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Blues At Sea
by Max Haymes
(converted to web format from the original old typescript by Alan White)

Chapter II - Silver Spades and Golden Chains

Blind Lemon Jefferson (1890-1929)Perhaps one of the most popular Blues artists before W.W.II, and certainly one of the best remembered even 40 years after his death, was the rural singer/guitarist from near Wortham, Texas - Blind Lemon Jefferson. First recording at the end of 1925, Lemon went on to cut nearly a hundred sides until his premature death in Chicago during the winter of 1929-30. This large repertoire included two versions of a song a-typical in blues, which Jefferson called, "see That My Grave's Kept Clean" in 1927 and, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" the following year. A-typical in so far as the first line is repeated three times rather than twice which became the almost standard format in the Blues:

  1. "Well it's one kind favour, I'll ask of you, (x3)
See that my grave is kept clean."
  2. "It's a long lane that never ends, (x3)
It's a sad wind that never change."
  3. "Well, it's two white horses in a line, (x3)
Gonna take me to my buryin' ground."
  4. "When your heart stops beatin' an' your hands get cold (x3)
It ain't long 'till your in (a) cypress grove."
  5. "Have you ever heard a coffin sound? (x3)
Then you know the poor boy is in the ground."
  6. "You may dig my grave with a silver spade, (x3)
You may let me down with a golden chain."
  7. "Have you ever heard a church bell tone? (x3)
'Then you know that the poor boy is dead an' gone." (1)

Jefferson's remake some four or five months later was virtually identical with the added dark 'tolling' noted on the lower strings of his guitar following the lines in verse 7: "Have you heard a church bell tone?" This song was to be Subsequently 'covered' by many singers; sometimes called "Two White Horses in A Line" or, "One Kind Favor." Under the former title, it was recorded in 1931 by 'The Two Poor boys' on guitar and mandolin, while in 1942, the melody had been used on an unrelated Mississippi blues title, "County Farm Blues" by Son House, who claimed, after his 'rediscovery ' over 20 years later, to have recorded the Blind Lemon title in 1930, but it was never issued.

In 1942 Son House had recorded for the Library of Congress as opposed to a commercial record label, and it was for the Library that Texan Pete Harris performed his own version of "Grave" which he called "Blind Lemon's Song" in 1934. Again for the Library, some five years later, fellow Texas guitarist, Smith Casey put "Two White Horses Standin' In A Line" on wax. All these versions, except the unissued Son House side, follow Lemon's original "Grave" with one or two variations but including all of his verses. (see Table 'B')

Table 'B'

      Title Artist Artist's State
of Origin
Date / Location
1. "See That My Grave's Kept Clean" Blind Lemon Jefferson  Texas c.-/10/27
2. "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" Blind Lemon Jefferson  Texas -/2/28
3. "See That my Grave Is Kept Clean" Son House Mississippi 28/5/30
4. "Two White Horses In A Line" The Two Poor Boys Alabama 20/5/31
5. "Blind Lemon's Song" Pete Harris Texas -/5/34 Richmond, TX
6. "Two White Horses Standin' In A Line" Smith Casey  Texas 16/4/39
Brazoria, TX

An informant from the University of North Carolina in 1975 gave the Following details on the origin of "Grave" to John Cowley, saying that the song is "... an amalgamation of several earlier songs, amongst them Old Blue (or Old Veen) 'Stormalong' (a nineteenth century sea shanty) and a number of spirituals." (2). One spiritual recorded in 1938 in South Carolina included the lines:

"You can dig my grave with a silver spade,
You can let me down with a golden chain,
Then you gonna hear my coffin sound,
Then you know you ain't see my face no more." (3)

While a songster from Hernando, Mississippi, Jim Jackson included the spade/chain motif in the "praise-song to the hunting dog" (4):

"When Old Blue died and I dug his grave,
I dug his grave with a silver spade,
I let him down with a golden chain,
And every link I called his name,
Go on Blue, you good dog you." (x2) (5)

