Saturday, January 14, 2017

Example Of the 1930s Blues Song "Mr. Tyree" (with partial lyrics & selected comments about song collector Lawrence Gellet

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post showcases a sound file of "Mr. Tyree", a 1930s prison Blues recording featuring an African American singer and an African American guitarist. This song was included in the 1930s vinyl recording Negro Songs of Protest* by [White American song collector] Lawrence Gellert.

My partial transcription of "Mr. Tyree" is also included in this post.

The Addendum to this post includes a review of Bruce M. Confort's 2013 book about Lawrence Gellet and excerpts of comments that were published on Mudcat [folk music] discussion forum about Lawrence Gellet and the term "Negro protest" (as it pertains to the African American songs in Lawrence Gellet's collection.)

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the composer of this Blues song, the singer and guitarist who were recorded performing it, and the collector of this song. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publisher of this YouTube sound file.
Since at least the late 1960s, the referent "Negro" has been retired and largely replaced with the formal referent "African American" and/or the (often considered) less formal referent Black (as in Black American).

SHOWCASE EXAMPLE: Unknown Singer/Guitarist - Mr. Tyree (1930s)

lupine22 Published on Aug 26, 2012

An unknown prisoner at Bellwood Prison Camp, Atlanta, Georgia, performing "Mr. Tyree," as recorded by Lawrence Gellert sometime in the mid-1930s.
Here are two comments from this sound file's discussion thread:
mary cigarettes, 2012
"he's flipping good and swinging too....those photos are amazing."

xXPanzerStalkerXx, 2013
"This is most likely inmate Jesse Wadley. According to "Red River Blues" (book) Bellwood Prison Camp, where Lomax recorded Jesse Wadley, is probably now Federal Prison Farm No 1, in the southeast of the city."
I think that "the city" refers to Atlanta, Georgia.
From Google Books Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast By Bruce Bastin
Page 66
“Tyree was a little loved guard, to whom the convicts requests "Mr. Tyree, please let my pardon go/ if you let me out of Bellwood/I won’t return no mo’”. "
This passage implies that the guitarist wasn't the same man who was singing this song.

(1930s prison song, unknown composer/s)

....Mr. Tyree, please let my pardon go*
If you let me out of Bellwood, I won’t return no mo’.

Tyree Tyree, don’t work my woman so hard
Tyree Tyree, don’t work my woman so hard
Said she’s nothing but a piano player
Work like she never had a job.

Early this morning at the break of day
Take my.....
And carry it all away
Cause every time....

Tyree Tyree please don’t be so mean
Lawd, you the worse ole prison guard
Worse that I ever seen.


Mr Tyree, please let my pardon go*
And if you let me out of Bellwood
I won’t return no mo’

Mr Tyree, please give let my pardon go*
And if you would let me out of here
I won’t return no mo’"....
*This line is given as "please let my pardon go" in the Red River Blues book. However, I thought I heard "please give me my pardon to go".

I've not found any transcription of this Blues song online. Additions and corrections are very welcome.

For what it's worth, the male name "Tyree" is pronounced TIE (rhyming with the English words "lie" "my" etc) and ree (rhyming with the English word "me").

It seems to me that, since at least the 1970s, the name "Tyree" has largely been considered a "Black" (i.e. African American) name. However, note that the man with the name "Tyree" in this song is the prison guard, who in the 1930s South would likely to have been White.

Also, my sense is contemporaneously, that the name "Tyree" is usually pronounced with the accent on the second syllable (i.e. tie-REE).

From African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story by Bruce M. Conforth, Scarecrow Press, May 16, 2013 - Music - 298 pages
"In African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story, scholar and musician Bruce Conforth tells the story of one of the most unusual collections of African American folk music ever amassed—and the remarkable story of the man who produced it: Lawrence Gellert. Compiled between the World Wars, Gellert's recordings were immediately adopted by the American Left as the voice of the true American proletariat, with the songs—largely variants of traditional work songs or blues—dubbed by the Left as "songs of protest." As both the songs and Gellert’s standing itself turned into propaganda weapons of left-wing agitators, Gellert experienced a meteoric rise within the circles of left-wing organizations and the American Communist party. But such success proved ephemeral, with Gellert contributing to his own neglect by steadfastly refusing to release information about where and from whom he had collected his recordings. Later scholars, as a result, would skip over his closely held, largely inaccessible research, with some asserting Gellert’s work had been doctored for political purposes. And to a certain extent they were correct. Conforth reveals how Gellert at least "assisted" in the creation of some of his more political material. But hidden behind the few protest songs that Gellert allowed to become public was a vast body of legitimate African America folksongs—enough to rival the work of any of his contemporary collectors.

