Outlaw as Folk Hero is an old theme in the Anglo-American tradition, probably dating from before the Robin Hood stories. America developed a second idea, that of Outlaw as Psychopath, a truly Bad Man. Stagolee and John Hardy come to mind, as well as Lee Brown, the narrator of today's story. Versions of this song were found throughout the south, particularly in Appalachia and the Ozarks. The tunes vary, but the story is remarkably stable. Lee Brown shoots his woman, runs away, is caught, tried, and gets a long sentence. He has no remorse, other than that he is jailed. One writer says this song was very popular as early as 1885, but I couldn't find the source of that claim. There are lots of towns in America with the names given in the song, but Thomasville and Jericho, North Carolina are only 60 miles apart, which make them prime candidates for locale. There's no reason to believe this song is literal history, though. A cursory search shows no information on a real Lee Brown, or any evidence that the song describes an actual murder.
Clarence Ashley, from East Tennessee, recorded this version in 1928, but a later recording is on Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF40029/30, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962. Ashley tuned his banjo to gDGCD (5th to 1st), sometimes called "mountain modal" tuning. He called it "sawmill tuning," perhaps because the unfinished sound of the resulting open-string chord sounds like a large circular saw cutting through a log. Classical European music concentrated on major and minor scales, because they were amenable to easy harmonies when used with orchestral instruments. Other scales, generically called "modal," which were on an equal footing with the classical scales in early music (such as Gregorian chants), survived in the remote mountains of America. On the Folkways recording, Doc Watson accompanied Ashley on the guitar. He capoed at the 3rd fret, and used an odd chord fingering, which I call "E modal." The fingering is (low to high): 022200, or the A major fingering moved to one lower string. A guitar chord diagram is given in the commentary for Little Margaret. The chord names given in the sheet music assume the guitar is capoed at the 3rd fret, so "E modal" becomes a "G modal" chord and "D" becomes "F". If you've listened to a number of other modal tunes, such as Red Rocking Chair or Little Maggie, the chord won't sound as weird as if you're playing it for the first time.
I transcribed Ashley's words faithfully because I like the idea of
the outlaw trying to be inconspicuous while ringing a bell on a
streetcorner. Most likely, he mis-heard "reading a bill," i.e., a
handbill tacked to a wall that told about Lee Brown being wanted for
murder. I did cheat, however, when I added the last verse from Woody
Guthrie's Oklahoma version. I like it because it emphasizes Lee's lack
1. Went out last night for to take a little round,
I met my little Sadie and I blowed her down.
I run right home and I went to bed,
A forty-four smokeless under my head.
2. I woke next morning at half-a past nine,
The buggies and hacks all formed in line
The gents and gamblers a-standing around
Goin' to take little Sadie to her burying ground.
3. When I began to think what a deed I'd done,
I grabbed my hat and away I run.
I made a good run just a little too slow,
They overtook me in Jericho.
4. Standing on the corner, a-ringing a bell,
Up stepped the sheriff from Thomasville.
Says, "Young man, is your name Brown?
Don't you remember the night you blowed Sadie down?"
5. "Oh, yes, sir, my name is Lee,
I murdered little Sadie in the first degree;
In the first degree and the second degree,
If you got any papers, will you read 'em to me."
6. Took me downtown and dressed me in black.
They put me on the train and sent me back.
But I had no one for to go my bail
They crammed me back in the county jail.
7. Judge and the jury took their stand.
Judge held his papers in his right hand.
"Forty one days, forty one nights,
Forty one years to wear the ball and the stripes."
8. Forty one days, forty one nights,
Forty one years to wear the ball and the stripes;
I'll be here for the rest of my life,
And all I done was kill my wife.