Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dark Hollow

SONG Dark Hollow

WRITTEN BY Bill Browning

PERFORMED BY Bill Browning, The Grateful Dead

APPEARS ON B-side to "Borned With the Blues" (1958);
Bear's Choice (History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1) (1973), Three from the Vault (2007), others

I couldn't find out much about the history of this song. I first heard it on the Grateful Dead's Bear's Choice, an album critically derided on its release in 1973, although it did offer their first release of "Dark Hollow." I assumed for years that it was either a traditional number or borrowed from someone like Lefty Frizell.

But, according to the Grateful Dead Lyric & Song Finder, "Dark Hollow" was actually the B-side of a single recorded in 1958 by one Bill Browning. Other than that he was from Wayne County, West Virginia, fronted a rockabilly band called the Echo Valley Boys, and passed away in 1978 at the ripe young age of 57, not much is known about Browning. How an unknown late-50's B-side came to the attention of the Dead's Bob Weir is equally a mystery, although Bobby has a gift for discovering and elevating obscurities: After he learned "Me & My Uncle" from John Phillips, it became the most performed song in the Dead's catalog even though Phillips himself never recorded it.

However Weir came across "Dark Hollow," he knew a winner when he heard one. It's a song about madness and the fever of unrequited love, and how the former -- signified by the dark hollow -- is preferable to the latter. Punctuated by a train whistle, that great country symbol of loneliness, the lyrics of the song are simple yet eloquent: It's not better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. In fact, it's better to go mad ("...knowing that you're gone/Would cause me to lose my mind...") than to even contemplate the thought of your loved one in the arms of another. Contrary to what Pete Townshend and The Who might think, love is for keeping because the alternative when it's gone is darkness, loneliness, and riding the rails with the misfits, outcasts, and lunatics.

The Dead perform "Dark Hollow" with as a folk-bluegrass standard, assisted greatly by Jerry Garcia's keening harmony behind Weir's rock-style vocals. The Browning version is pure melodrama, replete with train whistles. Browning recorded from 1957-1960 and left a small discography. He likely didn't write another song close to the league of "Dark Hollow," but he at least achieved greatness once. That's more than most can say.
LYRICS
I'd rather be in some dark hollow
Where the sun don't ever shine
Than to be in some big city
In a small room with a girl on my mind

So blow your whistle freight train
Take me far on down the track
I'm going away, I'm leaving today
I'm going but I ain't coming back

I'd rather be in some dark hollow
Where the sun don't ever shine
Than to see you another man's darling
And know that you'll never be mine

So blow your whistle freight train
Take me far on down the track
I'm going away, I'm leaving today
I'm going but I ain't coming back

I'd rather be in some dark hollow
Where the sun don't ever shine
Than to be home alone, knowing that you're gone
Would cause me to lose my mind

So blow your whistle freight train
Take me far on down the track
I'm going away, I'm leaving today
I'm going but I ain't coming back

I'm going away, I'm leaving today
I'm going but I ain't coming back
Here's Bill Browning's rendition. Dig the train whistle!



The Grateful Dead sing "Dark Hollow" in 1971:

15 comments:

  1. Interesting--I'd always assumed it was a traditional song. Of course, it is in some sense a major key variation on the traditional song "East Virginia," most famously done by Buell Kazee, but also by just about anyone who's ever played a banjo in mountain minor tuning. Nice song detective work!

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  2. After reading your comment, John, I did a little more research. Jerry Garcia sang "East Virginia Blues" in his pre-Dead days, as well as "Little Bird," another song with a similar lyric. I'd still like to know how they found out about Bill Browning though!

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  3. Hey!!
    I just wrote a song about love for my girlfriend and reading your lyrics are amazing! :P but anyhoo... you're blog is wayy nicer than mine that's for sure! If you have the extra 3 minutes to listen to the song I wrote that's on youtube, click here A Song About Love and dont forget to rate and comment the song! :) thanx SOOOOOO much! :D

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  4. Love this! Really timely, this song was totally in my head all day on Sunday.

    Thanks!

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  5. Yoel: Nice work and good luck with the gf.

    HC: Thanks! That's pretty much how I happened to choose Dark Hollow for a blog entry: I heard it on the GD satellite radio station over the weekend and couldn't get it out of my head. Love your web site!

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  6. I've yet to hear the Bill Browning version (been searching for ages) but there's a Ralph Stanley cover fron his King Records years that Jerry would likely have known from his early folk/bluegrass years.

    As John Hayes points out, this is essentially "East Virginia Blues" (also recorded as "Dark Holler Blues" by Clarence Ashley in 1929), but I believe Browning added the "Blow your whistle, freight train" section.

    Also, if I'm not mistaken "East Virginia blues" is on the Harry Smith collection, so it's not too surprising that Jerry would've known and covered that too.

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  7. Dark hollow was recorded by my first cousin Bill Browning, he has 12 other songs that were recorded and released. He also was a regular on WWVA Wheeling jamboree on saturday nights in Wheeling WVA. I don't know how long he was at the jamboree. He used to come to the restaurant my parents managed in Cleveland, ohio, and sit in a rear booth and sing the latest song he had written to us before he had recorded and released them. He always had his band with him and sometimes another performer from the jamboree. I have all his origional 45's and have changed them over to mp3.

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  8. What a treasure! How do the other songs stand up to Dark Hollow?

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  9. Clarence Ashley - Dark Holler (1929)

    Look for this on YouTube!

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    1. That's the best one

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  10. There is a live TV version and a studio version recorded around the same time as the Deads' by Muleskinner, featuring Jerry's great pal David Grisman. Well worth hearing, especially for the Clarence White guitar playing.

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  11. Mule Skinner has an awesome version from the Live TV Bluegrass show Album.

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  12. Was just gonna say, Muleskinner had a version, and John Kahn was a member of Muleskinner.
    He also had a strong association with Jerry Garcia, what with him playing in the Jerry Garcia Band in the early '70's and Reconstruction.
    I dunno, I guess it was probably well known as a song back then.
    My favorite version is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring Dwight Yoakam. His voice is perfect for this song.

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  13. I'm thinking that the Dead got the song from The Kentucky Colonels, a fabulous (really amazing!) bluegrass band that featured Clarence & Roland White in the late 50s, through the mid 60s. Garcia introduces them at the Ashgrove on one LP for a 1964 concert (as I recall). So, that's my bet on this one. Check out the Kentucky Colonels!!! You won't regret it!

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  14. Bill Browning is my father and he died at the age of 45 on January 23rd, 1977 from Colin Cancer. He was a great singer, songwriter and publisher of records. Had his own recording business before he became ill. He wrote many many songs and my mother still has his book of songs. Many of those are copywrited to this day.

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