Had Gellert granted access to all his material, scholars would have quickly seen that it comprised an incredibly complete and diverse collection of all African American song genres: work songs, blues, chants, spirituals, as well as the largest body of African American folktales about Irish Americans (what were referred to as "One Time I'shman" tales). It also included vast swaths of African American oral literature collected by Gellert as part of the Federal Writers' Project.

In African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics, Conforth brings to light for the first time the entire body of work collected by Lawrence Gellert, establishing his place, and the place for the material he collected, within the pages of American folk song scholarship. In addition to shedding new light on the concept of "protest music" within African American folk music, Conforth discusses the unique relationship of the American Left to this music and how personal psychology and the demands of the American Communist party would come to ruin Gellert’s life.

African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics will appeal to students and scholars in the fields of American social and political history, African American studies, the history of American folk music, and ethnomusicology."

Subject: RE: Negro Songs of Protest: Lawrence Gellert
From: GUEST,Steven Garabedian
Date: 13 Oct 15 - 12:34 AM
... In his book (p.118), [Bruce] Conforth highlights as primary evidence a 1935 [Lawrence] Gellert article published in the leftwing journal "Music Vanguard." He employs this evidence to further assert his ongoing position that Gellert had no interest in politics and was simply willing to allow the left to use his material in order to build a name for himself. Conforth relates some of the details of the 12-page piece by Gellert and stresses that -- aside from the title "Negro Songs of Protest," which was applied by leftwing editors apart from Gellert's own hand -- Gellert himself, as author, never uses the word "protest" once in the published article text. But, I have and know this same article well, and the primary evidence reads otherwise. Gellert includes the word "protest" in his prose at least three times, quite directly. He also uses the words "revolt" and "insurrection," for instance, to refer to black vernacular song tradition in his time and before. I agree with Conforth that the title "Negro Songs of Protest" likely came from Mike Gold at "New Masses" starting in 1930. But, I disagree that Gellert wasn't a willing participant of genuine conviction in the movement culture of the Old Left. I submit that Gellert used the word "protest" in this article because, like his leftwing editors at "New Masses" and "Music Vanguard," he meant it and he cared.

I have never argued that all of Gellert's field archive is all protest, and I have never argued that only protest blues is the real blues or the only blues that matters. I have never defined "protest" as necessarily supporting only formal leftwing organizing campaigns, causes, or people, and I have never argued, as Conforth presents it in his book, that the blues in the Gellert collection are "anticapitalist." The songs I highlight show resentment toward exploitation under a racialized system of capitalism; that's what I argue in my writing. I never go so far as to say they are "anticapitalist."....

Subject: RE: Negro Songs of Protest: Lawrence Gellert
From: GUEST,Bruce Conforth
Date: 10 Jan 16 - 11:24 AM

Since there has been some discussion, and Steve Garabedian's critique of my book (which I just recently learned about) I thought I should respond.

...I never stated that Gellert was never a sincere radical. The case I made, and the evidence is quite clear, was that Gellert did not start to collect songs for political reasons. He stated that many times. He was interested in the natural beauty and cultural aesthetics of the music. It wasn't until his brother Hugo and Mike Gold alerted him to the idea that this music could be used as a great propaganda tool that he then began to collect the material for that purpose, and, as his fame in left-wing circles grew he took advantage of that position...

Garabedian did not have the advantage of interviewing Gellert's brothers - Hugo or Otto. I did. They both were quite adamant that Larry was never much of a joiner, that he was never involved in leftist or union organizing, and that he was more prone to leave the scene when situations got tense than to stick around and fight. They had no reason to lie about this or to "protect" their brother. Hugo had already appeared as a "witness" in Warren Beatty's epic movie "Reds." They happily accepted the left-wing, even Communist associations of the family. But they were quite clear that Larry had no initial interest in politics (he wanted to be an actor) and never was involved in organizing or other left-wing activities except to show up when there was an organized protest. Even then he was quick to leave if the situation became too dicey. Gellert even admitted this himself in his own letters. He often said that he wasn't interested in politics and didn't want to be around when there was trouble. The people who knew him in the South - his first great love Alice Lightner, and others also recounted how apolitical Larry was until his brother Hugo and Mike Gold more or less cajoled him into collecting songs they could use for leftist propaganda. It is quite simple: Larry saw this as an opportunity to create an identity for himself and to stand out as a separate entity from his brothers. The more he did this the more he began to buy into his own creation until he created himself anew - as an expert in Negro songs of protest. Gellert was nothing if not a chameleon who could reinvent himself to adapt to any situation that would bring him some notoriety. This is not to take anything away from the totality of his collected material and its importance, merely to say that Gellert had very personal reasons for doing what he did and they really did not have much to do with an overt sense of political affiliation.

