Who “Commissioned” a Song about John Wilkes Booth?

by Dick Bowden

John Wilkes Booth

This Contest is Closed
The winners are:
George Nasca
Bobbi Bowden
Andy Bing

click photo to enlarge

Gayle and I were listening to Bluegrass Junction on SiriusXM radio and this song came on telling the story of John Wilkes Booth – assassin of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 at Ford’s Theater in Washington. It was released in 1988. I commented that the well-known singer had “commissioned” this song from folk artist Mary Chapin Carpenter. He referred to her as “Chapin” in his liner notes’ comments on the song. Gayle commented “that would make a good Trivia question”. So here we are!

The use of the term “commissioned” is certainly unusual in our music, and this little fact got itself stuck in my brain. But, let’s be fair, this bluegrass artist was a little “different” in many, many ways.

APRIL 12, 2024 TRIVIA QUESTION TRIVIA QUESTION

Who was the bluegrass artist who “commissioned” and recorded the song “John Wilkes Booth” by “Chapin”?

A. Tony Rice

B. Ricky Skaggs

C. Larry Sparks

D. Dudley Connell

E. Del McCoury

F. Chris Stapleton

ANSWER is “A”

Additional Bowden Comments

Correctomundo! Three winners! Tony Rice commissioned and recorded “John Wilkes Booth” written by Mary “Chapin” Carpenter. Give it a listen. Interesting.

Tony caught a bit of flak from this recording. Some listeners interpreted it to mean that Tony SUPPORTED Booth’s assassination of Lincoln. Tony actually published a statement that he certainly DID NOT support Booth. He recorded the song to tell the story, which was convoluted and meaningful. In fact, books have been written about Booth and what happened before and after the assassination. In case you didn’t know, Booth did NOT get away with it.

The only other bluegrass, or proto-bluegrass Booth song I’m aware of, is an OLD time fiddle tune called “Booth Shot Lincoln” or sometimes just “Booth”. Originally it was played in cross-tuned G or A with good droning from the open lower strings. No lyrics that I know of. The oldest recording is by Marcus Martin of North Carolina, playing for a Library of Congress recording. When played slow-to-medium speed it’s very mournful. The Old Time Bluegrass Singers used to play it that way featuring fiddling Robert Fraker. More recently, some bluegrass bands have gotten hold of it and sped it up to breakdown speed with full bluegrass instrumentation. Choose your poison. Here’s a of an old time fiddler playing it a bit on the fast side.

Tony Rice was certainly an unusual person. There have been a few podcasts and articles since Tony died where colleagues have revealed some of Tony’s lesser-known traits or shall we say even pecadilloes. For instance, it has been published that Tony left JD Crowe and the New South in Kentucky to go to California to help form the David Grisman Quintet, because an angry Kentucky dad was after him to participate in a shotgun wedding with his daughter. Ahem! He would never “ride” in a car; he HAD TO drive. He wouldn’t fly. When arthritis prevented him from playing guitar he would stay up ALL night long working on old Bulova Accutron wrist watches until after sun-up; subsisting on potato chips and coffee. He’d sleep a bit in the afternoon then wake up and do it all over again. His older brother Larry Rice died from mesothelioma (asbestos lung cancer) likely brought home on his welder father’s clothing. Tony looked just like Larry in the grip of mesothelioma, but not one word was ever said about what was eating Tony alive. It looked worse than just arthritis. He became such a loner, that it’s said he had probably been dead a few days when he was checked on and discovered to be “gone”.

Yet, what a GIANT of the guitar. What Earl Scruggs was to the 5 string banjo and bluegrass, Tony Rice was to flat pick guitar in bluegrass. It is said to recognize a LEADER, look for FOLLOWERS. That was true for Tony Rice.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

4 Responses

  • That was Tony Rice (A) on his 1988 LP “Native American.” I hadn’t heard the song in ages so I retrieved the LP from the archive and listened. It’s a fine performance, especially Jerry Douglas’s dobro solo. The lyric suggests that Booth saw himself as a modern day Brutus. In the liner notes, TR disavowed Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln, just in case anyone is wondering.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWzQa_jNqck

    Correctomundo! Three winners! Tony Rice commissioned and recorded “John Wilkes Booth” written by Mary “Chapin” Carpenter. Give it a listen. Interesting.

    Tony caught a bit of flak from this recording. Some listeners interpreted it to mean that Tony SUPPORTED Booth’s assassination of Lincoln. Tony actually published a statement that he certainly DID NOT support Booth. He recorded the song to tell the story, which was convoluted and meaningful. In fact, books have been written about Booth and what happened before and after the assassination. In case you didn’t know, Booth did NOT get away with it.

    The only other bluegrass, or proto-bluegrass Booth song I’m aware of, is an OLD time fiddle tune called “Booth Shot Lincoln” or sometimes just “Booth”. Originally it was played in cross-tuned G or A with good droning from the open lower strings. No lyrics that I know of. The oldest recording is by Marcus Martin of North Carolina, playing for a Library of Congress recording. When played slow-to-medium speed it’s very mournful. The Old Time Bluegrass Singers used to it that way featuring fiddling Robert Fraker. More recently, some bluegrass bands have gotten ahold of it and sped it up to breakdown speed with full bluegrass instrumentation. Choose your poison. Here’s a recent video of an old time fiddler playing it a bit on the fast side.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvRYKsgwKzk

    Tony Rice was certainly an unusual person. There have been a few podcasts and articles since Tony died where colleagues have revealed some of Tony’s lesser-known traits or shall we say even pecadilloes. For instance, it has been published that Tony left JD Crowe and the New South in Kentucky to go to California to help form the David Grisman Quintet, because an angry Kentucky dad was after him to participate in a shotgun wedding with his daughter. Ahem! He would never “ride” in a car; he HAD TO drive. He wouldn’t fly. When arthritis prevented him from playing guitar he would stay up ALL night long working on old Bulova Accutron wrist watches until after sun-up; subsisting on potato chips and coffee. He’d sleep a bit in the afternoon then wake up and do it all over again. His older brother Larry Rice died from mesothelioma (asbestos lung cancer) likely brought home on his welder father’s clothing. Tony looked just like Larry in the grip of mesothelioma, but not one word was ever said about what was eating Tony alive. It looked worse than just arthritis. He became such a loner, that it’s said he had probably been dead a few days when he was checked on and discovered to be “gone”.

    Yet, what a GIANT of the guitar. What Earl Scruggs was to the 5 string banjo and bluegrass, Tony Rice was to flat pick guitar in bluegrass. It is said to recognize a LEADER, look for FOLLOWERS. That was true for Tony Rice.

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