Robert Millis writes about his listening memory of American folk music

Robert Millis is a musician, researcher and sound artist from Seattle, USA. A founding member of Climax Golden Twins and a frequent contributor to the Sublime Frequencies label, he has composed for long and short films, created sound installations, produced and designed audio projects, and released many LPs and CDs. He is the co-author of the book Victrola Favorites: Artifacts from Bygone Days and scored the cult horror film Session Nine. During 2012 and 2013 he was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in India studying Indian music, sound art and the early recording industry.

Robert’s website:



When I was a child, my parent’s record collection was my window on the world. I loved laying on our circular yellow shag 1970s carpet, listening to records through the amplifier my Dad had built from a mail-order kit, watching the tubes (“valves” to you anglophiles) glow. One of the records I frequented was Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits. One track in particular always struck me: Darling Corey. On top of a loping banjo accompaniment was a great old song about a bootlegging woman who was about to get arrested by the authorities. I always remembered Pete’s liner notes for this track: “I learned this from an old Victor record from the 1920s by one BF Shelton. Who was Shelton? Why is this song so great? Listen for yourself and see.” I always wondered what a “Victor record” could be and how someone who had made such a record could vanish and be unknown. Wasn’t the point of making records to be remembered? To be famous? How could I “listen and see” for my self?

Years later, American folk music was still stuck in my brain, though pushed to the background (of course) by rock and roll, but also by experimental music, sound art, and music from other lands. Then I discovered Harry Smith’s famous Anthology of American Folk Music, originally released in the mid-1950s and compiled from 78rpm records recorded 1927-1932. The bottom fell out of my musical world and I suddenly realized the depth and power of American traditional music. Its history and connections to itself, to me and beyond. The Anthology was 6 LPs and numerous songs I could not stop listening to. I began to play them myself, obsessed by the lyrics and melodies, their inherent uniqueness and strangeness. The songs were intense, at turns funny, at turns deeply emotional, seemingly non-commercial, and all recorded in one or two instantaneous takes by people who barely understood what recording was or might mean. So-called contemporary folk artists like Peter Paul and Mary, the Weavers, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton (also all in my parent’s collection) now felt simply like nondescript leaves, coming and going, while the musicians on the Anthology were the solid roots, deep underground, interconnected, unfathomable, growing, part of the Earth itself. I had always had leanings towards 78rpm records: they felt mysterious, nostalgic, sentimental and impossibly old and all the surface noise was beautiful. The old wind-up acoustic gramophones looked magical: lovely wooden boxes with antique smells of varnish and wood oil. Discovering the Anthology of American Folk Music cemented this interest and for a time I was one of those awful holier than thou “only old folk music is good and genuine” types of people. I have grown up a bit since then, thankfully, but…have you gotten the point yet that this Anthology had a profound effect on me? I know of almost no one with an ear for music, especially American music, that has not had a similar visceral reaction to this collection. It has been issued and re-issued, written about, copied, eulogized, and celebrated by every generation since its release. No Anthology, no Bob Dylan. It’s as simple as that.

