See That My Grave is Kept Clean: a Family Tree


Blind Lemon Jefferson first recorded his song "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" in 1927. Then he recorded it again in 1928. In that version, it ends with a verse that begins "Did you ever hear them church bells' tone?" after which he hits the E string like a sad ringing bell: bongggg. 

In 1930, Son House recorded "Mississippi County Farm Blues," which had the same melody, and ended with a verse that began "I hate to hear that big bell dong" letting that note ring out just like Blind Lemon Jefferson. This 78 rpm single had "Clarksdale Moan" on the B side, but all known extent copies were so badly damaged that the B side was unplayable and nobody heard the song for decades until a single playable copy was discovered in 2005. It's one of the rarest and most valuable records in the world.

In 1937, the Carter Family recorded "Sad and Lonesome Day." It has the same melody as "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" and many of the same, or similar lyrics: the third verse goes "Did you ever hear a church bell tone?" and the final verse goes "There's one kind favor I ask of you: / See that my grave is kept green." But the beginning is different - it starts with the memorable lines "Today has been a lonesome day / And tomorrow's gonna be the same old way." This became a old timey / country music / bluegrass standard, performed by Mike Seeger, the Country Gentlemen, and many others. I'm pretty sure Bruce Springsteen had it in mind when he wrote his own song, "Lonesome Day."
 
Furry Lewis recorded a few haunting versions of the song, this time under the title "One Kind Favor", with chilling lyrics that describe his heart stopping beating and his body going cold. Lightning Hopkins recorded under that title, too, and B.B. King, and lots of other blues musicians. In fact, this became the most common title that people use for the song, and late in life even Blind Lemon Jefferson himself seems to have started referring to it this way. In the 40s, gospel choirs started singing it, emphasizing the Christian aspect of the song.
 
In 1940, Woody Guthrie took the Carter Family song and completely rewrote lyrics into his classic, "Vigilante Man". Some of the lyrics are based on John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Reworked into a protest song against the goons that were hired to attack and oppress the poor of the dust bowl, it became a hit especially among left wing folkies and the civil rights movement. Ry Cooder, the rock band Nazareth, and many others covered this. The Hindu Love Gods... Joe Perry... even feedtime!
 
Meanwhile, there's another song, "Lonesome Road Blues," first recorded by Henry Whittier in 1924, which starts off "I'm goin' down that road feelin' bad / and I ain't gonna be treated this old way." Woody Guthrie recorded both songs on multiple occasions, and they have different melodies, but similar enough that elements of the two songs have mixed together in versions by various performers. And then there's "Lonesome Road Blues" by Crying Sam Collins, a completely different song, but with the same title and some kinda similar lyrics.....
 
Dave Van Ronk recorded it as "Please See That My Grave is Kept Clean" in 1961. Bob Dylan performed "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" on his debut self-titled album, and both that song and "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" on the Basement Tapes, and then recorded a different, but related, song called "Lonesome Day Blues" on his "Love and Theft" album. Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded it in 1964. The Grateful Dead also recorded both songs (the former under the title "One Kind Favor"). Canned Head recorded "One Kind Favor," too. 
 
Lou Reed recorded a great, 12 minute version, adding some great lyrics... look it up on youtube.
Laibach did an industrial version. Diamanda Galas's version from her album "The Singer"... maybe that's my favorite? But I'm not sure. No wait - Keiji Haino's version: that has to be my favorite.
Beck took the Carter Family's "Sad and Lonesome Day" and changed it into "Today has been a fucked up day." He also took Woody Guthrie's song "Buffalo Skinners" and changed it into a song about working at McDonald's, called "Mexico."
 
Oh yeah I forgot Mavis Staples's version.... the whole soul branch of this tree.... I feel like if I keep following the threads of these connections, eventually I will connect everything in the universe to everything else.
 
[from facebook, Sept. 11, 2020]

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