Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May, 2008)

The American conflict over slavery, before, during and after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) spawned lots of songs. Professional songwriters catered to white southerners, with Stephen Foster songs celebrating De Old Plantation (although Foster himself lived in New York), and to abolitionists, with songs such as R.B. Hanby's Darling Nelly Gray (1856). Songwriting continued through the war: Henry Clay Work wrote Kingdom Coming (a/k/a Year of Jubilo) in 1862 and Marching Through Georgia (which Bob discussed here in the February 2008 issue) in 1865. One of the tunes worked for both sides: the Southern marching song, Hang John Brown From A Sour Apple Tree was given new words as The Battle Hymn of the Republic (1862).

I don't know when Cruel Slavery Days was first composed, but there were several versions of it, any of which could have been written before the war. All of the early versions seem literary, although one account says that some ex-slaves were singing it in 1871. A 3/4 time version with the same title, but different words from the others, was published by Harrigan and Braham in 1876. The internet gives a third version, recited as a poem at a Lincoln Centennial celebration in 1912 (3 years after his actual centennial!). The version given here was written by Fields Ward (1911 - 1987) of Galax, Virginia. It uses some lines from the older literary versions, but it's mostly a much-improved recomposition, with a new tune. Such recomposition by non-professionals is how traditional songs reinvent themselves for new generations.

Bristol, Tennessee, gets publicity as the birthplace of country music, based on Ralph Peer's 1927 recording sessions that launched the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. But Galax was the source of many of the musicians that fueled that Golden Age, since Peer's talent scout, Ernest Stoneman, lived in Galax. Stoneman encouraged other local musicians to record. The Ward family was particularly good at producing an old-time mountain sound. The Wards recorded under a number of combinations, often including Crockett Ward (fiddle); his brother, Wade (banjo); Stoneman (guitar & harmonica); Eck Dunford (fiddle); and Crockett's son, Fields (guitar & vocal). Crockett Ward & His Boys recorded in 1927. In 1929, Fields led a Gennett recording session by The Grayson County Railsplitters, with some of the same personnel as the 1927 band. They cut 16 sides, including four composed by Fields, but there was some sort of contract dispute, and the records were never released. Fields must have been a tough negotiator, because Gennett gave him the masters, which were finally issued on an LP (Historical Records BC-2433-1) in the 1970s. The compositions claimed by Fields are this one, plus three other well-known stringband songs: Way Down in North Carolina, Ain't That Trouble in Mind, and Say, Darling, Say. These may also be recompositions; they're excellent songs, so it doesn't matter.

In the version given below, I substituted "field-hands" and "old folks" for the original "darkies." Otherwise, you have to give a 5-minute lecture on the history of racial terms in American music before singing it in public.


Complete Lyrics:
On the day old master died, all the field-hands stood and cried,
In those agonizing cruel slavery days,
For we knew we would be sold for the silver and the gold
In those agonizing cruel slavery days.

Well, they sold my brother, Sam, to a man from Alabam,
And my sister went to Georgia far away;
Then they broke my heart for life when they sold my loving wife
In those agonizing cruel slavery days.

In the old Virginia state where they made us separate,
In those agonizing cruel slavery days,
Well, it broke the old man's heart when they said we had to part,
In those agonizing cruel slavery days.

When I'm all alone at night and the fire is burning bright,
Then I think of happy days of long ago;
When the old folks all would sing and the banjo it would ring,
Ah, those days can never come to me no more.

When our work on earth is done, and we gather one by one,
In that land where all life's tears are wiped away;
There we'll meet to part no more on that beautiful golden shore,
Where there never will be cruel slavery days.

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