Joe Jencks


Joe Jencks - Live-Stream & Radio + Hope via Holly Near

Joe Jencks  LIVE from The Ark nbsp nbsp nbsp nbspLomax amp Take Dis Hammer

Joe Jencks & Spencer Tritt at WNIJ 89.5 FM (NPR)

Dear Friends in Music,

August is here. Wow. How did that happen?

I find my relationship with time is even more malleable than usual. And I know I am not alone in this experience. I also find I am having different sorts of dreams. Mostly they all seem to involve being in gatherings of people in one form or another. With family, with friends, or with our music community, all of my dreams seem to involve being with people. And in the dreams, it is good to be with people and strangely awkward at the same time.

For those who continue to be affected by the pandemic, hurricanes, evictions, loss of income, loss of insurance, and for some a loss of their sense of purpose, I offer my sincere hope that you will know that you are not alone. Even when it feels that way. We still have each other. That is how our ancestors survived many trials and tribulations.

Holly Near wrote a song several years ago that moves me deeply, and I find myself humming it as a mantra and a personal prayer lately.

I Am Willing – by Holly Near

I am open and I am willing
To be hopeless would seem so strange
It dishonors those who go before us
So lift me up to the light of change

There is hurting in my family
There is sorrow in my town
There is panic in the nation
There is wailing the whole world round

May the children see more clearly
May the elders be more wise
May the winds of change caress us
Even though it burns our eyes

Give me a mighty oak to hold my confusion
Give me a desert to hold my fears
Give me a sunset to hold my wonder
Give me an ocean to hold my tears

In that spirit or perseverance, have several events this month that I invite you to tune into and in which I hope you will find solace.

Wednesday August 5th (tonight) My Highway Home, an All Vinyl Flashback will broadcast on Folk Music Notebook
9:00 PM ET/ 8:00 PM CT / 6:00 PM Pacific
Rebroadcast at 2:00 AM ET on August 6th and at 1:00 PM / 10:00 AM Pacific on Sunday August 9th.

Thursday, August 6th at 7:00 PM CT - Sessions from Studio A
I will be on WNIJ, the DeKalb NPR station. Sessions from Studio A with host Spencer Tritt. Join us via 89.5 FM FM radio or the web for a full hour of performance and in-depth conversation. Rebroadcast on Sunday August 9th at 12 Noon CT

On Saturday August 8th
at 3:00 PM ET / 2:00 PM CT I will be offering a LIVE Stream set for the Goderich Celtic Roots Festival. Since we can’t all gather in person in Goderich, ON this will be a virtual festival. And my set is the only Live set of the weekend. Tune in via the Goderich Festival Website:

Last but not least, on Saturday August 29th, I will be returning to Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY for another Live broadcast from their marvelous stage. That will be available via YouTube. Stay tuned to my website and the Caffe Lena website for more info.

Stay Safe and Keep In Touch!

In Gratitude and Song,

~ Joe


Also... Please see below an essay I wrote about John Lomax, and the lineage of a song I recently added to my repertoire from the Archives of American Folksong at The Library of Congress.

The Lineage of a Song - John A. Lomax & The Archives of American Folksong
Copyright 2020 Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music

I have on several occasions been asked to be a part of the Library of Congress, Folk Archives Challenge at the Folk Alliance International Conference. It’s always an honor and a good time. It is fun, relaxed, musically interesting and always educational. Musicians from all over the US and a few from other countries dive into the L.O.C. Folk Archives and resurrect some song that has fallen by the wayside. Or they render a new version of an old chestnut, and in so doing help us hear an old song in a new way. I always enjoy the concert that is assembled from musicians who have chosen to participate. It never fails to enlighten and delight.

I have to admit in all honesty that at least once, I trolled the archives for songs I already knew, and picked one of them. Based on looking at people’s albums/ song titles and comparing that to what was performed in concerts at the conference, I am clearly not the only one who has taken the road more traveled now and then.

But this year, this year I dove deep. I looked through dozens of songs and went deep down the rabbit hole of songs relating to work and chain gangs in the south, and prison yard songs. And the song I emerged with was, “Take Dis Hammer.” I am glad I did not know that it was a song well known in Blues and Bluegrass circles. If so, I might have stopped there with a rendition offered by Lead Belly or Odetta, or Flatt & Scruggs. Or one of a dozen other versions done by blues artists over the last 80 years. But because I found it in the archives of The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and in a Lomax field recording first, that was what I listened to.

