The Mississippi-series, part 2: the line that never was.

by Jochen Markhorst

This article continues from The Mississippi-series, part I; no polyrhythm here please


Like earlier “Desolation Row” and “Where Are You Tonight?”, “Mississippi” can’t really be dealt with in one article. Too grand, too majestic, too monumental. And, of course, such an extraordinary masterpiece deserves more than one paltry article. As the master says (not about “Mississippi”, but about bluegrass, in the New York Times interview of June 2020): Its’s mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. […] It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood.

II          Lomax’ death

Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

John Lomax, the groundbreaking musicologist and folklorist to whom we owe the survival of hundreds of folk songs and Lead Belly’s career, dies on January 26, 1948 during a visit to his native state of Mississippi, in Greenville. He is there as guest of honour on John Lomax Day, organized by the mayor, celebrating Lomax’ eightieth birthday. According to legend, John sings the song “Big-Leg Rose” shortly after his arrival, during the press conference, and suffers his fatal heart attack after the last line:

The only thing I ever done wrong
Stayed in Mississippi one day too long

At least, that’s what it says in Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music (2009), and other sources report as well that these last words of “Big-Leg Rose” are also the last words of the legendary music pioneer.

It is, like most stories about celebrities’ last words, a little too good to be true. But it’s no big deal. In the Library Of Congress one can indeed find Lomax’ 1939 recording of “Big-Leg Rosie” (with ie). Sung by a group of prisoners of the infamous Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi on May 24th, who accompany themselves with ax-cutting; “performed by Frank ‘Gulfport Red’ Mixon and unidentified performers (vocals with ax-cutting) at State Penitentiary, Camp #1”.

In his last book, the autobiography Adventures Of A Ballad Hunter (1947), Lomax does remember that spring night in Mississippi:

The singers on the ground in front, with hoes and axes and a log pile, staged work-gang songs. That night Alan and I heard for the first time “Big Leg Rosie,” “Stewball,” “Po’ Lazus,” the “Bad Man Ballad,” “Diamond Joe,” and many another. Our machine was not handling the aluminium disks without considerable scratching and sputtering, but we captured the tunes accurately enough to be transcribed.

The recording, which can be listened to via the website of the Library Of Congress, is indeed quite damaged here and there, but is clear enough to hear that there is no singing about “Mississippi” and no “day too long”.

But the song titles Lomax lists here offer plenty of other aha-moments:

This “Po’ Lazarus” (John Lomax writes it as Po’ Lazus) is the primal version of the recording that will later be used in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and thus gets a surprising tail end for the cantor, James Carter. Mainly thanks to son Alan Lomax. Because the handy tape recorder was invented, with which recordings of much better quality can be made, Alan Lomax returns to Parchman Penitentary in 1959 to re-record as many songs as possible twenty years after his father – including “Po’ Lazarus”.

This version, which is in the name of “James Carter & the Prisoners”, is on the soundtrack of the film. The soundtrack is a huge hit. John Lomax’ granddaughter Anna, the manager of the Alan Lomax Archive, and producer T-Bone Burnett make every effort to find James Carter, who indeed turns out to be alive, who can’t remember a thing from the recording forty years ago and who to his surprise is allowed to accept a check for $20,000. Really stunned, however, he is upon learning that the album sells better than the latest CD’s of Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson. Once he’s processed that, he expresses his desire to reassure The Prince of Pop: “You tell Michael that I’ll slow down so that he can catch up with me.”

In the summer of 1967 Dylan sings “Po’ Lazarus” in the Basement, of which unfortunately only one minute has been preserved (on CD 1 of The Basement Tapes Complete). Echoes of the song can be heard a few years later in Dylan’s prison song “George Jackson”; the “Lord Lord” refrain line is a copy of the “Lawd Lawd” refrain line from “Po’ Lazarus”.

Dylan sings “Diamond Joe” on Good As I Been To You, which, by the way, is not the same “Diamond Joe” he sings in his movie Masked and Anonymous.

“Stewball”, the template for Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, is on the repertoire of Pete Seeger, The Greenbriar Boys, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary, to name but a few of Dylan’s most direct influences, and “Bad Man Ballad” is one of many variants of “Little Sadie”, which Dylan will record for Self Portrait.

In short: all songs that end up in Dylan’s luggage. A line from “Big Leg Rosie”, the song in this same row, to Dylan should be obvious. But there isn’t one. The quoted verse line, the supposed last words of Lomax, “The only thing I ever done wrong / Stayed in Mississippi one day too long”, do not origin from “Big Leg Rosie” but from “Rosie” – the same maiden name, indeed, but a different melody, a different lyrics, a different song:

Little Rosie, your hair grow long,
‘Cause I’m goin’ to see your daddy when I get home.
They ain’t but the one thing that I done wrong.
I stayed in Mississippi just one day too long.
Come and get me an’-a take me home,
These lifetime devils, they won’t leave me lone.
Well, I come here wid a hundred years,
A tree fall on me, I don’t bit mo’ care.

John Lomax’ son Alan, remembers it in Chapter 7 of his Selected Writings, the chapter “Reels And Work Songs”:

For the last song in this group of records, we come to the most intense, the angriest, the most passionate of the work songs in the South. Strangely enough, it is called “Rosie.” “Rosie” is sung full-throated by fifty men, flatweeding in an irrigation ditch in Mississippi. The hoes flash up together and all splash green.

Not a word about his father’s death in this excerpt. He was there when John Lomax had that fatal heart attack, so it’s rather unlikely he would leave that out of the discussion of “Rosie”. If it had been true.

Alan then, while his father still is in the hospital in a coma from which he won’t wake up again, is standing in and represents his father at the inauguration the next day.

He stays an extra day in Mississippi.

 

 

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