August 05, 2018

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” the song that made a pioneering Black songwriter famous — and infamous…

Carry Me Back To Old Virginny sheet music TDIQ
How will Rap and Hip Hop songs by Black musicians that use the N-word and seemingly glorify the “thug life” be viewed 140 years from now?

I don’t know for sure, of course.

But I’m willing to guess there will be various conflicting views among people who are both Black and White.

That’s certainly the case for the 140-year-old old song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which was written by the pioneering African American musician James A. Bland (1854-1911) and copyrighted on August 5, 1878.

Bland was in his early twenties at the time. He’d written other songs and was a popular performer in one of the minstrel shows that were common entertainment for both Blacks and Whites at the time.

But “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” carried Bland to a new level.

It became a megahit and made Bland the first Black international music superstar.

Thanks to that fame, he broke many color barriers in the decades after the Civil War, such as having some of his music published under his own name.

He also helped pave the way for Black musicians and performers who followed him.

However, because Bland wrote and performed minstrel show music, originally sung in blackface makeup by white performers and later by black musicians (including Bland before he became famous), and because some of Bland’s songs romanticized the lives of American slaves, his legacy is mixed.

The controversy over “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” is the most notable case in point.

You have probably heard the phrase “carry me back to old Virginny,” which Bland’s song popularized (though it was borrowed from an older one).

You may also be familiar with the melody of Bland’s song.

However, few people know much about James Bland or know the full lyrics of the song.

And, unless you live in Virginia, you’re probably unaware of the modern political controversy about the song.

You’ll understand why it became controversial when you read the lyrics.

They’re written in the voice of a former slave who misses his life on the plantation and loved his “Massa” (i.e., the slave-owning master of the plantation).

Here they are, in their original colloquial form:

       [Chorus] “Carry me back to old Virginny.
       James Bland sheet music cover WMThere’s where the cotton and the corn and ‘taters grow.
       There’s where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
       There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.

       There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa,
       Day after day in the field of yellow corn;
       No place on earth do I love more sincerely
       Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.

       [Chorus repeats]

       Carry me back to old Virginny,
       There let me live till I wither and decay.
       Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,
       There’s where this old darkey’s life will pass away.

       Massa and Missis have long since gone before me,
       Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.
       There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,
       There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.

       [Chorus repeats]

Bland himself was never a slave and wasn’t from Virginia. He was the son of a highly-educated, free Black man and was born in New York. His father, Allen Bland, moved the family to Philadelphia after graduating from Wilberforce College.

James attended Howard University but didn’t graduate. As a teenager, he’d fallen in love with the banjo and the minstrel music that was popular in the 1870s. By age 14 he was performing it.

By his early 20s, he was a featured member of a local minstrel show and writing songs for himself and other musicians. Among the notable songs he wrote during the ‘70s, in addition to his ode to Virginia, is “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers.” It became and still is the theme song for the famed Philadelphia Mummers Parade.

Bland’s talent and the huge success of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers” and other songs he wrote led him to be billed as “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man” and “The Prince of Negro Songwriters.”

In 1881, after touring the United States, he spent 20 years performing to wide acclaim in Great Britain and Europe, where he gave command performances for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales and other dignitaries.

At his peak, Bland earned the equivalent of hundreds of thousands per year in today’s dollars. By the end of the century, the popularity of minstrel style music had declined and his expensive, proto-rock star lifestyle had drained his resources. (One of his legendary purchases was a 4.75 carat diamond, the largest diamond ever worn by a Black performer at the time.)

In 1901, he returned to the U.S. After that, he wrote songs for one unsuccessful musical, then faded into obscurity.

Bland died of tuberculosis in 1911 in Philadelphia. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

James Bland’s story might have ended there if not for James Francis Cooke, editor of a magazine for musicians titled The Etude.

In 1938, Cooke became interested in Bland’s work. With the help of Bland’s sister, Cooke — or, according to some accounts, the Lions Club of Virginia or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) — found Bland’s grave and eventually had a monument placed on it.

In 1939, Cooke published the first notable biography of Bland in The Etude. It was written by Dr. Kelly Miller, a noted African American scholar and professor at Howard University, who called Bland “The Negro Stephen Foster.”