I was moved by the voices I heard in those old John Lomax recordings, from a prison yard in Florida in 1939. He captured something powerful. As I listened, I imagined things that had not yet transpired when these songs were recorded. Nelson Mandela on a chain gang in a prison yard on Robben Island, in South Africa. Mohandas Gandhi and the peak of the Satyagraha movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and the marches, rallies and movements for Civil Rights yet to emerge. Black Lives Matter, and so much more.

John A. Lomax was a pioneering and visionary musicologist. Much of what we know about American Folk music from various eras before recording technology was accessible to most people, is because of John Lomax, his wives Bess & Ruby and his sons John Lomax Jr., Alan Lomax and daughter Bess Lomax. They transcribed by hand, and made field recordings of countless songs in a multitude of genres, preserving the musical styles that were endemic to certain regions or trades, or cultural sub-sets. And the Library of Congress Folk Archives are a true treasure trove of the extraordinary, including but by no means limited to the Lomax Collections.

John A. Lomax co-founded the Texas Folklore Society at the University of Texas in Austin in about 1908. The date is disputed, but in 1909, he nominated co-founder Professor Leonidas Payne to be President of the society. John A Lomax went on to help found Folklore Societies across the United States. His direct mentor at Harvard (which was at the time the center of American Folklore Studies, a field of study considered a subset of English Literature) was George Lyman Kittredge. Kittredge was a scholar of Shakespearean Literature and of Chaucer. He had inherited the position of Professor of English Literature from none other than Francis James Child. Child is known for his 8-volume lifetime work: Popular Ballads of England and Scotland. The work was unfinished at the time of Child’s passing, and Kittredge finished the work as well as continuing to teach several of the courses Child had taught. Lomax had a fine pedigree in sound research methods, and was likely the first to transcend the idea of American Folklore as a subset of English Literature and thus is appreciated in many circles as the progenitor of a new discipline: American Folklore a.k.a. American Ethnomusicology.

In 1910, Lomax published: Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, with a forward by none other than the recently retired President of the United States and aficionado of the American West, Theodore Roosevelt. It was quite a feather in the cap of a relatively young Lomax. But his truest musical love were songs that rose out of African American culture. And he was soon to find his way into the pursuit of many more forms of American Folklore. Lomax was the first to present papers to the Modern Language Association about American Literature in the form of uniquely American Ballads and Songs. He took to the lecture circuit while continuing to teach, publish, and make field recordings eventually with the help of his sons Alan and John Jr., and daughter Bess. Spanning several decades, John Lomax contributed over ten-thousand recordings to the Archive of American Folksong, at the Library of Congress.

At first the recordings were in the form of transcriptions and transliterations of the oral traditions he encountered. Old school. Lomax wrote them down. But as recording technologies improved and became more portable, Lomax was always on the leading edge of the latest capacity to record. In 1917, he was let go from his university position in Texas, over broader political battles within the institution, and was forced to take a job in the banking industry for several years in Chicago. But he became life-long friends with poet Carl Sandburg while he was there, and is referenced many times in Sandburg’s book Songbag (1927). In 1925, Lomax moved back to Texas to work for a larger bank there, but obviously being in banking became disastrous in the fall of 1929. In 1931, his beloved wife Bess Lomax died at age 50, and Lomax also lost his job when the bank for which he worked, failed as a result of The Great Depression.

In 1933, John A. Lomax got a grant from the American Society of Learned Studies and acquired a state-of-the-art phonograph, an uncoated aluminum disc recorder. At 315 pounds, he and Alan mounted it in the trunk of the family Ford sedan, and went off adventuring. John was finally able to pursue the archiving the musical and narrative memory of a quickly passing generation of African Americans. Many of his subjects were in prisons, but that was by no means the sum of his contact with the African American community. He did however recognize that Jim Crow and other racist practices had created a situation where a disproportionate number of African American men were imprisoned. And because many had been there for a long time, they had not been influenced by radio and recordings. The oral traditions were still alive in the prisons of the south in particular, and in ways that they were no longer present in other parts of the country.

It was in one such prison that Lomax met Lead Belly. And while many have accused John Lomax of somehow misappropriating ideas from Lead Belly, history from many angles suggests that Lomax was a staunch advocate for Lead Belly. Lomax advocated earnestly for Lead Belly’s release from prison, and while causality is hard to trace, Lead Belly was in fact released in August of 1934. The Lomax Family helped Lead Belly get work singing African American songs throughout the North Eastern US, and with the advice of legendary Western singer Tex Ritter, also helped Lead Belly get his first recording contract. John Lomax and Lead Belly had a falling out over the managing of finances in 1935, and never spoke to one another again. Alan Lomax however, remained a stalwart friend and an advocate of Lead Belly’s for the next 15 years, until Lead Belly’s death in 1949.

