New Song, Old Song, Prison Song, True Song

I’m trying to work on a new song for the band, something to expand our sound somewhat; the song is, I’m thinking, going to be a kind of warped version of the story of Bodhi-Dharma, the famed and highly mythologized Indian monk who went abroad and reputedly spread Buddhism across Asia. So, of course, I have a nice musical sample of what I’m going for.

Lately I’ve been gravitating toward older and older styles, such as the road-country of Spiritwood as I intend it to be sung, and while I flirted for a while with a somewhat warped blues form, I think now the song form I’m going to go for is prison work song (at least for the long intro to the song). Anyway, in my thinking and pondering I have of course performed a little research. The one work song that has stuck in my head for years since I first heard it was from the play (later made into a movie) The Piano Lesson. In it, some of the characters sing this old work song (which is actually famous, and was first recorded on the Mississippi Parchman Prison Work Farm), a song called Berta, Berta. For years it’s haunted me, this old song. So I’ve been listening to it a fair bit these days, and trying to track down more work songs. I’ve even found a link to the lyrics.

The version I have a recording of is on the Branford Marsalis album I Heard You Twice The First Time, which is his blues-experiment album. Maybe because I can’t find the original recording, this is the best recording I’ve found so far of this song. Well, now you can listen too. Here’s an rip of the song in mp3 format… I won’t leave it here forever, but I’m in no rush to delete it. And, as an added bonus, here’s a much more raw (and in its way beautiful) rendition by Leroy Miller from the album Southern Journey – 61 Highway Mississippi.

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the Marsalis version on Can’t find the Miller, but it’s worth checking out if you can…

And here’s a very different version of it:

Now, to figure out how to get four guys to sing this stuff together, and how to use the form to really say (sing) something sensible and fitting about Bodhi-Dharma. Ideally, if we get around to recording it, I want to have the sounds of cicadas and even maybe (should we be so lucky), some sameul norae musicians mixed in there. (Sameul norae means “four play”, I’m told, and what it really consists of is a quartet of percussion instruments used in a lot of traditional Korean performance.) This will help make it fit but only if the song itself is fitting to begin with. So… now I have some work to do!

One thought on “New Song, Old Song, Prison Song, True Song

  1. oooohhhh!! thank you for the link to the berta berta mp3. this song has haunted me since the album (heard you twice) came out years ago. I’ve been itching to hear it but didn’t want to buy the whole cd again. nice!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *