Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, September 2006)

As Bob pointed out last month, farmers, for all their importance to civilization, have traditionally been dirt poor, like anybody who works hard. Farmers who had title to their own land, even though it was mortgaged to the max, thought of themselves as independent businessmen. People like that do not organize into unions nor write protest songs. When the bank foreclosed, they left quietly to find some other hard, thankless work.

The 19th century US was a financial mess, with regular bank panics when currency was scarce. The South after the civil war was particularly hard hit: landowners no longer had slaves to work the plantations, and it was unprofitable to hire labor to farm the depleted land. The promised "40 acres and a mule" never materialized for the former slaves, and the returning Confederate soldiers had no money to buy land. The old slave quarters were now used for two new types of de facto slavery. There was sharecropping, where the owner supplied some land, seed, and a shack, getting half the crop at the end of the season. But since the sharecropper had to live in the meantime, the land owner supplied food in return for the other half, except that there was still more due, carried forward to next year. The other system, known in Britain as crofting, was identical, except you owed money instead of goods to the land owner when the crops were sold. He often also owned the local general store where you bought supplies and food on credit, and the gin that bought the cotton. If it was a good crop year, prices were very low, and if it was a bad year, there was little to sell. Needless to say, the tenant farmer went further in debt for next season.

I couldn't find out much about the history of this song, which is one of a group of pure protest songs about agriculture. The "mortgage" in the song was a chattel mortgage, backed by the farmer's few possessions and next year's crops. You can hear the original, by The Bentley Boys, on The Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian-Folkways). The Bentleys made only one record, and I know nothing about them. They recorded in Johnson City, Tennessee, on October 23, 1929. The stock market's Black Monday came only five days later, followed by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Life out on Penny's farm got a lot tougher.


Complete Lyrics:
Come you ladies and gentlemen, and listen to my song,
I'll sing it to you right, but you might think it's wrong;
May make you mad, but I mean no harm,
It's just about the renters on Penny's farm.
It's a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

You move out on Penny's farm,
Plant a little crop of 'baccer and a little crop of corn;
Come around to see you gonna flip and flop,
'Til you get yourself a mortgage on everything you got.
It's a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

Hasn't George Penny got a flattering mouth?
Move you to the country in a little log house;
Got no windows but the cracks in the wall;
He'll work you all the summer and rob you in the fall.
It's a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

You go in the fields, you'll work all day,
Way into night but you get no pay;
(You're) promised some meat or a little bucket (of) lard;
It's hard to be a renter on Penny's farm.
It's a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

Here's George Penny, he'll come into town
With a wagon load of peaches, not a one of them sound;
He's got to have his money or somebody's check;
Pay him for a bushel and you don't get a peck.
It's a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

George Penny's renters they'll come into town
With their hands in their pockets and their head hanging down.
Go in the store and the merchant will say,
"Your mortgage is due and I'm looking for my pay."
It's a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

Down in his pocket with a trembling hand,
"Can't pay you all, but I'll pay you what I can."
Then to the telephone, the merchant makes a call,
He'll put you on the chain gang, (if) you don't pay it all.
It's a-hard times in the country,
Out on Penny's farm.

[Note: In the original article, I mentioned a confusion among my sources as to whether these boys were Bentley or Bently. Bob Waltz pointed out that the Frank Mare collection has an original 78 that says "Bentley," so I'm going with that. His research also shows that no one seems to know anything about them, other than that they were from North Carolina.]

[Note added December 2009:I received an e-mail from Nicholas Barnett, who bothered to actually look up information on George Penny (why didn't I think of that?). The 2006 Annual Report of the North Carolina Medical Care Commission lists a convent in High Point, North Carolina, owned by the Poor Servants of the Mother of God (SMG) for short:
Adjacent to the campus of the Existing Facility is a convent housing the local Members of the Congregation. Constructed as an Italianate mansion in 1927 by State Senator George Penny of High Point, the Convent was first leased by SMG in 1947 in connection with its original plans to construct a hospital in the High Point area. SMG acquired the mansion from Senator Penny in 1950. From 1947 to 1965, the Congregation used the mansion as a convalescent home for seniors. Upon construction of the Maryfield Nursing Home in 1965, the mansion was renovated and refurbished for its current use as the Convent.

Mr. Barnett also wrote that he found reference to about a dozen biographical books about George Penny. I didn't find those, but there are references on the internet to twin brothers George T. and Jim Penny, who were auctioneers in High Point circa 1910. George T. also owned a bank and a livestock insurance company. Presumably the mansion mentioned above was owned by George T. It's not clear if they are the sons of the George Penny who owned Penny's farm, but it would be consistent with what we know about the history of sharecropping.

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