Category: family music

Railroad Bill

I’m putting up some  collections of folk tunes I’ve been working on for a while – they’re going up as “pages” rather than posts – but I think this one deserves its own actual post, not only because hearing “Railroad Bill” being picked on the guitar is one of my earliest memories, but also because my great-grandmother, who spent most of her life in Lowndes County, AL, wrote about Railroad Bill in her memoirs.  She writes,

Railroad Bill was a young black man that could board a train without being seen until he stepped out of nowhere and robbed the baggage coach and sometimes the passengers of the train and then vanish completely. It was said that he was invisible. Posses would be close on his track and all at once they would lose him. Even the blood hounds could not track him down.

This was in the gay nineties when the young people were happy and singing “After the Ball,” “Two Little Girls in Blue,” and other popular songs of the day. Then someone would ride up and announce that Railroad Bill had just robbed the North or South bound train and had vanished with the loot. Everyone began trembling and wondering if he would come by and harm them. Railroad Bill had become notorious.

I was a small child about 8 or 10 years old and hung around Papa’s store and post office. Men would gather from miles around to meet the mail which was due at eleven o’clock from Claiborne by way of Perdue Hill and Monroeville, from Beuna Vista by way of Burnt Corn and from Evergreen by way of Belleville. The heaviest mail came from Evergreen as the only railroad came through there. It was interesting to hear the news from surrounding communities, and every week or so, the mail carrier would come with the news that Railroad Bill had thrown loot off the train. One time it was a box of meal that weighed a hundred pounds, other times it would be a barrel of sugar, a barrel of flour or other goods. At times someone would get a glimpse of Bill as he dropped from the moving train.

Life was brutally harsh for settlers and outlaws alike, and after many such mysterious crimes committed by Railroad Bill from Mobile to Montgomery, a reward was offered for him “dead or alive.”

A posse was gathered in a store to make plans for tracking Bill down. While they were in the front of the store talking over their plans one man who was late came in the back door with his pass key. There sat Railroad Bill on a barrel listening to the men making the plans for his capture. He failed to hear the man enter, and the man quickly drew his gun and shot Railroad Bill. The railroad company had him embalmed and put him on the train, on a day announced and stopped at every station between Mobile and Montgomery and charged $.25 for each person to look at him. Two of my brothers went to see him.

Railroad Bill was so notorious at that time that a song was written about him, but all I can remember of the song, the closing sentence which said: “and that was the last of Railroad Bill.”


Crooked Still – Railroad Bill

Doc Watson and David Holt at Merlefest ’08 – Railroad Bill

some guy on youtube picking Railroad Bill, Freight Train, Make Me a Pallet

The Mudcat Cafe discussion on Railroad Bill (if you are into folk tales and folk music and you don’t know this site, go there NOW)


page links to Shule AgraSt James Hospital, the Trooper and the Maid, Omie Wise


When I was really little, at that age when a lot of girls are “daddy’s girls,” my father used to sit by my bed and play the guitar at bedtime. Some of my earliest memories are of him playing and singing Doc’s “Shady Grove,” “Dulcinea” from the Man of La Mancha, and “Froggy Went A-Courtin’.”

I was too young to know that his guitar playing was a bit of a sore spot with my mother. He had picked it up when they were in their early twenties, living in some hovel or trailer or shack or another in Andalusia, or Theodore, or Monterey. He had picked it up and taught himself to play, and any non-musician who’s ever been present to hear someone else teach themselves an instrument probably understands a little of my mother’s weariness with hours of scales and hearing a song for the twentieth time in one night. The upside of living on love is that you really can feed two for as cheaply as one, at least if part of your diet is coming from artichokes stolen from California fields and served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a few weeks. The downside is that living on love rarely provides much personal space in the living arrangements — there was nowhere for them to go to have their own spaces or any “personal time.”

I was not too young to know that my dad got his personal space anyway.

That was another sore spot with my mother. After about six months of playing the guitar like it was a newfound religion, he and a friend decided they would audition for the orchestra for a touring Man of La Mancha.  They got spots, and they took off on motorcycles, touring the country playing “Dulcinea” and “The Impossible Dream” on acoustic guitar.