...I never said that even the songs Gellert did not fabricate did not employ a sense of identity, and perhaps even protest. But I do maintain, and not in a derogatory way, that Garabedian's work is revisionist apologetics for the failure of much 1960s blues scholarship to ignore the political element of the music and culture. This intention is understandable, but he swings the political pendulum too far to the left, especially since there is concrete proof that Gellert did fabricate his more political pieces.

And it still fascinates me that Garebedian, in his article or dissertation, never once cited the admonition of the great scholar Lawrence Levine that:
"There has been an unfortunate if understandable tendency in our political age to conceive of protest in almost exclusively political and institutional terms. This group consciousness and a firm sense of the self have been confused with political consciousness... To state that black song constituted a form of black protest and resistance does not mean that it led to, or even called for, any tangible or specific actions... but rather (was a way)Negroes... could assert their own individuality, aspirations, and sense of being."

But what is most important, and what Garabedian does not mention in his criticism,is one of the main points I try to make in my book: the VAST majority of songs Gellert collected had nothing to do with his kind of protest. They were traditional blues, spirituals, and folk songs, and it is this great mass of folk song and folk LORE (stories, proverbs, sayings, vernacular speech) that makes Gellert's collection so important - not the few protest songs, fabricated or not."....

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. I think you're right about the words. I had a go at transcribing it:

    Tyree Mister Tyree
    Please get my pardon to go
    (Take?) me out of Bellwood
    Lord I won’t return no more
    Mr Tyree
    Please get my pardon to go
    If you let me out of Bellwood
    I won’t return no more.

    --- (Spoken aside: Good lord I won’t)

    Early this morning
    Just about the break of day
    Tyree give (me?) a pick and shovel
    Just to pass my time away
    Please give me my pardon to go
    If you let me out of Bellwood
    I won’t return no more.
    Tyree Tyree
    Don’t work my woman so hard
    Tyree Tyree
    Don’t work my woman so hard
    Says? she’s nothing but a piano player
    Swear to god she never had a job.
    Early this morning
    About the break of day
    Take my wife lord
    And carry it on away
    ‘Cause (there?) (Mr?) Tyree
    Please don’t be so mean
    Lord you the worst ol’ prison guard
    Worst that I’ve ever seen.

    (Guitar music and brief, inaudible comment)

    Now I do it don’t do it
    Don’t? be so hard
    I’m nothing but a --?--
    I never had no (boogin’?) job
    Mr Tyree
    Please give me my pardon to go
    Now if you just let me out of Bellwood
    I won’t return no more.
    (Long guitar passage, with several variations)
    Early one morning
    Momma the blues kept falling down
    (???) baby
    And they stay with me all night long
    T- Tyree,
    Please give me my pardon to go
    And now if you let me out of Bellwood
    I won’t return no more.

    1. Hello, slam2011.

      Thanks for adding your transcription for this song. Ia pologize for just reading it today.

  2. Hello,

    Folks can read my scholarship (dissertation and published articles) on Lawrence Gellert, white blues revivalism, and African American blues protest to make their own determinations about the credibility of my evidence and interpretations. However, I would submit that my work has never been "revisionist apologetics" trying to compensate for the lapses of white blues revivalism. Rather, it has always been a critique of white blues revivalism through the prism of alternative blues authorities, Angela Davis, Amiri Baraka, Paul Garon for instance.

    Moreover, since at least my dissertation (2004) and first extended journal article on Gellert, the Left, and blues protest (American Quarterly, 2005), I have always stated, just as does Conforth, that Lawrence Gellert arrived south with no political affiliation or analysis. Like his contemporary and associate Langston Hughes, for an apt comparison, Lawrence Gellert was radicalized toward the left during the 1930s. The difference between Conforth and I is that I believe Gellert meant it, and wasn't simply an opportunist.

    Interested parties can read my latest on Gellert in the current issue of African American Review:

    Steve Garabedian

    1. Greetings, Steve Garabedian.

      Thanks for adding your comment.

      Here's the hyperlink that provides information about how to access your African American Review essay:

      Unfortunately, if I understand it correctly, there's no free access to African American Review for people like me who don't have Project Muse membership or some university or institutional access.