December 1, 2023

The Origins of I Know You Rider 1930-1965


In the hot August days of 1933, John Lomax arrived at the sprawling camps of the notorious Mississippi prison Parchman Farm. He brought with him his 18-year-old son Alan and a new 315-pound battery-run acetate disc recorder in the trunk of his Ford. He was on a mission from the Library of Congress to record the folk songs of blacks in the south, and was touring the prison farms of several states, considering them an excellent place to find old songs that were “the least contaminated by white influence or by modern Negro jazz.”  

As Lomax put it, “Our purpose was to find the Negro who had had the least contact with jazz, the radio, and with the white man… In the prison farm camps, the conditions were practically ideal… The Negro prisoners were segregated…with no social or other contacts with the whites… They still sang the songs they had brought into confinement, and these songs had been entirely in the keeping of the black man,” without white influence. 

(You can also hear him explain his purpose in his own words in this 1933 interview – with some commentary on it here.)

Over the course of three days, the Lomaxes set to work recording a number of songs from the prisoners in Parchman. They weren’t looking for blues songs in particular; most of their attention was focused on the work songs, field hollers, badman ballads, and folk tunes sung by men with colorful nicknames like Bootmouth, Bowlegs, Double Head, Lifetime, Scrap Iron, Tappin’ Head, and Tight Eye. But on August 9, they ventured into the sewing room in the women’s camp and recorded a few of the religious songs sung by the group of women, and a couple of blues songs from individual singers. (None of the women were identified in their notes.)


One of the songs was called “Prison Rider Blues,” four verses long and ending with a familiar verse:

“Oh rider rider rider, rider where have you been so long?  x2
Yeah I ain't had no lovin' baby, rider since you been gone

I'm-a wake up in the mornin' baby 'n I ain't gon' say a word  x2
I'm-a eat my breakfast baby over in sweet ol' Hattiesburg 

Babe that big bell keeps a-ringin' and that little bell she sadly tone  x2
Yeah I'm-a lonely lonely lonely now, I'm a long way from home
 
I know you rider gon’ miss me when I’m gone  x2
You gon’ miss your little mama baby from rollin’ in your arms”
(Until recently this recording wasn't known to be related to "I Know You Rider," but it was identified by Eric Levy, Roger Phenix & Felicity Ford.)

Lomax later wrote that the singer was “an eighteen-year-old black girl in prison for murder.” The song seemed unique – was it an antique unrecorded folk blues kept alive in the prison walls? Or was the singer free-associating from familiar folk themes, making up her own lyrics? Or had she learned the song from someone else in prison who’d composed the song?

 None of these, as it turns out. She was simply singing the verses of a recent local hit record – “No Special Rider Blues,” by Little Brother Montgomery:


Montgomery’s lyrics (speculative in spots) -  
Now, rider, rider, rider, mama, where you been so long?
Now, rider, rider, brown, Lord, where you been so long?
I ain't had no lovin', mama, since you been gone
 
And I hate, hate to hear, hear the little Katy, when she blows
Lord, I hate to hear the little Katy when she blows
Puts me on a wonder, mama, makes me want to go
 
I can't see, see no train, can't hear no whistle blow
Lord, I can't see no train, neither hear no whistle blow
Now it keeps me wandering, from the wander to the door
 
Now, mama, I ain't got no plumb good rider now
Lord, I ain't got no plumb good rider now
Now, it seem like my rider, tryin' to quit me anyhow
 
Now, the big bell, the bell is ringin', and the little bell sadly tones
Lord, the big bell's ringin', the little bell, she sadly tones
Mama, and I'm lonely, lonely, lone, a long, long way from home
 
Goin' to get up, get up in the mornin', mama, and I ain't gon' say a word
Gonna get up in the mornin', Lord, I ain't gon' say a word
Gonna eat my breakfast and sling to Hattiesburg
 
Lord, I know you, gonna miss me when I'm gone
Lord, I know you, gonna miss me when I'm gone
Gonna miss your baby, from rollin' in your arms

Little Brother Montgomery was a young jazz & blues piano player based in Mississippi during the ‘30s. He later became well-regarded after moving to Chicago, but at the time he was probably little-known outside Mississippi. He primarily played in jazz bands and only had a couple of records out at that point, one of them the popular “Vicksburg Blues,” released by Paramount Records in 1930. On the other side was “No Special Rider Blues.” 

