Kelly Harrell was born in Draper’s Valley, Virginia in 1889. He spent most of his adult life working in textile mills, but by the age of 35 his local reputation as a singer lead to him getting the chance to record some songs for Victor Records, and then Okeh Records soon after.
One wonders what rural Virginians made of Jazz Age New York City. If anyone has links to songs that convey how country folk felt about their first visit to the Big Apple, let me know.
“I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago” is a traditional song that has gone by many different titles, including “I Was Born 4,000 Years Ago” and “When Abraham and Isaac Rushed the Can.” That last title was recorded by Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1924, one year before this version was cut. Another title variant gets right to the point: “The Bragging Song.” The singer in all of these versions was born a ridiculously long time ago, and therefore has seen it all and can’t be fooled. And he’ll lick anyone who says it isn’t so. And not in the friendly way.
The adaptable melody and bragadocious attitude of the song made it an irresistible target for lyric-changing. After all, if Fiddlin’ John Carson has been in the lion’s den with Daniel, and Kelly Harrell saw Jonah get eaten by an Ethiopian whale, then Elvis Presley had to save King David’s life and tell him “have a chair” when he was offered a wife in gratitude.
Everyone brings their own take to it—even Odetta gets in on the action.
The flip side brings us Wild Bill Jones, a story of how the singer had to kill the baddest man in town because he was trying to make time with his true love. More braggadocio, but this time on a more reasonable scale.
Kelly Harrell is probably best known for “My Name Is John Johannah,” a song featured on the great Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a six LP set that came out in the 1950’s and was required listening for everyone who went on to make folk music in the 1960’s.