This is the first album in the Ballad of America series, which tells the story of the United States through traditional folk songs. The journey begins in the latter part of the eighteenth century when the United States of America became an independent nation. It follows the paths of the pioneers, sailors, lumberjacks, immigrants, ’49ers, farmers, slaves, soldiers, cowboys, and railroaders who moved the country across the continent and into the twentieth century.
The all-acoustic Ballad of America Volume 1 features Sabatella on guitar with a host of musical guests who make contributions on banjo, fiddle, concertina, resonator guitar, bodhran, harmonica, mandolin, and upright bass. But the focal point of the album is the nineteenth-century songs, many virtually forgotten, which Sabatella’s mesmerizing baritone voice infuses with an immediacy and intimacy that belies their age.
The compact disc includes a booklet containing historical background for each song (reprinted below).
Sabatella has found a mother lode of nearly forgotten gems, many pre-dating the age of recorded music. He sings these work songs, laments and travelogues with a plaintiveness and thorough appreciation of their meanings and origins, and sets them to lively acoustic arrangements.
Sean Piccoli – Sun Sentinel
Gold-throated troubador Matthew Sabatella was born to make an album such as Ballad of America. This low-key, acoustic opus is more a Folkways Smithsonian-style history lesson than a random assortment of wispy, coffee shop folk. Casual listeners, watch out: If you pay attention, you might learn something. Nothing if not deeply humanist, these songs reveal the sober, hopeful spirit of the men and women who found fortune, romance, and danger on the open range.
Jonathan Zwickel – New Times
Over a Wide and Fruitful Land, the album’s subtitle, rather neatly sums it up. Matthew Sabatella has assembled a credible song list, dappling America’s pioneer landscape with evergreen folklore balladry. His wide-ranging vocal approaches are sensitive when desired, dynamic when untethered emotions dictate. The small group arrangements, at times pared back to a single instrument, are the “just right” sort of settings. This project works “because of”, not “in spite of”, campfire minimalism. Matthew Sabatella surprises in the most delightful ways. And this is only Volume One. Can’t wait for the next leg of the trail.
Eddie O’Strange – Host of Town & Country Radio Show (New Zealand)
Performer Matthew Sabatella’s rich baritone voice perfectly complements stories of common folk… A wonderful resource for units on nineteenth-century American history.
Naomi Leithold – American Library Association’s Booklist
Matthew Sabatella, singer/producer/arranger, sings 18 traditional folk-style songs in a beautiful, slightly raspy baritone… Excellent background instruments include guitar, banjo, piano, tambourine, sandpaper blocks, fiddle, acoustic bass, drums, harmonica, mandolin, English concertina and bodhran… An excellent resource for schools and public libraries.
Beverly Bixler – School Library Journal
…his love of this music is infectious and the arrangements are generally quite good. Recommended.
Baker & Taylor’s CD HotList
Click the song title to visit the Ballad of America page with lyrics, more information, and streaming links.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Revolution ended and Great Britain legally recognized the independent existence of the United States of America. Britain ceded claims not only on the thirteen colonies but also on the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Settlers poured into the Ohio River valley.
A ballad is a particular type of secular song that was beloved in the British Isles long before the first settlers set sail for the New World. Generally, ballads tell a story or recount events that might include romance, tragedy, violence, or acts of heroism. In the eighteenth century, ballads that concerned themselves with the lives of common people and began with the words “come all ye…” had become very popular in Great Britain. In America, this type of ballad became the basis for many new songs, including “The Lovely Ohio.” The song optimistically celebrates life on the river at the end of the eighteenth century
After the War of 1812, immigrants flooded into the United States to farm, work in the factories, and build roads and canals. Eastern seaboard land in the United States became scarce and expensive as industrialization advanced. Seeking new land and opportunity, many pioneers loaded their wagons and headed west. But the decision whether to stay in the relatively settled lands of New England or venture into lesser-known territory was not an easy one to make.
The lyrics to “The Wisconsin Emigrant” are representative of the discussions that went on in thousands of households at the time.