Several months into my Anthology love affair, it occurred to me that it contained no BF Shelton. I was curious. By now I was collecting my own 78rpm records and knew that “Victor” was one of the first American record labels. No BF Shelton 78s seemed findable. The internet was just getting started at this point so there was nothing there. Then I found a CD compilation on Yazoo Records: The Music of Kentucky–Classic Recordings of the 1920s. It had THREE BF Shelton tracks, including one called “Darlin’ Cora”. Not quite “Darling Corey” as Pete Seeger claimed, but that must be the same song I thought, so I bought it. Very quickly I fell in love with The Music of Kentucky. It was as if I was married to the Anthology, but having an illicit romance with Kentucky. The roots just seemed to go deeper. I came to find out not only was there a Kentucky volume 2 but also a seven CD set also on Yazoo called “Mountain Music of Kentucky”. There must have been something in the water in that state to make so much good music. I could talk endlessly about every artist on the Kentucky compilation, but lets just stick with BF–Benjamin Frank–Shelton. His three songs on that CD: Pretty Polly, Darlin’ Cora, and Oh Molly Dear along with one other, Cold Penitentiary Blues, represent his entire recorded output. Two 2-sided Victor 78rpm records that sold almost no copies, and are highly sought after by collectors. He was a barber from Corbin, Kentucky (a barber? How could I love music played by a barber? I hated getting my hair cut). He was recorded on July 29, 1927 as part of the famed Bristol Sessions, in Bristol, Tennessee–famous as ground zero for American country music. One of the first field trips to the American south by a record label (Victor Records) in search of local talent to capture a regional market. Victor got it right with these sessions, “discovering” a treasure trove of rural American music, including the first recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers. BF recorded again for Columbia Records in 1928 but those recording were not issued and as of this writing are thought lost. He lived from 1902 to 1963, never recording again. He had an odd, lived-in voice and sang dark, dark songs. Perhaps this is why he was not asked to record more. Perhaps it was a mistake he was ever recorded in the first place, but the record companies at this time often did not care or know what they were doing, they were just looking for hits with no idea what a hit was.

BF was a great “mountain” banjo player with a simple but lovely rolling style. Darlin’ Cora was one thing–and BF’s version outstrips Seeger’s and I am sure Seeger would be the first to admit that–but the real revelations for me on the Music of Kentucky were BF’s renditions of Pretty Polly and Oh Molly Dear, songs that I got inside of and that revealed to me the American ballad tradition, or at the very least its sad and dark side. Pretty Polly is a classic “murder ballad”–a subset of American balladry, often with roots in real-life events (and sometimes roots in English ballads as well), that almost always concern the murder of a girl by her lover–either because she is untrue, or he is untrue and does not know how else to get out of the relationship; perhaps the lover is a twisted and morally empty “bounder” or maybe the girl has become pregnant and the scandal would be too overwhelming to be revealed; maybe he does not want to marry her or she does not want to marry him. Often the man is caught in the end of these tales but some times he escapes; some times the girl’s spirit torments him. In one murder ballad a violin is made out of the girl’s remains on which cautionary songs are played. Less often, but occasionally, the girl does the murdering as in Henry Lee when a philandering man is thrown down a deep dark well and left until “the flesh falls from his bones”. Some times murder ballads are meant as gruesome stories to entertain, some times they are morality tales. But the stories are actually not always the important point. It’s the extremity of feelings they express–the fear and heartbreak and confusion, the pain, the inability to stay in control, the workings of fate, the weight of tradition and religion and culture on our individual existence.

Oh Molly Dear is labyrinthian song I have been playing and listening to for years and still can’t, and almost don’t want, to understand. Its origins are uncertain–there are versions of the same simple melody in Irish and English folk music, and lyrical variations from across Appalachia in America. It is known by many titles including Katie Dear, Molly Dear, O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother, Silver Dagger, Awake Awake, Wake Up You Drowsy Sleepers, Kentucky Mountain, Who Is At My Window Weeping, and East Virginia. On its surface it is a love song wherein the mother of a young girl will not let her marry. There are many variations: often the mother of the young girl will not let her marry because she herself was wronged by a man; sometimes (using a silver dagger) the mother will kill any suitors who come near her daughter. Occasionally the lyrical emphasis is on a Romeo and Juliet-like suicide pact the young lovers have since they can not marry; in other versions they run away together, or the boy leaves broken hearted, remembering the whole incident from afar. In still other versions, the girl believes her mother and is resigned to avoiding all love–she won’t even ask her mother about marriage.

The song often has a mysterious emphasis on sleeping:

Wake up wake up, you drowsy sleeper
wake up wake up, its almost day
how can you stand to sleep and slumber
when your true love has gone away?

