(1957) Gordon Heath and Lee Payant – Ballad of the Boll Weevil
“The Ballad of the Boll Weevil” and other traditional songs of the United States
Recorded in: Studio Geneix, Paris, 12th July 1955
Originally released on: La Boite à Musique, Paris – BAM LD 313
Argo release: 1957, Argo TM92
Argo re-release: Five tracks re-released on EP by Argo (EAF19) in 1961
Gordon Heath – vocals, guitar
Lee Payant – vocals, guitar
Ballad of the Boll weevil
All the pretty little horses
This morning, this evening
I wonder as I wander
Drill ye tarriers
Take this hammer
Miss Julie Ann Johnson
Every night when the sun goes in
Black is the colour of my true love’s hair
Come all ye fair and tender Ladies
Pick a bale of cotton/Bring a little water Silvy
With all the American folkies in and out of London in those years, you’d think that Argo might have found some more original material to release than this 1955 recording by US ex-pat actors and folk-singers Heath and Payant.
But, Argo had just signed a deal to release stuff from the French Boite à Musique catalogue, so why not…
The original French version was entitled “Chants Traditionnels des Etats-Unis”. Here they’ve renamed it after the much-recorded Ballad of the Boll Weevil and rejigged the running order to give prominence to the title track.
(Topic issued a version of Rambling Jack Elliott singing Boll Weevil as the B-side of a single in the same year)(and see below)
Paris troubadour style
Heath enjoyed quite a success on Broadway in 1945, but wound up in Paris in 1948 (via work on the stage in London), finding it less racist and more accepting of his relationship with his white lover and fellow actor, Lee Payant.
In 1949 they set up a left-bank night club together called L’Abbaye, where they entertained audiences for nearly 30 years with an apparently huge repertoire of English and French folk songs, spirituals and blues. It was by all accounts quite a moody place, with candles on the tables going out one by one till the show ended with Auld Lang Syne.
“Heath and Payant sit on high bar chairs near a fireplace, strum the guitar and give out in troubadour style,” said a report in Billboard in 1950. “Applause is muted or indicated by snapping the fingers. The reason is that two children, aged 5 and 7, have their bedroom right over the club…
“Etiquette requires no talking during songs and no audience participation.”
London nitery contract
They played in London too apparently. In 1952, so Billboard’s Paris correspondent reported, London “nitery owner” S. Shaw came to the city to look for new acts, was about to leave without finding any, when he dropped into L’Abbaye. It was a Victor Kiam moment.
“He was so impressed,” the correspondent said, “that after four songs the two Americans found themselves with a London contract. This marks the first time that both will appear together in any cabaret outside France.”
Where they played, who S. Shaw was and which his nitery remain a mystery, but in October 1953, they embarked on a tour of installations in Germany under the auspices of The European Armed Forces Professional Entertainment Branch.
Reporting the tour’s start, the Stars and Stripes noted that the pair, billed as The Musical Storytellers, had performed privately for Princess Margaret in 1951 and had entertained personalities such as Burl Ives, Josh White and Eartha Kitt.
(The report to the right is used with kind permission from the Stars and Stripes. © 1953, 2010 Stars and Stripes)
Film and TV
Starved of decent acting roles in the French theatre and cinema, in 1960 they also set up the Studio Theater of Paris, an English-speaking theatre group largely made up of British and US expats like themselves.
Both continued to work in theatre, film and televiison till their deaths (Payant in 1976, Heath in 1991). By the time of this recording Heath had appeared in a number of films and TV theatre adaptions (including on the BBC), Payant in a major Norwegian film of the early 50s.
Here’s a full discography of their recordings.
Heath´s memoirs – Deep Are the Roots: the Memoirs of a Black Expatriate – were published in 1992.
“Lack of sweatiness”
Five tracks of the album got issued on an EP by Argo in 1961. A reviewer in the Gramophone magazine said: “There’s a disturbing lack of sweatiness about the work-songs…The singing is pleasant enough – Heath’s soft and inclined to be legitimate, Payant’s closer to the snappiness of the cracker-barrel philosopher – but it is generally too urbane, too academic.”
Were Argo trying to get a piece of the skiffle boom action by re-releasing an album of the kind of songs (including a couple of Leadbelly classics) that were being skiffled up everywhere at the time?
Whatever – in the month the album was released, Lonnie Donegan and The Vipers were both in the charts with Cumberland Gap and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey were having a hit with the…erm…James/Williams penned classic, Freight Train.
And the still scant LP releases from Topic that year were dominated by the likes of Peggy Seeger (Cumberland Gap, Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies etc), John Gibbon (John Henry, Kansas City Blues etc), Ramblin Jack Elliott and Derroll Adams (habitués of the skiffle cellar scene) and Nancy herself, in sans-Chas folky mode.
That doggone boll weevil
Lots and lots of people have recorded the Boll Weevil song and most of them said they wrote it: Leadbelly, Carl Sandburg, Blind Willie McTell, Woody Guthrie, Charlie Louvin, Jimmy Page, Vera Wall, Brook Benton (who had a sort of novelty hit with it in 1961)…but no-one ‘doggones’ a boll weevil like Shirley Collins and Davey Graham (Folk Routes New Routes, 1964).