Until the nineteenth century, only adventurers who sought their fortunes as trappers and traders of beaver fur ventured as far west as the Missouri River. Most of these men were loners who became friendly with, and sometimes married, Native Americans.
“Shenandoah” is said to have originated with French voyageurs traveling down the Missouri River. The lyrics tell the story of a trader who fell in love with the daughter of an Algonquian chief, Shenandoah. American sailors heading down the Mississippi River picked up the song and made it a capstan shanty that they sang while hauling in the anchor.
The work of the lumberjack, or “shantyboy” as they were frequently called, was crucial to the growth of America. Not only did cutting timber clear the land for settlement, it provided lumber that was needed to build houses, towns, and ships. Lumbering centers spread from Maine to Pennsylvania and into the Great Lakes region, peaking in the mid-nineteenth century.
Unlike sailors who sang while they worked, lumberjacks generally sang at the end of their twelve to fourteen-hour workday when they went back to the shanty to sharpen their axes, eat, and sleep. The songs they sang were based on Anglo-Irish ballads, but with new lyrics that reflected the hardships and dangers of their work. “Once More a-Lumb’ring Go,” another song from the “come all ye…” tradition, is somewhat more flamboyant and boastful than most workers’ ballads.
Penniless in the wake of a potato famine in their homeland, one and a half million Irish people immigrated to the United States between 1846 and 1850. Their passages were frequently paid by relatives who had already settled in America. Crossing the Atlantic by packet ship was inexpensive, especially for those who traveled from English ports, due to trade competition between America and Britain. The journey took at least six weeks on the overcrowded vessels. Famine, disease, and shipwreck caused an estimated one of every five immigrants to die at sea.
“Across the Western Ocean” expresses the concerns of the people making the transatlantic journey and their loved ones. It shares the same melody as the sea shanty “Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her.” Which song begot the other is not definitively known.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and added 1.2 million square miles to the United States (including California), was signed on February 2, 1848. A few days earlier, a New Jersey-born mechanic named James W. Marshall discovered gold on the American River in California’s Sacramento Valley. Gold fever swept the world as news of the discovery and subsequent strikes traveled in letters carried by ship from San Francisco to the Atlantic ports and England. The population of California increased by 100,000 within two years.
“Ho! For California!” was first sung that year at the send-off for a band of fortune hunters from Massachusetts. Borrowing portions of a Dan Emmett melody, Jesse Hutchinson, Jr. composed the song which was sung by his popular group The Hutchinson Family Singers. The song became an unofficial anthem for many bands of gold seekers.
The journey to California in the days of the Gold Rush wasn’t easy by sea or land. A clipper ship leaving New York took at least three months, with all the usual dangers of traveling by sea, to round the bottom of South America and reach San Francisco. The journey by land took six months from the mid-West, with many coming from further away.
“Sweet Betsy from Pike” comes from a songbook published in 1858 called Put’s Golden Songster. “Old Put” was the pseudonym of John A. Stone, a San Francisco-based entertainer who wrote, performed, adapted, collected, and published songs for and about gold miners. This one was based on an Irish tune that was most likely brought to the New World during the potato famine. There is a Pike County in both Missouri and Illinois from where many California-bound gold seekers began their land journeys.
Most people who sought their fortunes during the days of the Gold Rush did not get rich. Many followed new strikes across the West and died penniless and alone in the desert. Generally, those who did well, and some did extremely well, were entrepreneurs who took advantage of the law of supply and demand. They provided miners with necessities like tools, food, water, and clothing at inflated prices. Saloons and music halls became big in San Francisco, as miners were eager to spend their money on alcohol, gambling, and entertainment.
Other success stories from the days of ’49 include the old settler in this song and others like him who gave up their dreams of finding gold and made stable lives for themselves in the new western states. “Old Settler’s Song” is based on an old Irish melody, “Rosin the Beau,” that has supported more different sets of lyrics than nearly any other folk tune.