But that isn’t what made my mother sore. What made her sore is that my father’s social circle when he came back consisted largely of artists and musicians, who moonlighted as professional drinkers. Or vice versa. He spent his days apprenticing to a master woodworker for a pittance and his nights playing guitar and drinking liquor. When the cramped space of their living arrangments got to him, he’s disappear for a night or two with his truck, his guitar, and a bottle. He usually came back with the truck and the guitar, often to find his clothes on the front porch waiting for him.

This is what my father sang, and believed:

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest …
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach … the unreachable star …

This is what my father, crying, sang to her as she, crying, threw his things into the bed of his truck and told him not to come back until he was sober:

Dulcinea… Dulcinea…
I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea,
And thy name is like a prayer
An angel whispers… Dulcinea… Dulcinea!

If I reach out to thee,
Do not tremble and shrink
From the touch of my hand on thy hair.
Let my fingers but see
Thou art warm and alive,
And no phantom to fade in the air.

You see, he never really knew how to talk, not in the way people do, and not in the way his new wife seemed to expect. She came from a family who showed love with oyster gumbo and Irish toasts and a thorough ass-warming with a switch that “hurts me more than it hurts you.” Volume meant you cared, and when things got bad, Grandma Mae would light candles for you at St. Michael’s church and say the rosary on your behalf. Dad came from a family who showed love by sending each and every son off to military school for the best possible education and making sure they each got a car when they were sixteen. When Dad learned to play the guitar, he learned how to talk. But he had married a woman who didn’t speak his language, who rolled her eyes with annoyance when he sang Man of La Mancha songs to her.

This is what my father sang to me for a bedtime story when I was four:

Cheeks as red as a blooming rose
And eyes are the prettiest brown
She’s the darling of my heart
Sweetest little girl in town

Shady Grove, my little love
Shady Grove I say
Shady Grove, my little love
I’m bound to go away

And that’s just what he did. I knew, at four even, that music was how Dad talked. I knew he said things plainest with other people’s lyrics and with his fingers making chords on the mother-of-pearl inlaid neck of the guitar. I knew, because he sang so, that he loved me. And I knew, because he sang so, that he was bound to go away.

And he always did.


Shady Grove by Doc Watson and David Holt

Man of La Mancha Overture (guitar only)


Mom had been an art history major before she “took a semester off” and followed my dad out to California and then back to Alabama to do a sort of bohemian thing, only with woodshavings. Dad had done a semester at Alabama, a semester’s worth of time in the county jail, and a semester’s worth of traveling orchestra, and decided he wanted to build fine furniture. So they settled down by Fowl River and had me. Sometimes they had to sell the kitchen table to feed us, but it was ok because dad could make another one. Sometimes mom sold a painting or some stained glass, and in between she worked odd jobs to make up all the little differences. Once, when I was about twelve, struggling with “Tea for Two” on the violin, I asked her what kind of music she liked. She said, “I don’t like music.”

We didn’t have a television in the living room, but we had a piano that we’d gotten as partial payment for a bed dad had made for a customer who was a musician, and we didn’t have to sell it until I was twelve. So I had piano lessons. On Friday nights, the coterie of musician alcoholics would gather in the living room, dad on the guitar and then the banjo, after he made himself one and learned how to play it, one friend on the trombone, another on the piano, a generous handful on acoustic guitar. Sometimes I sat in on Bill Bailey on the piano. Then I skulked around and picked up the near-empty beer bottles and finished them off before somebody remembered to tell me to go to bed.
Dad told me around that time that he would support me for the rest of my life if I learned how to play the violin. They never could find a good fiddle player. I took two months of lessons and the entire family was ready for me to quit after fifteen minutes of hearing me practice. Learning the violin requires personal space.

My brother was eventually born and got old enough to pick up an instrument, but he was hard to teach. He had ADHD, only we didn’t know to call it that — we called it “impossible,” “bratty,” “unmanageable,” “hyper,” “difficult.” He couldn’t sit still for phys ed, never mind a music lesson. When he was about five, I was excited to have someone who would soon be learning to read so we could write notes to each other and make treasure maps and put things in code and talk about books we’d read. But it didn’t work that way. He talked through fighting, hair pulling, nervous tics, fidgeting, rock throwing. I corralled him into playing Lizard Hospital with me once, and we were busy collecting lizards to put in little hospital beds made out of shoe boxes and tissues. I had a method of “taming” them by confining them in the mailbox for a while so they’d sit still and let us wear them on our heads and as earrings. When they got ungroggy and tried to run away, we would catch them by the tails. When they shed their tails, they became candidates for the Lizard Hospital.

