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Feb 14, 2018 - 6:21:20 PM
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5241 posts since 1/16/2010

I began working out a version of this song earlier this week simply because it came to mind, but then I remembered that this is Black History Month, and I redoubled my efforts get this ready to post it this month.

"Ain't No More Cane on this Brazos" was collected by John Lomax in the Texas Central State Prison Farm early in the 20th century. He has suggested that the song has its "real roots in Africa", which became, initially, a slave work song. It later became a prison work song, when the emancipated slaves were replaced by African-American prisoners, leased out to plantations for cheap labour, in a situation hardly distinguishable from slavery. This use of mainly black convicts for cheap labour continued well into the 20th century under the State Prison Farm system.

By way of explanation of what the song is about, Wikipedia says that it "is a traditional prison work song of the Southern United States. The title refers to work assigned to prisoners sentenced to hard labor in Texas. The labor involved cutting sugar cane along the banks of the Brazos River, where many of the state's prison farms were located in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." Lomax explains that "Old Hannah" is a reference to the sun.

In my rendering of the song, I use most of the stanzas originally collected by Lomax (with slight reworking here and there), and have rearranged the order of the stanzas to emphasize the prisoner aspect of the song, which I find to be not all that evident in some other versions I have heard.

I'm playing it here on a Jason Romero Banjo, tuned (without the capo) at eAEae, but with the 4 long strings capoed at the 5th fret thus making the actual tuning: eDAda, played in D. The playing style moves back and forth between clawhammer and 2 finger picking. (There is also an added live version, recorded a few days after this one, posted a few replies down.)

Here it is embedded from YouTube:


And here it is attached from my BHO video archive:

Edited by - Marc Nerenberg on 02/17/2018 10:18:53

Feb 15, 2018 - 1:28:17 AM



8720 posts since 1/22/2003

Nice, Marc. I know this song from the bootleg LP "Dylan '62", taped at the Gaslight Cafe, New York City.

Feb 15, 2018 - 6:14:05 AM

4976 posts since 12/20/2005

I spent 6 years of my childhood, growing up on the Central Unit. My dad was the veterinarian for the Texas Dept of Corrections. We lived there, on the farm, in state housing. There were 3 parts, Central l, ll, and lll. Co-indidentally my dad spent some childhood years there as well. My Grandfather was the warden.

Grandad was kind of a Clark Gable, Roy Rogers type. Handsome as is possible for a man to be. Played football at Texas A&M. Was a Naval fighter pilot in WW ll. Handsome did not seem to be passed down to subsequent generations. He was a nice, charismatic man. He was tall. He was as tough as they come, when it became necessary. He was known for having put down a prison riot. By himself ! I know the story, and it's kind of long. Between my Dad's and Grandad's experiences, there are some stories. I've got a few myself.

Centrals l, ll and lll adjoined each other. Tens of thousands of acres for a boy to run and play. Brazos river ran through a portion on it's southwest side. Central l is still there.

Brazos river would flood sometimes. I heard my dad tell a story of how, after a flood, pigs from the swine operation had to swim, and made it to some oak trees. They were able to survive the flood by somehow getting on the limbs of those trees. Then, of course the water would recede. Then they were stuck there. No problem. Get some thieves (generic word for inmates), have them climb up and get them down to the ground. They should have taken pictures of that.

By God, cane was still there, and I chopped it, starting when I was about 5 years old. With a hoe. Don't know why. I think my mom thought it would build character or something. She grew up poor, on a farm. Maybe that was it.

Cane made a reasonably strong bow, for a bow and arrow, for a small boy. September 30, 1965, myself and a friend were walking through this row of cane, looking for just the right piece of cane, to make a bow out of. My friend was in front, and it was thick stuff. Suddenly, he bumps into this enormous, paper mache looking thing, roughly the size and shape of a 5 gallon bucket. I recall seeing that thing for about 1 second. I'll never forget it, though. Suddenly, everything turned black, even the sky. It was a hornet's nest. I was 6 years old. I vividly recall running. It was out of a horror movie. They nailed me good. I was solid bumps all over, swelled up like a watermelon. In today's world, they would perhaps call 911, get an ambulance, all that sort of thing. Back then, they would lay you on a couch. Till you got better. My friend's mom took a picture, I wish I had that. I've still got a scar over my left eye from that. To this day, flying inscects, send a chill down my spine.

Soon after that, I got nailed by an asp. This is a caterpillar, FROM HELL. I mean FROM HELL. Megalopyge opercularis. There are some funny nicknames. One nickname would not be allowed on this forum. I think you can google it. Anyway, he got me on my left arm. More painful than all of the hornets combined. Left a caterpillar shaped scar, which lasted until my late teens.

That was outside of Sugarland, Tx. Sugarland was a small town in those days. In spite of those, and a few other events, it was a great place.

I've not even listened to the song yet. I saw this post and couldn't believe it. It made a huge connection with me. I did not know this song even existed. Thanks for posting this, Mark.

Feb 15, 2018 - 7:02:14 AM

mikebanjo Players Union Member


249 posts since 10/30/2007

The Limeliters has a nice version of this song, but with not as many verses as you sang. Liked your version, too. Don't know if you can get the Limeliters' version from back in the folk era.

Feb 15, 2018 - 7:20:18 AM

618 posts since 1/16/2010

<p>Man...that sounded really good Marc, the banjo playing and also your singing. A very different version of the song then what I am used to. The only version I was familiar with growing up was by Levon Helm and “The Band”. Nice history behind the song.<br /><br />And Leslie...that’s an awesome story, thanks for sharing it. And I too know about the asp unfortunately. Growing up in Grand Prairie, asp jumped off a tree one time and landed on my dad’s shoulder...stung the “livin’ day lights” out of him. Also left a scar...they’re nasty little critters. Scorpions, asps, poisonous snakes, tarantulas, wasps...all over the place when I was a kid...all but eradicated now. <br /><br />Dow</p>

Edited by - Texican65 on 02/15/2018 07:21:01

Feb 17, 2018 - 10:16:26 AM

5241 posts since 1/16/2010

Thank you very much, all of you, for the interesting comments!

Here's a live version which is a slightly modified version of the arrangement above (mainly changes to the order of the stanzas), and for which asked the audience to sing along on the "response" part of the "call and response" structure of the song.
This was recorded on 16 February 2018 at Montreal's Yellow Door Coffeehouse Hootenanny, which I host, on a Jason Romero Banjo tuned eDAda (when the capo position is taken into account).

Here it is embedded from YouTube:

And here it is attached from my BHO video archive:

Feb 19, 2018 - 9:31:48 PM

5823 posts since 6/27/2009

I like how you combine your mountain banjo tone with your wailing songs that always have a message. This song is a pleasant listen, though its subject is in a hard place of life.

Feb 21, 2018 - 9:34:13 AM

5241 posts since 1/16/2010

Thanks very much, JanetB !

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