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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW: Rolling Mills Are Burning Down (11/26/09)

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banjo_brad - Posted - 11/26/2009:  17:49:24

I've selected another song for my TOTW entry; "Rolling Mills Are Burning Down."

I really have 3 motives for this:

1. I have recently bought a fretless mountain banjo and it came with Aquila Nylgut Minstrel strings, which mean it is tuned lower than my Chuck Lee.

2. I have, since I was down here, started playing around with "Dead" tuning, i.e. f#DEAD, and this is the tuning of Rolling Mills by the only "source" I have for the tune, George Landers.

3. Since this is such an obscure song, I have been unable to find any information about it. I am hoping there might be someone who has more background on the song.

I first heard the song on a living room tape my brother made for his family while he was overseas. It struck a chord with me, and I've liked it ever since. I next heard it when I purchased the CD "High Atmosphere" in 2002, where it was recorded from George Landers. The liner notes indicate that this is apparently the first time it has been recorded, and there is no record of the song otherwise.

In 2006 I recorded the song in the key of C on my first banjo, a Deering Goodtime with a Fyberskin Head and nylon strings (gCGCD).

I have just re-recorded the song on my Bisbonian fretless, in the equivalent "dead" tuning, eBC#F#B, which seems to fit my vocal range quite well.
You can hear these two versions on my webpage, HERE.
You will have to scroll down a bit to hear the first version, "Rolling Mills," but the recent version, "Rolling Mills Are Burning Down" is also at the top of the page in the "recent uploads" area.

Fellow BHO member Jami108 has a recording (with video) of his version HERE.

I haven't received permission to post my brother's version of the song, but if and when I do, I'll be sure to add the link.

So, as far as I know, there are 5 recordings of this song in existence. If any body can add to the number, please let us know.

I have also tabbed out the two versions I do, and the tef files are available HERE.
Again, you will have to scroll down the page a bit.

A bit maudlin for Thanksgiving, maybe, but a good song that I would like to see become a bit more common, and learn a bit of history about, if possible.


J-Walk - Posted - 11/26/2009:  19:20:05

I have two additional recordings:

Bruce Molsky, on "Banjo Gathering"
John Hoffman & Mac Benford, on "It's About Time" (fiddle, banjo, guitar)

Jami108 - Posted - 11/26/2009:  19:57:50

This song is one of my all time favorites. Thank you for picking it for the TOTW.

I found a couple more recorded versions:

on "Stories The Crow Told Me" by John Cohen
on "Fever in the South" by Big Medicine

There's a video version by John Cohen at It's interesting to me how the audience reacts to the "Go get your revolver" verse, i.e., with nervous laughter. It's a powerful verse; to my ear, one of the most honest and uncomfortable lyrics you might ever hear, because almost everyone has felt that way at some point.

It was interesting hearing other commercial, non-Landers/Cohen recordings of the song, which I feel really attached to. I must admit, I didn't really dig any of them. It seems to lose its direct simplicity by adding other instruments and/or adding "chords." A voice and a banjo is sufficient (which is one of the reasons I really liked your version, Banjo Brad).

I guess, to me, the song is about those moments in your life when you feel like everything has been burned to the ground, and you're standing in the ashes thinking that there's no way in this world you can rebuild. The singer doesn't even need to strive for affect, because the lyrics are about that place past pain. It certainly doesn't seem consistent with "prettying up."

Besides the first verse, which seems to be a floating verse, I haven't encountered any of the other elements of the song pre-Landers. Maybe somebody out there has.

John Gribble - Posted - 11/27/2009:  06:14:02

I love that song too and I hope someone who knows its history will chime in here.

dikdik - Posted - 11/27/2009:  11:38:22

Bascom Lunsford of North Carolina sang a similar tune with different lyrics in 1946 as "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground." The Library of Congress reissued Artus M. Moser's recording as Track A4 on platter AAFS L21, 33-1/3 RPM, with historical notes. The non-commercial series was Duncan B. M. Emrich, Ed., Anglo-American Songs and Ballads, Folk Music of the United States, Music Division-Recording Laboratory, The Library of Congress, undated. A statuesque librarian sold me a platter from the Library's retail shop in September, 1962.

