Motherless Children

Wilson Ramsay recorded this moving version of the traditional song “Motherless Children”. I say “traditional” only because, regardless of who wrote it first, the song has passed through many hands. Although Ramsay’s is my favorite, its influences can be heard somewhat in the recordings of Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis.

Johnson was a gospel singer who performed on street corners, often accompanied in vocal harmony by his wife. He was a brilliant slide guitar player and very powerful vocalist, as was Davis, who incidentally was also blind.

In fact, I believe Davis was one of the greatest blues and gospel vocalists who ever lived. Yet his guitar playing was so great that folks admire him today mainly for his elaborate finger-style playing and complex syncopated beats to his many songs. Also, I relate to him in a personal way since one of my maternal great grandfathers lived a few miles from where he was born and raised in western South Carolina. Davis moved to North Carolina only after he had become a young man. There is a lot of yelling required in street singing, which Davis also did; but there is also a lot of it in general in the piney woods of rural South Carolina. I used to hear it frequently as a child.

Wilson Ramsay, who taught me music in the 1980s, uses the same general format: voice and guitar. However, he doesn’t use a slide, though he is so good that the very end sounds almost like one.

He plays a simple inexpensive “000” Martin guitar from about 12 years ago (it was recorded in September of 2002). We set up three or four professional microphones in an old horse barn here at Fordhook Farm that happened to have great acoustics. Forge Recording Studio in Oreland, Pennsylvania helped produce the recording. Fellow employee and musician Don Zeidler was the producer of the session. However, no one was in the room.

Wilson found a special spot in the floor where his shoe tip tapped with just the resonance he wanted. He makes also a thump with his hand on the bridge of the guitar. He did it in one take, and it is a “live” recording. He plays his heart and soul out. In my opinion, it is equal to the Johnson and Davis versions, at least.

The reason I post this, our first pod-cast, on St. Patrick’s Day is to remember the orphans created by the Irish Potato Famine, as well as orphans everywhere. In a sense, we all become orphans when we lose our mothers, but none suffers as much as a child. The famine was caused by a rare strain of a fungus from an isolated valley in Mexico that arrived on a lumber ship, first from Mexico and then from—of all places—Philadelphia. “The Great Famine” caused the collapse of the potato crops of not only Ireland but also Scotland, England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, most of Scandinavia and as far east as western Poland. However, the Irish used the potato as their main staple. Bread was too costly and, ironically, not as nutritious. You can read more at ‘Owed ToThe Spud’, a blog entry from awhile ago. Redcliffe Salaman wrote a great book on the potato which I recommend, ‘The History And Social Influence Of The Potato’.

I wish to thank my friend and mentor, Wilson Ramsay, for allowing us to feature this song on our blog site. You can hear him on YouTube as well, where he demonstrates his superb artistic skills on both the harmonica and the guitar. His performance of the solo harp (with his son Roger on guitar) song ‘Slow Train Coming’ is phenomenal. This is not the Bob Dylan song. ‘Slow Train Coming’ is a reference to the Proviso freightyards of Chicago, the largest in the world. Wilson grew up two miles west of the ‘yards and is no stranger to freight trains.

Wilson Ramsay recorded one album in 1963 on the Mercury label when he was 18 years old. Long out of print and extremely rare, it is called “Stu Ramsay Loves Banjo, Guitar, Harmonica and Dobro”. (Stuart was his first name back then.) He told me that if he hadn’t had fingerpicks that day, he would have bled to death from his fingertips. Such is the awesome power of youth combined with rare talent. Maybe the album will be reissued one day. Wilson also played in many concerts with Big Joe Williams for over 18 years, accompanying the composer of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ and other fine songs, on the harmonica.

Mr. Ramsay is married (to a gardener!) and is the proud father of three children and grandfather of five. He resides in Elmhurst, Illinois, where he gives private lessons in guitar and harmonica.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 at 12:49 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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21 Responses to “Motherless Children”

  1. dianedigsplants said:

    So appropo & foot-tappin’ GOOD! Thank You, George!