The unknown singer must have heard the record as a teenager and liked it enough to keep singing the song in prison. (The theme of loneliness and missing your lover would have carried extra weight in Parchman.) She sings four of the verses quite faithfully (the first one & last three), with just minor word changes, like adding an extra “rider” in the last verse. Ironically, Lomax probably had no idea he was recording not an ancient folk song, but a brand-new “modern Negro jazz” song. (He was sometimes blissfully unaware that the prisoners had learned some of their traditional “folk” tunes from popular records and the radio.) He was looking for “long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio [and] still sing the distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” Yet here, by some fluke, he recorded a teenage girl singing a recent release by a jazz player that he probably could have found in the local record shops.

 “No Special Rider Blues” isn’t the most lyrically original song. The title isn’t specifically repeated in the record, though Montgomery sings it in later versions; but the phrase “I ain’t got no special rider here” is found in a couple other songs. (“Rider” in old blues songs always means “lover” or “partner,” usually of a fickle nature.) Like many blues records of the time, it was partly patched together from “floating verses” shared with other songs. For instance, the first verse comes from “Corrine, Corrina,” first recorded by Bo Carter & Charlie McCoy in 1928 (and much copied thereafter).
"Corrina Corrina, where you been so long 
There ain't been no lovin' since you been gone"
But it's also related to Frank Stokes' 1928 "How Long Blues": 
"How long, how long 
I ain't had no lovin' since my baby gone"

But the rest of the song strikes its own course, evoking other blues themes without quite quoting any recorded songs. In the last verse, “you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” is a common enough theme in song; but the closest comparison I’ve found is in Big Bill Broonzy’s “Mistreatin’ Mamma” (1932), the second verse:
“You gonna call me some morning mama, lord and I’ll be gone
You’re gonna miss your baby from rolling in your arms”
Or there’s Frank Stokes’ “It Won’t Be Long Now” (1928), first & fourth verses:
“One of these mornings, mama and it won't be long 
'Fore you miss your good man rolling in your arms...

You’ll miss your babe from rolling in your arms
If you don’t come see me, count the days I’m gone”

Interestingly, despite the popular “Vicksburg Blues” being on the same record, “No Special Rider Blues” doesn’t seem to have inspired any covers by other blues artists. (Skip James’ 1931 “Special Rider Blues” is a totally different song.) So the song has more or less languished unnoticed in obscurity – although Chuck Leavell recorded a cover recently, he omitted the last verse! But the Lomax recording, meanwhile, was taking on a new life of its own.

Lomax didn’t release his field recordings at the time (this would remain impossible until the 1940s). Instead, he used them to compile a songbook, American Ballads & Folk Songs, printed in 1934. You might think he would simply transcribe the songs faithfully, to preserve the authentic folk traditions, but this was not his style. Instead he often reshaped them into fanciful creations of his own. As one scholar writes, “The Lomaxes were notorious for lumping fragments together and rewriting them to create unidiomatic messes.” The Jail House Bound CD liner notes admit, “As was often true of his songbooks, John Lomax altered the sequence of stanzas, changed words, or even compiled a version from several sources…[writing,] ‘We have brought together what seems the best stanzas, or even lines, from widely separated sources.’”

“Prison Rider Blues” was renamed “Woman Blue” in the book. (Not to be confused with “When a Woman Blue” in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 book American Songbag, a totally different song, though ironically a verse from that was also sung separately at Parchman.) Lomax provides a little introduction stating that he got “the tune and the first stanza of these blues” from the singer. But only the last verse she sang is actually included. It’s possible someone tipped off Lomax that her song was on a commercial record; or perhaps she sang other songs that weren’t recorded. In any case, the rest of “Woman Blue” is a lengthy farrago of random verses with no known source – some known from other blues songs, some not. 