Jami108 - Posted - 11/27/2009:  12:37:57

I've noticed the similarity between "Rolling Mills" and "Mole in the Ground" as well. They are both tunes with only "A" parts, and the first melody section is very close. In both songs the first and fourth melody sections are practically identical. Definitely, the songs have a family resemblance. My working hypothesis has been that George Landers "wrote" Rolling Mills, based on the unique quality of the lyrics. The melody resemblance would be natural for someone from North Carolina, like Landers, who probably had the "Mole in the Ground/<Insert Name of Female> Let Your Hair Hang Down" tune in their consciousness if not in their repertoire. To my ear, the second and third melody sections diverge enough to make them two related but separate tunes.

banjo_brad - Posted - 11/27/2009:  13:28:40

I neglected to mention the similarity of "Rolling Mills" and "Mole In The Ground" in my original post. Another song that is very close (I can easily morph from any of the three into any other of the three) is "Peg and Awl."

I do tend to go with the "separate but close" theory on the songs.

Oh, my take on the origins of "Rolling Mills" is that it came about during the depression when businesses were shuttering. Perhaps a rolling mill (steel processing mill) burned down and the owners had decided not to rebuild, throwing the employees, town, region into poverty. The lyrics seem to address these points.

Edited by - banjo_brad on 11/27/2009 13:31:39

handsup8 - Posted - 11/27/2009:  17:49:32

Thanks Brad. Great pick. I've only tried the double-C version, but I plan to try out the "Dead-man" tuning on my fretless too.

George Landers plays it in an up-picking style, right? Do any of the fine up-pickers have a tab for his version? I'd like to start trying some up-picking old-time.

Jami108 - Posted - 11/27/2009:  20:52:19

Yep, George Landers played in an up-picking style, although he occasionally used a downward "strum" with his index (picking) finger. There shouldn't be any significant differences between a clawhammer tab and an up-picking tab. I've spending a lot of time lately with Etta Baker's banjo songs (she was index-lead two finger up-picker) and it seems to me that her arrangements would work equally well with clawhammer. They definitely sound different, but the notes are the same.

banjo_brad - Posted - 12/02/2009:  14:58:40

I've posted my brother's version of "Rolling Mills" HERE.

He got his version from Landers, also, and has this take on it:

As for rolling mills, I too got it from George Landers. My take is that the singer may have sabotaged the mills. I assumed they were probably steel mills, as they are often found in coal country, but you can't discount the rolling mills used to process feed (rolled oats, etc.). Anyhow, the singer is surely at the end of his rope.


bdavidoff - Posted - 12/03/2009:  03:55:32

My wife and I were talking about how strange the words are, and she came up with an explanation that makes the whole thing make sense. It's a dialogue between a man and his pregnant - not by him - girlfriend. The first verse is consoling
"Oh darling, darling I'm here. And I don't want to see you cry"
The second verse is a little weird. Why "your" revolver? This makes sense if she is the one talking in that verse. She's saying you might as well shoot me. Nothing could be worse than the mess she's in.
Finally, the last verse is a sad meditation by the man - more in sorrow than anger.
The chorus is a comparison between the hopelessness of rebuilding his life after this sort of thing and the burning of the mills which can't be rebuilt.

It all seemed a little strange to me until I thought about this explanation. But now it all seems to fit together.


FScholle - Posted - 12/03/2009:  07:21:44

Clyde Davenport sings and plays it on banjo on Vol 1 of his Field recorders collective CD.

banjo_brad - Posted - 12/03/2009:  15:20:05

So, 11 versions so far, if you count mine as two versions.

Any more around?

(That FRC is on my "to acquire" list, by the way.)

un5trung - Posted - 12/04/2009:  19:06:44

I saw John Cohen and Bruce Molsky playing it together once and wondered if Molsky learned it from Cohen, who recorded it (High Atmosphere) well before Molsky's very similar version on Banjo Gathering. Of course that would suggest that Molsky wasn't familiar with Landers, which is silly. OK, Never Mind!

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