38. The Old Ship is Sailing for the Promised Land
Written & performed by Fiddlin’ John Carson & His Virginia Reelers
From the CD Fiddlin John Carson & Moonshine Kate – Complete Recorded Works Vol. 6: 1929-30 (Document, USA 1998)



Some of these mornings about four o’clock
This old world’s gonna reel and rock
Better get your ticket get on the ship
That’s sailing for the Promised Land

Sailing, sailing,
The old ship is sailing for the Promised Land


The world of John Carson

The New Georgia Encyclopaedia describes John Carson as ‘the first genuine old-time country musician to broadcast genuine old-time country music over a radio station.’ Wayne Daniel, the author of the entry, goes on to say that ‘a year later, on June 14, 1923, the country music industry was born when Carson made his first record.’ The song Carson recorded was called The Little Olds Log Cabin in the Lane. It was written in 1871, when Carson was a child – he was born in Georgia in 1868. Carson is hailed in some quarters as the father of country music, having been the first ‘Hillbilly’ artist to find commercial success with country music.

Carson achieved all this at a time when America was reinventing its national identity along decidedly racial lines and needed a new past to fit its new, racially homogenised, vision of itself. In his history of the evolution of country music, Constructing Country: Fakery and ‘Strictly American’ Music, Kevin Yuill provides a context for Carson’s emergence between 1918 and 1940, when Carson’s career was at its peak. It weaves questions of race, nation, and the fabrication of a sonic past into country music’s development and early success.

The development of country music, writes Yuill, ‘coincided with the growing romantic attachment of certain members of the elite to a racialised Anglo-Saxon American ‘folk’ whose culture they re-imagined, shorn of any uncouth or labour-related themes, in contrast to more urban, black or immigrant cultures.’

Yuill cites four figures from this elite. English proselytiser for Morris dancing, Cecil Sharp was a major advocate of the idea that the music of the Appalachians should be viewed as a particularly Anglo-Saxon cultural form. Composer John Powell, Yuill writes ‘believed that a truly national music must be based on the ‘national musical idiom’ of the people; and in America, he maintained, the idiom was typically Anglo-Saxon. Powell busied himself outside of his musical career by forming the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, preaching against the ‘annihilation of white civilization,’ the ‘Jewish infection’ in American music and calling for ‘fundamental and final solutions of our racial problems in general.’ Part of his contribution was to successfully lobby for Virginia’s infamous 1924 Racial Integrity Law.’

The Racial Integrity Law made marriage between black and white people illegal and required a racial description of every person be recorded at birth. It remained on the U.S statutes until 1967.

There was archivist Robert Winslow Gordon, who, Yuill tells us, formed the Archive of Folk Song (later the American Folklife Centre) in 1928: Gordon, writes Yuill, ‘also sponsored folk-song in opposition to ‘newcomers, immigrants, foreigners, or those associated with modern styles, with jazz-playing, or Broadway productions.’

And there was Lamar Stringfield, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, founder of the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, and author of America and Her Music (1931), in which, Yuill tells us, Stringfield ‘stated that he searched for ‘native and fine’ music and asserted that a strong and united nation must have a national music but that a distinctively American music had yet to be developed. Just as the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 attempted to define the American people as Nordic, so did Stringfield try to define what was and what was not American music. He dismissed Native American music as music of a dying race and declared that ‘Negro lack of originality in music prevents his songs from being carried on from generation to generation.’ Jazz was ‘mathematical and commercially concocted’ and furthermore, ‘since the emotions of the Negro race are foreign to the white man, an essentially Anglo-Saxon nation derives its nationalism in music only from its own people.’

The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, also known as the National Origins Act, plays a pivotal role in the thinking of these four men. The Act restricted the entry of southern and eastern European migrants (and latterly, Asian migrants), who since 1865 had been arriving in America in growing numbers. The Act also used what it called the ‘national origin’ of each individual in America in 1898 as the way of controlling the flow of migrants. The passing of the Act and the thinking of these men was influenced by the work American lawyer and eugenicist Madison Grant, whose book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), presented a scenario in which the purity of white, protestant and Anglo Saxon America was besieged by rapacious foreigners. As an antidote to this scenario Grant offered selective breeding.

