Viola Lee Blues

Lyrics: Noah Lewis
Music: Noah Lewis

The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it (note1)
The clerk he wrote it down indeed-e
The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it down
If you miss jail sentence, you'll be Nashville bound (note2)

Some got six months, some got one solid
Some got one solid year, indeed-e
Some got six months, some got one solid year
But me and my buddy, we got lifetime here

I wrote a letter, mailed it in the
Mailed it in the air, indeed-e
I wrote a letter, mailed it in the air
You may know my brother, I've got a friend somewhere (note3)
Notes
(1) Gus Cannon's version sounds like "The judge he pleaded" but I think the Dead sing "decreed it"
(2) it's not clear whether it's "If you miss jail sinner" or "If you miss jail sentence." I think the Dead sing the latter, though Gus Cannon's version sounds more like the former.
(3) the Dead sometimes sang "You may know by that ..." (Thanks to Brian Schnapp and others for pointing this out)
(4) the lyrics of the Dead's version are often hard to make out, and Bob Weir made a joke of this when asked in the "Grateful Dead Documentary" what the lyrics were:
"Read it and eat it, turkey crowed it
Down de levee, candy coated
Read it and eat it, candy coated down
If you miss jail sentence, it's your own damn fault"
The original version by Noah Lewis has a different final verse from the one sung by the Dead, and a few other small changes:
The judge he pleaded, the clerk he wrote it
The clerk he wrote it down indeed-e
The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it down
If you miss jail sentence, you must be Nashville bound

Some got six months, some got one solid
Some got one solid year, indeed Lord
Some got six months, some got one solid year
But me and my buddy, we got lifetime here

Fix my supper, mama, let me go to
Let me go to bed, indeed Lord
Fix my supper, let me go to bed
I've been drinking white lightning, and it just gone to my head
Grateful Dead Recordings
     Date Album
      Jul 1966 Birth Of The Dead (note 3)
     studio 1967 The Grateful Dead (note 4)
     Fillmore 1967 Grateful Dead Documentary (note 5)
      3 Sep 1967 The Grateful Dead (note 6)
     20 Jan 1968 Road Trips Volume 2, Number 2
     23 Jan 1968 Road Trips Volume 2, Number 2 (bonus disc)
     23 Feb 1968 Dick's Picks Vol 22
     26 Apr 1969 Fallout From The Phil Zone
      2 May 1970 Dick's Picks Vol 8

Recordings from dead.net Tapers Section

"The Dead" Concert Recordings

Ratdoglive CDs and downloads

Phil Lesh and Friends Digital Download Series

Furthur Digital Downloads and CDs
 
Other Recordings
     Date Album Recorded By
     1992 Twilight Dance Solar Circus

Notes
(3) originally released as part of the Rhino box set The Golden Road (1965-1973)
(4) the remastered album also has a second, edited studio version.
(5) The Grateful Dead Documentary by Michael Wanger and Vance Frost includes (longish) excerpts from a version of Viola Lee Blues listed as "Live at the Fillmore 1967"
(6) bonus track on remastered album, first released as part of the box set The Golden Road (1965-1973)

Roots
"Viola Lee Blues" is very similar to the song "Joliet Bound" recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy around the same time as Noah Lewis's version with Cannon's Jug Stompers. (Joliet is a prison in Illinis). It's possible the two songs are derived from the same, earlier, source. These are the lyrics to "Joliet Bound":
Now the police coming with his ball and chain
Police coming with his ball and chain
And they accusing me of murder, never harmed a man

Now some got six months, some got one solid year
Some got six months, some got one solid year
Now me and my buddy got a lifetime here

Now the judge he pleaded, clerk, he wrote it down
Judge he pleaded, clerk, he wrote it down
That if I miss jail sentence now, must be Joliet bound

Now cook my supper, let me go to bed
Cook my supper now, let me go to bed
I've been drinking white lightning and it's gone to my head

Now you quit me baby, first thing you want to do
Quit me baby, first thing you want to do
Some day you gonna want me, cinch and I won't want you

Now the police shivved his old pistol in my side
Police shivved his old pistol in my side
Said if you run big boy, now, must be born to die

When they had my trial, you could not be found
Had my trial, you could not be found
Now I done got all messed up and I'm Joliet bound
I have seen references to "Viola Lee Blues" being derived from an earlier song "99 Year Blues" by Julius Daniels:
"Julius Daniels came from Denmark, SC and recorded this song in Atlanta in 1927. He was one of the first southeastern bluesmen to make records. A version of this song was adapted to become "Viola Lee Blues" by Cannon's Jug Stompers, covered by the Grateful Dead."
I can't see myself much connection between the two songs. Nor to other songs titled "Ninetly Nine Year Blues," such as Pigpen's early version. These are the lyrics for the Julius Daniels song:
Bring me my pistol, three rounds of ball
I'm gonna kill everybody [what this] poor boy lost
Poor boy lost, poor boy lost
Poor boy lost, poor boy lost

On a Monday I was arrested, on a Tuesday, I was tried
Judge found me guilty and I hung my head and cried
Lord and cried, Lord and cried
Lord and cried, Lord and cried

I asked the judge what would be my fine
Says a pick and a shovel down Joe Brown's coal mine
Coal mine, coal mine
Coal mine, coal mine, coal mine

[?] the judge, I've been here before
You can [?] don't come back here no more
No more, no more
No more, no more, ah Lord
One partial source for "Viola Lee Blues" is "Chain Gang Blues," recorded by Ma Rainey in 1925. This has an opening verse:
The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
Just a poor gal in trouble, I know I'm county road bound
Sonny Boy Williamson recorded a song "Life Time Blues" in 1939 that is clearly the same song as "Viola Lee Blues" - indeed, it is sometimes credited to Noah Lewis:
Fix my supper and let me go to
And let me go to bed, indeed Lord
Fix my supper and let me go to bed
Now I've been drinking white lightning
It's done gone to my head

The judge he pleaded, the clerk he wrote it
The clerk he wrote it, down indeed, Lord
The judge he pleaded, the clerk he wrote it down
Now I say, if you miss the jail, sinner
You must be Nashville bound

Some got six months, some got one solid
Some got one solid year, indeed Lord
Some got six months, some got one solid year
Now well, me an Walter Davis
We both got a life time here



Futher Information
For an online discussion of the lyrics to this song see the deadsongs.vue conference on The Well.
For more information on recordings see Matt Schofield's Grateful Dead Family Discography
For online chords and TAB see www.rukind.com

 


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