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The SECOND album

The Devil's Gold

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The Ghosts of johnson city

 

The Ghosts of Johnson City present original storytelling music drawing upon history and the human condition. 

Based in Portland, ME with roots in Appalachia and the Deep South, the group seeks to take listeners on a journey through the annals of the past, giving voice to those who can no longer speak. Their debut album, Am I Born to Die?—a collection of interpretations of traditional American music—was released in 2015, receiving critical acclaim from press far and wide.

The Devil's Gold, the second album from The Ghosts of Johnson City finds the group exploring new territory while adhering to their trademark themes of love, loss, meaning and mortality. Consisting entirely of original material, the album takes listeners back in time to places they may never have known existed. Written in the tradition of many of the songs found on Am I Born to Die?The Devil's Gold is a continuation of the group's mission, taking it in an entirely new direction.  

The Ghosts of Johnson City:

Amos Libby / Lead Vocals, Guitar, Banjo

Douglas Porter / Banjo, Guitar, Vocals

Erik Neilson / Baritone Ukulele, Vocals

Erik Winter / Pump Organ

Ian Riley / Upright Bass

Sarah Mueller / Violin

Bethany Winter / Vocals

 

 

Media Praise for

"Am I Born to Die?"

 

"This is a record to savor when the thunderclouds come and pelt the panes with cold rain, when you sit and worry whether the river will rise and rush in under the cabin door." The Bollard

 

"The body count is high, and narratives of suffering and struggle are central to this hefty folk concept album, wherein we slip between life and the afterlife as if lost in an Appalachian horror film helmed by David Lynch." Dispatch Magazine

 

"From the opening of the record, one can imagine a company of 19th century soldiers embracing a campfire before they turn in, unsure if it will be their last. A dark, consistent hymnal aspect weaves in and throughout the record. The authentic sound hints that it very well could have derived from any of the past three centuries." — The Portland Phoenix

 

"While the songs are traditional favorites, the interpretations are fresh. I’m especially fond of the continuous slow burn of the harmonium in the background – it adds a layer of melancholy, haunted flavor, and to my ear, a hint of the sea." Now This Sound is Brave

 

"…the music on the new album ‘Am I Born to Die?’ is on the haunting and dark spectrum of folk…each song reinforces the feeling of Appalachian dread…” — The Modern Folk Music of America

 

"It’s that depth — that dark, sorrowful magic from the old, weird America — that is often sorely missing from much new, contemporary folk music being produced these days. And it’s that darkness that is such a welcome, yet unsettling, presence on “Am I Born To Die?” the debut album from The Ghosts of Johnson City."The Bangor Daily News

 

"...one part history lesson, one part spiritual sojourn into days long past and one part fantastic." — Maine Today

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The Devil's Gold

LYRICS

The Devil's Gold, the second album from The Ghosts of Johnson City finds the group exploring new territory while adhering to their trademark themes of love, loss, meaning and mortality. Consisting entirely of original story songs, the album takes listeners back in time to places they may never have known existed.

 

Written in the tradition of many of the songs found on the group's debut album, Am I Born to Die?The Devil's Gold is a continuation of the group's mission to give voice to those who can no longer speak. We invite you to read through the following stories and lyrics while listening to the album as a means to accompany you on your journey through the annals of American music and history.

All music and lyrics written by Amos Libby. 


Jordan’s Golden Shore

 

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 is cited as one of the most devastating disease outbreaks in recorded history. Between 20 and 40 million people worldwide perished in one year in the wake of the dreaded sickness. This song imagines the grief of a father and husband left behind by his wife and son who fell to the influenza’s fever. As his story draws to a close, he faces his own battle with the flu that promises to take him to his end upon the golden shores of the river Jordan.

 

There was a girl that I loved best, and not so long ago

She flew from my arms and now she sleeps below

The fever came and every battle won

Now she lies in the ground

With our only son

 

My love was black of hair and eyes, as was our precious child

They wander lost in death’s darkened exile

I would sacrifice my life with solemn joy

For one last fleeting glimpse

Of my wife and boy

 

The dreaded influenza came in March 1918

A silent terror the world had never seen

The earth was overwhelmed with all who sought to rest

The faithful grew ill and fell, their sins left unconfessed

Their sins left unconfessed

 

If I could take their place I surely would alas they’re gone

But those who I love so dear I’ll go to see anon

The sickness has come to take me on my journey blessed

To Jordan’s golden shore and with my family rest

And with my family rest

 

The Devil’s Gold

 

The Gold Rush of 1849 brought countless prospectors to the hills and rivers of California in search of their fortunes. What they found was all too often the darkest deeds and basest of instincts of their fellow men and women and their own early graves far away from home and family. This song is based on the letters of doomed gold miners written home to their loved ones as they faced their own mortality, never to return home.

 

My darling I avail myself of time that seems so short

To write you dear and tell you of my sad and bleak report

Oh my chest is wracked with coughing and the blood it stains my lips

Where the sweetness of your kiss should lie a fevered demon grips

My love I have no gold to send since I have been cut down

Too early in my quest I fell and so I write you now

 

Please do not forget me, when the wind blows from the West

Just say that I am sleeping in the Lord’s bright heaven blessed

Think not of that dark sickness that left me gray and cold

On a California mountain searching for the Devil’s gold

 

They say that war compels the darkest deeds that one can name

But he who holds this to be true has never worked a claim

Greed and death go hand in hand locked in a vicious dance

The rivers red with blood of those who came to take their chance

To stake a claim and pan the gold with eyes and tempers wild

Their families forgotten, and all their vows defiled

 

My love my strength it fails me now with so much left to say

My eyelids are so heavy and I fear I cannot stay

The wagon seems to darken as the pen slips from my hand

I remember you so sweetly now, barefoot in the sand

I came to California bringing all my hopes so dear

And as I die I curse the greed and gold that brought me here

 

To Rest in California Soil (A Response to “The Devil’s Gold”)

 

This song is inspired by letters written to Gold Rush prospectors from their loved ones back home, and is imagined from the perspective of a miner’s wife who writes and sends her message West despite knowing her husband has already died in his quest for gold so far away.

