Derek Barker (2008)
I was in the throes of putting the finishing touches to my book, “The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under The Influence”, when the much talked about (often for all the wrong reasons) “Tell Tale Signs” arrived at my door. With a publisher’s deadline to meet, the tracks of immediate interest were the cover songs that were new to me: ‘32-20 Blues’, ‘Mary And The Soldier’ and ‘Duncan And Brady’. In the end ‘32-20 Blues’ and ‘Mary And The Soldier’ would both disappoint. Perhaps it’s the repetitive guitar pattern on ‘32-20 Blues’, or maybe it’s simply that the guitar dominates the mix, especially when compared with Robert Johnson’s original recording. ‘Mary And The Soldier’ is a fine song and I can’t quite put my finger on why it doesn’t excite me more. The guitar on this one is so similar to ‘Love Henry’ that I doubt both tracks should have made it onto the same album, and of the two, Bob certainly made the right choice in retaining ‘Love Henry’.
Anyway, the infamous disc three, which coincidentally contained two of the three tracks I needed to hear, was too tantalizing to resist. So, I popped it into my CD player and sat back to listen. Wow! This was not the ‘Duncan And Brady’ that I expected, or indeed the one I was familiar with from live performances. This studio take, driven by David Bromberg’s slide guitar and Richard Crooks’ drumming, with some lovely organ fills from Christopher Cameron, is a revelation. Track two on disc three of “Tell Tale Signs” is a truly remarkable version of ‘Cold Iron Bound’. However, this would have to wait as I hit and re-hit the replay button for repeats of ‘Duncan And Brady’. For me, this stunning studio outtake alone is worth the (very expensive) price of admission to “Tell Tale Signs”. What follows therefore is a short examination of this intriguing song, the majority of which is taken from my book “The Songs He Didn’t Write”.
Duncan And Brady (Traditional)
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
Up comes Brady in a ‘lectric car,
Got a mean look all ‘round his eye,
Gonna shoot somebody jus’ to see them die.
A stunning version of this song was recorded by Bob Dylan during the aborted “Good As I Been To You” album sessions which took place in Acme Recording Studios, Chicago in June 1992 with David Bromberg producing. It is this track that was released in October 2008 on the rarities compilation album “The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: Rare And Unreleased 1989-2006”.
Dylan has performed this song in concert many times, the first instance being November 17, 1999 at University Of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. The song was played forty-eight times in 2000, twenty-four times in 2001 and nine times in 2002. The last performance of the song thus far was on September 1, 2002, at the Janus Jazz Festival in Aspen, Colorado.
It is difficult to identify exactly where Dylan learned the song. An early printing, entitled ‘Brady’, appeared in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 “American Songbag”. One of the earliest recordings was by Lead Belly, but this version definitely is not Dylan’s source. Likewise, New Riders of the Purple Sage, John Koerner and the Grateful Dead can also be discounted. The main contenders are therefore Dave Van Ronk, who released the song on “Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues And a Spiritual” (1959) and Tom Rush, who included the song on his 1963 album “Got a Mind To Ramble”. These two recordings have almost identical lyrics and are quite similar to the lyrics performed by Dylan.
Van Ronk says he learned the song from Paul Clayton whose version is entitled ‘Been On The Job Too Long’. In turn, Clayton says that he learned it from a copy of a Wilmer Watts record that he found while collecting songs in Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Although some of the “facts” have been altered, there is no doubt that the song ‘Duncan And Brady’ portrays an actual event. The incident happened on Monday, October 6, 1890 in the Charles Starkes Saloon at 715 North 11th Street in St Louis. A fight broke out in the bar but, when police attended, the brawl turned into a gunfight and police backup was called. One of the officers, Patrolman James Brady, was hit by gunfire and died. Harry Duncan was arrested for the murder but he reportedly claimed his innocence, insisting that the shot was fired by the owner of the bar, Charles Starkes. Duncan filed a series of appeals that took his case all the way to the US Supreme Court. Duncan’s appeal was dismissed and he was subsequently hanged on July 27, 1894. According to some, Charles Starkes would later confess to the murder on his deathbed. Most versions of the song depict Brady as a corrupt officer who, to use Dylan’s phrasing, had “been on the job too looooong”.
The opening verse, which has Officer Brady arriving on the scene by ‘lectric car, is both intriguing and inaccurate. The first electric vehicle in the USA was designed in 1891. It ran, as a test on the streets of Chicago in late 1892 and production began in 1895. It was around 1900 before the vehicles began appearing on the streets in the form of taxicabs and ambulances.
It is a matter of fact that the affray at Charles Starkes’ Saloon occurred on October 6, 1890, a year before the first electric vehicle was invented and a full five years before production began. It would have been impossible therefore for Officer Brady to have attended the incident in his ‘lectric car. (This is probably a remarkable coincidence, but it is interesting that one of the first automobiles to be driven in Manhattan was an electric car purchased by a man named “Diamond” Jim Brady).
My research indicates that the song ‘Duncan And Brady’ was probably written at around the time of Brady’s murder (1890) or possibly shortly after Harry Duncan was hung (1894) and that the original song did not include what is now commonly the opening ‘lectric car verse. This premise can be supported in part by the fact that one of the earliest recordings of ‘Duncan And Brady’, that of Lead Belly, does not contain this verse.
