SEARCHING FOR LITTLE SADIE

STORY OF A SONG

by | Feb 3, 2021 | Story of a Song

When I began my bluegrass banjo journey as an innocent pre-teen, I remember coming across a little ditty called “Little Sadie”. I had recently bought a Doc Watson record (yes, we all listened to vinyl back in those days), and I remember listening to him sing this rueful tale of a man who, while out for a evening stroll, runs into a certain Little Sadie and blows her away with his 44. Pretty intense stuff. And this was just within the first 15 seconds of the song. What added to the gruesomeness of this tune was the fact that the lyric was sung in the first person. Here’s this guy describing very matter-of-factly how he meets Sadie and, right then and there, murders her:

Went out last night one night to make a little round
I met little Sadie and I shot her down
Went back home, jumped into bed
44 pistol under my head

What I found most intriguing/disturbing about this lyric is how the line about killing Sadie is tossed off with an air of cool indifference. Rather than serving as the centerpiece of the tale, the line seems no more than an insignificant (almost irrelevant) detail to our balladeer’s story. And now we’re thinking, “Who’s this Sadie? His wife? A girlfriend? A neighbor who pissed him off? Of course, none of this is ever addressed in the song’s lyrics, which center not on Sadie but rather on our anti-hero’s attempts to flee the authorities and avoid punishment for Sadie’s demise. 

 

It was only when I began immersing myself in old-time music years later that I began to read up on the song. What I found was, like a lot of pre-twentieth century American folk tunes, its origins are lost in antiquity. And, rather disappointingly, no one has ever (as of this writing) connected it with an actual murder. 
There is some evidence that suggests “Little Sadie” began its life among African Americans of the American South in the late nineteenth century. It’s emblematic of a theme in American folk ballads of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the Outlaw as Psychpath, a truly Bad Man. Today, the song can be heard in a variety of genres – from blues to bluegrass, old-time Appalachian music to singer-songwriter guitar, classic country to post-modern rock. Over the years, it’s gone by a few different monikers, including “Cocaine Blues”,  “Bad Lee Brown”, “Bad Man Ballad”, “Transfusion Blues”, “East St. Louis Blues”, “Late One Night”, and “Penitentiary  Blues”.

According to music historians, the earliest written record of the song dates back to 1922. The following lyric fragment is noted in the 1948 book Ozark Folksongs, Vol. II.

“Bad Lee Brown”

Last night I was a-makin’ my rounds,

Met my old woman and I blowed her down,

I went on home to go to bed, 

Put my old canon right under my head.

 

Jury says murder in the first degree,

I says oh Lord, have mercy on me!

Old Judge White picks up his pen, 

Says you’ll never killed a woman ag’in.

 

The first sound recording of “Little Sadie” was made by the Appalachian guitarist and banjo player Clarence Ashley in 1929. Since then, it’s been rendered by a who’s who of musicians spanning a wide variety of genres. Notable folks who’ve recorded the song include Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, the Kingston Trio, George Thorogood, Tony Rice, Jerry Garcia and Old Crow Medicine Show
Check out Doc Watson’s rendition of the song (my favorite version, hands down!).

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