I went inside to get some more tissue for a brown lizard’s hospital bed, and I came out to find the patient’s cure had killed. The trowel that we’d been using to bury the ones that didn’t make it, or at least the tails they left behind, had been turned into an instrument of massacre by my brother. My little patient had been stabbed into pieces at the hands of my sibling, who had once again communicated with his hands rather than his words. I stopped trying to make him play Lizard Hospital with me.

Shortly after the abortive attempt at violining, I decided I was way too cool for anything my parents had ever liked, and I betrayed Doc Watson, taking up the mohawked and eyelinered mantle of the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux, and Bauhaus.

It might as well have been war.


For a family that didn’t talk all that much, symbols and noises meant a lot, and you got savvy to them quick. The tone of voice in which dad answered a “Can I call [so-and-so] on the phone” could convey a range of meaning. It could mean:

– whatever, I’m not listening.
– I had a bad day. I’m not listening. Unless you’re bringing me a drink, shut up.
– I had a good day, and you can have whatever you want, and this is a good time to hit me up for money.
– Your mother is being a bitch, and your political choices in the next five minutes will shape the next five months of your life.
– Get the fuck out of here now if you know what’s good for you.
– Hey, you’re an alright kid, you know? Let’s play some music.

Dad was not alone. The way mom performed the choreography of the kitchen/dinner dance spoke volumes. The closing of a cabinet door, the choice of vegetables, the tone of voice as she called us to dinner, how much peel was left in the mashed potatoes, all of it held meaning. It could mean:

– I am divorcing that bastard tomorrow and I just have to figure out how I’m going to feed these kids.
– If I have to cook cabbage one more night in a row I’m going to scream.
– I can’t believe he drank the last bottle of wine.
– I wonder if that new table I set up will let me solder without pulling that weird spot in my shoulders when I lean over?
– I think I might stop smoking pot and go back to the Catholic church.
– I wish you’d stop asking me what’s for dinner and peel a damned carrot or something to help me around here.
– This is a good time to ask me for money, or for new crayons or a book.
– If I hear Bill Bailey one more time I am going to shove that music stand up his ass.
– I think they’re old enough to read “Treasure Island” to; we’ll start tonight.

About this time, Dad inserted a new verse into the familiar rendition of Shady Grove:

Every day when I get home
My wife I try to please her
But she won’t have anything at all
One day I’m going to leave her

Shady Grove, my little love
Shady Grove, my darlin’
Shady Grove, my little love
I’m bound to go to Harlem

His piano-playing buddy managed to work a funeral dirge into the bridge. Mom gritted her teeth.

As for my brother, he was getting suspended from school regularly and pulling his hair out of his head so much he had bald patches. As for me, I was invested in black nail polish and making potions out of the eyeballs of dead birds I found in the woods. I stopped playing music, and to the thump-thump-thump of my brother obsessively but lightly banging his head into the thin wall of his bedroom in the trailer, I lived by new lyrics, written by somebody else:

So eager to please
Peer pressure decrees
Make the same old mistakes
Again and again
Chickenshit conformist like your parents

It didn’t so much matter that my parents were anything but conformists.  It mattered more that we couldn’t play the piano to Dead Kennedys songs.


Nat King Cole — Tea for Two

Marian Montgomery — Bill Bailey

The Sex Pistols  — Anarchy in the UK

The Dead Kennedys — Chickenshit Conformist


The black nail polish, punk music, and hair spray might as well have been a slap in the face to my father, who couldn’t help but take the assaults on his eardrums personally. When he sang:

Went to see my Shady Grove
She was standing in the door
Shoes and stockings in her hand
And her little bare feet on the floor

… my booted heels would kick the door shut. Then he’d take the door off the hinges. We were still communicating through music, but now there were battle lines instead of parleys. We were still communicating in the presence of Messieurs Dickel and Cuervo, but now I was kicking it back with the worst of them. We were still communicating with languages that needed the media of hands and strings to become sound waves, but now his fingers were finding purchase on my face and inside the thin walls of the trailer, and I was breaking his guitars over tree stumps in the front yard in retaliation.

They finally locked me up for a year before one of us killed the other, and we didn’t speak more than twelve words a month to each other for years afterward. In the meantime, my brother got diagnosed with ADHD, started medication and study skills programs, and finished reading his first book. My sister was born. I got the hell out of dodge as soon as I could. I was really into the Bolshoi at the time, and they sang me up to college on Interstate 65:

Yes you get by

Money’s scarce, but family honor
Brings it home brings it home
And down the shop, the tongues they snicker
TV dinners, beer and liquor…oh yeah

Skeletons fall out of cupboards
Curtains drawn fall open to allow
The light shows up the dust
That plays around your face


Actually, this is not part Four.  This is an interlude.  Part Five should be about Peter and Paul, and Phil and Walon, and music in real bars, and the deathmetal scene in Birmingham — no, that should be part Six.  So Part Five will come later, and part 6 after that. And I skipped over Stevie Nicks and my father passing out in my lap in a puddle of piss, and the Dead with that guy who died of stomach cancer and had (previously) given me my first REM e.p. and told me Bauhaus had nothing on Iron Butterfly, and the music the congregation makes when it says a rosary for the dead in between the slightly off-key intonations of the young Irish priest who has so many more expectations on his shoulder than he can handle.  I skipped lots of teenage high school stuff.  All that is before this.  So maybe that will be part five.  Or something.  Or maybe I’ll get somewhere if I just type and quit thinking about it too much.

Interlude?  I dunno.  I’m just going to type.

In Montevallo, I was far enough away to stop using Aqua Net and the Dead Kennedys as a weapon, for a minute, sometimes.  I would never have admitted it to my family, but when I got away as a teenager sometimes and hung out with my friends, they sometimes played the Animals, or Patsy Cline, and by the time I was seventeen I knew lots of Patsy Cline songs.  DougE (pronounce with two syllables, not one) would sit and sing with Peter and Paul while they played acoustic guitar and beat a rhythm out of a skillet or an old lamp with some thrift store cymbals perched on top in lieu of a lampshade.  DougE would hit all the high notes and the veins would pop out of his neck singing “House of the Rising Sun,” and then they’d shift into a Bauhaus song or some Sinead O’Connor, or into their own work — that was about the decrepit “historic district” downtown, where we used to loiter and eat cake and drink brandy and engage in minor burglary of formerly prized mantelpieces and copper wire; or about the seasons; or about kitchen appliances; or about a ride someone had taken in a car.  Actually, those guys need their own little series.

Of course, on the weekends, it was all punk rock shows and mosh pits and bloody noses, and I can’t count the number of friends who lost teeth during those days.  But that sort of cultural currency is a different story that i need to write one day.  But I’ve backtracked again.  This is where the thread I thought I could see when I started writing this gets messed up.  This is the tangle.  I could write an ending tonight, and maybe I should.  Maybe that would help me write the middle, untangle the tangle, make some sense out of something I evidently never tried to make sense of before.

But I set out to say this, at least, and as the hours click by and my ambition and clarity wane, i’ll have to settle for this…

At Montevallo, pushed along the interstate by Bolshoi lyrics, this was blue Docs and mohawk-recovering (my father had sent mine to the dustbin with a pair of scissors waved in my face for good measure first) & Chelsea time.  I spent some time screwing a boy with a safety pin through his lip, a boy whose mohawk grooming habits left smudges of hair wax on my sheets that would never wash out completely.  We listened to a lot of music on cassette:

I guess I make too much shit
Someday we’ll look back and laugh

Mr. Present, go away
Come back and fuck with us some other day
Mr. Feelings, run and hide
You have no right to what you feel inside
Motherfuckers, quick to kiss
Talk your shit, but don’t fuck with this
All I want to know…
All I want to know is
Am I holding on? Am I moving on?
What can we do, what can we do?