James A. Bland's headstoneThe publicity this generated led the Virginia state legislature to designate Bland’s song about Virginia as the official state song in 1940, though “Virginny” was changed to “Virginia” in the title and lyrics.

The other lyrics remained as Bland wrote them, complete with the nostalgic “darkey” thinking fondly of his “Massa.”

As the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gained traction, the song became a target of critics who (understandably) viewed it as racist and demeaning to African Americans.

In 1970, Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected to the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction. That same year, he proposed legislation to have the song retired and replaced.

The majority of White legislators, many of whom liked the rosy picture of slavery the song’s lyrics portrayed, rejected that bill and similar ones for years, including bills introduced after Wilder became the first African American to be elected Governor of Virginia — or any other state — in 1990.

Finally, in 1997, there was a compromise of sorts. The Virginia Senate voted to retire “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” as the official state song, but designated it as the “State Song Emeritus” and authorized a study committee to create a contest to find and select a new state song.

To make a long story short, that approach continued to generate controversy for the next two decades.

It wasn’t until 2015 that a new state song was selected, based partly on the results of an online poll.

In fact, the legislature approved two songs as the new official state songs.

“Our Great Virginia,” a 19th Century ballad, was designated as the official “Traditional State Song.”

The song “Sweet Virginia Breeze” was named the official “Popular State Song.” It was written in 1978 by Richmond, Virginia musicians and Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett, who included it on their 1978 album Robbin Thompson & Steve Bassett – Together.

Meanwhile, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” is still the “State Song Emeritus.” And, although many people can’t listen to the song without having a negative reaction, music scholars now consider James A. Bland to be not only “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man,” as he was billed during his lifetime, but also one of the greatest black writers of American folk or popular songs.

In 1970, Bland was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Every year since 1948, the Lions Clubs of Virginia has sponsored the annual Bland Music Scholarships Program’s “Bland Contest.” This program is designed is to promote cultural and educational opportunities for musically talented young people in Virginia by providing scholarships for college tuition, music lessons, summer music programs and other music education endeavors.

I watched YouTube videos of some of the young people who have performed in the Bland Contest in recent years. The music they played or sang tended to be more classical than popular.

But who knows? Maybe someday one of them could become as famous as James Bland was in his day, or write a song that becomes as revered — or reviled — as “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

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July 14, 2018

“Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend…”

[Reposted by popular demand…]

On June 24, 1968, ABC Records released the self-titled first album by The Fraternity of Man, a California-based rock band whose members included former Mothers of Invention guitarist Elliot Ingber and a young, 17-year-old singer and songwriter named Larry Wagner.

The album wasn’t a big hit. But it was popular with some young people who were in the midst of their pot-smoking Hippie phase (like me).

It included a humorous, country-flavored song that made us laugh. That song included a line that became a pop culture quotation and an idiomatic expression.

The song’s lyrics were written by Wagner, who was nicknamed “Stash” by the band. The music was written by Ingber.

They titled the song “Don’t Bogart Me.”

Today, it’s more commonly (though mistakenly) referred to as “Don’t Bogart That Joint.”

That phrase, from the song’s chorus, became a slang term meaning “don’t keep holding onto that marijuana joint — pass it on and let other people have some.” 

Initially, awareness of the song and the Bogart term was primarily limited to Hippies (a name coined by San Francisco journalist Michael Fallon in 1965).

That changed in 1969, thanks to actor Dennis Hopper, one of the pot-smoking hipsters who knew the song.

Early that year, Hopper was engrossed in editing the new film he’d created with his friend and co-star Peter Fonda — the seminal counterculture classic Easy Rider.

As he edited the movie, Hopper chose some of songs he’d recently been listening to for the soundtrack.

One of them was the Fraternity of Man’s “Don’t Bogart Me.”

Easy Rider premiered in the US on July 14, 1969 at the Beekman Theater in New York, two months after it was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival.

It soon began appearing in theaters throughout the country.

And, soon, millions of people who’d never heard the 1968 Fraternity of Man album were familiar with the saying “Don’t Bogart that joint,” thus firmly embedding in our language.

In fact, the use of “Bogart” as a verb eventually became an idiom used in association with many things other than marijuana joints.