    • George said:

      Thanks, Diane. Glad you enjoy it so much. If you go to the song on YouTube (where we hope to be up soon), you can watch Rosanne Cash perform it with a far slower, almost dirge-like arrangement, and yet she starts tapping and popping her fingers after awhile. She has a great voice, and she follows a similar lyric to Wilson’s. I believe it was made popular first by The Carter Family. They are somewhere on the YouTube song site as well. However, I still say that Wilson’s is the most distinctive and uniquely beautiful of any recent version. Please post again.

  2. Cathy W said:

    Thanks for sharing Ramsay’s version of that wonderful song…well done!!

    • George said:

      You are welcome Cathy. We are trying to get it up on YouTube “proper” so that you can hear other versions if you wish. I’m glad you like Mr. Ramsay’s version. Thank you for posting.

  3. Tiger Lily said:

    Thanks! That was a surprise blog. I loved it. Nice break from writing by garden column.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Tiger. I sometimes go into the “Silva rerum” and bring it back to the garden. St. Patrick’s Day was the traditional time to plant potatoes. The folks of Irish descent in my home town would plant the potato “eyes” after breakfast and then break in the afternoon for the holiday meal. Thanks again for posting.

  4. lee said:

    Worked in social work fields for many years. Felt these words every time I worked with the children- deceased moms physically or deceased mentally from drugs/alcohol or mental health. Thank you for this newsletter.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Lee, for both the kind appreciation and the dedicated work with children.

  5. Kimberly said:

    Thanks for sharing and enlightning us – loved it

    • George said:

      Thanks for your compliment, Kimberly. Please post again.

  6. Jonathan Dean said:

    Terrific song. Thanks for posting!

    • George said:

      Wilson does a nice job, to say the least. It is especially interesting to hear him play solo-like figures on the guitar while singing the verses at the same time. Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you, Jonathan. Please post again.

  7. Diane said:

    This is amazing George….much love….I shared this with the Irish teaching staff here in Tunis…..
    Diane

    • George said:

      Thank you, Diane. Is there an orphanage problem now in Tunis? Hope all is well. Think of you and Chris often. Please post again.

  8. RuthAnn Fitzpatrick, MD said:

    Wonderful blog. Is the recording available?

    • George said:

      Thanks very much, Dr. Fitzpatrick. Can’t help you at the moment. We have recorded about twenty songs by Wilson Ramsay, including Banjo, Guitar, Voice with Guitar, Harmonica—solo and accompanied with guitar—and Voice alone. This is about two albums. We have not released them to the public because we don’t know how. We are trying to come up with the right approach, such as an independent label or CDBaby or one of the other online venues. Many musicians sell their recordings as CDs at the concerts they give. Others make their living playing commercials. Still others play on sound tracks. Mr. Ramsay teaches. In fact, he is an excellent teacher. So you will have to listen to ‘Motherless Children’ here or on YouTube, for now. Thanks again.

  9. Jano said:

    Amazing playing, to say the very least, and a voice as rugged as the sentiment. What a treat to have such a rich sound in a favorite forum. Many thanks. Keep up the good work.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Jano. Please post again.

  10. George, Have you done any more to getting Wilson’s [Stu Ramsay] recordings up on cdbaby.com? Some of my music is now offered there. I used to play with Wilson as the dobro player in Stu Ramsay and the Clary’s Grove Boys band way back when. Were you aware that he recorded material for a second Mercury album, but Triangle Productions abrogated his contract and it never did get published? It’s still out there, somewhere.

    • George said:

      Theodore, no action with cdbaby. Would you like to help get it up? I have two albums of songs. Wilson also has a CD called “Odds and Ends”, a compilation of the last 25-30 years or so. But his guitar playing (especially) and singing and harp playing now are better than ever. He’s in the Elmhurst, Illinois phone book. Thanks.

  11. Have you done anything with the music, like put the tunes on CDs or published the music in any way? I need to know in what format they are right now. I gather you “own” the rights to the recordings, and any other remuneration e.g. composer rights/performer… and you have a music product you want to sell, correct?

    I have contacted cdbaby just to see what kind of arrangement [if any] can be made, as usually they dispense for artist members. We’ll see.

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