A Peck Of Dirt - Mark Automaton

Waterden WDCD006

CD Cover Art


1. Take This Hammer (3:20)
2. Willie-o (2:07)
3. Sam Hall (4:14)
4. The War Song Set: (7:03)
a. Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire
b. Johnny, I Hardly Knew You
c. When This Bloody War Is Over

5. Un Canadien Errant (3:06)
6. By Charing Cross Station I Sat Down And Wept (2:32)

7. Lazarus (5:08)
8. Van Dieman's Land (3:14)
9. Poor Ellen Smith (3:27)
10. The Dying Rebel (4:07)
11. Sebastopol (3:39)
12. The Rigs Of The Time (3:50)
13. Mister Monster (2:03)
14. The Prickilie Bush (4:21)


"We will all eat a peck of dirt before we die."

That was what our grandparents' generation used to say; a phrase which can be taken metaphorically to mean everyone will suffer some indignities and setbacks in their lifetime, but which is usually interpreted literally as meaning "Don't make a fuss about the bit of soil on your potatoes or the caterpillar on your lettuce - they're harmless." Recent studies have suggested that our modern obsessions with cleanliness and our determination not to eat a peck of dirt (or any dirt at all, come to that) could, in fact, be having a detrimental effect on our general health and immunity to disease. Exposure to bacteria and viral organisms is critical to the development of a mature immune system. By constantly cleaning and sterilising our environment, we don't give our defence mechanisms a chance to grow.

So what's all that got to do with this CD? Well, just as our general environment has become unhealthily sterile, the modern music scene has followed suit.

Even a cursory listen to the radio or a glance at MTV will reveal arbitrary (and in some cases ridiculous) censorship of lyrics and images on a grand scale. Is the wholesale overprotection meted out by these self-appointed moral guardians healthy? No, it's just laziness - it's difficult to explain to a child why a gangsta rapper needs to use a word like "motherfucker", so let's just blank it out and pretend it doesn't exist. Heaven forfend we should have to do anything that's difficult in this day and age!

So as a reaction to all that, I have dredged up the majority of the songs in this collection from a time when eating a peck of dirt was a part of life, and dragged them (kicking and screaming, in some cases) into the modern world. I am absolutely certain that a number of people will find them unpalatable, to say the least. I also realise that I'll be wanted for questioning by the Folk Police for inflicting grievous bodily harm on traditional music, but I stand by my actions.

This CD is the dirt in the potatoes of modern music, the caterpillar on MTV's lettuce. Close your eyes. Grit your teeth. Grin and bear it. It's good for you.

Some notes about the songs:

Take This Hammer and Lazarus originate with the prison chain-gangs of America's Deep South. I originally heard Lazarus sung by Bridget St. John, and the interpretation included here is a blending of her version and one collected by John and Alan Lomax.

I first heard Willie-o sung by Nora Cleary on the excellent Topic Records Voice Of The People collection. Apart from some minor cosmetic surgery on the lyrics and a somewhat syncopated guitar backing (the original was a capella), this is perhaps the most faithful reproduction in this collection. A typical "night-visiting song", it is clearly related to others like The Grey Cock (Child ballad No. 248), although considerably shorter.

Sam Hall was originally Jack Hall, a song about a real life chimney-sweep who was hanged for burglary at Tyburn in 1701. A comic minstrel called CW Ross re-modelled the song (renaming the protagonist, altering the crime and injecting some cursing and blasphemy for effect) and performed it in the music halls of the 1850s. From there, it crossed the Atlantic and was collected in California by John and Alan Lomax. This version is an amalgamation of the latter two incarnations.

All the songs that comprise The War Song Set exist in many different versions - I picked and chose verses from them to assemble those recorded here. My efforts are bookended by samples from a performance by The Roosters Concert Party, recorded in 1929.

The well-known Canadian song Un Canadien Errant was written by a French-Canadian student, M.A. Gerin-Lajoie, shortly after the unsuccessful Mackenzie-Papineau rebellion of 1837-38 in Lower Canada, when several rebels were hanged, exiled, or fled to the US.
Leonard Cohen once recorded a version of this song with a Mariachi band backing, so I didn't feel too guilty about giving it the treatment it receives here.

The two songs in this collection which come closest to being original compositions are By Charing Cross Station I Sat Down And Wept and Mister Monster, although both still draw heavily on traditional sources. The title of the former is a parody of the title of Elizabeth Smart's novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept (which itself was a parody of lines from Psalm 137). I based the verse structure on a Scottish lament called Jamie Raeburn's Farewell that I found in Ord's Bothy Songs And Ballads and wrote the chorus and accompaniment myself.
Mister Monster is an even more bizarre concoction: the tune, chorus and first few lines come from the popular sailor's song New York Girls (also known as Can't You Dance The Polka?), while the remaining verses were inspired by letters written to the New York Police Department by serial killer David Berkowitz, the notorious Son Of Sam who terrorised the Big Apple in the 1970s. When I first read these letters, I was struck by the curiously poetic construction of some of the sentences, and wondered if they could be fashioned into some sort of song. This is the result. (He signed the first letter "Yours in murder, Mr. Monster" - hence the title.)

Van Dieman's Land is another song that exists in many different versions, with a handful of verses common to most. This interpretation mainly uses those common verses, although I added the last verse from a Scottish version as I liked the scathing social commentary it represented.

According to legend, the Appalachian murder ballad Poor Ellen Smith was written by Peter DeGraff, who was convicted of the killing of Ellen Smith near Mt. Airey, North Carolina, in 1892. Supposedly, he wrote this song on death row to protest his innocence (although it didn't do him any good - he was hanged for the crime in 1894). Since then it has become something of a bluegrass standard, so I decided to lift it out of that genre and shoe-horn it into a totally different one.

The Dying Rebel is just one of countless songs about the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, although I like this one particularly because it reflects on the human cost of rebellion rather that the glorification of the conflict and the martyrdom of its leaders.

The lyrics of Sebastopol are taken from a longer broadside ballad called The Sufferings Of The British Army In The Camp Before Sebastopol, written by a John Morgan and published at the time of the Crimean War (1854-56). During the siege of Sebastopol in the winter of 1855, due to the shortcomings of the British military supply system, thousands of men died from illness, exposure and malnutrition - four times as many died from disease as from enemy action. Although Queen Victoria commented to the King of the Belgians that "the war is popular beyond belief", this is a contemporary song attacking the political and military leadership of the war. The arrangement is one of my first experiments with alternative tunings on the acoustic guitar.

In contrast to the wealth of traditional songs about jolly ploughboys and contented country craftsmen, The Rigs Of The Time is a bitter comment on the trickery of various tradesmen (the word rigs being an archaic term for dishonesty), dating from the early nineteenth century. Modern reinterpretations of this song have been recorded by the likes of Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior, but the words to this version were collected in Berkshire in 1923 by Alfred Williams.

Finally: a song with a happy ending! The Prickilie Bush is a variation of Child ballad No. 95, The Briery Bush (or The Maid Freed From The Gallows). Versions of this ballad have been collected in America and the Caribbean, and it is know throughout Europe - fifty versions have been noted in Finland alone! I based my adaptation on an arrangement by Nic Jones, although the words come from a nicely compact version I found elsewhere.

Play MP3Poor Ellen Smith Play MP3Sebastopol