Today, you get thousands of, er, hits if you Google “don’t Bogart” -joint (using the minus sign to find uses that do not include the word “joint”).

There are various theories about why the last name of actor Humphrey Bogart came to be used as a verb that was originally tied to smoking something or holding onto something.

The one that makes the most sense to me is that, in many of his classic films, Bogart often has a lit cigarette hanging from his lips but is not actively smoking it. He’s just letting it burn and turn to ashes.

Bogart died in 1957 from  esophageal cancer. If he’d lived until 1969, he may or may not have liked the way his name was used in the song.

But somehow, in my mind, I can imagine Bogie and Dennis Hopper in the afterlife gleefully singing “Don’t Bogart Me” together.

And, thinking about that makes me want to sing along.

If you want to join us, light ‘em if you got ‘em, and click the video link at right.

Here are the lyrics…

Don’t Bogart that joint my friend
Pass it over to me
Don’t Bogart that joint my friend
Pass it over to me

Roll another one
Just like the other one
You’ve been hanging on to it
And I sure would like a hit

Ro-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ll another one
Just like the other one
That one’s just about burnt to the end
So, come on and be a real friend.

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June 12, 2018

The origin of the proverbial political “smoke-filled room”

Although smoking is either banned or not tolerated in most meetings today, the idea of a meeting of power brokers making deals behind closed doors “in a smoke-filled room” is still a well-known political image and metaphor.

The now-idiomatic “smoke-filled room” was embedded in our language by an Associated Press article filed on June 12, 1920 by reporter Kirke L. Simpson.

That story dealt with the nomination of former Ohio Governor Warren G. Harding as the Republican Party’s candidate in the 1920 Presidential election.

My grade school and high school history books didn’t delve into the backroom machinations leading to Harding’s nomination.

But like other fans of the HBO television series Boardwalk Empire, I learned a bit about the real life characters involved and the wheeling and dealing that went on from watching some of the show’s Season 1 episodes.

Those episodes suggest that Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by actor Steve Buscemi) was instrumental in swinging the nomination to Harding.

While that may be one of a number of fictionalized plot elements in the series, Harding’s nomination was the result of some hard-nosed political deal-making.

In the days leading up to June 12, delegates to the Republican Convention in Chicago had reached an impasse.

Neither of the two leading candidates — former U.S. Army General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden — could gain a majority of delegate votes.

So, on the night of June 11, a small group of top Republican party officials held a private meeting in Suite 404 in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel.

Smoke from their cigars filled the room as they discussed the latest ideas on how to break the deadlock.

Sometime after midnight, they decided to push through the nomination of Harding as a compromise candidate who could win in the key state of Ohio and would be friendly to the Captains of Industry.

The AP story filed by Kirke Simpson that morning famously said:

      “Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today as Republican candidate for President.”

Simpson is often credited with coining the phrase “smoke-filled room,” at least in its political sense.

Some sources say that he got the phrase from Harding’s campaign manager, Harry Daugherty (played by actor Christopher McDonald in Boardwalk Empire).

Daugherty allegedly predicted in remarks to reporters:

“The convention will be deadlocked, and after the other candidates have gone their limit, some twelve or fifteen men, worn out and bleary-eyed for lack of sleep, will sit down about two o'clock in the morning, around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel and decide the nomination.  When that time comes, Harding will be selected.”

Safire's Political Dictionary, written by the late, great political quote maven William Safire, notes that Daugherty denied saying this.

Either way, the Kirke Simpson’s news story usually gets credit for making “a smoke-filled room” a common political term.

Simpson went on to win the Pulitzer Prize two years later for his series of articles about the burial and tomb of “The Unknown Soldier.”

Harding went on to be elected President of the United States, though he died in office a few years later, after a series of scandals made him a frequent nominee for lists of the worst presidents in history.

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June 02, 2018

Reports of Mark Twain’s quip about his death are greatly misquoted...

Mark Twain, the report of my death
In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens — best known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895.

He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures.

While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died.

According to a widely-repeated legend, one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by a reporter, he quipped:

      “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Another common variation of the line uses the words “…have been greatly exaggerated.” 

Sometimes the quip is given as “Reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.”
In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.

It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health.

The editors of the newspaper had sent a cable White on May 28, asking him to get Twain’s response to reports that he was on his deathbed in England.