Just as one example, this added verse –
“I knows my baby, he's boun' to love me some
He throws his arms aroun' me like a circle 'roun' de sun”
– isn’t too common, but is found in a few other songs, including Billiken Johnson’s obscure 1927 “Interurban Blues”:
“I know my baby is bound to love me some
She throws her arms around me like the circle round the sun”
One line may be most familiar from its use in the Memphis Jug Band's 1928 "Stealin'" (later covered by the Dead):
"Put your arms around me like a circle round the sun"

Bob Coltman writes: “Lomax's added-on verses seem mostly without antecedents I know of, except for "Sun's gonna shine" and a couple [others]… My guess is that the Lomaxes, who collected scads of blues verses and fragments in addition to distinct songs, put unusual or unique verses here that hadn't fit anywhere else. They commonly did this kind of assembly work in "floating verse" songs, which is how we get our canonical versions of…various field hollers and blues.”

You can find the full text of Lomax’s “Woman Blue” on the Grateful Dead Lyric & Song Finder (ten verses in all), but here I’ll just post the verses eventually picked up by the Dead: 

I know you, rider, gonna miss me when I'm gone
Gonna miss yo' li'l mama, baby, f'um rollin' in yo' arms
 
An' I laid right down and tried to take my res'
But my min' kep' ramblin' like the wil' geese in de Wes'
 
De sun gwine shine in my back do' some day
De win' gwine rise, baby, an' blow my blues away

The “sun’s gonna shine” verse can indeed be found in lots of other blues songs. That particular line seems to have floated around in various contexts - for instance, here in "Trouble in Mind," first recorded 1924: 
"Trouble in mind, I'm blue, but I won't be blue always 
The sun gonna shine in my back door someday"
Or in William Harris' 1928 "Bullfrog Blues," standing by itself in the last verse: 

But in more typical blues examples: Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 “Deceitful Brownskin Blues,” fifth verse:
“Well the sun gonna shine in my back door someday
I’ll have one more drink, gonna blow these blues away”
Furry Lewis’ 1927 “Sweet Papa Moan,” third verse:
“Sun gon’ shine in my back door someday
Cause the wind gonna blow all my blues away”
Tommy Johnson’s 1928 “Maggie Campbell Blues,” second verse:
“Sun gon’ shine in my back door someday
And the wind gon’ change, gon’ blow my blues away”
Sleepy John Estes’ 1929 “Diving Duck Blues,” fifth verse:
“Now the sun’s gon’ shine in my back door someday
Now the wind gonna rise, gonna blow my blues away”
Scrapper Blackwell’s 1931 “Back Door Blues,” second verse:
“Now the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday
I wish I had somebody to drive my blues away”
(And many more!)

The wild geese also fly through a number of blues songs – for instance, Texas Alexander’s 1928 “West Texas Blues,” third verse:
“I laid down last night, tried to take my rest
Then my mind kept ramblin’ like the wild geese in the west”
Ramblin’ Thomas’ 1928 “Ramblin’ Mind Blues”:
“Well I laid down last night, tried to take my rest
And my mind got to ramblin’ like the wild geese in the west”
The Mississippi Sheiks’ 1931 “Your Good Man Caught the Train And Gone,” fifth verse:
“I laid down last night, I tried to take my rest
My mind begin to ramble like wild geese in the west”
Skip James’ 1931 “Devil Got My Woman”:
“I laid down last night, tried to take my rest
My mind got to ramblin’ like a wild geese from the west”
(Etc, etc!) 

