Sunday, November 24, 2013

White House Blues

Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers
The assassination of President William McKinley
by Robert A. Waters

“White House Blues,” first recorded in 1926 by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, quickly became popular among country and bluegrass singers.  The lyrics provide a straightforward timeline of President William McKinley’s assassination, as well as the aftermath.

McKinley, who’d just been re-elected to his second term, was meeting and greeting crowds at the World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot him.  Doctors, unable to find the bullet, left it in his well-endowed stomach while McKinley succumbed to an agonizing gangrenous death.  (The first verse in Poole’s version of the song describes this scene in gruesome detail: “McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled.  Doctor said, ‘McKinley, I can’t find the ball.  You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die.’”)

Like many assassins, Leon Czolgosz had few, if any, friends.  He fixated on President McKinley as the source of his financial woes (he’d lost his job due to union agitation). Milling among the crowd as the President stood shaking hands, Czolgosz hid his pistol beneath a handkerchief that covered his hand.  He fired twice, the first round grazing McKinley, the second hitting him dead-on in the belly.

After McKinley died, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became president.

Charlie Poole was a boozer of the worst sort.  Born in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, he developed a unique three-fingered style of plucking the banjo.  In 1925, Poole, his brother-in-law and fiddler, Posey Rorer, and guitarist Norman Woodlieff, traveled to New York and signed a record deal.  His song, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” is credited with being the first recorded country music “hit.”  The success of the North Carolina Ramblers allowed Poole and his band to escape the back-breaking labor in the cotton mills where they worked.  

In 1931, a Hollywood studio signed Poole up to play background music for a movie.  This was enough to start him on a drinking binge that lasted for 13 weeks.  He never left North Carolina, dying of heart failure.

As with all folk songs, there are numerous versions to this one.  It’s sometimes called “White House Blues,” “McKinley’s Gone,” or just “McKinley.”  My favorite version is this old Greenbriar Boys recording done in the 1960s.


Say Mr. McKinley, why didn’t you run?
See that man a-comin’ with a Johnson 41
From Buffalo to Washington.

Doctor, oh Doctor, do all you can,
A man just shot my husband with a handkerchief over his hand

From Buffalo down to Washington.

Doctor comes a-running, takes of his specs,
Says, “Mr. McKinley, you’ve done cashed your checks”

From Buffalo to Washington.

Mrs. McKinley in Brooklyn dressed all in red
Weeping and a-mourning ‘cause her husband was dead

From Buffalo to Washington.

Roosevelt’s in the White House doing his best,
McKinley’s in the graveyard taking his rest,

He’s gone a long, long time.

Hush little children, don’t you fret,
You know you’ll draw a pension at your pappy’s death

From Buffalo to Washington.

Jailer said to Czolgosz, “What you doing here?”

“Done took and shot McKinley, gonna take the electric chair.”

From Buffalo to Washington.

Czolgosz told the jailer, “Treat me like a man,
You know that when I die I’ve got to go to Dixieland.”

From Buffalo to Washington.

Say Mr. McKinley, why didn’t you run?
You saw that man a-coming with a Johnson 41,

From Buffalo to Washington.


Zack said...

Bob: As you know, the tune is also used in a country/bluegrass favorite called "Cannonball Blues."

"You can was my jumper, starch my overalls,
I'm gonna catch the train they call the Cannonball
From Buffalo, down to Washington.

Great blog. I love the old-time music.

Fiddlin Bill said...

What happened to "McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled, Doctor says "McKinley, I can't find that ball," from Buffalo to Washington. I always thought that was the most memorable verse of all. --Fiddlin Bill Hicks

Fin O'Suilleabhain said...

Can anyone tell me whether this song, often classed as a blues ballad, was always a preserve of white folks or did African Americans sing it too?