In 2013 I first heard it, and it perplexed the mind of this music history enthusiast ever since. With lyrics speckled with tried-and-true country tropes such as train rides and bottles of whiskey, and a distinctively Appalachian-sounding melody akin to “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” as soon as I heard “Cups (“When I’m Gone) by Anna Kendrick my curiosity piqued. I had to learn more about the song that suddenly erupted on the airwaves everywhere that year and featured in the smash teen-oriented film Pitch Perfect. Official music video below:
While everyone on TV talked about Kendrick’s skill with the cup game that acted as percussion for the song, it struck me as odd that no one seemed to ask about the origin of the song itself, its imagery, and its possible ties to American folk music. I found it hard to believe the song was really written and composed in the 21st century as a pop song.
The song haunted me for over two years, and as I grew more and more interested in country and folk music’s roots, in 2016 I finally decided to unearth what I could about “When I’m Gone.” Apparently the British group Lulu and the Lampshades (now Landshapes) recorded the song “Cups”(“You’re Gonna Miss Me”) that bears the most similarities to Kendrick’s version, percussion and all, in 2011. Hmmm, that’s still so recent.
Then I typed in “When I’m Gone” and “Appalachian” into ye olde Google search, and roads pointed me towards the Carter Family’s 1928 ballad “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” A-ha, I thought. Now we’re talking. Then I took a listen. Although a beautiful and haunting song, it bore little similarity to “Cups.” Sean Coxen, whose Youtube video depicts a 1935 recording of the Carter Family song even states, in straightforward capital letters, “THIS IS NOT THE INSPIRATION for Anna Kendrick’s “Cup Song.” Such comparisons do not apply here.”
The Carter Family “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” 1935 Many thanks to Sean Coxen for this video
My search then brought me to Mainer’s Mountaineers. CUPS by ANNA KENDRICK Eureka. Their 1937 song “Miss Me When I’m Gone” sounds the most like the version we’re familiar with today, but with a few differences in the lyrics, as the “ticket for the long way round…” description is not included. Nevertheless, it gave me quite the thrill to finally hear an Appalachian tune and validate my wonderings about the 2013 hit:
Mainer’s Mountainers, “Miss Me When I’m Gone,” 1937 Thank you, BBMRLCCOTN for this video
Then I wondered, how did an English band know about an Appalachian string band’s song from the 1930s (and possibly with even earlier origins)? Luisa Gerstein, the lead singer of Lulu and the Lampshades, may have first discovered the song at summer camp. Amelia Gregory, owner of Amelia’s Magazine, who hosted Lulu and the Lampshades at the Glastonbury 2010 Climate Camp, stated on her website in 2010:
Both myself and Luisa have camped extensively with Forest School Camps, and her glorious melodies reflect the mix of traditional English, Irish, Scottish and American Bluegrass music that we love to sing around campfires.
See the link to Amelia’s site here: Amelia’s Magazine on Lulu and the Lampshades’ “Cups”
Therefore it’s very possible that the old folk song was kept alive around the fires of camps in the Anglophone world, and thanks to Gernstein and her band, it regained familiarity in the Mountaineers’ country of origin, the U.S. New lyrics may have been added, but this should not come as a surprise for folk music fans. After all, like folk tales, folk songs have historically changed over time, and different artists can add many different alterations to the original (see my first post on the Summer Shade festival where I mention the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away from Me.”)
While Kendrick may have found more inspiration in the use of a cup and handclaps as percussion than in the song itself, “Cups” did help bring a song steeped in American folk music tradition to a wider (and younger) audience.
Another song I heard (in 2015 this time) that had a similar effect was “Hey Mama” by DJ/producer/songwriter David Guetta. The song featured Nicki Minaj, Afrojack, and Bebe Rexha. Yet the part that caught my attention the most–the man’s voice leading with “be my woman gal” and the driving chorus shouting “I’ll be your man”–stood out as a sample from another song; one that sounded much older than anything Guetta would have originally produced in the 2000s. Hmmm. Again, I had to get to the bottom of this. Official David Guetta video below:
First, I typed in the lyrics of “Hey Mama” on Google, and then I focused on the lines of the chorus and searched…and searched…
At last, I found the answer, (thank you Google Books) in the book written by John Szwed about the songs collected by the great folk musicologist Alan Lomax, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. “Rosie”, a Prison Work Song
It turns out that African American prisoners in a Parchman, Mississippi work camp sang the song as they performed the hearty call-and-response as a means to combat the dreariness of prison camp tasks and keep time while performing hard manual labor. The lyrics of the song also convey a promise of hope for the prisoner, who plans to marry his beloved Rosie (the “gal” whom he asks to “be my woman”) when he is free:
Stick to the promise girl that You made me/ Won’t got married til’ uh I go free
The original song: “Negro Prison Songs / “Rosie”1947 [RARE]” Thank you so much, monQsurlacommode for this video.
The blog Pancocojams gives an excellent summary of the history of the song and the work camp culture that produced it: Excellent study by Pancocojams. As is true of the blues in African American history, music has provided a sense of relief from extreme hardships in the human condition. When such songs are included in pop songs without much reference to their history or origin, it can have a jarring effect, yet oftentimes the folk aspect is what “makes” the song and why it stands out, because historic folk music can have such a universally powerful effect on our psyches that we recognize when we hear it. (Which prompted me to seek out the story of these songs in the first place).
The more old folk music I familiarize myself with, the more I realize its presence in pop music. While I wish the songs came to us through another form than forgettable pop formulations, at least they help keep those decades and even centuries-old tunes alive and raise interest in the music of our past.
Thank you for reading,
P.S. Honorable mention (and subject of the featured image): Swedish techno-pop band Rednex, who had a hit version of “Cotton Eye Joe” back in 1995 (shown below). Yes, I realize I may lose all credibility by posting this video, but it’s certainly an example of a pop interpretation of a folk song, albeit orchestrated in a crudely stereotypical way (I can’t say I haven’t danced to this at some point, however):