White relayed this request to Twain. On May 31, 1897, Twain wrote down his response and sent it to White.

The next day, White wrote an article that quoted from Twain’s letter. On June 2, 1897, the article was published in the New York Journal. It said, in part:

     Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London...
     The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said:
     “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.
     The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
The origin of the more familiar misquote versions of Twain’s response seems to be the popular biography of Twain written by Albert Bigelow Paine.

Paine’s book was published in 1912, two years after Twain’s death. It includes what is apparently Paine’s own embellished variation of the story about Twain’s death quip.

In Chapter 197 of the biography, Paine said a young reporter had “ferreted out” Twain in London after being assigned to follow up on rumors that the famed humorist was “lying at the point of death.”

According to Paine, the newspaper had sent a cable to the reporter ordering him to send back a five hundred 500-word story if Twain was ill, or a thousand word story if Twain was dead.

Paine claimed that upon being shown the cable, Twain “smiled grimly” and told the young reporter:

      “You don’t need as much as that. Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

Most scholarly books of quotations now use or include the quote recorded in the New York Journal article, taken from Twain’s letter to Frank Marshall White.

However, Paine’s “grossly exaggerated” version and “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” which seems to be a colloquial variation of Paine’s line, are better known and commonly assumed to be actual quotes by Twain.

Of course, as Twain wrote in his book Following the Equator, published in November 1897:

       “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”


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May 27, 2018

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…”

When Columbia Records released the first, self-titled album by Bob Dylan in 1962 it went largely unnoticed by the general public. Only about 5,000 copies were sold at the time.

But Columbia music producer John Hammond, who signed Dylan to the label, had faith in the young folk singer.

He ignored the jibes of other music executives who dubbed Dylan “Hammond’s Folly” and, in eight sessions strung out over the next twelve months, he recorded a second album with Dylan for Columbia.

That album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released on May 27, 1963, three days after Dylan’s 22nd birthday.

It’s now considered one of the greatest and most influential albums in American music history.

The Freewheelin’ LP includes what remain some of Dylan’s best-known songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “Don't Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

“Blowin’ In The Wind” became the most famous song from the album. But the one that stuck in my mind even more when I first listened to the album in 1963 was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

The song’s foreboding title, from a phrase in the chorus, was memorable in itself and has since been widely cited and repurposed.

I believe it struck a special chord with kids from the Baby Boom generation, like me.

We grew up at a time when a nuclear war between the US and the USSR seemed inevitable.

In elementary school, we practiced “duck and cover” drills and watched public service films like the one at right, in which a narrator and “Bert the Turtle” helpfully explain what to do when the A-bombs start falling.

Bert told us: “The flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be...When there is a flash, duck and cover, and do it fast!”

It seems a bit humorous now. But back then, during the height of the Cold War years, the possibility of an atomic Armageddon was a serious and constant fear.

Movies, TV shows, books, magazine stories and politically-oriented songs of the era helped stoke that fear by portraying what a nuclear holocaust and the hellish aftermath would be like.

That frightening scenario is also conjured up by “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Bob Dylan singing Had Rain in 1964Many of the lyrics are early examples of the elliptical, dreamlike language Dylan became better known for later. But the title phrase seemed to be a clear metaphor for falling atomic bombs and nuclear fallout.

This appears to be confirmed by the original liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, written by journalist, historian and music critic Nat Hentoff. 

Hentoff said the song “was written during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 when those who allowed themselves to think of the impossible results of the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation were chilled by the imminence of oblivion.”

Dylan is then quoted as saying: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”

Fortunately, Bob and the world survived. On May 24, 2014, he turned 73.

I’m not many years from that age myself.

Today, I can listen to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from a less paranoid perspective. But it still gives me the chills.

In case you haven’t read the lyrics, I’m reprinting them below.

By clicking this link or image at left, you can see Dylan perform the song in 1964, in an episode of the Canadian TV show Quest.

And, by clicking this link, you can listen to some of the many interesting cover versions that have been recorded by other musicians and groups over the years.

Here’s to you, Bob.  Hope you had a good birthday! Glad you’ve been wrong about that hard rain … so far.


“A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan   

(Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music)

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

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