It was quite common for verses to float around from one blues song to another; but this usually doesn’t mean the songs are related. As Bob Coltman writes: “We ought to be wary of linking blues that are quite separate just because they happen to share a line or a verse. Just listen to…the prolific bluesmen of the 1920s and you will hear scads of verses shared and traded in and out of songs that are otherwise quite distinct -- not to mention the great blueswomen…who did the same. Blues verses were a vast pool from which singers recomposed to create individual songs… Antecedent versions of blues are not like antecedent versions of other kinds of songs. They're not like Barbara Allan or John Henry. [Most] blues were assembled on the spot out of often disconnected "floating verses" that may or may not fall into a coherent story.”

In a way, this is what Lomax did with “Woman Blue,” discarding the partial song he recorded in Parchman Farm and recasting it as more of a love song with compiled verses from here & there, toning down the existential despair. And so the song remained for over two decades, one of many lyrics in a book that was thought to document a dying tradition, the last gasp of black musical folklore. Little did Lomax guess that two decades later, young musicians in the ‘folk revival’ would be looking at his book with greater interest for obscure old songs they could sing.

Folksinger Bob Coltman remembers: "I got the song in the mid-1950s from the Lomaxes' 1934 American Ballads and Folk Songs… It's on p. 196. Apparently I was the first to pick it up and sing it, though it had lain around unnoticed in that well-known collection for twenty years… The Lomax headnote says "An eighteen-year-old black girl, in prison for murder, sang the tune and the first stanza of these blues." The Lomaxes added a number of "floating verses" from other, uncredited sources, and named it "Woman Blue."

So I resurrected and debuted the song. I followed the tune given in Lomax, roughly but not exactly, changed the song from a woman's to a man's viewpoint, dropped two verses, and was its first arranger, voice and guitar in a heavy drag downbeat, sort of an early folk-rock sound.

I sang it a lot in folk circles around Philadelphia, in concerts, around Boston…[and] around New York State and New England circa 1957-60. I also sang it in the west, in Wyoming…and on the West Coast, especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles, late summer-early fall '59. Then I went in the Army (sorta like prison) and everything went on hold.

Tossi Aaron learned the song from me in Philadelphia around 1959. She sang it on her Prestige LP. The song traveled around for years among a few East and West Coast folksingers but was not sung by very many people (most white kids took a while to crash the blues).”

Coltman never recorded his version, but you can find his lyrics here – he mostly left the Lomax song intact and unchanged, respecting the ‘folk tradition’ perhaps a bit more than Lomax did! But his account illustrates an integral part of the folk (and blues) process: rather than making a record, he instead traveled far and wide across the country, playing the song to scattered gatherings of folkies, some of whom picked up the song from him and started playing it on their own. To those unfamiliar with the Lomax book, the song would have appeared to come out of nowhere, an antique traditional.

The Mudcat thread has some lengthy discussion about who learned the song from Coltman and when; and Harry Tuft (a fellow folksinger) has a somewhat different account in which he’s the one who spread the song to various players, and John Phillips added a new chord arrangement. Rather than try to untangle all the threads here, I’ll just list the most well-known recorded versions up to the time the Grateful Dead started playing it:

Joan Baez, I Know You Rider 1960 (unreleased) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbVtL_SNLa4

Tossi Aaron, I Know You Rider 1961 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBiiH2fqE24 

Judy Henske, I Know You Rider 1963 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngfuZ7Lyid0

Kingston Trio, Rider 1963 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoM69rZEaIk

Big 3, Rider 1963 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7so5tECqKMY

Serendipity Singers, Rider 1964 - https://youtu.be/cEsX8krviM4?t=1481

Vince Martin & Fred Neil, I Know You Rider 1964 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUOwVmf65o8

Gale Garnett, I Know You Rider 1964 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5etHTC-3jo

Alice Stuart, Woman Blue 1964 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYlY4BFIkfI

Judy Roderick, Woman Blue 1965 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwIl-7KykuQ

Warlocks, I Know You Rider 1965 (demo) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-SEVBYNXak

Byrds, I Know My Rider 1966 (unreleased) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQFNLFnErFE

Janis Joplin & Big Brother, I Know You Rider 1966 (live) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUZrvG2X--M

“I Know You Rider” had a hesitant start on record – Joan Baez didn't release her 1960 recording, so Tossi Aaron was the first to release the song the next year. Many other folk artists like Bonnie Dobson & Judy Collins were evidently playing it at the time, but without making any recordings, though a couple of very obscure 1962 versions were released. Then the dam burst in 1963, as Judy Henske & then the Kingston Trio popularized the song on record, and a flood of folkie versions followed.