Between 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in North America, and the 1860s when slavery was abolished, hundreds of thousands of Africans were kidnapped from their homeland, sold on the open market in America, and forced to live as slaves. Initially, slavery was introduced throughout the nation, but it only took hold in the South where cheap labor was needed to work the expansive plantations. After the American Revolution, slavery ended within a generation in every state north of the Mason Dixon line. Meanwhile, a pattern of society was emerging in the South, which included wealthy plantation owners and slaves who were denied the human freedoms guaranteed in America’s Bill of Rights.
Enslaved African Americans created a varied body of music that included work songs, leisure songs, and spirituals. The sound was rooted in African traditions and informed by the European American music to which they were now being exposed. Likewise, African rhythms, harmonies, and vocal styles had a great influence on the music of European Americans. The words to the spiritual “Many Thousand Gone” conveyed various messages depending on whether the singer was a slave, runaway slave, African American Union soldier, or emancipated former slave.
10. Southern Soldier
Throughout the nineteenth century, disagreements over slavery arose between the free states of the North and the slave-holding states of the South. The nation was divided and a strong anti-slavery movement was building. One of the major points of contention was the issue of whether or not slavery would be permitted in the new Western states entering the Union. Compromises were attempted, but when the South seceded from the United States and opened fire on Fort Sumter, a war between the states could not be averted.
The Civil War, as with the American Revolution and the War of 1812, produced new songs that celebrated victories, taunted enemies, inspired soldiers, attempted to sway public opinion, and provided solace. They were often based on traditional folk melodies. “Southern Soldier” is one such song that was popular among Confederate soldiers. It expresses their point of view and determination to fight and die for their cause.
11. Oh Freedom!
Even after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s victory in the Civil War ended slavery in the 1860s, African Americans did not have the freedoms enjoyed by other Americans. Especially in the southern states, they were victims of prejudice, violence, and laws designed to keep them segregated from white America and restrict their right to vote. Not until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was there a national law that prohibited discrimination against African Americans and other minorities in all the most important activities of American life.
The spiritual “Oh Freedom!” probably came into being soon after the end of slavery. Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to freedom in the world to come after death, as many slave spirituals do, but it celebrates their new freedom in the here and now. In the 1950s and 1960s, the song was commonly sung as part of the Civil Rights Movement.
12. Rambling Gambler
When the Civil War was over, huge areas of the South lay in ruin. Millions of Southerners, black and white, were now homeless and faced with the reality of having to reconstruct their lives. In the face of this, some packed their few belongings and headed west to see what may await them.
Among the things they brought with them as they attempted to start their lives anew were their beloved songs. Word clusters and entire verses from “Rambling Gambler” can be found in many similar American and British songs including “The Wagoner’s Lad,” “My Horses Ain’t Hungry,” and “The Texas Cowboy.” This version retains a Gaelic melody and was popular with the early American cowboys which some of these drifting Southerners were soon to become.
Texas Confederate soldiers returning home from the Civil War found that in their absence the herds of longhorn cattle they were raising before the war had doubled in size and were now roaming the southern tip of the state unbranded. They were so plentiful that they had little value in Texas, but the industrial cities of the North were booming with immigrant labor and hungry mouths to feed. So began the era of the American cowboy and the great cattle drives, in which cattle were rounded up and herded north into Kansas, Missouri, and Wyoming. There they met the new railroad lines that could carry the meat to the East Coast.
The first trail that was widely used for these long drives was called the Chisholm Trail. By the time the trail fell into disuse in 1882, hundreds of cowboys had driven tens of thousands of cattle up the trail, inventing and singing countless verses to “Old Chisholm Trail.”
When cowboys finally reached town after months on the trail, they were eager to shake off the dust and spend their pay. They would get haircuts, take showers, polish their boots, put on fancy shirts, and head for a saloon to drink, play billiards, and gamble. Generally, they were just looking to have a good time in these railhead towns. The frequency of gunfights and fatal shootings has been greatly exaggerated in books and movies through the years. Although these occurrences did happen, the dangers of the cattle drive took many more lives.
The story of one unfortunate cowboy who met a violent end in one of these towns is told in the song “Streets of Laredo.” Laredo is located in Southern Texas and was not one of the early railheads, but there are over a hundred different versions of this ballad set in almost as many different Western towns. The song evolved from a seventeenth-century British ballad about a soldier who died of syphilis. It has been known by countless titles, including “The Bard of Armagh,” “The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime,” “The Dying Cowboy,” and “The Cowboy’s Lament.” The main character has had almost as many occupations as there are in American life.
15. Old Paint
Cowboys faced many dangers on the trail including lightning, crossing of swift-flowing rivers, and hostile Native Americans. The greatest danger of all was the stampede. When the cattle were lying peacefully on the ground at night, some stray sound, flash of lightning, or instinct would bring them all to their feet and send them charging into the darkness. Static electricity from the hairy bodies rubbing together caused bluish sparks to be emitted from their horns. Many cowboys’ lives were lost in attempts to get the herds back in control by riding to the front and heading them off into a wide, but ever-narrowing circle.
To discourage stampedes, not to mention cattle rustlers and Native American attacks, each man would serve two-hour shifts of night duty. Two at a time, all night long the cowboys would ride slowly in opposite directions in a giant circle around the sleeping herd. They would usually sing or whistle continuously to pass the time, to keep themselves awake, to drown out the noises of the night, and so the cattle would know that a friend was watching over them. “Old Paint” and “Streets of Laredo” are among the many songs that were sung to sleeping cattle. A paint is a spotted horse and the rider/narrator in this song is most likely on his way to a Montana rodeo to wrestle steers. The word “dogie” refers to cattle taken from their mothers and, forced to eat grass too early, develop big doughy stomachs.
Many Americans were skeptical that the “iron horse” was anything more than a novelty when the first steam locomotive arrived from England on May 13, 1829. By May 10, 1869, public opinion had changed considerably as the first transcontinental railroad line was completed in Promontory, Utah. For the first time, people and freight could move swiftly and inexpensively across nearly 2,000 miles of western mountains, deserts, and plains. At the end of the nineteenth century, five major transcontinental railroads connected the East and West coasts, and thousands of miles of tracks crisscrossed the country. Much of the work laying those tracks was done by African-American, Chinese, and Irish laborers.
Many of the principal singers in labor forces, from the lumber camps to the canals and railroads, were Irish. Most of the songs they sang to accompany their work have since been lost. Some were beloved songs from Ireland, some were adaptations of those songs, and some were new songs born of Irish singing traditions. “Paddy Works on the Railway,” sometimes known as “Paddy Works on the Erie,” belongs in one of the latter two categories.
17. This Old Hammer
John Henry was a former slave who worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the years following the Civil War. He was one of a thousand or so men who spent nearly three years drilling a hole through Big Bend Mountain in Talcott, West Virginia. An unrecorded number of predominantly African-American men died working in the thick smoke and intense heat of the tunnel. When his boss introduced a steam-drill that threatened the jobs of the workers, John Henry engaged the machine in a contest to prove that it was no match for man.
From the moment these events occurred, the legend grew in story and song as it moved about the country. Work songs that invoked the spirit of John Henry came into prominence. These songs, sometimes referred to as hammer songs, have only a few lyrics repeated with a strong rhythm to facilitate hammering or other manual labor. Ballads that told the whole story from John Henry’s birth through his death were also widespread. Matthew Sabatella combined lyrics from various ballads and hammer songs and set them to his own melody to create “This Old Hammer.”
It is estimated that in the last decade of the nineteenth century approximately 60,000 hoboes, tramps, and bums were stealing rides around the country on railroad cars without paying the fare. Their ranks steadily increased, peaking during the Depression in the twentieth century when they numbered approximately one million. The fortunate ones traveled in empty boxcars, but often hoboes could be found on the catwalk on top of a freight car or on the narrow steel ledge between cars. Sometimes they even hung precariously below the cars, only inches above the track.
Many people hopped trains because they couldn’t find a job, were broke, and wanted to start anew in another location. For some, however, riding the rails became a way of life. “Wanderin'” grew out of an Irish melody and the experiences of these wayfaring Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.