Back in December, when things were a bit hectic at No Notes HQ, I had a bit of correspondence with Jason Baldinger, a DJ at WRCT in Pittsburgh. He’d just done a show that involved spining about 30 versions of “SJI” and its antecedents, and some of the material wasn’t familiar to me.
The bit that surprised me the most in our exchange was that one song I hadn’t recognized, a version of “I Awoke One Morning In May,” by Didier Hébert, was something I actually owned: Baldinger informed me that it’s part of Harry Smith’s famous Anthology of American Folk Music collection.
Well, after a considerable delay, I’ve now taken the time to track this down and give it a fresh listen.
Here, via Mudcat, is one set of lyrics to “One Morning In May.” Hébert is singing in French, so I have no idea if his match these. The performance is very spare, almost primitive, and quite morose. In fact, to be honest, it’s a bit of a drag. And I can’t honestly say that I’m hearing anything in the melody that comes close to “SJI,” or even “The Unfortunate Rake,” or versions of that tune that I’ve heard.
For the most part, I’ve stayed away from dwelling on the less-“SJI”-related branches of the “Rake” cycle, for the obvious reason that I’m wasting enough timem on this shit as it is. But back in February 2006, I wrote about Barbara Dane, who recorded “One Morning In May” (which she had learned “off a Library of Congress record in 1946”) with the title “When I Was a Young Girl,” back in 1959. More recently, Feist did a version also titled “When I Was a Young Girl,” in 2005 (and released a version “remixed by VV” in 2006). Each of these is quite pleasing in one way or another. Dane’s is the most haunting, Feist’s goes down a little bit too bit too smooth for a song about a doomed girl, but that’s interesting in a way, and the remix borders on novelty territory with its quasi-disco sound.
Anyway: The Hébert song has left me a bit puzzled. I don’t know if I should even be writing about it here. I’m not sure that it isn’t a completely unrelated song with some title similarities.
I turned to Smith’s notes to see if they offered any clues. The song is one of several Cajun selections in The Anthology, but as I guess I’ve strongly hinted, it’s not among my favorites. “The almost conversational performance in this song of unhappy love is more restrained in range than most Arcadian singing,” Smith wrote. “Its even, powerful rhythm, and clear voice however are … very typical of Louisiana.” Smith also notes that Hébert was blind.
But the most interesting tidbit to me was the recording date: December 10, 1929. In other words, despite its ragged, almost backwoods sound, this was recorded about a year after Armstrong’s definitive version of “St. James Infirmary.” Suprising. And where was it recorded? New Orleans, of all places…