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Americana Roots of California Folk-Rock — Commentary

Featuring Roscoe Holcomb, Woody Guthrie, Peter Rowan and the Rowan Brothers, David Nelson Band, and the Flying Other Brothers.


Roscoe Holcomb: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”
Peter Rowan and the Rowan Brothers: “Man Of Constant Sorrow”
Excerpts: versions of “John Hardy” (Carter Family and Lead Belly)
David Nelson Band: “John Hardy’s Wedding”
Woody Guthrie with Sonny Terry: “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad”
Flying Other Brothers with special guest David Nelson: “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”

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Borrowing from the past to write songs is part of the folk tradition. In this podcast you can see this folk tradition at work — from the country or “Americana” roots music to the music played by today’s California folk-rock bands, many of which were inspired by the Sixties music of San Francisco.

Many of the songs that inspired Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane in its early days, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and countless other San Francisco psychedelic bands — and by groups such as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers in Southern California — are rooted in what is called Americana: the country blues of the southern states, the cowboy songs of the western states, and that high lonesome sound of bluegrass and country ballads from Appalachia.

These songs were first collected by anthologists such as John and Alan Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), and recorded by anthologists such as Harry Smith for the Folkways label (published by the Smithsonian Institute). Woody Guthrie performed many traditional songs as well as his own compositions (many of which were based on traditional songs).

Roscoe Holcomb was an early and important influence on Bob Dylan, and the Carter Family was one of the most important and influential music groups in the history of American music. Holcomb, Guthrie, the Carter Family, and Lead Belly all appear in this podcast along with California folk-rock performers Peter Rowan and the Rowan Brothers, the David Nelson Band, and the Flying Other Brothers.

“I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (Traditional, arranged by Ralph Stanley), performed by Roscoe Holcomb, from the recording entitled An Untamed Sense of Control (SF 41044), provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Copyright (c) 2003. Used by permission.

Roscoe Holcomb played banjo, fiddle, guitar, and harmonica, but his singing — his sky-high mountain tenor — inspired John Cohen of the the New Lost City Ramblers (who recorded Holcomb for the Smithsonian) to coin the term “high, lonesome sound”. Bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, who in 1966 toured Germany with Holcomb, noted “you could feel the smell of woodsmoke in that voice.” Cohen wrote in the liner notes to An Untamed Sense of Control, “Roscoe played blues on the banjo, played guitar with a jackknife, sang unaccompanied sorrowful songs, Old Baptist chants, old-time popular songs as well as mountain ballads with a searing intensity and an unpredictable sense of rhythm… His music is a projection of his self, and a reflection of his experience with hard work, low wages, and his bond with Appalachian life.”

Born in 1911, Holcomb spent most of his life singing and playing music in rural Kentucky, unknown outside this area, but his recordings from 1961, 1964, and 1974 were released on three different Folkways LP records and had a powerful influence on the Sixties folk music revival. Bob Dylan once commented that Holcomb “… has a certain untamed sense of control, which makes him one of the best.” Holcomb died in 1981 at the age of 70.

For an excellent review of the An Untamed Sense of Control CD, see Roscoe Holcomb on Musical Traditions.

Holcomb learned “Sorrow” from Ralph Stanley, who recorded it in the 1950s. The song started life with a string band arrangement by Emery Arthur in the 1930s, and evolved into a more operatic arrangement with the Stanley Brothers. It eventually became a bluegrass favorite.

If you still think Holcomb’s music has no connection with Sixties psychedelic music, check out Roscoe Holcomb’s “Single Girl” a.k.a. “I Wish I was a Single Girl Again” (recorded in 1959), which appeared on the soundtrack album for the movie Zabriskie Point alongside tracks by Garcia, the Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd. See The Making of Zabriskie Point for more info about the soundtrack.

“Man Of Constant Sorrow” (Traditional, arranged by Peter Rowan). Performed by Peter Rowan and the Rowan Brothers on the CD Tree on a Hill (Sugar Hill Records, a Welk Music Group Company). Featuring Chris Rowan (guitar, vocals), Lorin Rowan (guitar, mandolin, vocals), and Peter Rowan (guitar, banjo, and vocals), with Kester Smith (percussion), Viktor Krauss (acoustic bass), and Richard Greene (fiddle). Published by Sea Lion Music.

Buy albums direct from Peter Rowan, or Buy this album from

This ballad, a variation of a popular the Appalachian lament, was first published in 1913 by a blind singer named Richard Burnett. During 1918, Cecil Sharp collected the song and published it as “In Old Virginny”. Sarah Ogan Gunning’s recomposition of the traditional “Man” into a more personal “Girl” took place about 1936.

Other female versions appear in the repertoire of various folk singers, including “A Maid of Constant Sorrow” by Judy Collins. The male version was covered by the Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers, Mike Seeger, and Bob Dylan.

Some researchers believe the song can be traced back to an old hymn “I am a Pilgrim of Constant Sorrow.” Bob Dylan’s version, on his first album released in 1962, is unique: Dylan’s switched the order of the stanzas, altered the melody, and changed the lyrics so that the focus of the song is the end of a relationship instead of an old man’s rumination about death.

Peter Rowan is one of the major cult bluegrass artists with a devoted, international fan base. In 1964, after performing with Jim Rooney and Bill Keith, Rowan became a rhythm guitarist and lead singer with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. He remained with them through 1967, leaving to join mandolinist David Grisman in the folk-rock band Earth Opera. After leaving Earth Opera, he became a part of Seatrain, a rock-fusion unit whose records were produced by George Martin (Seatrain/Marblehead Messenger). Rowan left the band in 1972 to form the Rowan Brothers with siblings Chris and Lorin, and recorded one eponymous album. After the group disbanded Rowan then recorded Old and in the Way with Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements and John Kahn.

The Rowan Brothers (Chris and Lorin) opened for the Grateful Dead at the closing of the Fillmore West in 1971. All three brothers played in folk, bluegrass and pop bands. They joined together as The Rowans for a series of albums, including Tree on a Hill.

This version, performed by The Rowans, uses the lyrics from the Soggy Bottom Boys (Ralph Stanley’s) version, which appeared in the Grammy-winning soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (by T-Bone Burnett, no relation to Richard Burnett as far as I know) released in 2000. While there are numerous other references to Homer’s Odyssey in this movie, this song plays throughout the movie, and it may be no coincidence that Odysseus means “man who is in constant pain and sorrow”.


I am a man of constant sorrow,
I’ve seen trouble all my day.
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
The place where I was born and raised.

For six long years I’ve been in trouble,
No pleasures here on earth I found.
For in this world I’m bound to ramble,
I have no friends to help me now.

It’s fare thee well my old lover.
I never expect to see you again.
For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad,
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train.

You can bury me in some deep valley,
For many years where I may lay.
Then you may learn to love another,
While I am sleeping in my grave.

Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger
My face, you’ll never see no more.
But there is one promise that is given
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.

Excerpt: “John Hardy (was a Desperate Man)” (Traditional, arranged by A.P. Carter), performed by the Carter Family, May 10, 1928. Source: Smithsonian Anthology of Folk Music, produced by Harry Smith.

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Anthology of American Folk Music (Edited by Harry Smith)

Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music was widely heard by musicians and inspired the American urban and rural folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. “The Anthology was our bible,” 1950s folk revival artist Dave Van Ronk wrote in 1991.

The Carter Family band from Maces Spring, Virginia consisted of A.P. (Alvin Pleasant Delaney) Carter (1891-1960), Maybelle Carter (1909-1978), and Sara Carter (1898-1979). The Carter Family is considered to be one of the most important and influential music groups in the history of American music. The group, with various family members involved (including June Carter, who later married Johnny Cash), has been active for over 70 years. The Carter’s songs and distintive style of singing and guitar accompanyment strongly influenced later musicians, especially Woody Guthrie, The New Lost City Ramblers, and Joan Baez. Most of the lead vocals were done by Sara; Maybelle played guitar and autoharp.

A.P. Carter collected folk songs from Appalachia and arranged them in the Carter Family’s style. He was one of the first musicians to copyright these traditional arrangements in his own name and prepared song folios for sale at their shows. The Carter’s music was a mixture of sacred and secular songs, and many of their songs have become country, old-time, and bluegrass standards. A.P. Carter acknowledged that many of the songs he collected were taught to him by a black singer and guitarist from North Carolina named Leslie Riddle. During the 1920s Riddle performed many songs that were of Irish and Scottish origin.

The song known as “John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man” is a genuine folk ballad that Maybelle Carter had known all of her life, also known as “John Harty”. Though early folk collectors sometimes confused John Hardy with John Henry, they were in fact two different men, with two different legends. John Hardy was a West Virginia outlaw who was hanged in 1894; the Carters’ reference to the “Keystone Bridge” refers to the town in McDowell County, West Virginia, not far from where Hardy worked and, supposedly, killed a man in a crap game over a 25-cent gambling debt. During the early days of the century, dozens of versions of the Hardy ballad circulated, but after the Carter recording, everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan used this version.


John Hardy, he was a desp’rate little man,
He carried two guns ev’ry day.
He shot a man on the West Virginia line,
An’ you ought seen John Hardy getting away.

John Hardy, he got to the Keystone Bridge,
He thought that he would be free.
And up stepped a man and took him by his arm,
Says, “Johnny, walk along with me.”

He sent for his poppy and his mommy, too,
To come and go his bail.
But money won’t go a murdering case;
They locked John Hardy back in jail.

John Hardy, he had a pretty little girl,
That dress that she wore was blue
As she came skipping through the old jail hall,
Saying, “Poppy, I’ve been true to you.”

John Hardy, he had another little girl,
That dress that she wore was red.
She followed John Hardy to his hanging ground,
Saying, “Poppy, I would rather be dead.”

I been to the East and I been to the West,
I been this wide world around.
I been to the river and I been baptized,
And now I’m on my hanging ground.

John Hardy walked out on his scaffold high,
With his loving little wife by his side.
And the last words she heard poor John-O say,
“I’ll meet you in that sweet bye-and-bye.”

Excerpt: “John Hardy” (Traditional, arranged by Huddie Ledbetter), performed by Lead Belly (a.k.a. Leadbelly, Huddie Ledbetter).

Leadbelly-Absolutely the Best

Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the music world as “Lead Belly” was one of the most influential folk artists in North America. He played 6 and 12 string guitar as well as harp, accordian, piano, and mandolin. He sang blues, field hollers, and childrens songs along with many of his own topical songs. It has been said his repertoire was at least 500 songs.

He was born sometime around 1889 (some reports say 1885), in Mooringsport, Louisiana. In eitehr 1916 or 1918, he fought and killed a man in Dallas and was sentenced to thirty years to be served in the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. Sometime around 1925 he wrote a song asking Governor Pat Neff for a pardon, and the Gov set him free. After a life on the road singing songs he had learned or written at Huntsville, Huddie found himself in trouble again in 1930, after a fight at a party, and he was sentenced to another prison term in the infamous Angola Farm prison plantation in Louisiana.

He was discovered by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress. John Lomax and his son Allen brought him to New York where he played on college campuses with great acclaim. He forged a reputation on the folk circuit, making personal appearances, recording for a variety of labels and doing radio work. In the early 1940s he performed with Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Woody Guthrie. In 1948 Lead Belly cut, with the aid of the newly invented long playing record, what would later become known as his Last Sessions, a definitive document of The Life and Music of the King of the Twelve-String Guitar.

For Lead Belly’s history, check out the Lead Belly Foundation, a non profit organization founded by Queen “Tiny” Robinson, neice of Huddie Ledbetter. Also check out Geoff Reeve’s history site on Leadbelly.

“John Hardy’s Wedding” (Robert Hunter, David Nelson). Performed by the David Nelson Band at May Daze, Strasburg, CO, 5/27/2005. Featuring David Nelson (guitar), Barry Sless (guitar), Billy Laymon (bass), Charlie Crane (drums), Mookie Siegel (keyboards).

Buy album with different version from Keeper of the Key

This song is an update on “John Hardy” with new lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by David Nelson. In his lyrics, Hunter relocated John Hardy to Richmond, Virginia, and added a shotgun wedding to the story. The melody is a more bluesy version of the Carter Family melody, closer to Lead Belly’s version.

The David Nelson Band has been on the road for nearly 12 years. David Nelson, an old friend of Jerry Garcia’s and one of the founders of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, also worked with the Grateful Dead on the Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums. He played with Robert Hunter and Garcia in the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers (in 1962).


John Hardy, he was a desperate boy
He hailed from Richmond, VA
They cried ’cause he bruised his trigger finger
Just a-plucking for good friends in a day

He carried a razor in his portmanteau
He’s a clean-shaven son of a gun
When the law came down to try to lay him low
Well you oughta see John Hardy run

You’d have thought that the wind was a cousin to him
When he made his bold getaway
By the feather stitches on his leather britches
He flew right out of Richmond, VA
Yes he flew right out of Richmond, VA

He had a little sweetheart named Claudia Dare
She stood about up to his knee
John said “little darling, if you really care
You must wait about ten years for me”

Ten years later, almost to the day
Claudia came looking for her man
She had her trousseau in a carrying sack
And her long white bridal veil on

And along in tow was the justice of the peace
And a methodist minister beside
Said John “I ain’t got no religion or law
But I promised you and you’ll be my bride
Yes I promised you and you’ll be my bride

“Well that’s real good of you,” she said
“I ain’t got no time to waste
I always knew you’d be a man of your word
But I brought this shotgun just in case”

Well baby, we’re gonna pawn that gun
We’ll get five bucks a barrel down town
And then I’m gonna buy you a diamond ring
You can wear it till they gun me down
You can wear it till they gun me down
You can wear it till they gun me down

“Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” (traditional, arranged by Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays), performed by Woody Guthrie with Sonny Terry on harmonica and Cisco Houston on guitar — from the recording entitled This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Vol. 1 (SFW40100 1997), provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Copyright (c) 1997. Used by permission.

coverThe Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead

cover Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Vol. 1

Woody Guthrie, a.k.a. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie and The People’s Troubadour, wrote the soundtrack for America in the 1930s and 1940s. He is considered the father of the urban folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. Popular and folk musicians continue to draw inspiration from Guthrie, re-interpreting and re-invigorating his songs for new audiences, and carrying the tradition of the harmonica and guitar-playing singer/songwriter into the future. This traditional country blues song was a favorite of Dust Bowl refugees headed for California, and even appears in the film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Guthrie also recorded another version of this song as “Blowing Down that Old Dusty Road” with slightly different lyrics. But I have always loved this version, as much for Sonny Terry‘s whoops and harmonica licks (which I memorized) as for Woody’s sardonic delivery. Born in 1911 or 1912 and blind in one eye since age five, Sonny played music on street corners until teaming up with Blind Boy Fuller making his first record in 1937. He later formed a folk-blues partnership with Brownie McGhee and recorded with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Rev. Gary Davis.

Lyrics (“Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”):

Goin’ down this road feelin’ bad.
Yes, I’m goin’ down this road feelin’ bad.
Oh, I’m goin’ down this road feelin’ bad, bad, bad
And I ain’t gonna be treated this a-way.

I’m goin’ where the water tastes like wine.
Goin’ where the water tastes like wine.
Goin’ where the water tastes like wine.
And I ain’t gonna be treated this a-way.

It takes a ten-dollar shoe to fit my feet,
It takes a ten-dollar shoe to fit my feet,
It takes a ten-dollar shoe to fit my feet, Lord, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

Your a-two-dollar shoe hurts my feet,
Your two-dollar shoe hurts my feet,
Yes, your two-dollar shoe hurts my feet, Lord, God,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way,
No I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.
I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way, Lord, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

Extra lyrics:

Goin’ where the climate fits my clothes.
Goin’ where the climate fits my clothes
Goin’ where the climate fits my clothes.
And I ain’t gonna be treated this a-way.

Down in the jail-house on my knees…
Down in the jail-house on my knees…
Down in the jail-house on my knees…
And I ain’t gonna be treated this a-way.

Goin’ but I ain’t comin’ back..
Goin’ but I ain’t comin’ back..
Goin’ but I ain’t comin’ back..
And I ain’t gonna be treated this a-way.

Goin’ where the chilly winds don’t blow.
Goin’ where the chilly winds don’t blow.
Goin’ where those chilly winds don’t blow.
And I ain’t gonna be treated this a-way..

“Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” (traditional, arranged by the Flying Other Brothers), performed by the Flying Other Brothers at the 12 Galaxies club in S.F., CA, on April 17, 2005. Featuring Bill Bennett (bass), TBone Tony Bove (harmonica, vocals), Bert Keely (guitar), Ann McNamee (vocals, percussion), Roger McNamee (guitar, vocals), Jimmy Sanchez (drums), Pete Sears (keyboards), Barry Sless (pedal steel guitar), and special guest David Nelson (guitar, vocals).

The Flying Other Brothers are from Northern California and include the legendary Pete Sears on keyboards and bass (Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna, Rod Stewart, John Lee Hooker, and many others), and Barry Sless on lead guitar and pedal steel (David Nelson Band, Kingfish, Phil and Friends, the Rowans, and many others). The FOBs have played with Country Joe, Mickey Hart, Steve Kimock, Leftover Salmon, Little Feat, David Nelson, G.E. Smith, String Cheese Incident, and Bob Weir.

Many artists covered this song, but you probably recall the Grateful Dead’s live version which appeared on Grateful Dead (Skull and Roses) (a.k.a. Skullfuck), as part of the “Not Fade Away-Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” suite that ends the album. This is the version that influenced the Flying Other Brothers version.

cover Grateful Dead

Note that Jerry Garcia once said he learned the songfrom Delaney Bramlett, who covered it earlier as Delaney and Bonnie on the album To Bonnie From Delaney.


Garcia and Bramlett can be seen jamming on the tune, with Janis Joplin singing along with Bramlett, in the movie Festival Express.

And that concludes Rockument’s first podcast episode. Americana music pervades all forms of American music made since popular music recordings began. Future episodes will explore the Delta blues, Piedmont blues, Texas blues, ragtime, jazz, and rhythm and blues roots of rock. Thanks for listening!


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