I got this from Bascom Lamar Lunsford, as did we all. Lunsford was a complicated and interesting man, a lawyer from North Carolina who was born in 1882 and grew up playing local fiddle and banjo songs. In 1928 he organized one of the first official folk festivals — by some accounts the first — in Asheville, which became a yearly event and among other things is notable as the place where a sixteen-year-old Pete Seeger first became interested in folk music and five-string banjos.
That would not have been Lunsford’s choice for a biographical credit, since he strongly objected both to northern city performers playing “mountain music” and to the association of folk music with leftist politics. I gather from his biography, Minstrel of the Appalachians (by Loyal Jones, who tries to put his views in the best possible light), that he was considered a difficult man back home as well, and it has often been noted that in all the decades he ran the Asheville festival he never presented a black performer (though Jones writes that he did present black musicians in other settings).
So the biography is messy… but he collected a lot of great music over the years, and in 1928 he recorded this song, which is wonderful.
I began playing this in the late 1980s as part of a project to adapt clawhammer banjo pieces to guitar (another example is “The Cuckoo“), and recorded it on the cassette I made in the early 1990s. Which said, I don’t recall playing it all that regularly until I read Robert Cantwell’s book about the folk revival, When We Were Good. There is some smart stuff in that book, but also some spectacular passages of academic prose, and the analysis of this song was so rich that I took to reading it from the stage:
[W]hy does Bascom wish to be a mole in the ground? Perhaps because he is a man not at home where destiny has placed him. He has been in the “Bend,” quite likely a prison, too long, “with the rough and rowdy men” of whom, I think it is fair to say, he is not one. And he has had a bad experience with railroad men, who “drink up your blook like wine.” Even Tempe, his woman, doesn’t love him in the way he deserves, wanting him only when he can supply the cash for the nine-dollar shawl she covets; that doesn’t prevent him, though, from loving her… To hear her sing, he would wish himself not only a contemptible mole but a vile “lizard in the spring.”
A lizard, a mole: Bascom is not the first man in love to feel his rodent-like unworthiness and reptilian cupidity… Nor is he the first to feel, under the influence of love, the roughness of his own sex, or whose heart has learned the arcane and curious language in which nature, in the form of mole and lizard, little miracles of creation and perhaps, in the metaphorical field of sexuality, covert genital symbols, both speaks to his condition and brings him into unconscious sympathy with his beloved.
What goes around comes around, sometimes in very nice ways. I don’t remember if it was a few months or a year, or even two, but in any case sometime after Dominic Kakolobango spent a week taping his favorite records out of my collection, I was in his apartment in Brussels listening to his taped selection of Mississippi John Hurt songs.
I had always named Hurt as one of my favorite singers and guitarists, and played a bunch of his songs, but like most people I thought of his playing as relatively simple and straightforward compared to the work of people like Willie McTell, Blind Blake, or Lemon Jefferson.
So there I was in Brussels, Dominic was at work, and I figured I’d learn a couple of songs I’d always liked. And, for the first time, instead of just playing rough approximations of what I heard, I decided to listen carefully and try to figure out exactly what Hurt was doing…
…which opened up a new world. Because if you actually pay attention to what he played, John Hurt was a superbly quirky guitarist. I’ve already posted about “Richlands Woman,” which I recall as the first song I worked out that day, with its wonderfully economical choice of bass notes. Then I moved on to “Satisfied and Tickled Too,” and found it was missing half a measure, or added half a measure, or was missing or added a beat, but in any case did it consistently in every verse.
That was an interesting experience, because I first tried to count the beats along with his recording, and work it out logically, but I kept getting confused… so I decided to just play along with him, over and over, learning the song like a toddler learns to talk.
It worked, and this became one of my favorite songs. Now I usually play it with my wife Sandrine on clarinet, and she learned the timing the same way – first tried to count it, then just surrendered and played along till it felt natural.
The song is related to a piece the Memphis Jug Band recorded as “You May Leave, But This Will Bring You Back,” and may ultimately derive from a verse-and-chorus sheet music hit from 1898 by Ben Harney (whom I’ve discussed in an earlier post) — though none of the three songs shares much more than the tag line. Hurt’s is my favorite by far, sung from the point of view of a woman who is confident that “it” will bring her lover back — “it” clearly being her todalo.