A couple things to note: the song was always shortened for records, with different artists picking different verses to sing out of the mass that Coltman handed down. (If he hadn’t spoken up, we might think that they’d all independently drawn the song from the Lomax book, so different are their selections.) Some of them also felt free to make up new verses of their own, for better or worse.

Judy Henske:
“It takes a red-headed man make a long-time woman feel bad
It makes me remember ‘bout that long slow rollin’ I had”

The Kingston Trio soften this to:
“It takes a hard-hearted woman make a long-time man feel bad
Cause it makes him remember the long hard road that he’s had”
And add:
“Well I ain’t got a nickel, no I ain’t got a lousy dime
But I got a long way to go ‘fore the end of my time”
 
The Big 3:
“Well dawn’s coming early, night’s gonna fade away
Ever see your rider coming baby, ‘bout the break of day
But they also reinstate an otherwise never-played Lomax verse:
“Well did you ever wake up and find your rider gone?
Well put you on a wonder and wish you’d never been born”
 
Martin & Neil, in perhaps the bluesiest Sonny Terry-style version:
“Early one mornin’, rider and it won’t be long
You gonna call my name now baby, sweet lovin’ daddy gonna be long gone”
 
Garnett also includes that verse, and adds the unique:
“I’m going to the river, take ‘long my rocking chair
If the blues don’t overtake me, gonna rock away from here”
 
Half of Alice Stuart’s version is newly-written:
“If you’re ever gonna love me, daddy now’s the time to start
You ain’t done nothing yet babe, but just break a sweet woman’s heart
I’ve got good loving baby, you take it if you think you can
I tell you I’ve got the best baby, if you’ll just be my man” (etc.)
 
The Byrds, surprisingly, add an unrelated but authentic old ‘20s blues verse:
“When you see me coming, better hoist your window high
When you see me leaving, you better hang down your head and cry”
And they also include the almost-never played “circle round the sun” Lomax verse mentioned earlier (later picked up by James Taylor in his version) –
“Well I know my rider, she’s bound to love me some
She used to throw her arms around me like a circle around the sun”
 
Janis Joplin:
“Don’t the moon look lonesome when it’s shining down through the trees?
Don’t my man look fine when he’s running, running after me?”
(This was taken from Dylan, but he in turn based it on an authentic couplet found in numerous old blues songs: Don’t the moon look pretty shining down through the trees / I can see my baby but she can’t see me.” Joplin also includes the “circle round the sun” verse, though it’s hard to understand with all her wailing.)

Stuart & Roderick, aware of Lomax’s book, went back to the “Woman Blue” title to fit their more melancholy versions. But you can tell who the hardcore folk collectors are when they add older verses from Lomax or from other ‘20s blues songs! (I've added an appendix listing the lyrics of various '60s versions here: I Know You Rider Lyric Variations)

It’s a surprise in general how different most of these versions are from each other in lyrics and style; they cover quite a wide range from tender sadness to rollicking boisterousness, from weeping women to hollering men, the song suiting any style well. And that was before the rock bands got hold of it! Lomax could hardly have imagined the eventual fate of his “Woman Blue,” but he might have appreciated its infiltration into a younger generation of modern white listeners.