 

Your letter I received today and read your last goodbye

My darling now I’m left alone to sadly wonder why

My true love like the gold you sought you lie beneath the ground

On a California mountain certain never to be found

 

The parchment seems to weep, the ink itself cries out

The letters on the page lament a heart that’s most devout

My love you’re gone for you’ve been called to slumber far to soon

To rest in California soil, your soul from body hewn

 

I pray I’d had the courage when you said that you would go,

To beg you not to leave as we stood shivering in the snow

“My love” you said, “The wheat has failed, and father’s grown too old,

To sew another crop come Spring, so I’ll go in search of gold”

 

You headed West but for the clouds I could not see the sun,

Your little boy with tears behind the wagon he did run

To join the 49ers in a frantic desperate quest

To scratch into the earth you left the ones who loved you best

 

I forgive you love I know you must have fought death it when it came,

And in my dreams you left the earth while uttering my name

And thinking of your dearest son who bears your very eyes

Which shine just as the gold that led you West to your demise

 

A Drowning at the Stillwater

 

On April 11th, 1911, Nora “Mabel” Henderson Cole drowned in the Stillwater River in Old Town, Maine, leaving behind her husband and young daughters Flo and Frances. Mabel was the great-grandmother of Erik Winter, pump organ and harmonium player for The Ghosts of Johnson City. This song tells the story of that sad day and the family mystery surrounding Mrs. Cole’s death. The portrait that graces the inside cover of this album is that of Mrs. Cole, and we hope that she rests in eternal peace wherever she may be.

 

In the dying throes of winter on an April Saturday

Ice lay thinly on the Stillwater when it took my love away

Listen closely now I beg of you, before my bitter tears

Drown my words in sorrow’s flood although it’s been so many years.

 

My Mabel was beloved, she was virtuous and kind,

And where she went our precious Flo was never far behind,

So pure our little daughter, too young to bear the pain

Of her mother’s early sleep, never to wake up again.

 

It was morning when dear Mabel who of late had taken ill,

In fever’s raging madness donned her cape of careworn twill

Her boots left by the doorway, led by some dark advice

She walked down to the Stillwater, her bare feet on the ice.

 

I am coming, Lord she said, the ice it heaved and wailed

A song of death and drowning as its strength so quickly failed.

My Mabel stood upon it, her gaze fixed on the sky

I am haunted now to wonder if she knew that she would die.

 

She slipped under the ice that day, in silence and with grace,

Death beckoned and she answered, a smile upon her face.

She traveled down the Stillwater, a dead branch in the flow,

Her body fetching on the screen of the penstock down below.

 

Each year in April’s promise when the Spring seems nearly here,

I stand along the Stillwater while choking back my tears.

The river took my love in its icy thirst for blood,

My little Mabel drowned in the black and churning flood.

 

Some say she took her life, and others cruelly whisper,

“The one who killed dear Mabel was the one who often kissed her.”

My darling wife she went to sleep, where the Stillwater heaves and flows,

And how she died on that dreadful day the river only knows.

 

Evelyn McHale

 

On May 1st, 1947, a young woman named Evelyn McHale, 23, jumped to her death from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State building in New York City. A famous photograph was taken of her lying seemingly peacefully asleep after she came to rest on the roof of a limousine wearing a pink dress, white gloves and a string of pearls. This image, which has come to be known as “The Most Beautiful Suicide”, has captured the dark corners of the American imagination for over half a century. This song draws inspiration from the young Ms. McHale’s cryptic suicide note to tell the story of her fateful decision on that spring day.

 

Dear mother I’ve something to tell you, I pray that you’ll read these words

For when this letter you’ve you’ve opened, I’ll soar as some rare bird

I’m wearing the dress that you made me and the string of dazzling pearls

That father so sweetly gave me when all seemed a different world.

 

Dear mother when you look to the heavens, do you ever think as I do?

That those who you love in this cold world would thrive all the more without you?

I fear that which quietly slumbers within my troublesome mind

Will awake and with tendrils silent, in sorrow my dear ones bind

 

Please leave no trace of my body, nor stone or tomb left to stand

And sweetly make my excuses to he whom I gave my hand

Blame not yourself dear mother for my swift and deadly flight

You could never have known how you hurt me and drove me to plunge from the heights

 

Dear mother my wait is over, for 23 years I have known

I’d leave you all too early and make the journey home.

Remember me as pretty, with white gloves and daddy’s pearls

With a smile as if I am sleeping and gone to another world.

 

These Last Fond Words of Mine

 

Here our singer laments his beloved lost at sea. Not strong enough to search for her himself, he begs those who will listen to find her and deliver his final message to her.

 

Away, away, away me boys, upon the endless sea

My love she dreams beneath the waves, pray bring her back to me

I scarce can see her now I fear, how merciless is time

Her face a shade of memory which lingers in my mind

 

The moon shone brightly when last we embraced

Calm seas whispered a hope sadly displaced

For when the tide had run its course and pulled her from the shore

My love became a memory to come again no more

 

So raise your sails boys and fearlessly go

Where men such as I only dream

And seek some sign of my sign of my drowned true love

And tell me of what you have seen

 

And should the waves they beckon you, I pray you pay no mind

Look skyward toward the wind and sails, the Devil keep behind

For in the depths the dark one lurks and waits for those above

And in the crests we oft will see the dear lost ones we love

 

And should you see her, alone there in the brine

Softly whisper these last fond words of mine:

I soon will join you, to dream under the sea

Drifting hand in hand we’ll spend eternity

 

So raise your sails boys and fearlessly go

Where men such as I only dream

And seek some sign of my sign of my drowned true love

And tell me of what you have seen

 

The Northern Timber

 

The logging industry in Maine and New England has long been known to be among the most dangerous and demanding of vocations. This song is sung from the perspective of a lifetime timber cutter reflecting on his years in the North Woods and his foreboding sense that he will never leave the job alive.

 

I fear the northern timber more than anything I’ve seen

Our logging camp an island in an endless sea of green

The towering trees they laugh and slowly kill us one by one

We count the rings on giants slain and wonder what we’ve done

 

The pines that loom above me now and fill my heart with dread

Someday will frame my coffin and their boughs will be my bed

With my axe and flask of whiskey in these woods I’ll always be

Beneath the spring ferns lying with no one to think of me.

 

Up here in the north country woods we live from day to day

With logs we choke the rivers but a heavy price we pay

Our labor builds the cities that we’ll never live to see

Each night we drink and sing of home and dream of family

 

Somewhere downstream the mill towns thrive with no thought of our fate

The tavern lights burn brightly and the streets run wide and straight

Our timber frames the windows there, it’s beautiful they say

It’s only three days ride from here but feels a world away

 

My Father’s Gun

 

A song of a family destroyed by violence and retribution.

 

Stand up straight, stand up tall

Show no fear, should you fall

With steady hands, rise with the sun

Say your prayers, and get your gun

Check your shells, make sure they’re dry

And track the sun across the sky

When the hour comes round two

The sheriff’s men will come for you

 

Son I know you tried

But you just can’t make it right

Something in you died

When your father hanged that night

When they come for you I pray

That your aim is strong and true

Please remember when I say

That your dearest mother loves you

 

Mother dear, how can I go?

And leave you here in grief and woe?

I killed that man, I won’t deny

But we both know he had to die

For he did wrong, when he came to hang

My father as the night-birds sang

And so I’ll go, but I won’t run

I’ll meet the foe with my father’s gun

 

Dearest son, your skin’s so cold

So gray and pale, the hand I hold

They said you fought, your aim was true

You took three men to death with you

I know I’ll see your smiling face

In that bright and timeless place

Your father too, he will be there

We’ll be as one in heaven’s care

 

Please Don’t Come Tomorrow

 

No collection of music drawing inspiration from the folk history the early American frontier can be complete without a song of a lonely convict waiting to climb the stairs to the gallows. This is our contribution to that dark and classic theme.

 

A single length of rope my love, and nights of darkness deep

I lie awake and rue the promises that I can’t keep

The hammer blows ring out, they sing my death-knell song

As the hangman builds the gallows I regret a life gone wrong

 

Please don’t come tomorrow love, and know my heart’s with you

They mean to hang me at first light, there’s nothing I can do

Sweet wife you know I’m guilty, this journey’s mine alone

Please leave a single rose for me, and at my head a stone

 

The hammering has stopped and now my mind it drifts away

Remembering the dark events that happened on that day

When from the fields I started home and there along the path

I saw you both together and was consumed with jealous wrath.

 

I know you loved me once my dear, but on that late Spring day

The Devil rose within you and took your soul away

I remember as I drew my knife and looked him in the eye

My mind was black and empty and I knew that he must die.

 

I leave you on this earth dear wife, remember me and weep

From time to time I’ll visit while you lie in silent sleep

You’ll see my face while dreaming, I promise that you will

I hang for your betrayal but in death I love you still.

 

Disaster at the Stag Canyon Mine

 

In October of 1913, the Stag Canyon Mine in Dawson, New Mexico exploded and took the lives of over 250 miners. Disasters like this were horrifically commonplace in the early days of the American mining industry, and this song is our tribute to the men lost on that terrible day down in those dark tunnels.

 

White crosses in the chaparral, their paint peeled by the sun

Miner’s bones and memories asleep beneath each one

The mourners long have vanished from this place of loss and woe

Save those of us God spared that day and pulled from down below

Stag Canyon mine New Mexico became the early grave

For 268 poor souls whom none on Earth could save

On October 22nd in the year 1913

The Devil came to Dawson cloaked in fire yet unseen

 

The miners who sleep in the dusty earth below

Their yellowed bones rise from their graves when the desert winds do blow

They sing of Old Stag canyon and the great disaster there

A melody of smoke and flame as they cough and gasp for air

 

Down by the Dawson Railway, we went with pick and axe,

To feed our poor sweet children we slipped beneath the cracks.

The mine to us she beckoned, “Climb down,” she said, “I’m here.”

“Take from me all the coal you can, of death you need not fear.”

We clambered down the darkened shafts with haste and hidden fright,

A foolish man among us bore a sack of dynamite.

And in his bid to ease our work by blasting through the coal,

We were doomed to eternity down in that endless hole

 

The say the fire reached 100 feet into the skies

In the darkness of our blackened tomb I opened up my eyes

The void was filled with screaming men and sounds that death does make

When walking silent through the mines, free every soul to take

The hours passed like days as the air slipped fast away

I did not know the hour, nor could tell night from day

When voices from the darkness rose, mixed with the funeral bells,

A hand whose name I’ll never know lifted me from certain hell

 

From the mines we rose like ghosts, we numbered just 23

268 brave men will spend eternity

With backs bent down and lanterns lit, with trolleys filled with coal,

A crew of ghosts in toil and dread down in that darkened hole

On days like this I stand among the crosses and ask why

So many of our hard working boys had on that day to die

Stag Canyon mine was hungry, and her lesson we should heed:

The earth will take what’s hers in blood for the crime of mankind’s greed

 

The Murder of the Pioneer Preacher of Deadwood

 

The Reverend Henry Weston Smith, also known as the “Pioneer Preacher” was the beloved shepherd of a rough and tumble flock of believers in the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota in the 1870s. The members of his outlaw congregation included the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and a host of other Old West legends. Preacher Smith was killed by a single gunshot wound to the heart on August 20th, 1876 on the road between Deadwood and Crook City, North Dakota after tacking a simple note on his cabin door that read: “Gone to Crook City to preach, and if God is willing, will be back at three o’clock.” His congregation had warned him of the dangers on the road but the Reverend refused to carry a gun saying: “The Bible is my protection. It has never failed me yet.” Sadly the holy book could not protect him on that summer day, and this song tells the sad story of the Pioneer Preacher’s demise as he walked alone on the road from Deadwood.

 

On the road from Deadwood in the Black Hills lies a stone

Where the Reverend Henry Weston Smith was shot and died alone

He walked along the path in peace, unarmed and deep in prayer

When from the woods a shot cut through the heavy summer air

 

The pioneer preacher he died all alone, that day in the sun

The light it slowly faded as his Bible was stained with blood

No more to preach his sermons to the wicked and hell-bound

“My Lord I give my soul to you” he whispered as he fell to the ground

 

Before he came to Deadwood the Reverend worked the mines

He toiled by day in darkness and slept beneath the pines

He came to town by train and preached his sermons in the square

His Gospel left us humbled and the sinners all in prayer

 

When the word had reached us where Reverend’s body lay

Joseph Armstrong left the town, his wagon filled with hay

And silently he bore the sad remains with tearful eyes

Slowly back to Deadwood where we said our last goodbyes

 

I’ll Never Die Alone

 

This song is sung from the perspective of a Civil War soldier years after the guns have fallen silent and explores the lasting emotional wounds of armed conflict in the hearts and minds of those who come home alive. Lost in whiskey and memory, our singer remembers lost love and fallen family while remaining defiant in the face of his own mortality.

 

Another whiskey ‘cross the bar, another nightmare drowned

The shooting stopped long years ago, but not the awful sound

Of brother fighting brother, of cold rain mixed with blood,

Of North and South hip-deep in hate and Mississippi mud

 

My son fought bravely too, he was stronger far than I

His letters reached me on the front, his words they made me cry

He fell in mortal combat, with a foe that chose no side

The fever swiftly took him and in two short days he died

 

I drink to those I’ve killed, I drink and fly away

This whiskey bottle’s filled, I’ve nothing left to say

Alone I sink into the past and think of friends long dead

I cling to life but wish to die, this whiskey cuts the thread

Although I’m doomed to hell after drawing my last breath

I smile and drink this whiskey and slowly wait for death

 

And when the war was over, I took to me a wife

She cursed me for my drinking and my rough and rambling life

My wounds she’d dress when oft I came to bed with knuckles raw

One morning when I woke I found she’d fled to Arkansas

 

I’ll never put this whiskey down, I’ll never be a man

Who walks a straight and narrow path for that’s not who I am

The war it broke my spirit, but the life I live’s my own

As long as I have whiskey Lord I’ll never die alone

 

Blood and Lead

 

The singer of this song reflects on surviving a terrible massacre along an early pioneer trail and laments the many consequences of westward expansion.

 

Come sit with me my friend, I pray, and I will tell you of that day

A nightmare now that seems unreal of splintered wood and melted steel

All was silent save the sound of wagon wheels upon the ground

The wind it breathed its gentle wail through the tall grass along the trail

 

The sun was high it burned my eyes and bled a streak across the sky

A rifle crack and then a scream, I felt myself within a dream

Arrows flew, rifles crashed and knives were drawn as two worlds clashed

The air grew thick with blood and lead, I lay concealed among the dead

 

When at last the plains grew still, I rose to look beyond the hills

The horses gone, each rifle spent, I wept a silent soft lament

I left the dead there on the ground and walked along the trail westbound

The endless plain, each blade of grass, stood silent as this came to pass.

 

And in two days I wandered near, a squalid camp of pioneers

They ate from pots of rancid gruel and trailed single a swayback mule

Five months they'd been upon the trail and all were sickly, weak and frail

I joined them there and on that day they saved my life in their quiet way

 

And now I’m old and I’ve begun to think on all that we have done

Steel rails and monsters belching smoke, and on our own greed now we choke

This land will never be the same and those who here before us came

In their lost graves they don’t forgive we’re dying now while still we live

 

There sure must be a reckoning for all we’ve done and the death we bring

There’s not a one among us here who walks alone and without fear

The mountains and the trees they know that our stay here is short we’ll go

And face our final judgment there and bring with us the sins we bear.

 

Let Me Rest With You

 

For Ariana.

 

The ground my love is cold, I pray you feel me here

Together we grew old and with each passing year

My eyes became your eyes, your breath became my breath

And now I’ve kept love’s promise dear to love you unto death

 

So lay me down and close my eyes

Tell God I’m coming too

Make a place there by your side

And let me rest with you

 

It seems unjust my love, that I should still be here

For I know that you much more than I deserved this life my dear

I’ll wander through the days alone and wait to join you there

One moment here without you love is more than I can bear

 

If I lie silently and pray will I come where you are?

If I close my eyes and dream will I join you in the stars?

There is no home for me save for where you rest your head

I’ll join you now in life anew but numbered with the dead

 

Fare Thee Well

 

The ‘murder ballad’ was an immensely popular genre in early American traditional music that was brought to the New World from Ireland, England and Scotland. Over time, many of these macabre songs were adapted to fit time and place and many new dark tales rose from the hills and hollows of Appalachia and other parts of early America. This modern murder ballad is our tribute to the genre and, we hope, a fitting farewell to our listeners.

 

Come closely to me dear, my true love, my own

My time has come I fear to leave you alone

I can not erase the trail of blood I leave

On this foul earthy plain as you’re left to grieve

 

Fare thee well, fare thee well, fare thee well

 

When I reached the age of twenty-one I confess

I was married in the height of Spring’s happiness

My sweet wife was pure and true and crowned with golden hair

At my death I’ll tell you how I killed that maiden fair

 

Fare thee well, fare thee well, fare thee well

 

I remember clear the look upon her face

As I slowly brought her to final resting place

Poor sweet girl I said I love another so I must

Leave you here alone to sleep forever in the dust

 

Fare thee well, fare thee well, fare thee well

 

With my cruel bare hands I murdered my poor bride

When I saw what I had done I fell down and cried

On that night I buried her by the river wild

And laid upon her grave and wept, a lost and sinful child.

 

Fare thee well, fare thee well, fare thee well

 

Now I go sure down below my death is drawing near

My dying words my one true love your must break to hear

’Twas for your sake that on that day I killed new made bride

To live with you in happiness and seek a Godly life

 

Fare thee well, fare thee well, fare thee well

 

Am i born to die?

This dark reflection on the impermanence of life is attributed to prolific English poet Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and appears in Wesley’s 1763 hymnary “Hymns for Children”. The tune made its way to the New World both as a folk and liturgical hymn. The Ghosts of Johnson City have recorded this piece with the lyrics in full.

While they may exist in private collections, we are not aware of any other modern public recordings of this hymn expressing the complete original.

 

And am I born to die?

To lay this body down?

And must my trembling spirit fly

Into a world unknown?

 

A land of deepest shade,

Unpierced by human thought,

The dreary regions of the dead,

Where all things are forgot

 

Soon as from earth I go,

What will become of me?

Eternal happiness or woe

Must then my portion be

 

Waked by the trumpet’s sound,

I from my grave shall rise,

And see the Judge, with glory crowned,

And see the flaming skies!

 

How shall I leave my tomb?

With triumph or regret?

A fearful or a joyful doom,

A curse or blessing met?

 

Will angel bands convey

Their brother to the bar?

Or devils drag my soul away,

To meet its sentence there?

 

Who can resolve the doubt

That tears my anxious breast?

Shall I be with the damned cast out,

Or numbered with the blest?

 

I must from God be driven,

Or with my Savior dwell;

By His command in Heaven,

Or else—depart to Hell

 

And am I born to die?

To lay this body down?

And must my trembling spirit fly

Into a world unknown?


Am I Born to Die?

Lyrics

The Ghosts of Johnson City's debut album Am I Born to Die? is a collection of spirituals, murder ballads, Civil War songs and dark, historic Americana dating back several hundreds of years.

down in the willow garden

‘Down in the Willow Garden’ is a traditional American murder ballad popularized in Appalachia and thought to have originated in Ireland (where an early version appeared in  Coleraine in 1811 under the name ‘Rose Connelly’). One theory of the meaning of this song is that the singer is lamenting that he fell in love with Rose, a girl his family believed to be beneath them in status. When Rose became pregnant, the singer’s father encouraged him to kill her to avoid the public embarrassment the situation would cause, believing that he could eventually free his son with his money and influence.

The song concludes with the father watching his son mount the gallows for murdering Rose. The strange reference to “burglar’s wine” seems to refer to the killer plying Rose with drugged wine before stabbing her so that she could she could resist his attack.

 

Down in the willow garden where me and my love did meet

There we sat a-courting my love dropped off to sleep

I had a bottle of burglar’s wine my true love did not know

And there I poisoned that dear little girl down on the banks below

 

I drew my sabre through her which was a bloody knife

I threw her into the river which was an awful sight

My father often told me that money would set me free

If I would murder that dear little girl whose name was Rose Connelly

 

Now he sits at his old cabin door wiping his tear-dimmed eyes

Looking at his own dear son upon the scaffold high

My race is run beneath the sun the devil is waiting for me

For I did murder that dear little girl whose name was Rose Connelly


THe murdered brother

This is a very old murder ballad that has appeared in various forms in numerous Northern European traditions (Irish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish) before being found in early America. The melody of this song has been heavily adapted by The Ghosts of Johnson City, and the lyrics have been reworked very slightly in several places to reflect time and place. 

There are many versions of this song with dramatically different lyrical content but each shares the core narrative of a young man slowly divulging to his mother that he has killed his own brother in a petty dispute and that he plans to flee, never to return to his mother again.

 

How come that blood on your own coat sleeve

Little son, pray come tell me.

It is the blood of that skinny greyhound

That traced the fox for me,

That traced the fox for me.

 

Too pale, too pale for that skinny greyhound,

Too pale, little son, too pale.

It is the blood of that old gray mare

That plowed the corn for me.

That plowed the corn for me.

 

Too red, too red for that old gray mare,

Too red, little son, too red.

It is the blood of your youngest son,

And the truth I have told to you.

And the truth I have told to you.

 

Oh what, oh what, did you fight about?

Little son, pray come tell me.

'Twas over a dollar, a filthy dollar

That he should have paid to me.

That he should have paid to me.

 

Oh what will you do when your father comes home?

Little son, pray come tell me.

My foot I will place on the deck of a boat

And sail me across the sea.

And sail me across the sea.

 

Oh what will you do with your newly wed wife?

Little son, pray come tell me.

I'll save her the grief, and I'll save her the pain,

And take her for company.

And take her for company.

 

Oh what will you do with your sweet little boy?

Little son, pray come tell me.

I'll leave him alone for to wait and to wonder

What's come of his mother and me.

What's come of his mother and me.

 

When will you come back to your mother again?

Little son, pray come tell me.

When the moon and the sun and the stars set together.

And that will never be.

And that will never be.


Darling Corey

Melodically adapted by The Ghosts of Johnson City, the first collected text version of this Appalachian bootlegging song was made by Cecil Sharp in 1918 in ‘English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians’.

This song goes by many names and the lyrics vary greatly from version to version, but the ‘dig a hole in the meadow’ and the ‘revenue officers (or highwaymen)’ verses appear in each variation of the tune.

 

Wake up wake up darling Corey

What makes you sleep so sound

The revenue officers are coming

They're gonna tear your still house down

 

Well the first time I seen darling Corey

She was sitting on the banks of the sea

Had a forty-four buckled around her

And a banjo on her knee

 

Go away go away darling Corey

Quit hanging around my bed

Your liquor has ruined my body

Pretty women gone to my head

 

Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow

Dig a hole in the cold cold ground

Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow

Gonna lay darling Corey down

 

Can't you hear those bluebirds a singing

Don't you hear that mournful sound

They're preaching darling Corey's funeral

In some lonesome graveyard ground

 

Wake up wake up Darling Corey

And go get me my gun

I ain't no man for fighting

But I'll die before I run


Jack Monroe

This logging tragedy song is another tune that appears in many places with varying lyrics. The Ghosts of Johnson City have adapted the melody of this traditional song and modified some of the lyrics to fit time and place. In this song, the word ‘shanty’ (a term usually referring to the sea) in the lyric ‘shanty boy’, is also a term used to refer to lumbermen. This is a very well-known but rarely performed logging song that is believed to have originated in Northern New England (probably in Maine) though some sources say it's origin is Canadian. One of the most dangerous jobs for the shanty boys on a log drive was to break ‘jams’ in which thousands of logs would form a temporary dam in the river, costing the logging companies time and money by delaying or damaging their timber.

The logs would have been held in place by the explosive power of millions of gallons of water, and when the shanty boys removed (often unknowingly) the key logs causing the jam, the lumber and vast amounts of water would burst downstream, killing the workers clearing the jam instantly through blunt force trauma and drowning. ‘Young Monroe’ is the story of one such tragic incident, which many believe follows the details of an actual event.

 

Come all you brave young shanty boys, and list while I relate

Concerning a young shanty boy and his untimely fate;

Concerning a young river man, so manly, true and brave;

'Twas on a jam at Gerry's Rock he met his watery grave;

 

'Twas on a Sunday morning as you will quickly hear,

Our logs were piled up mountain high, we could not keep them clear.

Our foreman said, "Come on, brave boys, with hearts devoid of fear,

We'll break the jam on Gerry's Rock and to Millinocket steer."

 

Now, some of them were willing, while others they were not,

All for to work on Sunday they did not think they ought;

But six of our brave shanty boys had volunteered to go

And break the jam on Gerry's Rock with their foreman, young Monroe.

 

They had not rolled off many logs 'till they heard his clear voice say,

"I'd have you boys be on your guard, for the jam willing soon give way."

These words he'd scarcely spoken when the jam did break and go,

Taking with it six brave boys and their foreman, young Monroe.

 

Now when those other shanty boys this sad news came to hear,

In search of their dead comrades to the river they did steer;

Six of their mangled bodies a-floating down did go,

While crushed and bleeding near the banks lay the foreman, young Monroe.

 

They took him from his watery grave, brushed back his raven hair;

There was a fair form among them whose cries did rend the air;

There was a fair form among them, a girl from back in town.

Whose cries rose to the skies for her lover who'd gone down.

 

Fair Clara was a noble girl, the river-man's true friend;

She and her widowed mother lived at the river's bend;

And the wages of her own true love the boss to her did pay,

But the shanty boys for her made up a generous sum next day.

 

They buried him quite decently; 'twas on the first of May;

Come all you brave young shanty boys and for your comrade pray.

Engraved upon the hemlock tree that by the grave does grow

Is the dying date and the sad fate of the foreman, young Monroe.

 

Fair Clara did not long survive, her heart broke down with grief;

And less than three months afterwards Death came to her relief;

And when the time had come and she was called to go,

Her last request was granted, to be laid by young Monroe.

 

Come all you brave young shanty boys, I'd have you call and see

Two green graves by the river side where grows a hemlock tree;

The shanty boys cut off the wood where lay those lovers low,--

'Tis the handsome Clara Vernon and her true love, Jack Monroe.


the dying californian

The lyrics of this song are believed to be based on a letter which told of the death of a New Englander at sea while on a voyage to California as part of the Gold Rush of 1849. The letter was published in December 1854 in the temperance magazine ‘New England Diadem’. When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, California in 1848 many thousands of prospectors in United States were swept up in a rush to the California Gold fields. There were three main methods of passage: overland via the Oregon and California Trails, by sea to Panama where passengers had to cross the dangerous swampland of the isthmus to reach another vessel, and also a final route by ship around Cape Horn.

Many ’49’ers', as they came to be called, died from starvation, disease, accident, exhaustion or shipwreck. Countless others left everything behind to search for gold and never found even a handful of the precious dust.

 

Lay up nearer, brother, nearer,

For my limbs are growing cold,

And thy presence seemeth nearer

When thine arms around me fold.

 

I am dying, brother, dying,

Soon you'll miss me in your berth;

For my form will soon be lying,

‘Neath the ocean's briny surf.

 

Tell my father when you see him

In death I prayed for him

Prayed that I might only meet him

In a world that's free from sin.

 

Tell my mother, God assist her

Now that she is growing old,

That her child would glad have kissed her

When his lips grew pale and cold.

 

Listen, brother, catch each whisper

'Tis my wife I speak of now,

Tell, oh how much I missed her

When the fever burned my brow.

 

Tell her she must kiss my children

Like the kiss I last impressed,

Hold them as when last I held them

Held them closely to my breast.

 

’Twas for them I crossed the ocean,

What my hopes were I'll not tell;

But they gained an orphan's portion,

Yet He doeth all things well;

 

Tell them I have reached the haven

Where I sought the precious dust,

And I gained a port called Heaven

Where the gold will never rust.


Poor Wayfaring Stranger

 

The origins of this extremely popular traditional song vary; some say it can be found as far back as the 1780’s and some say as late as the 1800’s. Theories of its thematic origins vary as well, with some saying it may have come from an African-American spiritual, been based on an indigenous American song or perhaps even developed from a song brought by nomadic Portuguese settlers in the southern Appalachian mountains. We know that this song first gained fame in Appalachian revivalist sermons before making its way west and becoming popular with early American pioneers.

The singer, contemplating better times with his departed family in the afterlife, expresses a familiar sense of alienation and being aware that he is inhabiting this physical world only temporarily.

 

I am a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through this world alone

There is no sickness, toil or danger

In that fair land to which I go

 

I'm going home to see my mother

I'm going home no more to roam

I'm just going over Jordan

I’m just going over home

 

I know dark clouds will gather o’er me

I know my path is rough and steep

What golden fields lie out before me

Where weary eyes no more will weep

 

I'm going home to home see my father

I'm going home no more to roam

I'm just going over Jordan

I’m just going over home

 

I'll soon be free from every trial

This form shall rest beneath the sun

I'll drop that cross of self-denial

And enter in that home with God

 

I’m going home to see my brothers

I'm going home no more to roam

I'm just going over Jordan

I’m just going over home

 

I want to wear a crown of glory

When I reach the promised land

I want to shout salvation's story

In concert with the blood-washed band

I'm going home to see my Savior

I'm going home no more to roam

I'm just going over Jordan

I’m just going over home


unquiet grave

This traditional song recounts the story of a bereaved lover sitting and weeping at the grave of his beloved for a year and a day, after which time her ghost arises and advises him to mourn no longer and to seek happiness until he is called away to death himself. Detailed information on this deeply sad song can be found in Volume II of The Traditional Tunes Of The Child Ballads With Their Texts, according to the Extant Records of Great Britain and America, by Bertrand Harris Bronson, which was published by Princeton University Press in 1962.

This volume states that this song dates from the 1800’s but there is other evidence that this song existed in some form as far back as the 1400’s.