I had listened to Minor Threat in my time-out year in residential treatment, while we were supposed to be having P.E. in the gym.  Because I was a suicide, I was considered safe to house with the anorexic, and she didn’t get searched for a while coming in from pass.  I was high on pain pills my anorexic roommate brought me most of the time.  I would plead cramps and lie on an exercise mat and slide a Minor Threat tape into the oft-fought-over tape deck while the non-medicated, non-uterus-having suckers had to play games of basketball.  I laid on the mat fucked out of my mind on the combination of whatever the shrink had prescribed me and my roommate’s illicit medicine cabinet raids, and I let Ian MacKaye’s voice wash over me and stain the three surrounding miles with the bitter, metallic leftovers of my own disgust, somewhat, I imagined, in the shape of my own sweating body, leaking my dulled rage over three counties in a pattern visible only, maybe, from the air.  In this humid city that made its own gravy, I made my own sweaty mark, in my drugged imagination.  I was helping to poison the suburban wellwater of these bastards who thought it was a good idea for a sixteen year old girl to have her birthday in a mental institution, forbidden to have candles or even shoes, because she let a little too much ire leak around the edges.  There was nowhere else to go but where I went, then.  And I imagined these bass lines carrying little pieces of toxic me down into the water supply where I evaporated, and hoped they all choked on particles of me, later, as their toddlers screeched at the birthday party clown and played innocently in the sprinklers.  Poisoned, poisoned, poisoned… I had plenty to share, and their toddlers would hear Ian MacKaye in their nightmares, I hoped.

To have escaped, to have found the way to play that game and get released, to have accomplished the miracle of getting into college with a 1.75 GPA and a criminal record — it was a giddy time.  Listening to Minor Threat with a mohawked boy who sported a safety pin through his lip, in a room I had the key to, in a room I could lock, in a room with a tape deck I owned, felt like a coup.  I played it loud, and when I was alone, even when I was alone, I didn’t miss Doc Watson.

In Birmingham, later, I found deathmetal and bloodcults.  The musicians I knew were doing lines of coke off the slick, deep burgundy finish of their electric guitars.  Or the back of toilet seats, whatever.  I sang nothing, played nothing, went from pit to audience with hardly a mutter.  I was developing fluency in playing with people’s heads, with their dreams, with the soft spots where their limbs met their torsos, with the moments when their breath would come out and say something unguarded. Adn I think this should get snipped to go into the next part.


Siouxsie and the Banshees — Cities in Dust

Bauhaus — Hollow Hills

Patsy Cline — Walkin’ After Midnight

The Animals — House of the Rising Sun

Sinead O’Connor — Troy

The Bolshoi — Away

The Bolshoi —  Sunday Morning

Minor Threat — Look Back and Laugh

When I was a wee thing, a bucktoothed, brown-haired short girl who lived in books and sketched guidelines for utopian societies with byzantine rules of conduct on scraps of paper and hoarded them away because I sensed, even at that age, that there might be something odd about my interests, I was very very shy. I grew up with family that got drunk and cussed and threw food and raised their voices to get a word in edgewise; among cousins who played Survival and formed strategic teams for which you never, ever wanted to be picked last lest you find yourself tied up and left too close to an antbed after your team got its ass kicked in bottlerocket wars; with an artist mother who hated poetry and music and a musical father who would play the guitar and sing you to sleep in between disappearing for three days at a time on a bender. I wasn’t sure what to do with my voice at first. People usually didn’t act like I expected them to, didn’t respond like I thought they would, and were a little bit… volatile… and I had a keen sense of tragedy and injustice and embarrassment, like most 9 year olds, and did what I could to avoid getting called out on anything at all.
It’s a blessing that books were always valued, or I probably wouldn’t have survived childhood. Even Granddaddy, who would come home drunk for the Foreign Legion at 1 a.m. and put the basenji, Mohammed, on the mantlepiece, wake my grandmother to have her clean and cook turnip greens that a friend had given him in a paper bag, rouse the kids to feed them pork skins or some other Southern dainty that he had acquired on his nightly beer-soaked pickup truck journeys – even granddaddy read. You would tiptoe in on Sunday afternoon and find him on the sofa, asleep, with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a copy of National Geographic or Kahlil Gibran or Edgar Cayce on his plaid-shirt-covered belly.

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