Though it is not clearly documented, it is very likely that Lead Belly himself learned Take Dis Hammer from the Lomax field recordings. He however only sang a few of the traditional verses, and invented his own version. He was prone to personalize many of the songs he sang and recorded, and was known to embellish on the historic record from time to time if it made a good story. In short, he was a Folksinger and Bluesman in good standing.

My version of Take Dis Hammer was derived mostly from the field recordings made by John, Alan, and Ruby Terrill Lomax, John’s second wife. There was no available transcription of the original field recordings which were made in 1939 at the Florida State Prison known as Raiford Penitentiary. These recordings were part of a series from the Southern States Recording Trip. So I listened, and listened, and listened again, at least 100 times. And I still could not discern certain words and phrases.

So, I spoke with Jennifer Cutting and Dr. Stephen Winick (with whom I am occasionally confused in public gatherings and always take it as a compliment) at The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. I explained the problem in trying to resurrect the original recorded version. They responded kindly that I should consider recovering as many of the original words as possible, and use my knowledge of the idiom, the period, and my capacity as a songwriter to fill in the gaps. So, I did. I also included a re-write of a verse that I traced to one of the Flatt & Scruggs recordings, and as a proper homage, I included a slight adaptation of one of Lead Belly’s verses. But the last verse was largely unintelligible. As such, I lifted what I could and made up the rest with knowledge of the context. Words I wrote to infill for inaudible words, or just invented to fit the context are italicized and in bold.

I will note that the Flatt & Scruggs influenced verse about the shackles, does not appear in any of the Lomax field recordings. But I liked it. And since it seemed like everyone else had just invented it – I invented a version that I felt was more in keeping with the original Prison Yard recordings both in cadence and language. And that is the lineage of one rendition of a Folk Song.

Thank Dis Hammer / Take This Hammer

Take this hammer, hammer and give it to the captain
Take this hammer, hammer and give it to the captain
Won’t you Take this hammer, and give it to the captain
(Won’t you) Tell him I’m gone, Lord tell him I’m gone

And if he asks you, asks you was I running
And if he asks you, asks you was I running
And if he asks you, asks you was I running
Tell ‘m I was flyin’, Lord I was flyin’

Captain, captain this ole hammer too heavy
Captain, captain this ole hammer too heavy
Captain, captain this ole hammer too heavy
For the likes of man, for the likes of man

Must be the hammer, hammer that killed John Henry
Must be the hammer, hammer that killed John Henry
Must be the hammer, hammer that killed John Henry
But it won’t kill me, no it won’t kill me

This ole hammer, hammer shines like silver
This ole hammer, hammer shines like silver
This ole hammer, hammer shines like silver
But it rings like gold, lord it rings like gold

Flatt & Scruggs Bluegrass Verse
I don’t want, your old darn shackles
I don’t want, your old darn shackles
I don’t want, your old darn shackles
‘Cause it hurts my leg, ‘cause it hurts my leg

Odetta Verse
I don’t want your cold iron shackles
I don’t want your cold iron shackles
I don’t want your cold iron shackles
Around my leg boys. Around my leg.

Joe Jencks Adaptation – more in keeping with the original Prison Yard cadence and language
Don’t you make me wear, wear these old cold shackles
Don’t you make me wear, wear these old cold shackles
Don’t you make me wear, wear these old cold shackles
‘Cause they wound my soul, Lord they wound my soul

Lead Belly Verse… JJ Adaptation to meet cadence of Prison Yard
Twenty-five miles, alone in Mississippi
Twenty-five miles, alone in Mississippi
Twenty-five miles, alone in Mississippi
Tell him I’m gone, oh Lord tell him I’m gone

Joe Jencks Verse – best guess based on cadence and audibility of
Lord I’m coming, to that Jordan water
Lord I’m coming, to that Jordan water
Lord I’m coming, to that Jordan water
Don’t you let me drown, Lord don’t let me drown

As a result of my work with this song, I was awarded a small grant to continue my research into the Library of Congress Folk Archives. And I will record a “tiny-desk” type concert for the Library of Congress Folk Archives this summer that will be released through the Library of Congress on Wednesday September 2nd, and remain part of the L.O.C. Archives in perpetuity. The focus of my work on this project will continue in the vein of prison and work songs from the Lomax Recordings. We will have a watch party at 12:30 PM ET / 11:30 AM CT on Wednesday September 2nd. Si Kahn will offer a set at Noon ET/ 11:00 AM CT on the same day. Stay tuned to for more details. And do yourself a favor, troll around the Library of Congress Folk Archives and the Archive of American Folksong. But be forewarned, you will definitely get delightfully lost.

~ Joe Jencks