Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blue-Tail Fly is an American murder ballad (I mean it...give my version a listen)

As I was preparing my album "Pete Seeger Lives Here" I recognized a great many songs from Pete's book American Favorite Ballads as having been sung by Burl Ives. As I sang them I thought of it as 'bringing out my inner Burl.' However, as I reread Pete's wonderful testimony before Congress' House Committee on Un-American Activities and then went on to research Burl Ives' testimony, I decided to stick with the example of Pete. Pete Seeger told Congress, politely but firmly, that his politics and religion were private matters and none of their business. He refused to name names, but offered to sing any song he had ever performed. Burl sang - like a canary. For sure, Burl named John Jacob Niles whose career was trashed. Perhaps he named Will Geer (Grandpa Walton on TV) and many others, including Pete and Woody Guthrie. I know of no transcript of Burl Ives' testimony, but you can find Pete's online. Pete was restrained, polite, and adamant - a real example of bravery and true Americanism.
Once when I was in the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress a wonderful librarian said, "We have Burl Ives' guitar, would you like to play it?" What a fine instrument. I suspect the strings were cat gut. They were not steel and they were more resonant and taut than any nylon strings I've played.
In my memory no non-Christmas song is more reminiscent of Burl than Blue-Tail Fly. I never really got it until I was singing it over and over. Here's my interpretation:
In the days of American slavery, house servants were, owners assumed, more trustworthy than field hands. They didn't have overseers watching their every move. They often were expected to exercise some authority over field hands - for sure they kept them out of the house and the master's liquor! So when Jimmy cracked corn - hell, that must have been bourbon! Why didn't the singer care? Because he had murdered the master! He sent him away forever by being a bit negligent in swatting the dreaded Blue-Tail Fly! And the jury did not convict him. Celebration time for sure!

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