Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bob Dylan, "Alberta (Let Your Hair Hang Low)"

Bob Dylan recorded "Alberta" for Self Portrait (1970) in two pleasant versions. I always liked this song but story behind it is somehow more interesting than Dylan's recording itself.

"Alberta" is often confused with the songs from the "Corrina"-family. That is a different group of songs that can be traced back to the well-known recording of "Corrine, Corrina" by Bo Chatman (i.e. Bo Carter ) and Charlie McCoy for Brunswick (December 1928). The general problem with "Corrina" and "Alberta" is that there are different songs using the same girls' names - capitalizing on the original song's popularity - and related songs using different girls' names.

So there were other "Corrinas", for example Blind Boy Fuller's "Corrine What Makes You Treat Me So" (1937) or Walter Davis' "Corrine" (1939) and there were other "Albertas". Lead Belly's "Alberta" (1935) is a completely different song, his adaption of "Corrina" is called "Roberta" (1935; and Eric Clapton renamed her "Alberta" when he borrowed this song for his Unplugged concert). Jazz Gillum recorded an "Alberta Blues" in 1938, but that is basically a variant of "Big Road Blues".

This "Alberta" is no 12-bar AAB Blues, it has a different structure (AABA):

Alberta let your hair hang low
Alberta let your hair hang low
I'll give you more gold than your apron can hold
If you'd only let your hair hang low
[...]

Another song of this family with a very different melody but including one verse with related lyrics is "I Wish I Was A Mole in The Ground", recorded in 1928 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford:

I wish I was a mole in the ground
Yes I wish I was a mole in the ground
If I's a mole in the ground I'd root that mountain down
And I wish I was a mole in the ground

[...]

Oh Capie let your hair roll down
Capie let your hair roll down
Let your hair roll down and your bangs curl round
Oh Capie let your hair roll down
[quoted from: Folktunes.org]

"Baby Let Me Follow You Down" - recorded by Dylan for his first LP - belongs to the same family but utilizes yet another set of melodies . As is known this song can be traced back (via Eric von Schmidt and Geno Foreman; Dave van Ronk and The Reverend Gary Davis may have been involved, too) to Blind Boy Fullers "Mama Let Me Lay It On You" (first recorded 29.4.1936). This was an adaption of Walter Coleman, "Mama Let Me Lay It On You" (recorded 8.2.1936) and that song in turn was an adaption of "Can I Do It For You?" (1930) by Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy:

Wanna do somethin' to you.
Wanna do somethin' to you.

Do anything in this world I can,
I wanna do somethin' to you, hear me sayin',

I wanna do somethin' for you.

No, you can't do nothin' to me.

No, you can't do nothin' to me.
I don't care what in the world you do,
You can't do nothin' for me, hear me sayin',

You can't do nothin' for me.
[...]

I can't say at the moment if "Can I Do It For You?" had also been derived from an earlier song. But it produced other offsprings besides "Mama Let Me lay It On You", for example "Don't You Tear My Clothes" (State Street Boys, 1935; Washboard Sam, 1936; Harlem Hamfats, 1937 etc) and "Let Your Linen Hang Low" , recorded in 1937 by the Harlam Hamfats with Rosetta Howard and Joe McCoy on vocals. The lyrics of latter look like a cross between "Alberta" and "Can I Do It For You?":

Let your linen hang low
Let your linen hang low
I'd do anything in the world I know
If you let your linen hang low
[...]

These songs all share not only the AABA-structure of the lyrics but also the basic motif: "I'll do anything for you, if you do something or let me do something".

The very first trace of "Alberta, Let Your Hair Hang Low" is a song collected at an unknown date by Mary Wheeler in Western Kentucky at the Ohio River and published in 1944 in her book Steamboatin' Days, Folk Songs Of The River Packet Era (p. 86/87).

Alberta, let yo' hair hang low,
Alberta, let yo' hair hand low,
I'll give you mo' gold than yo' apron will hold,
‘Ef you'll jes let yo' hair hang low.