There has been lots of speculation among blues scholars about the derivation of this word, producing a range of more or less unlikely folk etymologies, but the meaning is clear enough in context: “I pull my dress up to my knees/Give my todalo to whom I please.” And, once one knows that, it clarifies some other mysteries, like the title of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” a euphemistic mis-spelling, suggesting a cheery and childish goodbye rather than a local specialty in one of the fabled jazz towns of the Prohibition era.
I always liked Mance Lipscomb’s music, but as a kid I was first struck by his versions of old pop standards. He had a gentle, swinging style that worked perfectly with that material, and I quickly learned his versions of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “Alabama Jubilee.”
I paid less attention to his blues, which seemed to me less distinctive – though a couple worked their way into my repertoire: I picked up roughly his version of “Bout a Spoonful” from Dave Van Ronk, without knowing Lipscomb was the source, and a Belgian friend turned me on to “Ain’t You Sorry,” which gave me a new appreciation of his guitar work. But I never really understood how good he was until a year or two after I got back from Africa, when Dominic Kakolobango, whom I’d stayed with in Lubumbashi, came to visit the US.
When I met Dominic he was playing the classic Shaba acoustic style of Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo, some American country and western, and a lot of French chanson – he introduced me to the music of Georges Brassens, who has been a passion of mine ever since. In turn, I introduced him to acoustic blues, and when he came to visit we listened to a lot of records and he spent hours and days taping his favorites.
Dominic’s tastes ranged widely, but out of all my records, the artists who most caught his attention were Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb. That made sense, of course – I’d always associated the Congolese acoustic style with the gentle swing of Hurt’s playing. But until Dominic became fascinated with Lipscomb’s recordings, I’d never put him in the same class with Hurt, who I sometimes name as my favorite musician ever. Dominic, by contrast, loved them equally and maybe even marginally favored Lipscomb, and since I trusted his taste, I listened along with him, and after he left I kept listening.
The more I listened, the more I was struck not only by the music but by Lipscomb’s incredibly deft lyrical sense. Much of his repertoire was made up of blues standards, and I had tended to think of them as lyrically generic, but when I paid attention it was obvious they were anything but. The older blues singers – even the greatest ones – came up playing for dances and on the street, where audiences were not typically sitting quietly or demanding a cohesive lyrical narrative, so although the poetry of individual blues verses is often brilliant and striking, full songs were generally compilations of fairly random verses, connected by emotional feel or just as one verse reminded a singer of another.
Lipscomb was an exception, because he mostly sang unified songs — they might vary from one day to the next, but they held together as cohesive lyrical compositions. The most distinctive included some murder ballads in blues form, such as “Ella Speed” and “Freddie,” which as far as I know were his own compositions. But even his more generic blues tended to flow from verse to verse in logical progressions, and the verses were strikingly well chosen and often phrased in novel and interesting ways.
All of which is to say I began to appreciate Lipscomb as one of the great blues songwriters – and that naturally took me to this song, which is one of his masterpieces. It is aptly named, at least from a chordal point of view — lyrical form is a fairly straightforward twelve-bar blues, but the chords are unlike anything I know in that form or any other.
As for the lyric, I gradually realized that this is another murder ballad, but so subtle that it’s easy to miss the denouement – indeed, it’s handled so subtly that some people will probably disagree with that description. In any case, it’s a great song and Lipscomb recorded it several times, somewhat varying the verses but keeping the theme intact. I’m not sure my version precisely matches any one of his, but it’s one of my all-time favorites.
Meanwhile, Dominic picked up Lipscomb’s version of an old ragtime-blues standard, “Take Me Back,” wrote some additional verses in Swahili, and that’s another of my all-time favorites, especially in this version, backed by a band back in the Republic of Congo:
I’ve always named the Reverend Gary Davis as one of my main influences on guitar and loved playing his instrumental showpieces (like “Cincinnati Flow Rag“), but although I learned a bunch of his superb gospel arrangements I rarely performed them because I couldn’t get behind the lyrics. This was the great exception because it tells a Bible story rather than exhorting anyone to believe, and it’s a great lyric with a great accompaniment.
When I first learned this I sang Davis’s lyric, but then I heard the Staple Singers’ version, which extended the story to the moment when Samson pulls the building down. So I learned that, and it’s the one I play here…
… and that got me interested in whether there were even more verses. So I began doing some research, which led into a larger project on the African American tradition of rapping or singing Bible stories. That’s an ongoing effort, part of a still larger project to explore the deep roots of rap, which so far has produced my book on the dozens. Meanwhile I turned up quite a lot of additional information on “Samson and Delilah,” which seems to have been uniquely popular and spread across the South in multiple versions in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The first solid evidence of this song is three verses in “Wasn’t that a Witness for My Lord,” a sort of musical compendium of Bible stories, which included three verses about Samson, two of which are close to what Davis sang. Howard Odum published a version of this song in 1909 as part of an article on recent African American spirituals in The American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education, and it remained popular with jubilee quartets through the mid-20th century.
Over the next two decades several authors published excerpts from longer versions of the Samson and Delilah ballad, and in 1927 the first three recordings of it appeared within a few months of each other, by Blind Willie Johnson in Dallas, Rev. T. T. Rose in Chicago, and Rev. T. E. Weems in Atlanta. All three were clearly based on the same source, though each performer had edited the lyric somewhat differently to fit a three-minute 78 rpm disc. I guessed the source must have been a published broadside (a printed song sheet with lyrics but no music), and eventually found a copy of that broadside in John Lomax’s papers at the University of Texas.
Interestingly, the version recorded in 1927 is quite different from what Davis and the Staples sang, and their lyric is closer to the verses collected by Odum twenty years earlier… which leads me to think it was already around, certainly in oral tradition and likely in print — but there has been virtually no research on African American religious broadsides, so I’m still kind of stumbling in the dark. (If anyone has suggestions of archives or libraries that have collected this sort of material, please pass them along.)
Meanwhile, here’s a compendium of verses from the versions I’ve found extant by the 1920s, suggesting how long and impressive some early performances may have been:
Delilah was a woman that was fine and fair.
Pleasant looking with coal black hair.
Delilah she gained old Samson’s mind,
When he first seen the woman of the Philistine.
Why he went to Timothy [Timnath] I cannot tell
But the daughter of Timothy she pleased him well.
He asked his father to go and see
Can you get that beautiful woman for me?
Sampson’s mother she said to him,
Can’t you find a wife among our kin;
She said, O Sampson, it grieves your mother’s mind
For you to go and marry to a Philistine.
If I had my way,
O Lordy, Lordy,
If I had my way;
If I had my way,
I would tear this building down.
You’ve read about Samson, from his birth
He was the strongest man ever lived on earth
You read way back in that ancient times
Lord, he faced a thousand of the Philistines
Let me tell you what Samson done.
He broke at a lion, and the lion run.
Oh, Samson was the man that the lion attack
Lord, Samson jumped on that lion’s back
’Twas written that the lion killed a man with his paw,
But Sampson got his hand in the lion’s jaw.
Lord, he broke that lion, killed him dead
And the bees made honey in the lion’s head.
Sampson gave a feast and there came a debate,
He put forth a riddle to interpretate,
So many garments he said he would give
If they tell his riddle in seven days.
Sampson’s feast was almost through,
The known of the riddle was not yet in view.
They called his wife and instruct her what to do,
“Please ask your husband and he’ll tell it to you.”
She says, “What is the riddle, please tell it to me,
You said ‘Out of the eater came forth meat;’
What is your riddle, please tell it to me,
You said ‘Out of the strong came forth the sweet.’”
“I killed a lion, long after he was dead
The bees made honey in the lion’s head.”
Sampson burned down a field of corn,
They looked for Sampson but he was gone.
So many thousands they formed a plot,
It was not many days before he was caught.
They bound his hands, while walking along
He looked on the ground and saw an old jawbone
He just moved his arms, the rope popped like thread,
When he got through slaying three thousand was dead.
Sampson went to town and he stayed too late,
They wanted to kill him and they laid in wait.
Tell me, wasn’t Sampson awfully strong?
He pulled up the gate posts and he carried them along.
Oh, Samson’s hair went wandering about
Lord, the strength of Samson was never found out
Until his wife she sat upon his knees
Said, “Tell me, Samson, where your strength lies, please”
Lord, she looked so pretty, she talked so fair,
Samson said, “Woman, it’s in my hair.
You shave my head just as clean as your hand
Lord, my strength will become like a natural man.”
Sampson was a man very large in size,
They overpowered Samson and plucked out his eyes.
O Church, just listen to the tale,
They caught poor Sampson and put him in jail.
Church, let me tell you what the Philistines done,
They brought Sampson to the building to have some fun.
But now, O Church, ain’t you glad
To hear what Sampson said to the lad,
These was the words that Sampson said,
Show me a pillar for to lean my head.
We are told that the building was high from the ground,
Sampson braced against the pillar and it tumbled down.
Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head