Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January, 2011)

Harry Caudill's must-read book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands (Little, Brown, 1963; Jesse Stuart Foundation, Ashland, KY, 2001) describes how, in colonial times, many British slum-dwellers were Shanghaied and brought to America as Indentured Slaves. Some escaped before their 7-year stint was up and went west to become the first white settlers in Appalachia. They knew nothing about how to survive, but got lots of help from the indigenous American Indian people. One of the things they learned was how to dig ginseng, the first mountain cash crop -- before tobacco, moonshine, or (more recently) cannabis.

Ginseng grows wild in cool, shady, wooded spots in northern temperate climates. The dried root of Oriental Ginseng has long been prized in China for its miracle properties as a general tonic, antioxidant, immune system booster, and (most importantly) an aphrodisiac. In the early 1700s, Father Joseph Lafiteau, who had been a missionary in China, noticed ginseng growing near a Mohawk village in Canada. He knew the Chinese were desperate for the root, so he taught the Mohawks how to dry the root and find export channels to China. Native Americans throughout the east began digging ginseng to sell to French traders who shipped it to China. No one seems to know how American Ginseng, a very close relative of Oriental Ginseng, crossed the ocean -- perhaps by berry-carrying birds. In 1784, George Washington, traveling in the mountains, noted a number of people and pack horses hauling ginseng from Kentucky to Philadelphia. (The above info is from Foxfire 3, -- Eliot Wigginton, ed.; Anchor 1975).

The point of this song is not the restorative powers of ginseng, but refusal by the narrator to take part in the new cash economy. A noble rear-guard position, but it didn't succeed -- money is king, and, most likely, even the narrator had to get a job in a cotton mill or load coal into a tipple after all. Beyond that, the song is pretty disconnected, although I haven't run across the words as floating verses in any other songs.

As far as I know, the only version of this song was recorded by The Kentucky Ramblers in 1930. According to Gus Meade's notes to the re-release (Music of Kentucky, Vol. 1; Yazoo 2013) the band probably consisted of a group from Williamsburg, KY (near the Tennessee border) led by Elmer Bird, who formed several bands to make (mostly unsuccessful) records in the early 1930s. But Tony Russell's Country Music Records discography lists all the members as "unknown." So both the original source and the performing artists are a mystery.

The key given here is one where I can usually successfully break into a falsetto for the yodel. If your range is as limited as mine, you're going to have to pitch the key according to your abilities. Or just yodel in your normal singing range -- That'll catch people's attention, too.


Complete Lyrics:
1. Ain’t a-gonna dig no ginseng,
Well I ain’t a-gonna hunt no crow,
Ain’t gonna do a doggone thing
But love my dear sweet Mama,
O, you can’t read my mind.
When you think I’m loving you, Mama,
I’m quitting you all the time.

2. My home ain’t here,
It’s down in Caroline,
I got two chillun down in Georgia,
But they sho' ain't mine, sweet Mama,
O, you can’t read my mind (etc.)

3. I got a girl in Georgia,
One in Dixie, too.
If you treat me mean, sweet Mama,
Turn my back on you, good baby,
O, you can’t read my mind (etc).

4. Ain’t gonna work no tipple,
Ain’t gonna load no coal,
Put my head out the window,
Watch the drivers roll, sweet Mama,
O, you can’t read my mind (etc).

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