Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summer Shorts

Pistol Packin’ Mama pin-up by Albert Vargas, Esquire magazine March 1944; Mississippi John Hurt, from the Web; Doc Watson, stock photo from the Web.

By Pat Browning

“Oh, she kicked out my windshield/
And she hit me over the head/
She cussed and cried and said I lied/
And she wished that I was dead/
Oh, lay that pistol down, Babe/
Lay that pistol down/
Pistol packin’ mama/
Lay that pistol down.”
----Al Dexter, 1943-43

This was the first official week of summer, time to let the body relax and the mind wander. Eyeballing the Oklahoman’s version of a TV guide I find nothing but reality shows and crime show repeats on the networks. Great blocks of CSI shows. No repeats of my favorites, “Life On Mars” and “Raine,” both long gone. “NCIS” repeats running in three places. I watch new episodes but they don’t wear well.

I’m stuck with repeats of “Castle” and “The Mentalist.” Or the new “Masterpiece Mystery” on PBS. Comme ci, comme ca (French). Com se com sa (Portuguese). In either language, I haven’t heard that expression in 40 years. It just popped up. That’s what happens when the mind wanders.

“Matlock,” “In The Heat Of The Night,” “Cold Case,” “48 Hours Mystery,” “Boston Legal” -- what is this obsession with crime? Now ABC-TV has a new series called “PrimeTime Crime.” The promos are beyond gory.

Oh-well, wait a minute. It’s not really new. Some of the most revered blues, folk and pop songs are about killing and dying. A jealous lover is usually involved. Some things don’t change.

“Pistol Packin’ Mama” was one of the most popular gals around during World War II. Versions of the Vargas pin-up were nose art on B-17 and B-24 bombers from Hell to Breakfast. The song was all over the radio. There’s a great video of Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters on You Tube. The photos are still but the sound is great. See it at

“I grabbed my gun and broke the barrel right down/
Grabbed my shotgun and broke that barrel right down/
I put my honey six feet under the ground/
Then I cut that joker so long, deep and wide/
Oh, I cut that joker so long, deep and wide/
But I’ve still got the blues and I can’t be satisfied.”
---- Mississippi John Hurt, D.C. Blues: Library of Congress 1928 Recordings

Every guitar player in the world seems to have a Mississippi John Hurt video on YouTube. My favorite version of “I’ve Got The Blues And I Can’t Be Satisfied” is a video featuring Doc Watson, his son Merle, and Michael Coleman. They do three songs, the last being “Satisfied.”

Doc Watson, born in Deep Gap, North Carolina and blind from birth, is a legend who was “discovered” during the folk music craze of the 1960s. Merle, who died in a tractor accident a few years ago, was also an accomplished flat-picking guitarist.

The YouTube video was filmed live before a large outdoor audience. At one point, Doc pulls out his harmonica. I can’t see what it’s attached to – something in his shirt or around his neck – but it’s in the best jug band tradition of a musician who can do it all. Doc is now 86 and in poor health, but he still performs at an annual festival dedicated to Merle.

“Gentlemans of the jury, what do you think of that?/
Stack O' Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat/
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee.”

----Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording of “Stack O’Lee Blues,” a folk song also known as Stagger Lee / Stag-O-Lee / Stagolee/ Stack-A-Lee / Stack O'Lee.

The song, in infinite versions, is said to be based on an 1895 shooting in St. Louis, Missouri. It has been recorded by every blues singer, folk singer, and rock ‘n’ roller to come down the pike.

Mississippi John Hurt was called a “front porch” singer. He never left
Avalon, Mississippi and after a couple of recordings he lapsed into obscurity until the 1960s folk revival. He went from obscurity to Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress.

My favorite of the few real Mississippi John Hurt’s recordings on YouTube is a number called “I’m Satisfied.” His acoustic guitar picking is as gentle and hypnotic as a lullaby.

That’s Nice But Is It A Folk Song?
No two people, not even the professors, have been able to agree completely on a definition of folk music. The Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore lists many, which only partly overlap each other.

One definition says: “A folk song must be old, carried on for generations by people who have had no contact with urban arts and influence. A folk song must show no trace of individual authorship.”

At the other end is the definition of the late Big Bill Broonzy, the blues singer. He was asked if a certain blues he sang was a folk song. "It must be," he replied, "I never heard horses sing it."
----Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York, NY, 1972, p. 62.
Quoted at

“Frankie took aim with her forty-four/
Five times with a rooty-toot-toot/
He was her man, but he done her wrong.”
---- “Frankie and Johnnie,” traditional song, origin disputed.

There must be 300 versions of this song. Some claim it is based on a real-life shooting. Some claim it goes back to the 1800s. According to Wikipedia, “What has come to be the traditional version of the melody was also published in 1912, as the chorus to the song ‘You're My Baby’, whose music is attributed to Nat. D. Ayer.”

“Now, bring round your rubber-tired buggy/
And bring round your rubber-tired hack/
I'm taking my man to the graveyard/
And I ain't gonna bring him back/
He was my man, but he done me wrong.”

So what is it? Part of our DNA? Some vestige of memory from the time when we lived with giant predators? It must have been a real rush to outrun a dinosaur.

For an answer, I turn to author Michael Malone’s “letter” on mysteries. It was included in the Advanced Reading Copy of his novel FIRST LADY. The novel, without the letter, was published in 2002 by Sourcebooks, Inc. I was so impressed by his explanation of our fascination with mysteries that I saved it in my computer.

Malone wrote:
“We are private eyes searching for clues to our connections. Safe in fiction, we are testing our hearts … Because murder is the highest crime against our shared humanness, it is to murder that the community responds most collectively and dramatically.”

The key words are “safe in fiction.” Ghosts, vampires, spies, serial killers -- we lock the doors and close the shades. We make ourselves comfortable in an easy chair, a cup of tea or coffee at hand. The family dog curls up at our feet. Now we’re ready for a little bedtime reading.

A horrifying book is like a real-life nightmare. The nightmare scares us out of our wits but we know it’s just a dream. Even when a book is gory and gruesome, we know it’s just a book, and we’re safe -- “safe in fiction.”


Jean Henry Mead said...

That's quite a trip down memory lane, Pat. The music of the 40s has a lot of soul and truth to it, without all the era-splitting amphlifiers. I enjoy watching videos of the jitterbuggers and wish I had been of age during that era to take part in all the fun (World War II aside).

Lesa said...

Thank you for sharing those songs, Pat. Hard to imagine Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters doing Pistol-Packin' Mama. But, it was fun to listen to. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


I never learned ballroom dancing, thanks to the backwoods Southern Baptist church when I was growing up.

But I never got tired of watching other people jitterbug. Jitterbugging was an offshoot of the Lindy Hop and other popular dances of the time. There are still Lindy Hop clubs in California, I think.

Pat B.

Anonymous said...


I think Bing sang every popular song ever written. He was a major force in popular culture during the 40s and 50s.

Pat Browning

Anonymous said...


Here's the tiny url to a YouTube video that knocks my socks off:

It's a Silvan Zingg video titled "Dancin' the Boogie." Zingg is a Swiss boogie woogie piano player without peer. The dancers, Will and Maeva, aren't too shabby either.

Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

Wow! Thanks, Pat. I love the music as well as the dance. I wish I had their energy. :)