Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”
By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.(I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
Long-time friend and lyrics enthusiast Mary Eisenhart requested this one—Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie.”
I’ve loved this song, too, since first hearing it on Reckoning. Its deceptive simplicity, beautiful melody, and somewhat mysterious words drew me in. As happened often over the course of several decades of listening to the Dead, I found myself wanting to know more—more about the song, about the meaning of the words, and about the source of the song. And so, as usual, I was led quite readily into several directions at once.
First, I noticed the connection to the Elizabeth Cotten credited on my Fred Neil album, Fred Neil, as the co-composer of Neil’s version of “I’ve Got a Secret (Didn’t We Shake Sugaree?).” And then I tracked down the seminal recording of Cotten singing her songs, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, on the Folkways label, first issued in 1958. There was that amazing voice, singing over a trademark sound of finger-picked guitar of her own invention (she played left-handed, upside down, which lent a distinct pattern to her picking). Her version is a bit faster than than the Dead’s. I’ve always wished that I could somehow find a list of the LPs Garcia checked out from the library when he was pursuing his own folk music education. I can easily imagine that he found all of Elizabeth Cotten’s Folkways output, among the many he devoured, along with the Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952).
(The fact that Garcia mentioned getting Folkways albums out of the public library has always fed my own desire, as a librarian, to make sure that as many different musical avenues as possible are represented in the library collections for which I’ve been responsible. It’s too easy to overlook the less-popular music made by real people around the world in favor of music in high demand by a spoon-fed public…)
The song debuted in the Dead’s repertoire during their Warfield run on September 25, 1980, and was then played ten times over the course of the acoustic shows at the Warfield and Radio City Music Hall runs. After that, it made three more appearances, in one-off situations such as an acoustic set at the Mill Valley Recreation Center, or in the Netherlands for an acoustic set, and finally at Marin Vets, on March 28, 1984, in a performance that kicked off the second set, without Weir and Mydland onstage.
However, I know the song had been “around” for much longer than that. It appears on the studio outtakes from Garcia’s Reflections album, as released in the All Good Things box set. And personal interviews with Garcia’s circle of acquaintances in Palo Alto in the early 1960s make it explicitly clear that he was familiar with the work of Libba Cotten. So I expect Garcia had performed the song many times during his folkie period, and it may have been in the Jug Band repertoire. Anyone out there have information on this period for the song? I’d love to hear it.
Cotten’s lyrics are enigmatic. However, we have the benefit of a transcription from her introduction during a live performance of the song, as cited in Alex Allan’s “Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder”:
Elizabeth Cotten's original version (which Jerry follows pretty closely) can be found on the Smithsonian/Folkways recording of her work "Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes." Mike Seeger's liner notes say "An unusual blues sung around the Chapel Hill area." In his notes to the song in the "Old-Time String Band Songbook" he similarly says: "A country blues that Elizabeth Cotten learned around her home near Chapel Hill, North Carolina."
But Elizabeth Cotten herself indicated she wrote it--in particular the verse "One old woman ...". This is a (slightly edited) transcription from a video of her performing the song (posted to rec.music.dylan by Itsuko Nishimura):
"They asked me to do 'Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie'. That's the song I wrote about a lady who lived next door to us. My mother had to go to work and this lady would teach children. She told my mother something: made my mother punish me. They hurt me all the day. 'Cause I know what she told my mum was not true.
"That song's 'bout me getting punished. My feelings got hurt, 'cause I did not do what Miss Mary said I did. And I used cry in a bed, and a little verse came to me, a pretty tune came to me, and I made a little song, a little tune I love.
"I used sit on this long porch we had at home. She lived here [Cotten gestures to her left]. I said, 'Glad to see you like to see' so she could hear me.
I was sitting and sing this song, as loud as I want to. And it was about her, and I get playing, and she said to me, 'Sis, that's a pretty song you sang!' You know what I want to say, don't you? 'It's about you!' But I wasn't daresay to let her know. I just say, 'Thank you.' I wasn't daresay to let her know. I didn't let my mother know this little verse was about her, cause mama would punish me sur 'nuff I guess.
And now, they both dead, and they don't know. And don't hear--I don't reckon they do? (laugh) You think they do? Anyway, I feel free to explain and sing it!"
Isn’t that wonderful? She wrote the lyrics to get even with a mean neighbor lady. (Taylor Swift seems to have taken a page from Libba Cotten’s songbook—just listen to “Mean.”)
What unexpected and wonderful corners of music have you explored as the result of hearing something amazing performed by the Dead? Have you been inspired to learn an instrument? Study music? Write your doctoral dissertation? I think the musical exploration and adventure factor is a big one among Deadheads.
I would have to agree with Ms. Cotten: “This life I’m living is mighty high.”
the answer to that David, is many many many! And also some books and authors as well. What was the name of the book where the 5 "oddballs" sort of "merge" into one? I was actually reading that the day my daughter was born!
Musical explorations the Dead have led me down are numerous, and very varied.
