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Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932

Band A4

Like Lunsford, James G. and Nancy Weaver Stikeleather were residents of Asheville who shared Gordon's interest in folksong. Gordon left no notes about the Stikeleathers, but in 1930 when Dorothy Scarborough was collecting the songs that were to appear in A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains, she was introduced to

Mr. And Mrs. J. G. Stikeleather, prominent in musical circles in Asheville, who were delightfully cooperative in my quest. They knew folk songs, mountain ballads, traditional folk songs, and Negro songs, and knew well how to sing them, so that the Dictaphone and I enjoyed some memorable sessions in their home. Mr. Stikeleather knew many songs he had learned from the Negroes employed by his family in his childhood -- some that I had not heard elsewhere -- which will appear in the book of Negro folk song which I hope to bring out soon. He had a remarkable recitative called "A Nigger Baptizing" as well as other gems. (Scarborough A, p. 73)

Jim Stikeleather (1872-1948) had an uncle who owned a livery stable; here Jim learned some songs from black singers. "Brother Jonah" he heard at "an old Negro camp meeting in Iredell county," to the east of Asheville in Piedmont, North Carolina, "some fifteen or twenty years ago" (1905-10). It is interesting that many of the collectors working in North Carolina in this period recorded "Negro songs" from whites who had learned them, as Stikeleather did, from association with blacks. Not only Gordon but Lunsford, Frank C. Brown, and Newman Ivey White followed this pattern. In fact, most of the American song scholars at this time tended to collect from educated folksong enthusiasts who sought out the traditional singers of their own neighborhoods and learned songs in order to perform them. Perhaps someday a historian of folklore studies will investigate this phenomenon.

Within six months of hearing J. D. Stikeleather's "Brother Jonah," Gordon had recorded another version of the sermon-spiritual from a black singer on the Georgia coast, J. A. S. Spencer, who titled his performance "Ninevah Land" (A561-2, GA343-4). Another of Gordon's Georgia coast informants, Henry Shaw, recorded a version under the title "The Bell Done Rung" for Lydia Parrish during the 1930s (pp. 164-65). The text she prints is shorter than the one given here; she explains that "it has been practically impossible to take down Henry's song as he sings it. When he recites it, he gives an entirely different version. If I ask the meaning of a line, he has to begin all over again -- and we never got very far." One surmises that the sermon portion of the text was improvised. Another and somewhat longer version of the song, from Georgia Sea Island singer John Davis, was collected in 1959-60 by Alan Lomax.

Several spiritual collections print versions under the title "Humble Yo' Self De Bell Done Rung" -- Johnson (pp. 183-89), Marsh (p.301) -- or other titles: Dett (pp. 12-13), Work (p.50). These versions retain the chorus heard here, but the verses do not carry the Jonah story. A version printed by Fenner (p. 87) presents the same chorus and has a chanted, sermon-like set of verses which do not, however, deal with the Jonah story.

Gordon cyl. A100, ms. NC145
James G. Stikeleather
Asheville, North Carolina
November 11, 1925

Brother Jonah trying to go on board;
The ship went toddelin' down the shore.
The captain on deck got troubled in his mind,
And he searched that ship from the bottom to the top.
He found brother Jonah right fast asleep;
"A-wake up here you sleepy man;
You've gone contrary to de Lord's command."
He took brother Jonah and he cast him overboard;
Along come a whale and swallowed him whole.
The whale made out for the Ninevah land
And cast brother Jonah out on dry sand.
Up grow the gourdy vine over the crown;
Along come an earthy worm and cut him down,
Along came an earthy worm and cut him down,
And there left a cross on Jonah's crown

Lead it humble, humble,
Humble says [?], the bell's done rung,
God, the glory, and the honor,
Praise my Jesus;
God, the glory and honor,
Praise the Lamb, praise the Lamb.

Spoken by J. D. Stikeleather:
This song was heard at an old Negro camp meeting in Iredell county some fifteen or twenty years ago and is sung here tonight for the Harvard records by J. D. Stikeleather of Asheville, North Carolina, November eleventh, Nineteen twenty-five.

Mrs. Stikeleather (1887- 1945) was a formally trained musician. Notice how she ends the song by rising to a final note consistent with art music convention. Both she and Mr. Stikeleather sang in local choirs -- according to their family, that is where they met. Also according to family reports, she often sang informally around the house.

Scarborough published two songs from the Stikeleathers; one was "Georgie-O." In addition, the song was notated when Mrs. Stikeleather was interviewed by Susannah Wetmore and Marshall Bartholomew in September 1924, a year before Gordon arrived in Asheville.

Like the collectors who preceded and followed him in recording Mrs. Stikeleather's "Georgie," Gordon recognized the uniqueness of the song. It has both an unusual tune and a text which gives evidence of long circulation in oral tradition, with it's heavy use of repetition and it's simplification in comparison to more recent, broadside-derived versions. "Georgie" is a version of Child ballad 209 "Geordie." Coffin classified this text as belonging to "Group D" of those collected in North America, noting that this is the only group which did not come directly or indirectly from British broadsides. Presumably, it derived from Scots oral tradition. This conclusion about the traditional nature of the text is reinforced by Bronson's classification of Mrs. Stikeleather's melody with his "Group A" of tunes for the ballad (III, pp. 268, 272-73). Hers is the only American instance of what is otherwise a group of Scots tunes.

Gordon collected other versions of Child 209 from an Adventure correspondent (333) and a North Carolina informant (A176, NC260)

GEORGIE [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A101, Item NC146
Nancy Weaver Stikeleather
Asheville, North Carolina
November 11, 1925

Come bridle me up my milk-white steed,
The brown he ain't so able-o,
While I ride down to Charlotte Town
To plead for the life of my Georgie-o."

When I got in sight of Charlotte Town,
The gentlemen were so plenty-o,
And the table was set, and supper was got,
And the gentlemen were so merry-o.

Come bridle me up my milk-white steed,
The brown he ain't so able-o,
While I ride down to Gallows Hill,
To plead for the life of my Georgie-o.

When I got in sight of Gallows Hill,
The gentlemen were so plenty-o,
And the gallows all 'round my Georgie's neck,
And the rings of gold were so yellow-o.

Then spoke that noble girl,
She spoke most brief and sorry too,
"I will lay you down ten-thousand pounds,
If you'll spare the life of my Georgie-o"

A-then spoke the noble judge,
He spoke most brief and sorry too,
"For to honor you both and for the money-o,
I'll spare the life of your Georgie-o.


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