I have always thought it quite odd that a murder ballad should begin with a reference to the nursery rhyme – ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ – and it is my supposition that this ill-worded line was used simply to provide a rhyme for the word “car”. Staying with nursery rhymes, Bob Dylan is not averse to beginning a song with “Once Upon A Time”.
Two rather unusual variant fragments are quoted in Carl Sandberg’s “The American Songbag”. Geraldine Smith, an attorney-at-law in Chicago, provided Sandberg with this version, which she heard from a group of Omaha railroad men. This version is, I think, unique in providing a supposed location.
Down in St. Louis at 12th and Carr,
Big Bill Brady was a-tendin’ bar,
In came Duncan with a star on his chest,
Duncan says, “Brady you’re under arrest”.
This second version, from the R.W. Gordon collection and also included in Sandberg, is interesting because of the lyric variations which include a stanza that has Brady “struttin’ in hell with his Stetson on!”
Duncan and his brother was playing pool,
When Brady came in acting a fool,
He shot him once, he shot him twice,
Saying, “I don’t make my living by shooting dice!”
Brady went to hell lookin’ mighty curious,
the devil says, “Where you from?” “East St. Louis”,
“Well, pull off your coat and step this way,
For I’ve been expecting you every day!”
When the girls heard Brady was dead
They went up home and put on red,
And came down town singin’ this song –
“Brady’s struttin’ in hell with his Stetson on!”
Neither of these early versions contains the ‘lectric car verse or the “been on the job too long” refrain.
The earliest known recording of the song is by Wilmer Watts & The Lonely Eagles who recorded it on October 29, 1929. The recording was issued in 1930 under the title of ‘Been On The Job Too Long’ (Paramount 3210). The other main early source is Lead Belly, who recorded the song twice in 1947; one version was a-capella while the other was on twelve-string guitar. Both these cuts can be found on the Smithsonian Folkways album “Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Leadbelly Legacy Vol 1”. Lead Belly’s version has no ‘lectric car and also omits the “been on the job too long” refrain.
Below are the first and final stanzas of Wilmer Watts’ version, which is perhaps the earliest rendition to include the ‘lectric car verse. This version also has a twist in the Devil’s tale because when corrupt and apathetic police officer Brady tells the Devil that he will soon be out of there, he is informed by the Devil that no “sucker” has ever got away from him because he’s “been on the job too long”.
Twinkle, twinkle like this star,
Yonder goes Brady on a ‘lectric car,
Makin’ his way to the freedom land,
He’s gonna kill him a sucker like a bullnose man,
Been on the job too long.
Brady went to hell with a crutch under his arm,
Says, “Mr Devil, well I ain’t here long”,
Devil says, “Brady, just this-a way,
Well, there’s never been a sucker here that ever got away,
Been on the job too long”.
As is common with folk songs, especially murder ballads, the lyrics to this tune have been changed and added to over the years, often to fit with different events and locales. In the book “On The Trail Of Negro Folk-Songs” – Dorothy Scarborough 1952 – Mrs. Tom Barret, a resident of Marlin, Texas, identifies the place of the shooting as being Waco, Texas.
According to Mrs Barret, the version(s) she knows are from “a genuine ballad” that celebrates the final adventure of a ‘bad Nigger” who shot up the town ... “Waco was the scene of the fray”.
Although Waco is not the setting for our version, Mrs Barret lists two fragments of lyrics which are of interest. In one song, “Brady come down on – Gabriel car”, while in another, “Brady come home on a cable car”. One version also mention’s someone by the name of “Diamond Joe” ( a popular name in American folk songs).
It has been written elsewhere that after Brady’s death the women in the song all dressed in red either to celebrate the fact that the corrupt officer was dead, or that the women might have been prostitutes who, with Brady out of the way, were able to work without hindrance. It should be noted, however, that wearing red was an accepted dress for funerals in some African-American traditions. The bright colour was perhaps a celebration of the deceased’s life rather than a mourning of his or her death.
Several blues numbers have the women dressing in red for funerals. Jim Kweskin’s ‘Ella Speed’ contains the line: “The women all heard that Ella Speed was dead / And they all went home and re-ragged in red”.
Even more interesting is this verse from Jesse James’ 1936 recording of ‘Southern Casey Jones’.
When the news reached town Casey Jones was dead,
Women went home and had it out in red,
Slipping and sliding all across the streets,
With their loose mother hubbards in their stocking feet, stocking feet, stocking feet,
loose mother hubbards in their stocking feet.
Extremely popular in the1880s, the Mother Hubbard was a full, loose, unbelted cotton dress with long sleeves and a high neck. The dress was introduced by missionaries to the South Seas islands (to cover the semi-naked “savages”), but became popular with African-Americans who originally wore it for cool comfort around the house. The name of the dress comes from illustrations made for Sarah Catherine Martin’s nursery rhyme character Mother Hubbard who wore a similar dress.
It seems that the women in the song were so eager to discover what had happened between Harry Duncan and James Brady that they were still wearing their indoor clothing and hadn’t even bothered to put on shoes!
Barker, Derek, first published in “The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under The Influence” (Chrome Dreams 2008). Updated in ISIS Magazine issue 141 (December 2008).