From the jazz world of Coltrane and Miles Davis, to the percussionists around the globe that Mickey has tapped into, and everything in between. Sometimes it is based on a song they do, other times having read how so and so influenced them.
Willie Dixon was one back in the day, have some of him on tape, probably in the basement.
In some cases I knew the artists already, but they turned me onto them more because of different songs they did by them, such as Keep on Growin, or Jimmy Cliff stuff etc. I liked some stuff by Dylan, but being much younger, they really helped turn me onto him.
More recently, this has continued some with others like Ryan Adams that I like a lot. Jackie Greene too.
I love playing this song, spent a lot of time getting it just like Jer. Well, close enough for me. Great song to have my mandolin playing buddy picking along with. I am glad to know about the mean old woman, always wondered about that verse. Thanks David, I really look forward to each week of your column.
Elizabeth Cotten actually lived in a town called Carrboro, one mile west of Chapel Hill. Originally called "West End," it was the poor side of relatively well-to-do Chapel Hill, and many of the residents of Carrboro were and are African American. In the 1870s, an entrepreneur proposed a rail line from Chapel Hill to accommodate an iron mine, but the University insisted that the station had to be at least one mile from campus, to discourage undergraduates from taking the train out of town. Thus the tiny community of "West End" became a real town--it changed its name to Carrboro in 1913, since it had Chapel Hill's train station. Train traffic to the University veered off the Southern Rail mainline to the Carrboro branch line. All of the undergraduates walked the mile, of course, since they could get anywhere in America once they caught the main line in Hillsborough.
The train that ran twice a day from Hillsborough to Carrboro was called "The Whooper," because of the sound its whistle made. It was a "mixed" train (in railroad parlance), carrying freight and passengers. In 1936, passenger service was ended, since the undergraduates all had cars. By the 1920s, the University had given up, and you could take the train all the way into the football stadium, but those tracks were pulled up. The freight train continued to run, however, twice a day.
I'm not precisely sure when Elizabeth Cotten wrote the song. However, it doesn't matter, since Elizabeth Cotten lived on Lloyd Street, and the train not only ran by her house her whole life, it's still running. The old Carrboro station, at 201 S. Main, is now a bar called The Station. Three times a week, the train brings coal to the University power station (on Merritt Mill Road). It's the same freight train, even if it doesn't whoop anymore. The University will be off coal within a decade--a good thing--and the freight train will be gone.
Carrboro is a satellite of Chapel Hill now, with nice restaurants and groovy artists, and the old rail line may yet get turned into a commuter streetcar. The undergraduates will still have to walk a mile, because unlike the 30s, there won't be anywhere to park. Until then, you can catch the actual freight train when it goes by, and hum the song to yourself as you sip your triple espresso.
Really...how can anyone say enough good things about 'em?
Cotten makes me think of Mississippi John Hurt for some reason. OBIANL is pretty similar musically to Freight Train...Taj Mahal has played both of them, I believe (as have a bazillion other folks!). I want to say that I remember OBIANL being on my old Sleepy Hollow Hogstompers tape, but I can't confirm that until I find it.
What a trip to know a song for decades and then finally find out what it is actually about! Mostly I don't consciously think too much about what songs are about...by any band. I mean, I do to some extent. No "doctoral dissertation" yet, but I'll be finished with an MS in a few weeks, and the title of my BA was Music in a Cultural Context. I started at Hampshire in 1986 and was enthusiastic about the Grateful Dead Historical Society there. Cool, right? Except it didn't really do anything...there weren't even meetings, lol. Maybe before my time.
So I think of myself as a bit of a musicologist. The Dead certainly influenced my love of music. I was classically trained (piano, etc.), and sang and played the trombone professionally when I was younger, but I gave up performing for a decade (86-96). When I came back to it, I taught myself bass, and have played in a number of groups. Phil is definitely my all-time favorite right now (idiosyncratic as he is!)...psyched to see him next week! The Dead embody so many influences...folk, bluegrass, rock n roll, classical (Phil). But my two favorite Dead influences are jazz and blues. That Coltrane-like spirit of improvisation that comes through in a good Dark Star, and the deep, dark power of the blues are what do it for me (well, okay...rock n roll too!). I never 'got' the improv/jamming thing when I was a kid...
Favorite Blues musicians: Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lightning Hopkins
It's amazing how the blues lives on in so many ways.
Rock is modeled on the blues:
Talking Heads burning down the house
Sex Pistols holiday in the sun
so many others...blues pattern.
Hooray for EC. Too bad that OBIANL got cut from the "from the faithful" reprint of Reckoning.
"oh lordy me, didn't I shake sugaree, everything I own is in pawn." (To which, if I recall correctly, the Seeger kids used to bounce on the bed.)
In the version I heard of the mean old lady story, she followed up the story of Miss Mary's telling a lie to her mom with "and I just didn't feel the same way about Miss Mary after that."
I'm so glad I got to see her before she passed.