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Lyr Add/Origin: Can't Lose Me, Charlie

GUEST,Bob Coltman 03 Jul 10 - 07:05 PM
GUEST,Bob Coltman 03 Jul 10 - 07:07 PM
GUEST,Bob Coltman 03 Jul 10 - 08:11 PM
GUEST,Bob Coltman 03 Jul 10 - 08:27 PM
Crowhugger 03 Jul 10 - 08:41 PM
Jim Dixon 08 Jul 10 - 01:24 PM
GUEST,Elliot Kennel 25 Oct 13 - 08:28 AM
GUEST,guest, jen monnot 20 Aug 18 - 07:13 AM
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Subject: Lyr Add: CAN'T LOSE ME, CHARLIE (Harry S. Miller)
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 03 Jul 10 - 07:05 PM

Most of us know this lyric as a shout song from Leadbelly. Till now its antecedents have been obscure. But here's its story, based on my research.

In the year 1893 "America's Phenomenal Contralto" appeared on the stage with a new hit: "Can't Lose Me, Charlie." Its composer was the prolific Harry S. Miller, who in that same year had a durable hit with the "coon song" novelty "The Cat Came Back."

(I apologize for the use of "coon" but it was a big piece of American song history in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century.)

According to his writeup on Wikipedia, Miller, born and raised in Pennsylvania, frequently wrote using a Georgia black accent and was influential in the "coon song" craze, credited with popularizing "honey, "baby," and the phrase "Got trouble of my own" in African-American English, or at least its stage equivalent.

By the way, Wikipedia evidently thinks Miller's "Can't Lose Me, Charlie" is lost. However, it survived, thank goodness, in the Brown University Afro-American Sheet Music collection.

So, thanks to that collection, here's what Julie Mackey's theater audiences were hearing in 1893.
Note: to spare feelings, yet convey the song, the "N" word is abbreviated. The dialect is preserved as written by Miller.

Words and music by Harry S. Miller.
Chicago: Will Rossiter, 1893.

1. I got a heap of trouble, now, of late—
Got a little yaller girl I can't shake:
She cost me 'bout a bar'l of money,
Always turns up and says, "Ma honey!"

CHORUS: Ez yer can't lose me, Charlie; 'deed yer can't lose me, Charlie;
Try in eb'ry manner for to shake yer little Hanner. [This line changes in every repetition.]
Um, um, um* says yer baby, [*Equivalent of today's "Unh-unh-unh]
And yer can't lose me, 'deed yer can't.

2. I was at a little party, down de way;
De center of attraction, I was gay.
All de girls I soon was hugging,
Den comes a yell and someone shoving.

Knowed yer was a n—r ez would like to cut a figure.

3. While a-down at Widow Johnson, here, one night,
Doing a little courting, "out of sight,"
Down on my knees my love was telling,
My old girl on de outside yelling:

... B'lieve yer would deceive me, and I'll fool yer; yes, indeed-ee. ...

4. I had a little money, and all good stuff,
Done gone an' played de races, didn't have 'nuff;
I got a tip and de tip did win,
How dat girl did yell when I cashed in

... Knowed yer was a winner, buy me chicken for me dinner. ...

5. One day while on de railroad, train coming fast,
Stepped upon de other track, let go past;
'Nother train come on, 'way went flying;
When I come down dat girl was crying—

...Love yer same as ever, and I'll never leave yer, never! ...

6. One time did go a-rowing—de girl went, too;
When she stepped into the boat, bottom broke through,
Down in de ribber she fast was sinking,
Grabbed me quickly and says, "I'se thinking,"—

... Might a-think it funny, but I'll bet you any money. ...

7. Down around de corner where de coons play thick,
Shouting in de sunshine, "Come up, big Dick,"
There's where I lose all of my good money,
When I go broke she says so funny—

... Try and roll a seben an' yer neber come "a leben." ...

This is the song Leadbelly heard (or maybe he heard a version of it many times removed), and used the "hook" from in his

You can't lose-a me Charlie,
You can't lose-a me, boy.

Since the DT apparently doesn't include the Leadbelly song, I'll add the text of that in my next message. Bob

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add/History: Can't Lose Me, Charlie
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 03 Jul 10 - 07:07 PM

Correction, paragraph 2 of the above should begin,

In the year 1893, Julie Mackey, "America's Phenomenal Contralto" ... etc.

And Joe? Help! I divided the stanzas line for line, but they came out as run-ons ... can you correct, please???

Thanks, Bob
    You must have had the "automatic linebreaks box unchecked, Bob. All better now - and I sure am enjoying this thread.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add: You Can't Lose Me, Charlie (Leadbelly
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 03 Jul 10 - 08:11 PM

Who knows how Leadbelly learned this? Probably at third- or fourth-hand, especially since I have been unable to find any evidence that "Can't Lose Me, Charlie" was ever recorded either for the pop, blues, jazz or oldtime country market.

But however he learned it, Leadbelly learned enough of the original song to pick up a couple of verses (#s 1 and 3 below), though not complete ... they survive as orphaned couplets only.

By the way, the spelling "Cholly," as in "Been On the Cholly So Long," has a number of slang meanings: dope, the bum, a portion of a train where a hobo can ride, etc. In "You Can't Lose Me, Cholly," however, it is just the name "Charlie," derived from Harry S. Miller's original.

