The Folk Process at 45rpm

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James “Iron Head” Baker, June, 1934. Photo: Library of Congress

In December 1933, John Lomax and his son Alan arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. Their mission was to record a pair of traditional African-American singers, James “Iron Head” Baker and Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, whom they had also recorded the previous summer. Probably the best known song to come out of this session was Iron Head’s version of the traditional “Black Betty,” which rose to fame in 1977 as the sole hit single by the New York City band Ram Jam. Also recorded during the session was Iron Head’s version of a tune called “Shorty George.”

Shorty George, he ain’t no friend of mine
He taken all the women and left the men behind.

Somehow a legend grew up around the song that Shorty George was the name of a train that brought convicts’ wives to the prison for conjugal visits. If this is indeed true, it might point to a Mississippi origin for the song, as Parchman Farm had reportedly implemented a conjugal visit program as early as World War I, and was even earlier reported to have brought in prostitutes to reward “hardworking inmates” and to encourage further hard work. When Bruce Jackson was doing the research for his 1972 book Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons, an inmate at the Ramsey unit in Brazoria County, Texas, told him that Shorty George was a short train made up of only two or three cars, completely unconnected with the prison, that passed by there everyday precisely at 3:35pm. It’s likely that this association was a local development, and the train was linked to the song simply because it, like its folkloric namesake, was short.

During the folk boom of the 1950s and early ’60s, it was common practice for artists to mine any available source for folk material that had not yet reached a wide audience. It was during one such excavation at the Library of Congress that folk singer Eric von Schmidt came across one of Lomax’s later recordings of the song—Smith Casey’s version, recorded in 1939 at the Clemens State Farm in Brazoria County, Texas—and reworked the tune into something quite different than the original. With a new title, “He Was a Friend of Mine,” it became the final track on the influential 1961 Folkways LP he recorded with Rolf Cahn. Bob Dylan learned this version and added the tune to his repertoire after making his own modifications. He recorded it during the sessions for his first album in 1961, but it did not make the final cut for the LP. It did appear on various bootlegs, though, and he was apparently performing the song live during this period. Dave Van Ronk picked up Dylan’s version of the song and recorded it in 1962 for his fourth album, Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, erroneously crediting the tune to Dylan.

 

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By 1965, the musical and political landscape was practically unrecognizable from that of the early ’60s. When the Byrds decided to feature the tune on their second LP, Turn! Turn! Turn!, they not only worked up a version that better fit the sound of the times—both in terms of melody and arrangement—but also changed the lyrics to make it politically relevant. The song became a lament for John F. Kennedy, and perhaps for the lost hope and innocence of the first few years of the decade. The Byrds’ version spawned a number of cover versions. These appeared both on major labels, such as The Reasonable Facsimile’s interpretation of the tune on Verve Folkways, and on smaller local labels such as versions by The Bad Omens of Fridley, Minnesota, on Twin Town, and former surf-band-gone-folk-rockers Dave & The Customs of Pomona, California, on DAC.

The song’s journey through modern American folklore was not quite over yet, though. In 1972, a single by a band called The Ages appeared on the Win label out of Indianapolis. The B-side, “Don’t Worry About Tomorrow (Everything Will Be Alright),” is a somewhat forgettable slab of lounge-country. The A-side, however, “She Was More Than a Friend of Mine,” is a reworking of The Byrds’ “He Was a Friend of Mine.” In this version, the song has been transformed from a lament for lost innocence into a longing for lost love. The performance is competent, slightly moody, and has a nice little electronic keyboard or synth flourish at the end of some lines. Until recently, I owned the only copy of this disc that I was aware of, but not long ago a German dealer posted a copy for sale, so now that it’s on the radar more may turn up in the future.

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At the moment, very little is known about The Ages. Both sides of the disc are credited to Joe Dillinger, presumably the same person who played drums with the equally obscure Indianapolis-area band The Malemen in late 1972. Dillinger served in Vietnam, worked at a bank, and was selected as Noblesville’s “Jaycee of the Month” in November 1972.

Tom Harvey is listed as the producer of the disc, and both sides are published by his Happyland Music. This suggests that the Win label may have been owned by Harvey, although so far no other releases on the label have been identified. Having relocated to Indianapolis from Texas in 1966, Harvey worked as a radio engineer, dj, and musician. In Texas he had recorded a pair of 45s for the Houston-based International Artists label, and reportedly also recorded in Florida in the early ’60s with a Western Swing band called The Kingstrings. Once in Indianapolis he released a 45 on Ace under his own name, and an LP on the same label, billed as Hardluck Harvey. In the early 70s he also performed with The Flintstones, the longstanding house band at The Emerson Club in Beech Grove.

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Indianapolis Star, May 15, 1971

Hearing The Ages’ performance of “She Was More Than a Friend of Mine” out of context, it’s easy to take it as an example of a certain folk rock sound that was prevalent in the US for a short period. Knowing that it was released in 1972, however, together with its very square flip slide, it becomes apparent that this disc is something of a throwback. The jangly Byrds sound would have come off as pretty outdated in 1972. So instead of an example of Byrds-flavored folk rock as performed by a group in the hinterlands during that sub-genre’s heyday, we have yet another example of a private press anachronism.

Over the years I’ve heard it said that by destroying the oral culture that preceded it, audio-visual culture—the phonograph, cinema, radio, and television—severely crippled the folk process. The point of such a statement is apparently to demonstrate how sterile and “un-folk” the current epoch is. It is, of course, an oversimplification, and I doubt that folklorists would agree. It is easy to forget that both the act of writing itself and the printing process were once newly emerging technologies that also radically transformed how culture was transmitted. If the printed broadside did not kill the folk process, then neither did the rise of audio-visual culture: it only changed it. The evidence is there in every thrift store record bin for all who would take the time to interpret it.

—Stephen Canner

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