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.