When the Warlocks picked “I Know You Rider” as one of their first songs to adapt in 1965, they fit right into this progression. It was Jerry Garcia’s idea to cover the song, and he’d likely heard more versions of it in person than on record. (Weir, hearing Tossi Aaron for the first time 40 years later, commented: “I never heard these recordings, but they were typical of the current versions of these songs at the time… I heard folkies doing these songs this way back in the early ‘60s… Jerry could have picked up his versions from these or any of a number of other similar versions.”)

Eric Levy writes, "There were countless people performing the song, which spread like wildfire. So our attempts to isolate where Jerry may have learned it--a Joan Baez performance, Tossi Aaron's album--now seem misguided. Jody Stecher says the song was literally everywhere in the early-to-mid '60s. You were guaranteed to hear it any time you went to a folk club or coffee shop or even a party. In Stecher's words, asking where Jerry learned it is like asking where he learned 'Three Blind Mice.'"

Garcia himself said (in an interview for "The History of Rock 'n Roll"): "It's an old folk song. It used to be like a standby, really, in the coffeehouses and stuff like that. I never performed it as a bluegrass person...I never was a folkie very much, you know, I just wasn't that good, you know - I mostly played in bands with other people. But I always liked that song, no matter who did it, you know? And there was like all these folk versions of it...that were really modern versions of it. I always liked the song, so...of the ones that I could remember, the arrangements, the versions of it melodically, as far as the chord structure and so forth, that was the one that I sort of culled from my own memory. I don't remember where I learned it. I don't remember who taught it to me or why I even chose it, except it's just a nice song. And I thought it would be ideal to do with an electric band."

According to Phil Lesh, Garcia had played it before the Warlocks formed - at Phil's first practice with them, "I asked to start with 'I Know You Rider,' a traditional song I'd loved when I heard Jerry do it as a folkie."

Like the other artists who’d taken up “Rider,” Garcia trimmed it down to pop-song record length (the early studio demos toss out almost all the verses), and selected the verses he liked most, so the Dead’s version isn't an exact lyrical match to any earlier recording. Though Garcia may have heard some of the records, they weren’t a strong influence on him, except perhaps for the chords – the Warlocks were probably the first band to play an electric version. It’s also striking that in the verses Garcia picked, the romantic element of the song (emphasized in most of the earlier records) is almost completely excluded and it becomes more a portrait of a desperate soul, closer in spirit to the original desolate feel of “No Special Rider Blues.”

The Dead also continued the tradition of adding "floating verses" to the song. When the Dead played “Rider” in ’66 (and acoustically in 1970), they included an extra verse not found in earlier versions:
“I’d rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log
Than stay here in Frisco, be treated like a dog.”

This shares a few words to a verse in the Lomax text (and Baez’s version), but it’s not really very close with a quite different meaning, so I don’t think that’s the source:
“I'm goin' to de river, set down on a log
If I can't be yo' woman, sho gonna be yo' dog”

It’s possible Garcia heard other folkies in San Francisco singing the “muddy water” verse in the song. It was a widespread verse in blues & folk songs, stretching back to the ‘20s – for instance, Freddie Spruell’s 1926 “Muddy Water Blues,” second verse:
“I’d rather drink muddy water, rather sleep in a real hollow log
Before I’d stay with you, let you treat me like your driving dog”
Or Jimmie Rodgers’ 1927 “T For Texas,” last verse:
“Rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log
Than to be in Atlanta, treated like a dirty dog”
And countless songs thereafter.
Garcia may have been following the tradition of inserting suitable new verses into this song; but that isn’t something he often did with other folk songs (preferring to be lyrically faithful). My guess is he had heard someone do it this way.

Also, no other version of “I Know You Rider” before the Dead’s had the “I wish I was a headlight” verse, so Garcia (or his lost source) must have plucked this from some other song. It’s certainly an old blues verse; an early variation shows up in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 “Wartime Blues,” fourth verse:
“If I could shine my light like a headlight on some train…
I would shine my light in Colorado Springs”

The Lomaxes helpfully printed it in their American Ballads book version of “Easy Rider”:
“If I was a headlight on some western train, Lawd, Lawd,
I’d shine my light on cool Colorado Springs”

However I don’t know of any recordings of “Easy Rider” at the time that actually include this verse, or several other random verses they included, so this appears to be another of the Lomax mix-&-match patchwork songs. (Odetta sings “Easy Rider” on a 1956 album with the verses drawn straight from Lomax’s book – another example of a folk-song rendition taken from the page rather than from an actual musical tradition.)

