Thursday, April 13, 2023

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Send it in Care of the Birmingham Jail


I bet a lot of folks my age first heard this song on the Andy Griffith show, with Andy on guitar and his girlfriend Peggy (Joanna Moore) serenading Opie. 

Here's what I'm talking about:

I can't confirm the rumor that Deputy Barney Fife started his law enforcement career in the Birmingham jail, where he was fired for brutality. But I find it suspicious that Andy's version omits any mention of that correctional facility. Coincidence????!!!??)

But "Down in the Valley," aka "Birmingham Jail" and several other titles, has roots that go far deeper than Maybury.

According to the website Ballad of America, ace American folklorists John and Alan Lomax considered "Valley" to be a "jailhouse song" because they found it common in prisons. The Lomaxes found that some of the versions of the song referred to a specific jail and a loved one on the outside. ("Write me a letter, send it by mail / Send it in care of the Birmingham jail ...") 

John and Alan also considered the song as part of the British courting song traditions, that still could be found in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains throughout the nineteenth century.

From Ballad of America:

In the first half of the twentieth century, "Down in the Valley" was printed in folk song collections from Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia. More than twenty artists recorded it between 1927 and 1940, spreading its popularity nationwide. Printed and recorded versions exhibit variations in melody, lyrics, and title, which include "Birmingham Jail," "Bird in a Cage," "Twenty-One Years," "Down on the Levee," and "Little Willie's My Darlin'." Inclusion in countless church, camp, and school songbooks, as well as placement in movies and television, has rendered "Down in the Valley" one of the best-known American folk songs.

The first known recording of the song was in 1927 by Tom Darby & Jimmie Tarlton. Its flip side was another classic lovelorn jailbird song, "Columbus Stockade Blues." The song was such a hit that Tarlton, according to BHAM Wiki, was invited to the ceremony to dedicate the new Birmingham jail at 425 6th Avenue South in 1937. Of course, this song isn't the only thing that made this jail famous.

Tarlton reportedly claimed that he'd written "Birmingham Jail" while in the slammer for moonshining. I can't swear that's true, but I do hope it is.

Lead Belly supposedly sang the song for Texas Governor Pat Neff at the Sugarland Penitentiary in 1924. In this version, which he called  "Hear the Wind Blow," he refers to the Birmingham jail, though reportedly in other versions, the sad narrator's residence is in the Shreveport jail.

The Andrews Sisters took "Down to the Valley" to an audience beyond the hillbilly and blues markets.

Johnny Cash made it nice and mournful.

Flatt & Scruggs found bluegrass growing in the valley -- though, like Lead Belly, they called their version "Hear the Wind Blow."

And "Valley" got a little hippiegrass treatment by Jerry Garcia & David Grisman in the early '90s:

Solomon Burke in the early 1960s turned "Valley" into a soul classic. It one of the first 45s I ever bought as a child. (Otis Redding used a similar arrangement.) Here's King Solomon doing a live version at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006.

But besides country, blues, bluegrass, pop and soul, "Down in the Valley" also made it to the world of opera, courtesy of Kurt Weil and Arnold Sundgaard. Here's what a layman like myself might call the title song of this 1948 "folk-opera in one act."

For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook

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