Tuesday, August 11, 2009

See That My Grave is Kept Clean


SONG: See That My Grave is Kept Clean

WRITTEN BY: credited to Blind Lemon Jefferson

PERFORMED BY: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Mavis Staples, & lots of others

APPEARS ON: Blind Lemon Jefferson: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 3, Songs [Smithsonian/Folkways]; also The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson [Yazoo], & other compilations; Dave Van Ronk: The Folkways Years [Smithsonian/Folkways]; Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan [Columbia]

I may be giving folks the impression that I have a thing for kind of eerie songs—writing about “Country Blues,” & then following that up with “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”! At any rate, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (AKA “Two White Horses,” AKA “One Kind Favor”) is a harrowing evocation of death, just as “Country Blues” holds very little back in its portrait of dissolution. & to my mind, if we’re going to talk about “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” we have to talk about the great Texas bluesman, Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in the 1890s (the exact year isn’t certain) in a town called Coutchman, TX (since abandoned) & died in 1929 in Chicago. Blind from birth, Jefferson began his performing career in his early teens, & later moved to Dallas, where he befriended both Leadbelly & T-Bone Walker. He traveled to Chicago in the 1920s, where he recorded for Paramount Records, & later Okeh Records. His death apparently remains a bit of a mystery—he may have suffered a heart attack after being disoriented in a Chicago snowstorm, or he may have frozen to death.

What we have ifor certain is Jefferson’s recorded legacy, which has in turn been passed down by some greats who’ve been influenced by his style—not just Leadbelly & Walker, but also the great Lightnin’ Hopkins, for instance. Jefferson had the voice of a street singer—his voice was powerful, & he tended to pitch it high (a street singer’s strategy—if you want your voice to carry, pitch it up a tone). His guitar playing was extraordinary, both in terms of the rhythmic backing (check out the drive of the damped chords behind his singing in the music clip below) as well as in the characteristic runs he’d perform as the “response” (between the sung lines) on both the treble & the bass strings.

The lyrics to “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” are straightforward but poetic in their starkness. I particularly like the “long lane” verse, which seems to suggest a whole lot of darkness—the long lane is presumably death, but what’s the “bad way that never change”? Damnation? A life lived wrong? I’ve transcribed the lyrics from Blind Lemon’s singing as best I could. You can find the lyrics on-line, but while most of the sites say these are Blind Lemon’s lyrics, they actually are the ones sung by Bob Dylan on his self-titled debut album. Dylan’s lyrics vary from Jefferson’s in some significant ways.

Because of this, I thought I’d take a paragraph to consider “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” as an example of the folk process. While the song is credited to Blind Lemon, I’ve also seen sources that claim it’s a traditional spiritual that Jefferson re-worked as a blues song (e.g., Fred Sokolow in Ragtime, Blues & Jazz for Banjo). Of the versions I know, Van Ronk’s follows Jefferson’s quite closely—both men were masterful guitarists with powerful voices, & while Van Ronk changes the order of the verses, he keeps the words largely the same. Interestingly, Van Ronk doesn’t sing the “My heart stopped beating and my hands got cold” verse, the last line of which I can’t make out despite repeated tries. I can only tell for certain that it can’t be the same words as Dylan sings, “Now I believe what the Bible told,” tho it could be something quite like that. Both Jefferson & Van Ronk seem to concentrate on the eeriness of directly evoking death. Dylan’s version, which (with apologies to Dylan fans) I do find to be the least satisfying, seems to concentrate instead on anger. His tempo seems to race & he seems to almost spit the words out. I do like some things about the guitar part, tho; & hey, I sing this song accompanied by 5-string banjo, so it’s not like I’m against re-interpretation.

& I like Mavis Staples’ re-interpretation. If “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” ultimately has spiritual roots before its blues transformation, Ms Staples version really hearkens back to these, & while Dylan adds an edge, she softens the song as we know it from Blind Lemon Jefferson, singing about redemption rather than “a bad way that never change.”

I couldn’t find information about a recording of this either by Mavis Staples or the Staples Singers, tho I thought I remembered that one existed (in addition to this YouTube version, which has such splendid instrumentation). There also doesn’t appear to be a YouTube clip of Van Ronk’s version, but hey, that just means you ought to check it out on the cd or as an mp3, either of which is very much worth doing. Here are the lyrics, followed by the video clips.


Well, there's one kind of favor I'll ask of you
Well, there's one kind of favor I'll ask of you
Lord, it’s one kind of favor I'll ask of you
It’s see that my grave is kept clean

It’s a long lane that’s got no end
It’s a long lane that’s got no end
It’s a long lane ain’t got no end
& it’s a bad way that never change

Lord it's two white horses in a line
Well it's two white horses in a line
Well it’s two white horses in a line
Goin’ take me to my burying ground

My heart stopped beating and my hands got cold
My heart stopped beating and my hands got cold
Well, my heart stopped beating, Lord my hands got cold
It wasn’t [???] that bible told

Have you ever hear that coffin sound
Have you ever heard that coffin sound
Have you ever hear that coffin sound
Then you know another poor boy’s in the ground

Dig my grave with a silver spade
Dig my grave with a silver spade
Dig my grave with a silver spade
You may lead me down with a golden chain

Have you ever hear that bell moan
Have you ever hear that bell moan
Have you ever hear that church bells moan
Then you know another poor boy’s dead and gone








13 comments:

  1. To carry the folk process one more step forward, Geoff Muldaur talks about getting a tad drunk with some buddies and on hearing "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" decided to hitch to East Texas (they were in New Orleans at the time), brooms in hand, to clean his grave. Out of that trip came Muldaur's "Got to Find Blind Lemon", a song about a song.

    It's amazing how that process just keeps chugging along!

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  2. I never heard this song before but I want to learn the lyrics and sing it.

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  3. Hi Roy & Clifton:

    Roy: Love that story.

    Clifton: I love playing & singing this one. Have a good time with it.

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  4. I found Mavis Staples very impressive. Maybe that's because I've always wanted to be able to sing that low, but I just can't do it. Sigh.

    Roy's story is neat! I've never heard about that before.

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  5. "Impressive" is a very good word for Mavis Staples. Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. John, we have to cut Dylan some slack here: He was only 20 at the time he recorded "Grave." I hadn't even heard of it when I was 20!

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  7. Hi K: True, & it is a young man's take on the song. While I'm not enthusiastic about Dylan's version myself, I was trying more to look at it as part of the "folk process"--he did re-make it in a certain way, in contrast to Van Ronk, who sticks much closer to the original.

    & K--you had a deprived childhood! Or I had a depraved one, not sure which.

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  8. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Susan

    http://disturbialyrics.net

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  9. I heard this song yesterday on Los Super Seven's "Heard It One The X" CD (featuring Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's vocals, I believe) and I thought "That would be a great song for Just A Song". Nicely done!

    rgg

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  10. thanks for all the great info on blind lemon jefferson...been a while since I've listened to this great song - it really has the power to transport one back to other times and other places no matter who is singing it....I love all three versions! can never get enuf mavis!!

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  11. I think he says "It wasn't long 'fore I heard what the bible told"

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  12. A song with a similar title was composed by a white forger in 1882. See http://jkadcock.blogspot.ca/?view=classic

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  13. Great blog! Regarding the second verse - Howlin Wolf has a great song - with an almost Dixieland flavour! - based on this: Poor wind that never change: the verse goes long road that dont have no end / Poor wind that never change. I think Blind Lemon sings wind not way. What do you reckon?

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