Run O Molly run, run O Molly run
Tenbrooks gonna beat you to the bright shinin’ sun.
To the bright shinin’ sun O Lord to the bright shinin’ sun
Molly & Tenbrooks
The west vs. the east. A rivalry that goes back to Cain and Able. It was to finally be put to rest on July 4th, 1878. Mollie McCarty of California and Ten Broeck of Kentucky would come together and race.
California horses weren’t thought of with high regard and Mollie, no matter how many races she had won, was a second class nag. She was born of Hennie Farrow and sired by Monday, a lesser son of the great race horse Lexington, in 1873. Did you catch all that? Was it actually interesting?
Ten Broeck was born in 1872 and was sired by….
Now, it’s tough for the west coasters. Baseball, bluegrass, theater, and horse racing, these are all things born of the east. The easterners lay claim to them and scoff at anything that suggests otherwise. It’s like this, when I first went west and laid eyes on a dog track I raised an eyebrow. It was like going from gin to vodka. Greyhounds are wretched creatures next to a horse. Rescue them if you must, God knows they need it.
Back in the 18’s the races were long, grueling, 4 mile events, none of this sprint business like we have today, but after this rivalry played out the long run was all but finished. The night of July 3rd a hard Kentucky rain came down and made the track muddy and sloppy for the following day. It didn’t stop the 30,000 people that showed up though to see it. What they got was a pitifully labored run by glass eyed horses being whipped to the end. Cheating, unlike today, was common and both teams claimed the other had drugged their horse prior to the race. How it didn’t turn fisticuffs is practically a miracle. When it was all said and done though, and the mud had flown and the riders slumped and the horses heaved it was Ten Broeck, the eastern savior, who had prevailed. Rigged no doubt, but which way and by who and how is left up for you to determine.
The events were turned into song, by whom has maybe been forgotten to time and certainly is not known by me. Generally, it is attributed to Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, and is one of the earliest examples of Monroe’s new old time music. The song echos the horses and thunders down breathlessly, driven by Earl Scruggs banjo rolls and Monroe’s high tenor. Sometimes it’s simply called the Horse Race song and for this there can be no doubt.
Go and catch old Tenbrooks and hitch him in the shade
We’re gonna bury old Molly in a coffin ready made
Coffin ready made O Lord coffin ready made
Although, I have no love for the outlandish and even less so for the controversial, it must be said that the three bottom of the barrel musical instruments, the three your child gets in band class when he is completely tone deaf, the three found in museum trinket shops next to the novelty shot glasses all over creation are as follows: the thumb piano, the recorder, and the Jew’s harp. Nothing good can come from any of these. That’s not to say people don’t try. Chalk it up to the tenacity of the human spirit if you must, the indomitable desire to move mountains and to stretch for the unattainable. But, nothing good, mind you. Nothing good.
There has been one man who almost made it. First, let’s digress. Since no one is interested in the thumb piano or recorder we’ll leave them in their gift shop boxes, but since everyone’s ears perked up by the seemingly racially insensitive mention of the Jew’s Harp that’s where we will linger.
If the writer of the Racehorse Song has been lost to history he joins the good company of the first person to call an old Chinese mouth instrument the Jew’s Harp. Some say it was a mishearing of Juice Harp do to all that saliva build up and others say it comes from the French “Jeu-trompe” meaning “toy-trumpet”. Neither of those quite have the vibration of truth though to my ears and I’ll take the commonly passed down history of Jewish merchants made and sold them to Europeans and voila, the Jew’s Harp.
Now, we’re almost back to the one who just about made it, with a tip of the cap to Roger Daltry who really, really tried. Chuck Berry isn’t that guy, but a few words need to be said. First, Chuck should be carved into Mt. Rushmore. Second, why aren’t there more streets named after him? His birth place was St. Louis, 1926 and some of his earliest musical influences he recalls were Fats Waller, Gene Autry and Bob Wills. Bob and his Texas Playboys used to really get going on an old fiddle piece called Ida Red. Sometimes it had lyrics, sometimes it was just a good slosher of a two-step and every hillbilly band would play it at least once a dance. When Chuck started to perform, Ida Red worked its way into his repertoire and like it had done countless times before changed considerably from the earlier hoedowns. Chuck sang it as Ida May and eventually recorded it in 1955 for Chess Records where, during the session, the name was finally changed to Maybelline.
In 1999 we begin to come full circle. Three men gathered together in California with a room full of instruments and more songs between them than what’s probably healthy. David Grisman, John Hartford and Mike Seeger. Three old codgers of folk and old time and freakishness and what after a lifetime of study, meditation in the old, weird ways did they play? Maybelline. A 1955 Bel Air gets completely pulled apart and assembled into a Model T. Everything gets unplugged and the funky little rhythms are laid down between Hartford and Grisman on banjos, but the anchor and drive train is all Mike Seeger with his constant buzz on the jaw harp. The men take the song back to a field holler, a hard wagon board ride, an American primevial growl over a faithless woman.
How can the old sound new and not really change at all? A question Mike Seeger would ask himself a few times during his lifetime of recording. Maybelline was one way. Ten Broek and Mollie was another. If you go back far enough, maybe it’s all fresh again and with that in mind Seeger walked right past the bluegrass versions and headed for the old muddy. It too opens with a banjo, but if ever there was a lesson showing the differences between old time music and its cousin bluegrass than this is it. Seeger’s clawhammer style bounces along where Scruggs drives down over us. This six minute number is closer to that 4 mile run, at least in the last mile of it where surely all but the reserves of steam were gone. In Seeger’s hands the song seems less tragic, less biblical. It’s a dance tune really and where Bill and Boys rocked it, Mike swings it.
With so much of Mike Seeger’s music there is a playfullness at work here, a respectful disregard, not for how it was, is, or should be played, but in its relavance as a museum piece and artifact. In his hands it’s no more an artifact than the wheel is. Love and theft is all over his recordings and we’re better off for it and as I mentioned in True Vine, Mike Seeger remains interested not in a finger, but what it is pointing at.