Great article!