My Old Weird America

5 “Old lady & the devil” by Bill & Belle Reed


Bill & Belle Reed’s world

The 17th of October 1928, in Johnston City, Tennessee, Mr and Mrs Reed recorded one session for Columbia. They were probably coming from the nearby regions of Virginia or Kentucky along with other people coming to record this day. Like many before and after them, they would go back to their regulary life, after having fixed their home-made folk music on disc for posterity…

-Apart from their version of “The old lady and the devil” that was included on the Anthology, i know of only one other side from them. It’s called “You shall be free” , which will become “We shall be free” interpreted by Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and “I shall be free” with Bob Dylan’s version…

So, here they are:

1.You Shall be free by Bill & Belle Reed MP3

2.We shall be free by Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly (from  “The Original Vision” on Folkways) MP3

3.I shall be free by Bob Dylan  (from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) MP3

Listening to this three tracks side by side , it revealed before me the great picture of american folk music on record, the three generations that shaped its tradition. First, you have the “real folks”, people that were recorded in the twenties and thirties, but carried with them a long oral tradition that predates the recording industry. Then came Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, the two greatest figures of the folk movement of the forties, that was more involved with social issues and politics, already on the marge of the recording industry and “popular music”. And finally, you have Bob Dylan and the “folk revival” of the fifties and sixties, that reflects the heritage of what came before him and represented the new conscience of young people in America and all over the world in search of an alternative  to the mass-entertainement culture and an authentic tradition to hang on to.

Hoping that one day, You, We, I shall be free…

The old lady and the devil Variations

After “The Drunkard’s Special”,and to stay in the comic register, Harry Smith put another  americanized verison of a “Child Ballad” called “The Farmer’s Curst Wife”. Here, a bad lady is taken to hell by the devil but she’s so mean that the devil take her back to her husband. Child noticed that you can find similar songs all over the world… All the versions seems to share a nonsense refrain or a whistling part.

-Go here for the lyrics of Bill & Belle Reed’s version

-My compilation of twenty variations includes lots of traditionnal american and english versions but i managed to find unusual ones like the psychadelic folk of Gryphon and the punk-rock of The Mules. My personnal favorites are Terry Callier’s ,Texas Gladden with her brother Hobart Smith on guitar and as usual, the John Jacob Niles version is terrific…

-The drawing below is from artist Daniel Dutton. Check out his website where you’ll find other drawings inspired by traditionnal ballads and also music he performs.

Track listing:

1.Old Lady & The Devil, Bill & Belle Reed, from “Anthology Of American Folk Music, Vol. 1A: Ballads”

2.O Daddy Be Gay ,Judy Collins, from “A Maid Of Constant Sorrow/ Golden Apples Of The Sun”

3.Little Devils, Jean Ritchie, from “British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains”

4.The Devil out of hell, George Vinton Graham , from “California Gold: Library of Congress collection”

5.The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Horton Barker, from “Archive of Folk Culture – Anglo-American Ballads, Volume 1”

6.Johnny Be Gay If You Can Be, Terry Callier, from “New Folk Sound of Terry Callier”

7.The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Pete Seeger, from “American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 2”

8.Ole Lady & the Devil, David Krussel, from “Max Hunter Folksong Collection”

9.Devil and the farmer’s wife, Otis Williams, from “Max Hunter Folksong Collection”

10.The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Common Ground, from “Live At The Emu Farm”

11.The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife, Richard Dyer-Bennet, from “Stories and Songs for Children and Their Parents, Volume 13”

12.The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife ,Gryphon, from “Crossing the Styles – The Transatlantic Anthology”

13.The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife, Texas Gladden, from “The Alan Lomax Collection: Portraits – Ballad Legacy”

14.The Devil And The Ploughman, A.L. Lloyd, from “England & Her Traditional Songs”

15.The Devil & the Ploughman, The Mules, from “Here To Help”

16.The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Joe Hubbard, from “Virginia Traditions: Ballads from British Traditions”

17.The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Paul Clayton, from “Folksongs and Ballads of Virginia”

18.The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Spider John Koerner, from “Raised By Humans”

19.The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Jeff Warner and Jeff Davis, from “Two Little Boys: More Old Time Songs for Kids”

20.The Old Woman And The Devil, John Jacob Niles, from “The Ballads”


How could i miss this great version? Here’s Martin Carthy in 1971 on his album “Out of the cut”:The Devil and the feathery wife-mp3