When I sleep I’m dreaming about her
when I wake, I’ve seen no rest
Every moment is like an hour
oh, the pain that crossed my breast

Last night as I laid on my pillow
last night as I laid on my bed
Last night as I laid on my pillow
I dreamt that fair maiden was dead

No I can’t go ask my mother
she’s laying on her bed of rest
in her hand she holds a dagger
she will kill who I love best
BF Shelton

These are examples pulled from various versions of the song. Strangely, it’s like everyone is sleep walking through these events, inhabiting that foggy dream world between consciousness and unconsciousness. How vigilant of the daughter’s purity can the mother be if she is actually taking a nap (albeit napping with her dagger nearby)? Who killed the maiden the man dreams about on his pillow and why? Who is waking the lover up to tell him or her their true love is leaving?

Darlin’ Cora is also asleep, by the way:

Wake up Wake up darlin’ Cora,
what makes you sleep so sound?
Highway robbers are coming,
gonna tear your still house down…

Part of this somnambulist atmosphere could reside in the Romeo and Juliet references to illicit love, with the lover coming to his girl’s window at night and waking her up to tell her they should run away together. But if you listen to Shelton’s version you would have no idea of this aspect to the song. In others, its obvious the girl is in the same bed with her mother, the boy sneaking in. The mother kills the boy and the girl then kills herself with the same dagger. It sure is hard to be a parent these days. You just can’t win.

Listening to and playing Oh Molly Dear, looking for other versions, seeing their differences and similarities, I came to realize how beautifully malleable such ballads are. You can choose what you want to emphasize, you can leave in or take out what is necessary to get at what you think is important. Is it the heartache? The sleeping and dreaming? The illicit romance? Is the mother spiteful or loving and protecting? You can sing it from the girl’s point of view or the boy’s, or even the mother’s. Or all three. You can put yourself in or take yourself out as necessary. There can be suggestions, hints, trails of clues or a matter of fact telling of the tale. Or perhaps simply the melody is the important part so you need to leave time to play your instrument and use that to express what you need. In an abstract way ballads like this remind me of some of the basics of Indian raga–you are given melodic material, some emotional reference points, some lyrics and then you are on your own. A raga was once described as a palace with 100 doors not simply “an apartment in Bombay with two.” Ballads can be similar–there are many ways to get where you are going (the end of the song) and to describe what you are feeling.

The short format of 78rpm records (you could only record about 3 or 4 minutes per song) adds to this: you have to cut and edit and suggest to make room for what is important, leaving interesting holes to be filled in by the listener’s imagination. What has survived or what has the universe decided will survive as these old songs come down to us through old records? Records have the illusion of establishing set versions of these ballads, creating standards and accepted lyrics, but that is only an illusion of the last 100 years and these songs are much older. They were once isolated in regional variations, changing from performer to performer, meant to tell a long, complex, and entertaining story.

A childlike interest in a strange song on a record by a revered and gentle folk singer, Pete Seeger, lead me down this rabbit hole of old records, ballads and heartbreak. From child to adult. After listening to BF Shelton you would be forgiven for not wanting him to wield sharp scissors around your head or shaving blades near your throat: Darlin’ Cora gets buried in the meadow after trouble with revenue officers and highway robbers. Pretty Polly is left in a shallow grave with only the birds to mourn. The lovers in Oh Molly Dear fair no better. Cold Penitentiary Blues is the obvious outcome of such violence. There is a darkness at the heart of this peculiarly American music, and at the heart of America itself: the only way out of certain situations, certain confusions, appears to be through violence. Yet the existence of such songs can also be an outlet and a way to express and overcome the fear of the dark and the unknown.

I write this in Tangier, Morocco, where I am exploring Moroccan folk music which I am sure will prove to have the same elasticity as these American ballads, so my memory of events and music and lyrics and personalities may be colored or damaged or simply mis-recalled. In a way, though, that is emblematic of folk music and the way it can and should grow through the mysterious and individual depths of memory.

–Robert Millis, 2014

Related Links

Pretty Polly

Oh Molly Dear (except the picture they use is of a different performer–Dock Boggs, who was also great)

Darlin Cora

Bristol Sessions:

Anthology of American Folk Music: