Sid Hemphill was a multi-instrumentalist, band-leader, and patriarch of a prodigiously musical family in the Mississippi Hill Country. Blind Sid played fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, fife, quills, organ, and every type of drum that the region’s picnics and dances required, and he sang – perhaps shouted is a better word for what he did with his voice – with a ragged, joyful intensity that will shoot the hair on the back of your neck skyward. He was 65 years old when Alan Lomax met him in 1942. Lomax, fifty years later, described Sid thusly:
No one told me that Sid Hemphill was blind, but it was the last thing you’d recall about him. His face blazed with inner light. He ran rather than walked everywhere. He could never wait for his wife to bring something, but always darted up to find it himself. His speech, which could not keep pace with his thoughts and designs, had become telegraphic and brusque.
All of this can be recognized instantly in his music, much of it – at least that which Lomax recorded of him (and only Lomax’s recordings are extant*) – strung up to such a fever pitch, near to bursting with giddiness, passion, and energy. Even when the two met up again in 1959, though Sid was in his early 80s and had mellowed considerably, he retained more than a little of his earlier fury.
Hemphill passed on no small amount of his talent and repertoire to his gifted daughters, Sidney Hemphill Carter and Rosalie (or Rosa Lee) Hill, as well as to his granddaughter, Jessie Mae Hemphill. All of these heirs have now passed on themselves, although they did, to varying degree, make their own representative recordings, Jessie Mae to the widest acclaim.
These Hemphill women, along with their more famous male landsmen – Fred McDowell, Otha Turner, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough – have rightfully put the music of the Mississippi Hill Country on the map, and it’s now a musical tourist destination for its fife-and-drum picnics and, at least till it burned down, Kimbrough’s juke joint, Junior’s Place. What hasn’t received much recognition is Sid Hemphill’s remarkable ability as a song-writer. His compositions didn’t find a place in the oral tradition of the Hill Country; perhaps the sheer size of his ballads – the longest was 26 stanzas – were too daunting for anyone to attempt to remember. (Other explanations are offered below). The most remarkable of these, to this listener, was a 21-verse ballad called “The Carrier Line,” “The Carrier Railroad,” or just, as Rosalie Hill recalled to George Mitchell in 1967, the “Carrie Song.” It was recorded by Sid and his band – Lucius Smith, Alec Askew, and Will Head – for Alan Lomax in 1942, and that performance is simply one of the most powerful, affecting, and exciting recordings you’re ever likely to hear, from any place, any time, even reaching us, as it does, from an acetate disc made over 65 years ago, and dealing with obscure local events that took place over a hundred years ago.
There are only a couple of places, not counting the Reading Room at the American Folklife Center, where “The Carrier Railroad” (as Lomax notated it in his field log and as it’s filed at the Center) can be heard. One is on Document’s “Field Recordings, Vol. 3: Mississippi” CD, currently available at inflated prices on Amazon, or through Document itself at a more reasonable rate. This release, to these ears – and if you’re at all familiar with the Document catalog, this will sound counter-intuitive – actually features the available “Carrier Line” of the best fidelity. Another is in “Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi,” a CD released by Rounder in 2000, part of their reissue series of material from the Folklife Center’s archives. Originally released as a Library of Congress Recording Lab LP in 1978, with a highly enlightening and engaging introduction by one of the world’s foremost experts on black vernacular music, Dr. David Evans of the University of Memphis, this album features recordings made by Evans during field-work in the Hill Country from 1969 to 1971, alongside several of Lomax’s acetate sides of Sid Hemphill from ’42.
You can also hear “The Carrier Line” below. I treasure this recording more deeply than just about any Lomax ever made. I also wanted to share it, its fascinating subjects (John Carrier and his wily engineer, Dave Cowart), and Sid Hemphill’s extraordinary compositional ability with whoever might care to enjoy them, so I asked Dr. Evans for his permission to reprint a portion of his notes regarding the song and its story, as well as his transcription of Sid’s lyrics. This transfer of the tune comes to me from a source separate from the Document and Rounder releases, duly noted so as not to run afoul with any master-use clauses or what-have-you that might apply, even though the only real rights herein belong to the Hemphill family.
I hope you’ll enjoy it, and please do note that the Rounder release that includes Dr. Evans’ notes is luckily still in print – unlike many other essential albums of vernacular music recordings that once made Rounder a label worthy of great acclaim and appreciation (before “Tangle-Eye” and Plant & Krauss, et al., remade their business model) – so consider yourself strongly urged to pick it up before it too is put out to pasture. Act fast – Amazon thinks it already has been.
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The Carrier Line (click to download)
Performed by Sid Hemphill, vocal and fiddle; Lucius Smith, banjo; Alec Askew, guitar; and Will Head, bass drum.
Recorded by Alan Lomax in Dundee, Mississippi, August 15, 1942.
Notes by David Evans, 1978:
This song is an example of a “blues ballad,” combining the narrative quality of balladry with the loose, shifting, and subjective approach of blues singing. A blues ballad often assumes a prior knowledge of the underlying events of the story on the part of the audience. Most ballads in black folk song are blues ballads, as are quite a few in southern white folk song. Often the same piece is known in both black and white traditions (e.g., “John Henry,” “Frankie and Albert”), so that it may be difficult to determine its origin. This particular blues ballad was composed by Sid Hemphill, a black man, but all the main characters in the story were white.
Robert Carrier owned a logging company and in 1901 built the Sardis and Delta Railroad, called simply Mr. Carrier’s line in the song, to haul logs to Sardis in Panola County from Bobo Lake (later renamed Lake Carrier), twenty-two miles to the west in the Delta. Hemphill told Alan Lomax that he composed the song in 1903, but he may have been a few years off. Lucius Smith, Hemphill’s banjo player, said that the wreck occurred in 1905 or 1906, but possibly it occurred at the same time as the other event referred to in the song – the financial panic of 1907. Local newspapers for this period are unenlightening about these events.
“Now you can get the map out and trace his whole damn route,” said Hamper McBee about “Billy Richardson’s Last Ride” in West Virginia. Same for Dave Cowart’s in Mississippi. The “A” marks Lake Carrier, according to Google maps, although that doesn’t look like much of a lake to me. That spot does rest on Bobo Road, however. Sardis is to the northeast, and about a dozen miles north of it along Highway 51 (and now Interstate 55) is Senatobia. Eighteen miles west of Sledge is Dundee, where Lomax made his recordings of Hemphill’s band.
In any case, the song has two themes, which are not clearly connected to each other in the text. Stanzas 1, 14 though 17, and 23 refer to the panic. Carrier paid his workers with brass scrip while the banks were closed [see comments below for a differing opinion on this], but many of them became discouraged and took up farming near Malone’s Trestle, where the wreck was to occur. The remaining stanzas refer to the wreck. Carrier had two engineers, “Pop” Bailey and Dave Cowart. Hemphill described Cowart to Lomax as a “rough engineer.” Carrier had warned Cowart on several occasions not to run his train so fast. He transferred Cowart to another engine and threatened to fire him. Stanza 13 indicates that he actually did fire Cowart, but in stanza 18 he is back his running his original engine, the “Seven Spot.” Cowart wrecked the train at Malone’s Trestle. Nobody was killed, but several were scalded badly by the steam, including a preacher named Lovey Lemons who worked on the railroad.
The refrain after every stanza is unrelated to the text of the song. In its full form it should be “Oh, my honey babe, why don’t you come home?” Hemphill, however, plays the last half of the line on his fiddle. The first half actually sounds like “Oh, my heart beat,” but Hemphill insisted to Alan Lomax, who heard it similarly, that he had sung “Oh, my honey babe.” A similar refrain has been reported elsewhere in black folk music for blues ballads and blues. Howard Odum noted it in adjacent Lafayette County, Mississippi, and Dorothy Scarborough in Texas.
Hemphill was fond of singing blues ballads and, in addition to this piece, he also composed ballads about a local bad man [Jack Castle, “The Roguish Man”], a mob at the Senatobia jail [“The Strayhorn Mob”], and one of the world wars [“So Soon I’ll Be At Home”]. Among traditional ballads he sang versions of “Joe Turner,” “The Boll Weevil,” “John Henry,” “Old Blue,” and “Casey Jones.” Except for a nine-stanza version of “The Carrier Line” collected by George Mitchell from Hemphill’s daughter [Rosalie], none of Hemphill’s composed ballads has survived in the folk tradition of the area. Lucius Smith can only remember the banjo parts to a few ballads and one stanza of “The Carrier Line.” He says that he never paid much attention to the words.
There seem to be several reasons why these ballads are not well known in the area despite the fact that Hemphill was generally acknowledged as one of the best local musicians and has been dead for only about 15 years. [Hemphill died in 1963.] Blues ballad singing has declined in general among blacks in recent years. New ones are not being composed, and only a few old ones are kept alive in tradition, mainly through the influence of such records as Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” and Buster Brown’s “John Henry.”
Hemphill’s own ballads were performed with a string band. This type of ensemble no longer exists in the area, a fact that has undoubtedly conctributed to the disappearance of the repertoire of songs associated with such bands. Furthermore, there exists a strong feeling in this area that songs like “The Carrier Line” belonged to Hemphill only. Several people have said that Hemphill performed mostly “his own” songs, so that other performers avoided them. Hemphill himself made it well known that he had composed “The Carrier Line” and some other songs. Although the tune, stanza structure, and refrain are traditional, most of the words of “The Carrier Line” are very much Hemphill’s own creation; it contains very few of the lyric phrases that seem to “float” freely from one blues ballad to another.
