This scratchy copy of a Son House classic is pure gold. A master at creating unusual chord structures, Son House uses his vocal and guitar to create moving double-harmonies. Jack White of White Stripes fame dedicated the White Stripe’s first album to Son House.
This song is personal favorite of mine. Carl Martin’s humorous admonition to all prize fighters, telling them to stay off Joe Louis’ beat is a classic. There isn’t a wasted word in this song, and Martin’s delivery is as solid as a punch from the champ himself. It’s a shame the 78 has the snap, crackle, pop of an old recording.
Born in January of 1900 in Allatoona, Georgia, Clayton McMichen had his great success recording with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers and Hometown Boys, and also as a solo artist. His solo effort performance of “Grave In The Pines” is a starkly sweet and sincere lament to a fallen love. McMichen performed regularly in Louisville, Kentucky until retiring in 1955, and later returning to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
This righteous song claims freedom from stodgy ways. Punk before there was Punk. A blues standard, this was adapted for fiddle by Earl Johnson, who learned to play the fiddle from his father. I’m sure you’ll notice the attitude this fiddler’s arrangement has. I admire the spunk!
The great Betty Roche lays down a classic be-bop jazz blues vocal. She joined Ellington’s band in 1943. Trouble means the same after 60-plus years.
The great Leadbelly, with one of his classic sides that helped define American music in the 20th century and beyond. Over his own distinctive, relaxed guitar accompaniment, Leadbelly’s vocal on this recording is simply magnificent. Widely revered by music fans and covered by blues scholars, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” was also sung by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged album.
Here’s a magnificent recording of Duke Ellington’s orchestra performing “Louisiana.” Back then there was no such thing as an overdub, much less any auto-tune or fancy editing software. Heck, you even had to mix the record while you were playing it into one mic! These cats could play for real. What a joy to hear such craft and art, delivered with humor and heart.
Christmas music is omnipresent during the holiday season. Some of these melodies and the songs themselves were sung as long ago as the 1850s. Some were written for the holidays more recently. I have tried to make an accounting of popular holiday songs. That does NOT mean the recorded version of any of these songs are also in the public domain. Please remember both the copyright in the song and the recording have to be expired for the public to own the piece of music to be used. But no performing rights society can collect from public performances.
Here is a quick listen and an instrumental version of a Christmas standard
Songs I found to be in the public domain
- Angels We Have Heard on High
- Away in a Manger
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- Hallelujah Chorus
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
- Joy to the World
- O Come, All Ye Faithful
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- O Holy Night
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- The First Noel
Songs that are not in the public domain and have been written within the last 95 years
- Carol of the Bells
- Do You Hear What I Hear?
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
- Little Drummer Boy
- The Christmas Song
- White Christmas
Mississippi John Hurt sings on this thinly-veiled song about domestic violence in “Nobody’s Dirty Business.” According to John, the sadism works both ways. Eventually his woman leaves. But John writes her a letter begging her to come back. She eventually returns and I suspect the dynamic keeps cycling over and over again. An important message brought to you from way back in 1935 – sometimes relationships just plain old don’t work out.
Sloppy Henry puts so much soul into his singing you really believe every word. This recording is very old, but sounds contemporary. Good storytelling is timeless.