Not Sugar, Sugar – Ain’t No More Cane

Researching a song, came across a really good article in the Boston Review.

I’ve long been fascinated by the relationship between sugar, economics, slavery and hardship, historically and in song (Go Down Old Hannah, Joshua Gone Barbados, and so on).

Recently I’ve been doing some work on ‘Ain’t No More Cane’ – like Go Down Old Hannah, to which it’s related, a song from the prison farms of Texas and the Brazos river that I’ve known since the 60s. (Partly from the singing of Bob Hands and/or Dave Dauncey, if I remember correctly, and partly from a version in a book by John and/or Alan Lomax – maybe American Ballads and Folk Songs. Maybe it’s not a good choice for a white middle-class Englishman, even one with a penchant for the blues, but other unlikely people have made a good fist of it, and I’ve been working out a few ideas in GarageBand. I’m a little busy with other things right now, so if the idea of a Harley version doesn’t repel you, you may have to wait for a recorded version.

In the meantime, here’s rather a good article I found that covers a lot of the same ground, by Dave Byrne for the Boston Review: Ground Down to Molasses – The Making of an American Folk Song.

David Harley

Handsome Molly [demo]

Audio capture:



Studio version (needs remix):



Trying a different arrangement:



Handsome Molly (Arranged & Adapted Harley)

I wish was in London
Or some other seaport town
I’d set foot on a steamboat
And I’d sail the ocean round

Sailing on the ocean
Or sailing on the sea
I’d think of handsome Molly
Wherever she may be

I went down to church last Sunday
And as she passed me by
I knew her mind was changing
By the roving of her eye

Do you remember Molly
When you gave me your right hand
You said if e’er you married
That I would be the man

But now you’ve gone and left me
Go on with whom you please
While I lie here in sorrow
Lamenting at your ease

I’ll go down to the river
When everyone’s asleep
And think on handsome Molly
And lay me down and weep

Her hair as dark as ravens
Her eyes were black as sloes
Her cheeks were like the lilies
That in the morning blow

And I wish was in London
Or some other seaport town
I’d set foot on a steamboat
And sail the ocean round

Sailing on the ocean
Or sailing on the sea
I’d think of Handsome Molly
Wherever she may be

The lyric closely resembles ‘Loving Hannah’, a song that seems to have crossed the Atlantic and then come back to us, apparently due to Jean Ritchie and Peggy Seeger. In fact, I tend to miss out verse 6 because it’s so similar to the equivalent verse in ‘Loving Hannah’ that I tend to give the lady the wrong name…

I don’t remember where I got the tune or words from. The lyric is not dissimilar to Doc Watson’s, but his version is faster and more bluegrass-y, with a tune somewhat reminiscent of ‘Poor Ellen Smith’. I was roundly criticized a few years ago at an Americana session because it isn’t ‘the bluegrass version’ or even particularly old-timey. Get over it, guys. It’s my version, and I’ve no pretensions to being a bluegrass player. I know my limitations. (Which is why the sitar and banjo sounds are supplied via a Variax guitar, not a real sitar and banjo. I did play quite a lot of banjo at one time, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing one in public nowadays. In fact, one was thrust into my hands at a session last year and I couldn’t wait to give it back.)

I sometimes hear this sung with the second verse sung as a chorus.

David Harley