The book’s sentiments found a welcome home with nationalist groups and politicians across the country; they used its arguments to press the US government to close its borders. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act gave political legitimacy to the musical quest for a white indigenous American music free of black or southern and eastern European Catholic or Jewish origins. It also provided the context for the persecution of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants who had started to arrive at the end of the 19th century. Carson cut the first country music recording, Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, in 1923, a year before the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act became law.

This was the world of ideas and actions that formed country music and formed John Carson, and this was the landscape of political and aesthetic matters of life or death, to which Carson’s recording was, in a sense, the first response, the beginning of a slow and tortured dialogue between country music and a turbulently changing America, and an internal dialogue between country music and its increasingly fragmented audience and protagonists. This, it would seem, is where everything you dislike about country music begins.
Carson’s background provides a sense of his lived relationship to multi racial America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also gives us evidence of his political and professional response to white America’s preoccupation with racial purity. He was born in Georgia’s predominantly black county of Cobb and, as Scott Reynolds Nelson tells us in his book Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, Carson’s first job was serving black men; he was a water carrier for black men working on the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad during the 1880s. In the early 1900s Carson had black people working for him. He was a foreman in a textile mill in Atlanta that employed black and white workers. He was also hanging out with black people; it was around this time he started playing the fiddle, and Nelson argues that Carson would have been exposed to ‘the field hollers of black draymen as they arrived with cotton bales, and the work songs of black cotton pickers as they unloaded cotton,’ and places him on Atlanta’s multi racial crime zone of Decatur Street, where he learned his instrument and found his style -‘part singing, part talking, part humour’.

Carson’s style proved especially popular with his compositions The Grave of Mary Phagan, and Little Mary Phagan. The songs tell the story of the murder of a thirteen-year-old factory worker, for which the factory’s Jewish superintendent, Leo Frank, had been falsely accused and sentenced to death. Carson’s ballads were performed at rallies for Leo Frank’s execution. Carson’s friend, Tom Watson, owner of the Atlanta newspaper The Jeffersonian, used his editorials to incite the already enraged passions of Atlanta’s white population. Watson’s demand for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of Leo Frank were fully met: on August 16th 1915 a group of men, organised by a former governor, a respected judge and state legislators, kidnapped and hanged Leo Frank. Three months after Frank’s death, on Thanksgiving Day, the Klan burned a cross on a mountain and announced its return.

The success of D.W Griffith’s Klan movie The Birth of a Nation helped the organisation’s presence loom all the more larger over the American landscape. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), Griffith’s movie further blurred the distinctions between history and fantasy with a success – $18 million dollars of it – that mirrored the aims and dwarfed the achievements of the advocates of a white, racially pure national folk music. We don’t know whether John Carson saw Griffiths’ movie, although we can’t imagine him being especially offended by it: he joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

Carson and Watson remained friends – Carson used his popularity to campaign for Watson when he was running for Governor of Atlanta. He did the same for governor Eugene Talmadge, and helped Talmadge become governor of Atlanta in 1933. Carson went on to support Talmadge’s son Herman. Herman was as resolutely supremacist as his father and a staunch opponent of the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation. In 2007 documents released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Eugene Talmadge had been investigated by the FBI, following suspicions that, in order to win white votes during a difficult election, he sanctioned the lynching of two black couples. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

We’re still in the early twenties, and country music is still being formed by musicians as well as by less tangible things like ideas and acts around race, nation, and migration. Carson, now a rising radio star in the south, has reinvented himself. He has erased his formative years in a predominantly black county, and his working life among African Americans, and claims he was born in the almost exclusively white Tennessee mountains. He’s older now, having added six years to his age. His past has changed too: he tells his audience he was an outlaw, a drifter who sold moonshine.

Carson’s new persona was well received by white urban and rural workers who attended his performances and went on to make him a star; the music that followed would also mirror the fantasies of an American cultural elite eager for a music of indigenous folk culture of solely Anglo Saxon origin, and performed by a son of the soil with none of the trappings of class affiliation or black or native American influence. Carson’s fame was sealed with local hits which included such titles as Run Nigger Run (1924) and Flat Footed Nigger (1925), as well as recordings of his Mary Phagan ballads in 1925 and 1926. But what seems to have guaranteed him a place in American music history is his being the first person to make a country music record – with The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, a song which Kevin Yuill tells us, via a quote from Bill Malone, began life in 1871 as ‘the nostalgic complaint of a faithful darkie,’ and had, by the time Carson recorded it, ‘metamorphosed into a more general expression of regret about the disappearance of rural society – an impulse that remained central to country music in the decades that followed.