 

The wind doth blow today, my love

And a few small drops of rain

I never had but one true love

In cold grave she was lain

 

I'll do as much for my true love

As any young man ever may

I'll sit and mourn all at her grave

For a twelvemonth and a day

 

The twelvemonth and a day being up

The dead began to speak

Oh who sits weeping on my grave

And will not let me sleep

 

Tis I, my love, sits on your grave

And will not let you sleep

For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips

And that is all I seek

 

You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips

But my breath smells earthy strong

If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips

Your time will not be long

 

Tis down in yonder garden green

Love, where we used to walk

The finest flower that ere was seen

Is withered to a stalk

 

The stalk is withered dry, my love

So will our hearts decay

So make yourself content, my love

Till God calls you away


The Southern Girl's Reply

The melody of this traditional Civil War song is based on the Civil War tune ‘The Bonny Blue Flag’ and details the response of a girl from a southern Confederate family to a northern Union man’s marriage proposal. Apart from the surface-level narrative of the song’s wrenching lyrics, we also get a sense of the reality of life for a young woman in a hellish post-war Victorian atmosphere with its rigidly defined gender roles and, in the case of the south, a defeat-centered sense of collapsed nationalism.

 

The singer clearly differentiates herself from other ‘happy’ girls, and it could be argued that she puts nationalism over love; she also appears to forgive those responsible for her lover’s and her youngest brother’s deaths by stating she ‘holds no hatred in my heart’ and that ‘many a gallant soldier fell upon the other side’. We think this beautiful lament is sad and defiant, and speaks with a unique and powerful voice from the depths of conflict.

I cannot listen to your words, the land's too far and wide

Go seek some happy northern girl to be your loving bride.

My brothers they were soldiers. The youngest of the three

Was slain while fighting by the side of Gen'ral Fitzhugh Lee.

 

Hurrah! Hurrah! For the sunny south I say

Three cheers for the southern girl

And the boy that wore the gray.

 

My lover was a soldier, too, he fought at God's command,

A sabre pierced his gallant heart. You might have been the man.

He reeled and fell but was not dead, a horseman spurred his steed

And trampled on his dying brain. You might have done the deed.

 

They left his body on the field who the fight this day had won,

A horseman spurred him with his heel, you might have been the one.

I hold no hatred in my heart, nor cold nor righteous pride

For many a gallant soldier fell upon the other side.

 

But still I cannot take the hand that smote my country sore,

Or love the foe that trampled down the colors that she bore.

Between my heart and yours there rose a deep and crimson tide

My lover's and my brother's blood forbid me be your bride.


Faded coat of blue

This traditional Civil War song comes to us from the northern side of the conflict, and is dated by the Library of Congress as arising in 1865 in Caledonia, New York. The ‘faded coat of blue’ refers to the Union military uniform, and the lyrics recount the last wishes of a dying Union solider who hopes his mother and sister will somehow come to know what has become of him and will eventually find his grave.

The last verse seems to change perspective to that of the dying soldier’s mother, who, although ‘long long years have vanished’ still looks and hopes for him when she hears ‘each footfall at my door’.

 

My brave lad he sleeps in his faded coat of blue

In a lonely grave unknown lies a heart that beat so true

He sank faint and hungry among the famished brave

And they laid him sad and lonely within a nameless grave

 

No more the bugle calls the weary one

Rest, noble spirit, in thy grave unknown

I'll find you, and know you among the good and true

When a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue

 

He cried, give me water and just a little crumb

And my mother she will bless you through all the years to come

Oh, tell my sweet sister, so gentle, good, and true

That I'll meet her up in heaven in my faded coat of blue

 

He said, my dear comrades, you cannot take me home

But you'll mark my grave for mother, she'll find me if she comes

I fear she'll not know me, among the good, and true

When I meet her up in heaven in my faded coat of blue

 

No dear one was nigh him to close his sweet blue eyes

And no gentle one was by him to give him sweet replies

No stone marks the sod o'er my lad, so brave and true

In his lonely grave he sleeps in his faded coat of blue

 

Long, long years have vanished, and though he comes no more

Yet my heart will startling beat with each footfall at my door

I gaze o'er the hill where he waved a last adieu

But no gallant lad I see, in his faded coat of blue


rebel soldier

This traditional Confederate Civil War song from southern Appalachia is sung from the perspective of a defiant but seemingly sadly introspective southern soldier pining for his family and sweetheart, Polly.

The graphic nature of the violence of the time and the soldier’s surrender to his fate ‘If the Yankees don’t kill me I’ll live until I die’ paint a picture of a harsh conflict and a young man and his family who represent just a small fraction of those who suffered so grievously during those years of war.

 

 

Polly oh Polly, It's for your sake alone,

I've left my old father, My country and my home,

I've left my old mother, To weep and to mourn

 

I am a rebel soldier

And far from my home.

 

It's grape shot and musket, And the cannons lumber loud,

There's many a mangled body, The blanket for their shroud,

There's many a mangled body, Left on the fields alone

 

I am a rebel soldier

And far from my home.

 

I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I am dry,

If the Yankees don’t kill me, I'll live until I die,

If the Yankees don’t kill me, And cause me to mourn,

 

I am a rebel soldier

And far from my home.

 

Here's a good old cup of brandy, And a glass of nice wine,

You can drink to your true love, And I will drink to mine,

And you can drink to your true love, And I'll lament and mourn,

 

I am a rebel soldier

And far from my home.

 

I'll build me a castle, On some green mountain high,

Where I can see Polly, As she is passing by,

Where I can see Polly, And help her to mourn,

 

I am a rebel soldier

And far from my home.


rye whiskey

This very popular traditional American tune extolling the virtues and the evils of whiskey has been performed and recorded by countless artists over the years.

Originally called “Jack of Diamonds”, the recorded and performed versions of this song vary greatly in lyrical content, but the equally playful and solemn message of the tune clearly speaks for itself.

 

Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry

If I don't get rye whiskey I surely will die

 

Jack of diamonds, jack of diamonds, I know you of old

You've robbed my poor pocket of silver and gold

Whiskey, you villain, you've been my downfall

You've kicked me, you've cuffed me, but I love you for all

 

They say I drink whiskey, my money is my own

And them that don't like me can leave me alone

I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry

And when I get thirsty I'll lay down and cry

 

It's beefsteak when I'm hungry and whiskey when I'm dry

Greenbacks when I'm hard up and hell when I die

Baby, oh baby, I've told you before

You make me a pallet, I'll lay on the floor

 

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck

I would dive to the bottom and never come up

But the ocean ain't whiskey, and I ain't no duck

So I'll play jack of diamonds and trust to my luck

 

I’ll go up some holler, put corn in my still

I’ll make you one gallon for a ten dollar bill

Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I crave

I’ll drink this rye whiskey till I’m laid in my grave

 

They say whiskey will kill you if it’s nothin’ but rye

I’m an old man past ninety and still mighty spry

If I see the sheriff comin’ I’ll run o’er the hill

I don’t want nobody to chop up my still


knoxville girl

This disturbingly dark southern Appalachian murder ballad is believed to date back to Old World sources as early as the 1600’s. Recorded many times by various artists and appearing in numerous lexicons under different names, we hear in this song the tale of the unfortunate and untimely fate of a girl from Knoxville, Tennessee with “dark and roving eyes” at the hands of her violent young lover who believes she “can never be my bride.”