The shanty referred to, 'Stormalong' runs:

  1. "0 Stormy, he is dead and gone;
To my way, you storm along,
0 Stormy was a good old man;
Ay, ay ay, Mister Stormalong."
  2. "We'll dig his grave with a silver spade,
To my way, you storm along,
And Lower Him Down With A Golden Chain.
Ay, ay, ay, Mister Stormalong."
  3. "I wish I was Old Stormy's son,
To my way, you storm along,
I'd build a ship of a thousand ton.
Ay, ay, ay, Mister Stormalong."
  4. "I'd fill her with New England rum,
To my way, you storm along,
And all my shell-backs, they'de have some.
Ay, ay, ay, Mister Stormalong."
  5. "0 Stormy's dead and gone to rest,
To my way, you storm along,
Of all the sailors he was best.
Ay, ay, ay, Mister Stormalong." (6)

Known by other titles such as "Mister Stormalong" & "Captain Stormalong", this shanty can be traced back to the 1830's and 40's, and includes the following verse variants:

  2. "We'll dig his grave with a silver spade.
His shroud of finest silk was made."
"We lowered him down with a golden chain,
Our eyes all dim with more than rain."  (7)

Hugill has no doubt that 'Stormalong' is of Negro origin. Verse 5. above is found in another shanty "Storm Along John" also known as "Stormalong-John", "Come Along", "Git-along", "Way Stormalong, John", and several other shanties quoted. From Nordoff he gives the following:

    "Lower him down with a golden chain,
Chorus:   Carry him along, boys, carry him along,
Then he'll never rise again.
Chorus:   Carry him to the burying ground.
Grand Chorus:   'Way-oh-way-oh-way - storm along,
'Way-you rolling crew, storm along stormy." (8)

The spade/chain motif occurs in another shanty known variously as "Santiana", "The Plains O'Mexico" or "Old Santy Ana" :

Verse 16

  "We'll dig his grave with a silver spade,
An' mark the spot where he was laid." (9)

It would appear that the "silver spade/golden chain" verses were strongly extant in the nineteenth century around the Gulf ports particularly, as Hugill seems to favour them as place of origin and that would include Mobile, Galveston, Houston, etc. all of which had a healthy Blues tradition. Maybe a young Lemon Jefferson learnt his "Grave" from part slave-song and part sea shanty.

In any event the sailor who was the subject of the above shanties, very popular by all accounts, caused speculation as to who was the original 'Mr. Stormalong'. "One authority insists that he was, in fact, John Willis - a famous early-Victorian ship master and owner whose son was also called John Willis and owned the famous "Cutty Sark" (10).

Verses 3 & 4 of "Stormalong" allude to a ship-owner, at least. Of course it was the second verse that captured the imagination of the Blues singer.

Cowley's informant, referred to earlier was actually Dan Patterson the Folklore Professor at the University of North Carolina in 1975. Patterson presented a good case for the origin of "Grave" in the shape of the spiritual, citing several examples which included the "spade/chain" motif. This is further supported by an observation in 1867 by one Thomas Wentworth Higginson who noted a "Negro spiritual" called "In The Morning" :

"Dere's a silver spade for to dig my grave
And a golden chain to let me down.
     Don't you hear de trumpet sound?
In de mornin',
In de mornin',
Chil'en? Yes, my lord!
     Don't you hear de trumpet sound?" (11)

Jackson muses "These golden and silver fancies remind one of the King of Spain's daughter in "Mother Goose", and the golden apple and the silver pear, which are doubtless themselves but the vestiges of some simple early composition like this." (12). The silver/gold images featured in fairy stories, English folksongs and ballads generally from Britain and the U.S.A. For example, the golden ball in "The Prickly Bush" which reappeared in the famous Texas Blues folk singer Leadbelly's repertoire as "The Gallis Pole" amongst other titles (see "British Colloquial Links And The Blues"), and "The Silver Pin" which was part of the inspiration for a blues by Memphis Minnie and erstwhile husband, Kansas Joe in 1930 (see "British Colloquial Links And The Blues"). "Pin" is an English folksong of uncertain date, possibly early nineteenth century; while "The Prickly Bush" also known as "The Maid Freed From The Gallows" is a ballad which was known in England and the European continent from the fifteenth century.

Referring to Blind Lemon's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" as "One Kind Favor", Courlander says "It contains some of the familiar imagery of Anglo-American balladry - "two white horses in a line", digging a grave with a silver spade, and lowering the coffin with a golden chain." (13). Roberts agrees that "The silver spade and golden chain are originally British in various forms." (14). But adds "The white horses might be an image from either tradition, though I suspect a thorough working over of an old ballad image." (15). Roberts continues "Besides the few songs that have been transferred wholesale, British balladry seems to have influenced black forms and imagery enduringly. The structure of the blues song "Two White Horses", with its first line repeated three times (not two as in the majority of blues), is quite common in both black and white music of the South." (16). He suggests that many of the images could have come from early ballads in the British Isles.

Patterson on the other hand thinks that the "two white horses" image goes back to Biblical origins while "He traces the silver spade/golden chain imagery back through Old Blue and the 19th century sea-shanty Stormalong to the old British song "Who Killed Cock Robin?" " (17). Part of the latter English "nursery song" which has fourteen verses! has a reference to the origins of Blind Lemon's blues:

  4. "Who'll make the shroud?
I, said the Beetle,
With my thread and needle,
I'll make the shroud.
  5. "Who'll dig his grave?
I, said the Owl,
With my pick and shovel,
I'll dig his grave."
  8. "Who'll carry the link?
I, said the Linnet,
I'll fetch it in a minute,
I'll carry the link."
  10. "Who'll carry the coffin?
I, said the Kite,
If it's not-through the night,
I'll carry the coffin."
  11. "Who'll bear the pall?
We said the Wren,
Both the cock and hen,
We'll bear the pall."
  13. "Who'll toll the bell?
I, said the Bull,
Because I can pull,
I'll toll the bell." (18)

Harrowven says "There is a strong belief, especially in the West Country, that the nursery song 'Who Killed Cock Robin?" is a direct dramatization of the death of William Rufus." (19), otherwise William II. This would place the date at the beginning of the twelfth century when Henry I was crowned.

Although no reference is made to silver or gold in this nursery rhyme, it could nevertheless have formed the basis of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean". Such a basis is captured in a song by the finest of the Georgia Bluesmen, Blind Willie McTell, who concluded his "Lay Some Flowers On My Grave" with these two verses:

    "Now when I'm gone to come no more,
An' all pallbearers lay me low.
When you hear that coffin sound,
You know McTell's in the ground,
  Ref: Hot mama, lay some flowers on my grave".
    "Now when the poor boy's dead an' gone,
I'm left in this old world all alone.
When you hear the church bell tone,
You know McTell's dead an' gone,
  Ref : Hot mama, lay some flowers on my grave." (20)

Interestingly, the silver/gold element could have 'Cock Robin' connections too, via another nursery rhyme "Ride A Cock-Horse To Banbury Cross". The lady of the latter wearing presumably gold rings "on her fingers" and silver "bells on her toes". In the early 19th c. a book publisher, J.G. Rusher, printed several nursery rhymes about Banbury, in the form of chapbooks. Harrowven tells us "... the earliest must have been published around the year 1810." (21). She notes that "Many have been reprinted by Anne and Peter Stockham and on the back of "Death and Burial of Cock Robin", Rusher added this verse:

  "Ride on a horse,
To Banbury Cross.
To Cock Robin's grave,
On a galloping horse." (22)

It was at the outset of the nineteenth century when "... black church music ... metamorphosed into 'negro spirituals'". (23). In 1794, Richard Allen, born a slave, inaugurated his church, the beginning of the "... influential African Methodist Episcopal Church entirely separate from the white Methodist Church." (24). The spirituals then became 'Afro-Americanised.' Although the hymns utilized by the slaves, at that time still drew largely from Dr. Isaac Watts' (the English Non­conformist minister) publication of "Hymns and Spiritual Songs", they added their own choruses, verses, stanzas or refrains and increasingly, joined them to the old African pentatonic (5-note) scale, sometimes adding the 'flatted seventh' - that peculiarly Afro-American note of melancholy which also characterised the secular blues." (25)

However, these new 'negro spirituals' also drew on images outside their U.S. environment, such as the silver spade/golden chain motif. One such title, although it doesn't mention spades or chains, could be "Oh Link, Oh Link" recorded by the Evening Four in Charlotte, North Carolina on 16th. February, 1937. A rough chronology of 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" is shown in Table 'C'.

Table 'C'

      Title Singer / Author Date / Location Possible Route
1. WHO KILLED COCK ROBIN? ? c. 1100.
Oral transmission to early British ballad singers.
See above
? 15th c. England/Europe See above
? c. 1830's
On board U.K./U.S. ships
Oral transmission
to & from sailors
& black dockworkers
5. OLD BLUE ? 19th. c
ern U.S.
Oral transmission from white to black rural singers.


early 19th c. England Oral transmissions from ballad singers to shanty men & workers at Gulf Ports.


Southern U.S. 
Oral transmission to travelling songsters & black dock workers at Gulf Ports.
8. SEE THAT MY GRAVE'S KEPT CLEAN Blind Lemon Jefferson c. -/10/27.
Oral transmission from Gulf Ports.
9. OLD DOG BLUE Jim Jackson 2/2/28.
Oral transmissions from travelling medicine shows and Gulf Ports.
10. LAY SOME FLOWERS ON MY GRAVE Blind Willie Mctell     25/4/35.
Oral transmissions from Gulf Ports/ Lemon's recordings.
11. OH LINK, OH LINK. Evening Four 16/2/37.
Charlotte, N.C.
Oral transmissions  from earlier sacred singers & records?
12. MAYBE THE LAST TIME  Eagle Jubilee Four. 4/11/38.
Columbia, S. C.
 As above

Intriguingly, Jim Jackson had recorded an earlier version of "Old Dog Blue" at the same time as Blind Lemon cut his first version of "Grave", i.e. October, 1927. Although it remained unissued. It seems obvious that the main influence on Lemon's blues was the group of sea shanties revolving around "Stormalong" which passed freely between American and English sailors. There were other methods of oral transmission, as have been noted but the central one is the series of seaports dotted along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The earliest roots of "Grave" could be argued, are English nursery rhymes as far back as the 12th century, these are now, at best, vestigial and obscured. The most important, and most recent are the sea shanties; whether directly from Gulf ports and wandering Blues singers or indirectly from black stevedores who passed songs on to religious singers, who in turn incorporated phrases into their spirituals and gospel numbers, from whence Lemon derived the lyrics for "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean".

© Copyright 1991 Max Haymes. All Rights Reserved.



Jefferson. L.


Cowley J. p.4.


Eagle Jubilee Four.


Oliver P. p.248. "Songsters etc.

5. Ibid

Baker & Miall. Ibid. p.p.227-228


Hugill. ibid. p.68.


Ibid. p.72.


Ibid p.77.

10. Baker & Miall. ibid. p.228.

Jackson. ibid. p.95.




Courlander H. p.139.


Roberts J. S. p. 156.

15. Ibid.



Groom B. p.2.


Harrowven J. p. p. 93-94.


Ibid. p.93.

20. McTell. W.
21. Harrowven. ibid p.168.
22. Ibid.
23. Broughton V. p. 20.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.


Chapter III
- Blues At Sea



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