Leadbelly recorded his song first (I believe) for ARC in 1935, and intermittently thereafter for Moe Asch. The versions differed in details but he generally kept in the same verses, though not always in the same order. Here's one frequently heard take:


By Leadbelly

Cho: You can't lose-a me, Charlie,
You can't lose-a me, boy.

Up to Willie Winston's I went a roading,
Down on my knees, I was doing little courting,
Every time she turned around she said it so funny:   CHO

Hog and sheep they went to the pasture,
Hog said to sheep, You'd better go a little faster,
Every time she turned around, she said it so funny, CHO

I went a-rowing and my gal went too,
Down on the river, well the boat broke through,
Every time she turned around she said it so funny,
[in some versions] I got a pretty boy to bring me the money,   CHO

Me and my brother went down the road,
Tryin' to get some money to buy a gourd   
Got to have a gourd to drink water outa,   CHO

Lornell and Wolfe, in their biography Leadbelly, say nothing about how this song had survived to be heard by Leadbelly. It would be nice to know more.

In the 1890-1899 Songbook at

the uncredited author (who had not seen Miller's sheet music and evidently did not know the song lyrics) speculates about this, adding that the author Willa Cather heard "Can't Lose Me, Charlie" performed by minstrels in Lincoln, Nebraska [either 1983 or 1894]. So minstrels may have brought the song within hearing for the black population. The author also notes a reference crediting one Richard Morton for the words; my guess is that this was a later performer who took credit for what surely are Miller's lyrics.

That author also speculates that Miller did not originate the "Can't lose me, Charlie" phrase, but borrowed it from tradition. That's a long shot, but it's possible—given Miller's apparently thorough immersion in African American dialect of the time. Reasoning: he had to learn it somewhere, so perhaps he also picked up the phrase. I emphasize there is no proof for this at all.

More fascinating stuff to come in the next message, bringing the song up to the 1960s.


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Subject: RE: Lyr Add: You're Tryin' to Lose Me, Charlie
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 03 Jul 10 - 08:27 PM

I don't think any of us believed that Miller's original 1893 "Can't Lose Me, Charlie" had survived anywhere, apart from Leadbelly's fairly distant echo.

What a surprise, therefore, to find, in a tape of a Paul Clayton performance at the Cafe Yana in Boston either in 1961 or 1962, Clayton singing a song he seems to have called "You're Trying to Lose Me, Charlie."

As sung by Paul Clayton

I was down at Mrs. Johnson's the other night,
Courtin' with a little girl, hid out of sight,
Down on my knees, I was a-tellin'
And my ol' girl's outside, she was a-yellin',

Cho: Says you're tryin' to lose me, Charlie,
You're tryin' to lose me, Charlie,
Howso and ever in all kinds of weather,
Well, you can't lose me, 'deed you can't.

I was down on the railroad, the train a-comin' fast,
An' I stepped on the other side, just let it pass,
I caught the train, train was a-flyin',
An' my ol' girl caught me, and she was a yellin',

Cho: Well, you tryin' to lose me, Charlie ...

I's all out on the boat, I's a-doin' little drinkin',
An' the bottom bust out, it commenced a-sinkin',
An' the ol' girl grabbed me, says, I been thinkin',

Cho2: Well, you tryin' to lose me, Charlie,
You tryin' to lose me, Charlie,
Howso and ever, we will all die together,
Well, you can't lose me, 'deed you can't.

How in the dickens did Clayton get hold of this almost unheard song? I suggest he may have heard the fragment during one of his many song collecting trips through Virginia, North Carolina or Kentucky—or else picked it up from someone else who remembered part of the song, with a different title line.

The song differs enough from the extremely rare original sheet music so that I doubt Clayton ever saw a copy of that. As noted above I haven't been able to find any evidence that it ever appeared on a phonograph record. And while Clayton was known to write songs, the divergences of this one don't sound like his work.

So we seem to have a second survival of an 1893 pop song that came within an inch of not surviving at all, is not found in tradition anywhere else apart from Leadbelly, but somehow Paul Clayton is singing it in the early 1960s in a very catchy rendition.

That's the sum total, so far as I know, of "Can't Lose Me, Charlie"'s appearances in pop and folk history. Anyone know of any others—that is, survivals of the song in anyone's hands other than Leadbelly's or Clayton's?


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Subject: RE: Lyr Add/History: Can't Lose Me, Charlie
From: Crowhugger
Date: 03 Jul 10 - 08:41 PM

Guess you can't keep a good song down...Thanks for this interesting thread.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add/History: Can't Lose Me, Charlie
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 08 Jul 10 - 01:24 PM

Here's a link to the sheet music at Brown University.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add/Origin: Can't Lose Me, Charlie
From: GUEST,Elliot Kennel
Date: 25 Oct 13 - 08:28 AM

One thing that bugs me about the Leadbelly version is that to my ear he is not singing "you can't lose me Charlie" but something like "you can't (h)urdle me Charlie" or maybe "you can't ever do me Charlie." Perhaps this has something to do with a woman rejecting courtship or something like that. I really don't understand the slang from back in the day.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Add/Origin: Can't Lose Me, Charlie
From: GUEST,guest, jen monnot
Date: 20 Aug 18 - 07:13 AM

I first heard Leadbelly perform this in the company of Woody Guthrie, 1940-12-12. I thought he was singing, "You can"t ENTER me, Charlie." I also thought the whole song was about cunnilingus.

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