A final reason may be that Hemphill performed some of his songs mainly for white people. He was asked to write “The Carrier Line” by a Mr. Willard, a white section foreman on the line. Hemphill said he sang it for all the participants in the events except Mr. Carrier himself, although Lucius Smith said that the band often performed at Mr. Carrier’s house in the country as well as for picnics held by “all them big rich folks in Senatobia.” Another musician has stated that Hemphill would sing this song for Mr. Carrier every Saturday morning and collect ten dollars for his efforts. No doubt this is an exaggeration, although Hemphill may have done this once or twice and bragged about it to others, so that a legend arose locally.
[Evans continues, describing the structural influence blues ballads like “The Carrier Line” had on the development of the blues, and briefly discusses the transition away from the black country string band, and those bands’ instrumentation.]
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Nobody had a nickle, you couldn’t get a dime.
If you want to make your money, boys, work on Mr. Carrier’s time.
Oh, my honey babe… (Refrain repeated after each stanza.)
Mr. Dave Cowart went on Mr. Carrier’s engine; Mr. Carrier he looked and laughed.
“Tell you, Dave Cowart, don’t run my train too fast.”
Mr. Dave told Mr. Carrier, “Man, don’t you know I know your rule.
Tell you, Mr. Carrier, a train ain’t no mule.”
Mr. Dave Cowart went down to Baptist; Mr. Carrier stood on the railroad track.
“Send back Dave Cowart, get Mr. Bailey back.”
Mr. Dave told Mr. Carrier, “Man, fire me if you will.
Every time it come a shower of rain, he can’t run it up Johnson Hill.”
Mr. Carrier said, “Dave Cowart, see what you have done.
You left Sardis at twelve o’clock, done made it back at one.”
Mr. Dave said, “Well, Mr. Carrier, let me have my way.
Let me run this Seven Spot, I’ll make three trips today.”
Mr. Carrier said, “No, Dave Cowart, tell you in time.
Can’t let you run the Seven no more.” “Well, I’ll have to run the Nine.”
Everybody around Sardis said “Mr. Carrier, I know you got your way.
Mr. Bailey’s much too old a man to run your train like Dave.”
Last one Monday morning, it come a shower of rain.
Nine come to Ballentine blowing like a fast train.
When the Nine got over to Sardis with a large load of logs,
Mr. Carrier told the people at the plant, “Yonder train off the Yellow Dog.”
They said to Mr. Carrier, “Man, ain’t you ‘shamed?
Looking out the window, don’t know your own train?”
Mr. Carrier went to Dave Cowart, “Dave, I done told you so.
Train costs too much, you can’t run my train no more.”
Mr. Carrier’s timbermens quit too. Thought they all was mad.
They didn’t like his paydays cuz he’s paying ’em off in brass.
Mr. Carrier’s timbermen left, thought they was going home.
Stopped down the railroad, farming at Malone’s.
Mr. Carrier went down to Malone’s, he didn’t mean no harm.
He didn’t know his timbermen knowed how to farm.
Oh he couldn’t pay ’em no greenbacks, couldn’t pay ’em no gold,
Couldn’t pay ’em no silver. All his banks done closed.
Mr. Carrier’s engine left Sardis then; she left there mighty hot.
Got down to Malone’s Trestle where he could wreck that Seven Spot.
Well, they telephoned to Mr. Carrier. Don’t you think it’d be nice?
“Telephone to Sardis and get Dr. Rice.”
Mr. Carrier said to Dave Cowart, “Man, ain’t you ‘shamed?
You done wrecked my Seven Spot, done scald the preacher’s hand.”
Mr. Carrier said to the conductor, ‘ductor / doctor [?], thank you for saving his life.
Conductor says he’s a lazy man, he won’t hardly die.
He wore a mighty fine coat, boys. Mighty fine shirt.
Rid that train every day. He didn’t never work.
I played on Mr. Carrier’s railroad, Sardis on Main and Beale.
I made dollars down there without working in the field.
Well they carried him down to Emma’s. Aunt Emma hollered and screamed.
“Needn’t cry, Miss Emma, but he got scalded by the steam.”
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*Dr. Evans has corrected my earlier assertion that Lomax was the only one to make recordings of Sid Hemphill, noting that James W. Silver – Ole Miss history professor, friend of Faulkner, and outspoken civil rights advocate – also recorded Sid, but the tape has not survived. For more on Sid Hemphill and his “Carrier Line,” see James W. Silver, “Paul Bunyan Comes to Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History 19 (1957): 96-101.