The verse starts showing up separately in songs from other folk singers in the early ‘60s, closer to the Dead’s wording:
Kingston Trio, Chilly Winds 1961 (at 1:00) –
“Wish I was a headlight on a westbound train
I’d shine my light over cool Colorado rain”
Roger Abrahams, Cool Colorado 1962 (an alternate title for “Blues Jumped the Rabbit”) -
Karen Dalton, Blues Jumped the Rabbit 1963 (at :50) - 
Judy Henske, Blues Chase Up A Rabbit 1964 (at 1:20) - 
Henske’s version of this song was the one best-known and covered by folksingers later in the ‘60s.

Alex Allan covers these variations at the end of his “I Know You Rider” discussion. It seems there was probably some unknown folk singer who all but rewrote “Blues Jumped the Rabbit” (keeping only the first verse from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 “Rabbit Foot Blues” recording), and the new version then spread across the folk scene. But it’s still a mystery who or what inspired Jerry Garcia to grab this verse for the Dead’s “I Know You Rider.” Nonetheless, it’s an excellent fit – Lomax himself couldn’t have added a better verse to this song of loss and longing.

Ironically, one of the sad absences in early Dead history is their version of “Parchman Farm” (known to be played at the Matrix on 1/7/66). Most likely they covered Mose Allison’s popular 1958 version, however it’s possible they were doing Bukka White’s 1940 classic. In either case, it was one of the early covers they dropped as they found their own style.

Meanwhile, Little Brother Montgomery was still playing “No Special Rider Blues” in the ‘60s and later, never guessing that it had somehow inspired a whole new folk-rock song among the white kids, thanks to one lonely young girl stuck in Parchman Farm thirty years earlier, singing a blues from the life she missed.

 

*

 

Thanks to the earlier writers on this topic:
 
 
The Lomax collection of Parchman Farm recordings can be browsed here: 
Alex Allan's site has a more in-depth lyric comparison of different versions of "I Know You Rider."

For more on Parchman Farm, see David Oshinsky’s book Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm & the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (1996).
 
“I had to face that here were the people that everyone else regarded as the dregs of society, dangerous human beings, brutalized, and from them came the music which I thought was the finest thing I'd ever hear coming out of my country.” (Alan Lomax)


“When those jurors found me guilty, that ol’ mean clerk he wrote it down
I could tell by that, people, that I was Parchman bound.”

14 comments:

  1. Eric Levy deserves named credit for finally making the connection in 2023 between "Woman Blue" and the recording labeled "Prison Rider Blues," a piece of research he's been chasing for decades, which allowed the subsequent connection to be made with "No Special Rider Blues."

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    Replies
    1. This is so much to digest, I don't even have words. Excellent research all around. And thank you Jesse. I suppose I deserve some of the credit here, but I have to mention my good friend and collaborator on this search Roger Phenix. And it was Felicity Ford (see the knitsonic link above) who I learned about the PRISON RIDER BLUES recording from.

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    2. Thanks!
      The Knitsonic site linked to the song and called it "a spookily similar version"...so close!
      But it figures that John Lomax would change the song name to suit his romantic image of a lovelorn prison girl, throwing researchers off the trail. (I haven't checked the book to see if any of the discarded verses that she sang wandered into other songs that he printed.)

      But it made me think about the Library of Congress title, "Prison Rider Blues." Lomax didn't know the song, so he must have asked the singer for the name. It's likely that she gave it that name herself.

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    3. Since John Lomax arbitrarily titled his reworking of the song "Woman Blue" in his book, I've been in a debate with Eric about whether he came up with the name "Prison Rider Blues" as well. My opinion is that he probably didn't: it was the singer's title.