When Will S. Hays wrote the song for the minstrel trade in 1871 it may have seemed, if you were a white supremacist, as though the world from which the fiction of the ‘faithful darkie’ was drawn was coming to an end: in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation had freed the slaves in the confederate states, the end of the Civil War in 1865 saw the freeing of a further four million slaves, and the passing of the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to African Americans. In 1870 African Americans won the right to vote.

In the decades leading to Carson’s recording of the song the gains made by African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation had long been reversed and white hostility to black presence had, correspondingly, accelerated. In 1919 whites initiated riots in twenty six cities, the worst being in Chicago, one of the major destinations of southern African Americans. Eighteen months later in Tulsa, Oklahoma, thousands of whites descended on the city’s black community for having attempted to stop a lynching. Over three days homes, business, and churches were destroyed, three hundred and fifty black people were killed, and thousands were left injured and homeless. After the riot Klan membership soared, making Tulsa a central location for the organisation’s activities, and helping the Klan enjoy a nationwide swelling of its masked ranks.

For all their efforts the Klan were unable to stop Jews from becoming a part of American life, or from keeping them quiet about the injustices they received. Violence seemed to have an energising effect on the Klan: the murder of Leo Frank provided the catalyst for the return of the Klan, but violence also appeared to strengthen outrage; Frank’s murder was also the catalyst for the formation of the Jewish Defamation League. And if the Klan’s offensive had at its core the absolute control of the African American’s capacity for physical (and psychological) movement across the American landscape, then it is this question of movement that evokes the Klan’s biggest failure. Even at its peak the Klan failed to terrorise African Americans into servitude; instead of keeping them in place, violence strengthened their desire for freedom. They continued to leave the South, taking with them their valuable labour power, and they were finding new and bold ways of making themselves heard and seen.

We imagine that for the Klan’s membership these growing powers of movement, this multiple dissemination of Other presences and their all too seductive visibility and volubility would have been evidence enough that by the end of the 1920s the world held together by the word of God, rule of discriminatory law, and force of supremacist civil code, was on its way to falling apart

Which brings us to The Old Ship is Sailing to the Promised Land, a song, a warning about the end of the world, and an offer of a way out, a way over – ‘sailing, sailing,’ by way of a Klansman’s fantasy recorded sometime between the mid to late 1920s, when membership of the Ku Klux Klan was estimated at one hundred thousand.

In the world of the song, the passing of time marks the coming of the end of the world. Carson sings the hours down with such good cheer you get the impression he thinks the apocalypse cannot begin too soon, and there’s enough in Carson’s oeuvre, his extra musical affiliations, and his happy weaving of music and racism, to suggest to us that the Old Ship’s destination, the promised land, could have been somewhere, anywhere, in life or death, that the Jews, the Catholics, the eastern and southern Europeans, the Indians and the African Americans, were not and had never been and, by divine mandate, would never be – the impossible, racially homogenous America of the white supremacist imagination which, through Fiddlin’ John Carson, found its popular voice in country music and, in Carson, found a friend. John Carson died on December 11, 1949 in Atlanta, Georgia.


Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. Published by Oxford University Press US, 2006.
http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&id=mTTVEx2MBJMC&dq=John+Carson+Steel+Drivin'+Man+Scott+Reynolds+Nelson&printsec=frontcover &source=web&ots=uuRvNPmvsR&sig=DymfVdtSxd3QWIyT1vZD9x0XpOI&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA140,M1


Little Secrets - The murder of Mary Phagan and the death of Leo Frank, by Larry Worthy, from About North Georgia

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright© 2004, Columbia University Press.

Constructing Country: Fakery and "Strictly American" Music / Kevin Yuill [Part 2].
Reconstruction 8.4 (2008), Reconstruction: Studiesin Contemporary culture

Immigration Statistics: A Story of Neglect (1985) Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (CBASSE)



And The Dead Shall Rise - The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, by Steve Oney. New York: Pantheon Books. 2003




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