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  • One-track Mind: Writers and Musicians on Their Favorite Songs

Certain songs change things. A singer can reach across the world with a line that moves us to tears or moves us to action. But perhaps equally as often, the tunes that stay with us over months and years, the ones we forget and later recall as though remembering a beloved friend, come from places we’re local to. Here Dom Flemons, Alice Gerrard, and shirlette ammons pay tribute to songs that have influenced them and their work, and to the Southern record labels that have released—and, in some cases, rereleased—these foundational tracks. [End Page 148]

  • One Morning in May
  • Alice Gerrard (bio)

When I started my first semester at Antioch College in 1953, I saw people sitting around under trees playing guitars and singing—and having fun! I knew this was for me. My mother was a musician, but when I was growing up, she felt that I should take formal piano lessons and practice regularly every day—something I resisted. So the notion that you could teach yourself to play a guitar (with a little help now and then from friends) and sing with simple accompaniment was exciting.

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I took recordings out of the college library of “art” folk singers, like Susan Reed and Richard Dyer Bennett, always looking for deeper stuff. And then I found an old 78-rpm recording of someone named Texas Gladden.

The song was “One Morning in May,” and the sound and story were pure wonder. No instruments, just her voice—high, lonesome—a kind of “untamed sense of control,” as Bob Dylan once said about singer and banjo player Roscoe Holcomb. And the sad tale about a dying woman who wanted her mama and papa and the preacher to sit with her, whose dying wishes were to have young ladies carrying roses to bear off her coffin ... what a story—a woman’s version of the old cowboy ballad “The Streets of Laredo.”

I wondered for a long time what the line “my body’s salivated” meant. The late, great folklorist and labor activist Archie Green told me that it meant that the woman had syphillis and her wounds were “salivating,” or oozing with infection.

I’ve always been drawn to the darker and more melancholy side of traditional [End Page 149] music, and I was completely taken with this recording. I wore it out, learned it by heart, and tried to sound like Texas Gladden. It was like a bomb went off in my head. THIS IS IT! And it was—until someone gave me a copy of Harry Smith’s classic multivolume album The Anthology of American Folk Music, at which point, my head exploded again. But Texas Gladden and “One Morning in May” was and will always be my first amazing time.

One Morning in May as sung by Texas Gladden (1895–1967)

When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure   When I was a young girl, I used to drink ale     Out of the alehouse and into the jailhouse Right out of the barroom and into my grave

Come papa, come mama, and sit you down by me   Come sit you down by me and pity my case My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking   My body’s salivated and I’m bound to die

Oh, send for the preacher to come and pray for me   And send for the doctor to heal up my wounds My poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking     My body’s salivated and hell is my doom

I want three young ladies to bear up my coffin   I want four young ladies to carry me on And each of them carry a bunch of wild roses     To lay on my coffin as I pass along

One morning, one morning, one morning in May I spied this young lady all wrapped in white linen   All wrapped in white linen, as cold as the clay [End Page 150]

Alice Gerrard

alice gerrard is a singer and songwriter who has performed and advocated for old-time and bluegrass...


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