There has been much scholarship on the meaning of the dark narrative in this song; in this case, we’ll leave it to the listener to decide how these terrible events came to pass.

 

I met a girl in Knoxville

A town we all know well

And every Sunday evening

Out in her home I'd dwell

We went to take an evening walk

About a mile from town

I picked a stick up off the ground

And knocked that fair girl down

 

She fell down on her bended knees

For mercy she did cry

Oh, Willie dear, don't kill me here

I'm unprepared to die

She never spoke another word

I only beat her more

Until the ground around me

Within her blood did flow

 

I took her by her golden curls

And drug her 'round and 'round

Throwing her into the river

That flows through Knoxville town

Go there, go there, you Knoxville girl

With the dark and roving eyes

Go there, go there, you Knoxville girl

You can never be my bride

 

I started back to Knoxville

Got there about midnight

My mother she was worried

And woke up in a fright

Saying, "Dear son, what have you done

To bloody your clothes so?"

I told my anxious mother

I was bleeding at my nose

 

I called for me a candle

To light myself to bed

I called for me a handkerchief

To bind my aching head

I rolled and tumbled the whole night through

As troubles was for me

Like flames of hell around my bed

And in my eyes could see

 

They carried me down to Knoxville

And put me in a cell

My friends all tried to get me out

But none could go my bail

I'm here to waste my life away

Down in this dirty old jail

Because I murdered that Knoxville girl

The girl I loved so well


the triplett tragedy

With a melody created by The Ghosts of Johnson City, the lyrics of this song tell the real-life cautionary tale of a pair of terrible murders on Christmas day in 1909 in Elk, North Carolina. On Christmas morning of that year, Marshall Triplett was stabbed to death by his brother, Columbus Triplett (who also went by ‘Lum’) during an argument that is said to have begun over one brother accusing the other of not sharing his whiskey. Lum reportedly then attempted to surrender to Marshall's son, his nephew Granville (who went by ‘Gran’), a deputy. Gran ignored his uncle’s pleas for mercy and beat and kicked him severely and locked him in a cell in Boone, where he died as a result of the injuries he received in the beating.

Granville Triplett was tried and sentenced to 18 months on the chain gang but it is said that he served only 3 months of his sentence. The song ends with an admonition in which the listeners are urged to avoid ‘strong drink’ and to live a good life in which they ‘mind’ their ‘kind parents.’

 

A horrible sight I'll now relate,

On Yadkin Elk it did take place,

On Christmas morning at nine o'clock,

The people met an awful shock.

 

At Marshall Triplett's this begun.

The brothers met, it seemed in fun.

They drank together all as one,

And then the trouble it begun.

 

Then Marshall seemed to stand in the rear,

And struck Columbus with the chair,

"There is one thing that I do know,

You drink only to save your own."

 

They met in combat near the barn.

Mrs. Triplett went to stop this wrong.

Columbus stabbed Marshall in the thigh,

And left him on the ground to die.

 

Then Marshall's wife in great distress

Stayed by her husband while in death.

The children's screams was heard around,

Which did produce a solemn sound.

 

Then Lum went off at to go away

And met Gran Triplett on his way.

At Leroy Triplett's this was said,

Lum said to Gran, "Your father's dead."

 

Lum said to Gran, "I'll let you know,

I've killed your father at his home.

I'll now surrender up to thee.

You treat me kindly if you please."

 

Gran said to Lum, "One thing I'll do.

If you killed father I'll kill you."

He then beat Lum at a dreadful rate

And made bad bruises on his face.

 

Gran then took Lum to Wautauga jail.

He went behind the bars to stay.

Those beats and bruises they inflamed,

Which brought Columbus to his grave.

 

Those brothers sleep in the same graveyard,

Their wives and children troubled hard,

Their resting place there sure must be,

Till they shall rise at Judgement Day.

 

At Judgement Day we hope they'll rise

To meet their Savior in the skies.

To sing God's praises o'er and o'er,

And be with Christ forever more.

 

The sheriff then went on the round.

To see if Granville could be found.

There at his home he did abound,

And at that place he was then found.

 

Sheriff Webb held court up in our town

And sent him on to the chain gang.

For eighteen months he there must stay,

Except the governor hear him pray.

 

Young men, take warning by this case,

Don't use strong drink while in life's race.

Leave all such stuff then far behind,

And your kind parents you should mind.


last old shovel

This classic bluegrass song (originally composed by Jim Scott) doesn’t need much by way of explanation.

The Ghosts of Johnson City close Am I Born to Die? with a raucous, yet dark tune expressing the singer’s wish to join his beloved in her grave ‘on that mountain far away’, and recounting that he cried at her burial until ‘the last old shovel was laid down.’

 

They buried her on the side of the mountain

There my darling sleeps in the ground

I stayed by her side 'til they covered her over

And the last old shovel was laid down

 

Till the last old shovel was laid down, laid down

Till the last old shovel was laid down

I stayed by her side and I cried and I cried

When the last old shovel was laid down

 

I think of her when it's stormy and raining

In that mountain far away

I long to be laid by her side on that mountain

There'll be rest for me on that day

 

There'll be rest for me on that day, that day

There'll be rest for me on that day

I long to be laid by her side on that mountain

On that mountain far away

 

Oh bury me where my true love is sleeping

Where she lies in that lonesome ground

I'll find sweet rest by the side of my darling

When the last old shovel is laid down

 

When the last old shovel is laid down, laid down

When the last old shovel is laid down

I'll find sweet rest by the side of my darling

When the last old shovel is laid down

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