CD Revives the 'Black Ballad' Tradition

Detail from the cover of 'Classic African-American Ballads'

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For generations, tales of African-American life have been told through a musical genre known as black ballads. A new CD, Classic African-American Ballads, is reviving this part of black musical history. Barry Lee Pearson, who produced the album, discusses the origin of the music.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

For generations, the tales of African-American life have been told through a musical genre known as black ballads. Artists like Lead Belly sung about the hard lives and hardships of railroad workers, convicts, and gamblers. A new CD titled Classic African-American Ballads is reviving this part of black musical history. Producer Barry Lee Pearson explains the origins of the music.

Mr. BARRY LEE PEARSON (Music Producer): Well, ballads and blues are related, but they're not the same thing. In fact, ballads and blues were two competing forms of music, and blues won out. And the ballads essentially dropped out of tradition. But to make it simple, ballads will tell you a story. Blues is much more of a ritual in which people think about potential ways of healing the situation, but it doesn't really come to a conclusion. Or another way of thinking about it is in ballads, people kill each other, because death is the theme of most ballads. So, Stagger Lee kills Billy, and all sorts of things like that.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Stacka Lee, the men up, gambled lat. Oh, Stacka Lee threw seven, Billy said, whoa, he threw eight. And it had that, had that - oh, Stacka Lee.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about Stagger Lee, also known as Stacka Lee.

Mr. PEARSON: It's based on a real historical event that took place in St. Louis. Stagger Lee and a man named Billy DeLions on Christmas Eve in 1895 got into an argument. And then they got into kind of a fight, and I guess Billy pulled out a knife and Stagger Lee pulled out a gun. Stagger Lee shot Billy. Stagger Lee ran off to his girlfriend's house. And he was arrested.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Billy said, Stacka Lee, please don't take my life. I've got three little children and a barren, sickly wife. And that, and that, oh Stacka Lee.

Mr. PEARSON: And that's how the real story went, but over time, the story's changed and taken on so many different meanings it's become a legend.

CHIDEYA: Some of these ballads that you have on this album are ones that were recorded at various times or at the same times by whites and blacks. What happened to the music as it was passed back and forth between two cultures?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PEARSON: That process has been taking place forever. And the real problem with it is, is that the white versions and the white artists are usually the one that the bulk of the money. But we have a variety of songs sung from Europe that are on this album from Britain. The frog and the mouse song, which Warner Williams sings and he calls it Mouse on the Hill.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WARNER WILLIAM (Singer): (Singing) Was an old mouse that lived on the hill, uh huh. Was an old mouse that live on the hill, he was rough and tougher like a Buffalo Bill, uh huh.

Mr. PEARSON: He updates it and makes it into his own song and changes it almost completely from its original form. And there's another song or two that come from that tradition, but most of these were African-American compositions. And one of the ones that was very famous was Casey Jones.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Casey Jones said before he died, there was two more trains that he wanted to ride. The fireman asked him what could be? He said the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.

Mr. PEARSON: And that song was actually copyrighted by a couple of white songwriters from California in 1909. And it commemorated an event that took place in 1900. But the song actually had been composed by a black songwriter -probably a man named Wallace Saunders - and was widely known in Mississippi by 1908. So what happens is we have some of these songs that are folk songs, and then some that become popular hits of their day. And sometimes they are picked up by white songwriters who put out their own published versions of them.

CHIDEYA: You have a fascinating bit of tape from actual prisoners. Lost John was recorded by prisoners in jail.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Men: (Singing) One day, one day, I was walking to the Lord. I was walking, I was right along...

CHIDEYA: How did this get passed on - recorded in the first place and then passed on to the point where it could be on this CD?

Mr. PEARSON: Well, I think that was field recorded by Pete Seeger of all people, who most people think more of as a singer, in a Texas prison in 1951. There's lots of work songs that also tell stories. The storyline in Lost John is about a convict who's supposed to be really good at escaping from the dogs. And he has a contest in which he's supposed to escape from a new set of dogs and he wins the contest, and in some versions gets his freedom by some types of tricks, going through a water barrel for example. And the dogs can't catch him, and he winds up in Baltimore a free man.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Men: Which away he'll go on. Which away he'll go. One day, one day.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned murder ballad. Songs like Stacka Lee talk about one person killing another. And some people would argue that some of the hip-hop songs today are murder ballads. Is there a way that this tradition has been passed down through the ages?

Mr. PEARSON: Yes. We're looking back a hundred years and we see a musical form that's very familiar. It's urban music that combines storytelling, improvisation, focusing on themes of street culture, protests, and violence. And a lot of people think that these are new. Actually, the ballad tradition in general is very violent. But at the turn of the century these songs were there. And a hundred years later, we see the same tradition coming back to the fore. But often, this stuff wouldn't get put on the air as, you know, or it would be cleaned up. For example, Betty and Dupree, which is about a murder, a robbery. When that was done by Chuck Willis, he took out all of those things and made it into a straight love song. Betty wants a diamond ring, and Dupree says I'll get it for you if you will be mine forever.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHUCK WILLIS (Musician): (Singing) Betty told Dupree she wanted a diamond ring.

Mr. PEARSON: And that song actually, too was interesting because Betty and Dupree were actually real people, white people, and that song still became really popular in African-American tradition.

CHIDEYA: Blues historian Barry Lee Pearson compiled and produced the new CD Classic African-American Ballads. It's available in stores now. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. PEARSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILLIS: (Singing) He said lay down little Betty, see what tomorrow brings. May bring sunshine, may bring you that diamond ring. Then he got his...

CHIDEYA: Thanks so much for joining us. To listen to this show or other archived shows, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon will be back tomorrow. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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Classic African American Ballads

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Album
Classic African American Ballads
Artist
Barry Lee Pearson, producer
Label
Smithsonian Folkways
Released
2006

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