      Almost all the titles of Lomax's 1933 recordings are taken from lines in the song (or the lead character in the ballads), with very few exceptions. Some of the recordings even have the singer stating the title of the song. There are occasional exceptions (maybe mistakes) where the title doesn't match the lyrics, but it's almost never just a general description of the song.
      Whatever Lomax printed in his book later, for him to arbitrarily title this song "Prison Rider Blues" for the LoC files without asking what it was called, would be very unusual (and not very helpful for finding the song again). There's no prison in the lyrics, so if he's filing the song by a line or lyric theme, "prison rider" wouldn't be the most logical title.
      So I think it's more likely she gave him the name than that he arbitrarily made up the name. One reason I like this possibility is because it may give a clue how she thought of the song and why she was singing it. (And I'd note that her addition of the word "rider" in the line "I know you gonna miss me when I'm gone" is what has defined the song ever since.)

      The other song Lomax recorded by an individual woman singer in that same visit, "Dangerous Blues," actually did have that title, named by the singer in other recordings.
      But there are times where Lomax didn't get any title. One surprising discovery: a 1933 Mississippi prison version of "Little Sadie!" (just titled "Bad Man Ballad")
      https://archive.culturalequity.org/field-work/mississippi-1933-1940/parchman-farm-833/bad-man-ballad

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  2. Fabulous work, Eric! Fascinating stuff...

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  3. Oh wow. I've got some reading to do. Many thanks for this! John

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  4. First time commenting, but I've been reading this amazing site for a while, and I'm very glad you're back, LiA. This site has been a treasure trove as I've fallen hard for the Dead in the last few years, and it's awesomely nerdy and detailed (I love nerdy details). Anyway, I'm so glad the site's up and running again, and this particular article was a fascinating and different read and an awe-inspiring feat of deep scholarship. I'd love to see more of these song-history deep dives, both for the traditional songs in the Dead's repertoire and for the many originals and contemporary covers that don't yet have articles here (and I absolutely love the ones that are already available). I've been particularly hankering for a deep-dive into the history of Weather Report Suite and then Let it Grow's subsequent development as a standalone jam tune. That would be cool. There's a particular full-band chordal riff that the back half of most 80s and 90s LiG's are based on, and it's kind of annoying, but I'd love to track the origins of it (it's sort of like the "strumming jam" of the late 80s Bird Song, which I helpfully learned about through that guest article here). Anyway, but I digress. I love IKYR, especially as a Coloradan (unfortunately I've never had a chance to sing along to that line live), and now I know its amazing history. Many thanks, LiA and the other scholars who teased this mystery out.
    - Bart, a young music nerd

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    1. Also, to follow up on the fantastic Europe 72 Journal that was on the front page of the site for an eternity, I believe the same forum author did one on Europe 74 as well, a very different tour than the celebrated 1972 jaunt. That would be a great additional guest post if you feel like it. Anyway, I'll step back and let you run the show, LiA! You're very cool.

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    2. http://archive.org/post/342038/europe-74-notebook Europe '74 Notebook (by Cliff Hucker, from 2011)

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    3. Thanks! I'll be posting more soon....I've quit my job to devote more time to the blog.

      Let It Grow, hmm, that hasn't been covered on the blog yet; I'll keep it in mind.

      Cliff Hucker did cover the Europe '74 tour as well (linked above), however he strongly disliked most of it, so I'm not sure it would make a very pleasing blog post. Maybe sometime.

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  5. Just to say 'welcome back, you've been missed' (now to read the article!)

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  6. Wow, I'm amazed at your posts. Just read the one about Pig and Bob being fired, fascinating! Some of the finest writing I've seen on blogs about the dead. Seriously! Book quality stuff and I've read all the Dead books. Thanks

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    1. Thanks to the readers out there! More coming soon.

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  7. You all clearly have your scuba licenses. Nice dive!

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