Motherless Children

Josh White not only sang this song, but lived something very close to the hardship it recalls. In his case, it was the loss of his father, not mother, that altered his life's course. When he was a young boy a white bill collector came to their home and, after arguing with the elder White, was shown the door. An hour later, the man returned with sheriff's deputies who beat the boy's father nearly to death then dragged him through the streets of Greenville behind a horse. White's father never fully recovered and died a few years later.

The young Josh White was then allowed by his mother to take a job as a “lead boy”, first for the itinerant Blind Man Arnold, and then for many other blind musicians. His role was to sing, dance and cajole the listeners into tossing them coins for their performance. In the process, he learned the repertoire of many of the musicians he worked with, among them Blind Joe Taggert. Perhaps that's where White first learned this song, as both men recorded it. A sampling of their respective recordings should make clear why Taggert is known today only to early Blues buffs and Josh White became one of the best known African American performers of the first half of the 20th century.

Audio Clip: Blind Joe Taggert sings Motherless Children

Audio Clip: Josh White performs Motherless Children

Delta Bluesman Son House included the song among those he recorded in 1965 when his music career got one last spin around the turntable of life thanks to that decade's Folk boom. He had recorded in the 1930's, then again in the early '40's for Alan Lomax, but had long since retired from the music business, working instead for the New York Central Railroad. The Blues hounds on his trail probably could have found him sooner if he'd stayed put in his childhood homes of Riverton, Mississippi or Tallulah, Louisiana. But no, he had to hide out in the utterly undeltalike Rochester, NY. On this recording he lets his slide guitar sing the lines you are presumed to know.

Audio Clip: Son House and his guitar sing Motherless Children


Fans of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film Brother, Where Art Thou? will remember Ralph Stanley's haunting performance of O Death. He brings the same stark vocal style to Motherless Children on his 2006 tribute to the songs of the Carter Family (yes, they did it, too) A Distant Land To Roam. Here he is, giving the song the Mountain Music treatment, with just a bit of fiddle accompaniment.

Audio Clip: Ralph Stanley sings Motherless Children

Two of the reigning queens of contemporary alt-country -- Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash -- have also recorded the song. Williams included a bouncy fingerstyle version of it on her debut recording, which dates back to 1979 but was re-issued by Smithsonian Folkways in the early 90's as Ramblin. Rosanne Cash's famous father -- that would be Johnny -- included it on the list of "100 Essential Country Songs" he gave her when she was 18 years old. This list, of course, was the deep well from which she drew material for her 2009 release, The List. .Her take on the tune, like ours, includes some interesting reharmonization. We'll close out our tour with samplings from both these talented women.

Audio Clip: Lucinda Williams on Motherless Children from her Ramblin days

Audio Clip: Rosanne Cash picks Motherless Children from The List