Recall that the late music historian and performer Mike Seeger played autoharp on "Your Long Journey," the Doc Watson-penned closing track of Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In 1958, Seeger helped to found a string band called the New Lost City Ramblers, a group of musicians steeped in old-time Americana music.
Tracy Schwarz, who released an album on the Smithsonian's Folkways label in 1975 called Look Out! Here It Comes. His disc contains no fewer than 17 songs, and only two of them bear his own songwriting credit. The rest hail from other authors or from traditional sources.
In providing his own liner notes for the album, Schwarz presents a good case for cover songs. His argument surely provides something fans of Robert Plant may want to consider as this September he unveils his second straight album on which a majority of the songs are not original -- and Plant's third such disc out of his last four. Schwarz writes:
"You can be sure that on this record I've recorded some music that I've wanted to play very much for a long time. Why record music that someone else has already done, anyway? Well, I believe that a person can always make learned music their own as long as that person is personally involved with it -- committed to it -- and doesn't treat the music as a one-time glass-encased phenomenon. ... This is my favorite music, and I'm committed to it for life."
Another member of the New Lost City Ramblers, co-founder John Cohen, traveled throughout rural Appalachia in Virginia and North Carolina in November 1965 to document the traditional music of local banjo players and singers. One of the men he recorded at this time was Frank Proffitt, a life-long tobacco farmer who'd taken up carpentry to make his own banjos and dulcimers. He specialized in making them without frets. Aside from being able to play the instruments he so capably assembled, Proffitt also had a surprisingly mellow singing voice. The recordings of him playing in November 1965 were to be the last of Proffitt's life, as he died that same month at age 52.
It was only in 1961 that Proffitt began recording. As with many of the artists regarded as American folk singers of the era, Proffitt was sought out at home, rather than having him lured into some studio away from the family home in North Carolina he'd built. The time did come in July 1963 for Proffitt to stray just long enough to perform at the Newport Folk Festival and then to do some traveling in Vermont just afterward.
High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina. Rounder's re-release of the set was in time to celebrate the compilation's 20th anniversary, and this new deluxe CD edition expanded the track listing to include several more takes from it.
It was the version of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" by Proffitt, as recorded by Cohen, that inspired Tracy Schwarz to include it among the 15 cover songs on his 1975 album Look Out! Here It Comes. Again from Schwarz's liner notes:
"Much of the music of Western North Carolina, in particular the unaccompanied ballad singing and index-lead banjo playing prevalent there, has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I learned this song from a tape that John Cohen made of Frank Proffitt some years ago. Its haunting, modal sound left little doubt in my mind that I should learn it."Yet there are at least two much older versions of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" that are also worth investigating. Both date back to the Great Depression, although they are from the opposite ends of that era.
Blind Joe Taggart. Two companion CDs released in 1992 by Document Records collect Taggart's "complete recorded works in chronological order." The second volume, which focuses on the period of 1929 to 1934, contains his take on this spiritual. Taggart's gruff yet melodic voice is complemented by the strumming of his guitar.
a cappella version of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" was recorded in a much different style. Like Taggart's version, this rendition also came out in the CD age on the Document label. The disc's title, Carolina Gospel Quartets: 1938-1939, gives away what is known about it. In this recording, one lead vocalist of the Spartanburg Famous Four takes advantage of his wide range, ably switching back and forth between tenor and falsetto, while three other simply sing "bum" on each beat to provide harmony with each other.
Proffitt's recorded version that not only inspired Schwarz in 1975 but also inspired alt-rockers Uncle Tupelo to revive the song out of obscurity in 1992. Three of the songs on that Rounder Records compilation High Atmosphere made it into Uncle Tupelo's repertoire when the band recorded the album it simply titled March 16-20, 1992. With two vocalists tackling the lyrics of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," this version is fast-paced and heavy on the acoustic guitars. Interspersed between sung verses are instrumental takes on the melody. And while the total track time is just under two minutes, the Uncle Tupelo take would stand for about 15 years as the unquestioned definitive modern version of the song. Perhaps Rounder has Uncle Tupelo to thank for revitalizing interest in High Atmosphere and prompting the expanded reissue that followed in short order.
Whatever effect Uncle Tupelo might have had in reenergizing these particular tracks and, more broadly, this style of music, it is undeniable that cover versions of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" after 1992 have been much more frequent. Just as happened from the beginning, the song also traverses boundaries of genre pretty well in this time. Rock artist Marc Carroll included it on his February 2003 album Ten of Swords, country artist Bob Buckingham included it on his May 2003 album My Friend is a Mule in the Mines, and folk artist Darcie Deaville included it on her 2004 album Plays the Fiddle and Sings. Buckingham's version was on the Dark Holler label, as was a version by an act called The Spectral Light and Moonshine Firefly Snakeoil Jamboree released in 2002 on their album Scarecrow Stuffing.
Medeski, Martin & Wood recorded an instrumental version for the band's 2009 album Radiolarians III. Quite unlike any previous version, theirs opens with two-and-a-half minutes' worth of grand piano jangle courtesy of John Medeski before Chris Wood's heavily distorted bass enters to take the melody, backed by a sparing percussive arrangement from Billy Martin. Given their jazz inflections, it's yet another genre to add to the song's growing history.
Prior to Plant's take, the most recent version comes from Willie Nelson. And, like Plant's, it's on the Rounder label. This can be found on Nelson's album Country Music, which was released this year on 4/20 (The date must be some kind of inside joke among Nelson and his fellow cannabis smokers). Note that this album includes Band of Joy co-producer and Raising Sand tour sideman Buddy Miller on electric guitar and some vocal harmony. Nelson also scored T Bone Burnett of Raising Sand fame as the disc's producer.
Also of note is the fact that Nelson's Country Music closes with a rendition of the song "Nobody's Fault But Mine," which Led Zeppelin famously nicked on the 1976 album Presence. Nelson credits both songs as traditional, although "Nobody's Fault But Mine" is somewhat commonly attributed to Blind Willie Johnson. Led Zeppelin's version credits Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" is almost universally cited as a traditional. On the upcoming Band of Joy CD, songwriting credit will go to Buddy Miller and Robert Plant.