Alberta, what's on yo' mind,
Alberta, what's on yo' mind,
You keep me worried, you keep me bothered, all the time.
Alberta, what's on yo' mind?

Alberta, don't you treat me unkind,
Alberta, don't you treat me unkind,
'Cause I'm worried, 'cause I'm bothered, all the time.
Alberta, don't you treat me unkind.

She heard it from Gabriel Hester, a former "rouster":
A few minutes later, the old man obligingly got out his 'box,' and as he touched the guitar strings with gifted, untrained fingers, he sang the lovely melody of 'Alberta, Let Yo' Hair Hang Low'

Otherwise she gives no further information. Of course some phrases are known from other songs but as far as I know the melody hasn't been found anywhere else. It's not unresonable to assume that the singer had written it himself and simply had borrowed some floating lines learned from records or performances. This "Alberta" is clearly a unique creation and Mr. Hester should receive credit as the writer.

The song was reprinted in 1955 in Benjamin A. Botkin's A Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore. Bob Gibson recorded it in 1957 for his LP Carnegie Concert (now available on the compilation Joy Joy! The Young And Wonderful Bob Gibson (1996)). He used the melody published by Ms. Wheeler and in his introductory remark he explicitly refers to her book. This version was also printed in Jerry Silverman's important and influential Folk Blues songbook (1958) and in Sing Out! Vol. 8 No. 3 (1959). The melody is very different from the one later used by Dylan.
In the following years the song became something of a Folk Revival standard and it was recorded by other artists, for example:
Bob Dylan may have known any of this versions but his source and inspiration when recording it for Self Portrait most likely was Sing Out!. A lot of songs recorded in 1969/70 can be found in the pages of this magazine and later reprints. It’s in fact possible to create a concordance between Self Portrait and Sing Out!. These collections obviously helped him to find something to record during these series of sessions either by inspiring him to return to older songs he already knew or by offering songs he didn't know or had already forgotten. As with other songs for this album - for example "Belle Isle" - he created a new melody, maybe because he didn't like the original tune or because he couldn't read musical notation. His version sounds somehow closer to his own "Corinna" and to "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" than to Bob Gibson's "Alberta", but I wouldn’t say it’s “dull” (Gray, p. 3).

Literature:

Many thanks to Stew with whom I discussed these songs at that time & who has supported me with some of the information and links used here.

  • Transcription of "Alberta" by Eyolf Ostrem at dylanchords.info
  • Mary Wheeler, Steamboatin' Days. Folk Songs Of The River Packet Era, Baton Rouge 1944
  • Todd Harvey, The Formative Dylan. Transmission And Stylistic Influences, 1961 - 1963, Lanham, Maryland & London 2001, p. 20-22 (about "Baby Let Me Follow You Down")
  • Robert M.W.Dixon/John Godrich/Howard Rye, Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. Fourth Edition, Oxford 1997
  • Robert MacLeod, Document Blues 1, Edinburgh 1994, p. 528f (lyrics of "Can I Do It For You Part 1”)
  • The Traditional Ballad Index: Alberta, Corrina, I Wish I Was A Mole in The Ground, Keys Of Canterbury
  • Recording of "I Wish I Was A Mole in The Ground" c/o Juneberry78s.com but also available at the Internet Archive
  • Cowboy Angel Sings: Corrina, Alberta
  • James Prescott, Folk Song Index
  • Jane Keefer, Folk Music - An Index To Recorded Sources
  • Christer Svensson, Stealin', Stealin, Pretty Mama Don't You Tell On Me', Endless Road fanzine No. 4 , 1983 (he was to my knowledge the first one who noticed the role of Sing Out as an important source for Self Portrait)
  • BobDylanRoots.com: Eric Von Schmidt (about "Baby Let Me Follow You Down")
  • Michael Gray, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, London & New York 2006
  • For "Corrina" see this post: Roots of Bob Dylan: "Corrina, Corrina" .
This is a slightly revised version of a text posted in July 2007 on morerrotsofbob.com.

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