Jimmie Brown The Newsboy

“Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” has long been a favorite of mine, as recorded by Flatt & Scruggs and Mac Wiseman. Recently, I got to pondering its origins. After some digging, I discovered that the song was composed in 1875 by William S. Hays. Over the years, Hays’ name has largely been forgotten and now people either refer to “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” as a Carter Family song, a Flatt & Scruggs song or even a Mac Wiseman song. Let’s go back to an earlier time and look at where the song came from and discover some startling controversies surrounding it.                                            

William S. Hayes

In the late 19th century, popular music was strongly titled toward utterly nostalgic and sentimental themes. Songwriters (then called “songsmiths”) gloried in crafting songs that tugged at the tender heartstrings of a nation that had recently gone through the trauma of the Civil War, where pitiful scenes of dying soldiers and little drummer boys populated the songs of that era. The songwriting industry was just getting under way, and publishers were vying to see who could make people shed the most tears. Nothing was off limits. Popular songs portrayed impoverished widows and barefooted orphans begging for bread, while others were left to die cold and alone in the ice and snow. While men like Charles K. Harris, Gussie L. Davis, and Stephen Foster were writing popular songs that would later be called “tear jerkers,” a brilliant young songwriter stepped to the forefront and eventually became the most prominent songwriter of late 19th century America. His name was William S. Hays, and here’s his story. 

William S. Hays (1837-1907) grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, with three great passions: newspaper reporting, riverboat piloting and songwriting. From an early job as a clerk on a riverboat, Hays worked his way up the ranks and eventually became captain of his own riverboat. During the Civil War, and in the years that followed, he piloted his boat on the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers. Despite the rigors of being captain of a riverboat, Hays managed to find time to write poems and songs. Lots of them. During his lifetime, he churned out at least 350 compositions, most with highly nostalgic and sentimental themes. In 1873, it was estimated that his publisher had sold a staggering 2,688,000 sheets of 71 of his songs, no small potatoes in those days.

After the fall of Vicksburg in 1862, Hays navigated the Grey Eagle on the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and New Orleans. On one of these trips, he was arrested and locked up in a New Orleans jail for writing the song, “My Sunny Southern Home,” a tune that angered General Benjamin “Beast” Butler, commander of Union troops in New Orleans. Hays’ short imprisonment had less to do with the subject matter of this harmless song, and more with the fact that Hays was a staunch Democrat who later supported such Democratic candidates such as George B. McClellan, Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland.

Hays, whose mother died when he was just ten years old, composed a rich store of mother songs: “Mother’s Parting at the Gate” (1884), “Is Mother There?” (1875), “Call Me No More, Mother” (1864), “I Am Dying Mother, Dying” (1865), “Kiss Me Goodnight, Mama” (1874), “I’m Motherless Now” (1872), “What Will I Do, Mother is Dead” (1869), “Papa, Stay Home, I’m Motherless Now” (1872) and “Take This Letter to My Mother” (1873). More to the point, even though the name William S. Hays may be unknown to modern bluegrass musicians and fans, many of his original compositions have become well-worn evergreens. Some of his songs that were later done in old-time or bluegrass style are “We Parted by the Riverside,” (1866), “Little Old Cabin in the Lane,” (1871), “Molly Darling,” (1871), “You’ve Been a Friend to Me,” (1879), “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers,”(1869) “The Faithful Engineer,” (1869), “Nobody’s Darling on Earth” (1870), “Take This Letter to My Mother” (1873), “The Old Man’s Drunk Again (1872),” “Shamus O’Brien,” and last but not least, “Jimmie Brown, the Paper Boy” (1875)  

Here is the original melody and lyrics as composed by Will S. Hays:

The Carter Family had the first commercial recording of “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” on November 25, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, although it wasn’t released until June 19, 1931. Below, are the lyrics as sung by Sara Carter on their only recording of this song 11/25/1929. 

The Carter Family

I’m very cold and hungry, Sir, my clothes are worn and thin,
I wander about from place to place my daily bread I win.

But never mind, Sir, how I look, don’t swear at me or frown,
I sell the morning paper, Sir, my name is Jimmy Brown. 

I sell the morning paper, Sir, my name is Jimmy Brown,
Most everybody knows I am the newsboy of the town.

My Father was a drunkard, Sir, I’ve heard my Mother say,
But I am helping, Mother, Sir, as I journey on my way.

I sell the morning paper Sir, my name is Jimmy Brown
Most everybody knows I am the newsboy of the town.

When I went back and compared the Carter Family lyrics with those of the original sheet music by Will S. Hays, I found some important differences. The first three verses of the original lyrics and those of the Carter Family are identical. But on verse 4, the second line of the Carter’s version strayed from the original. The Carter Family version also omits Hays’ last two verses. I think it’s fair to assume that they did not have access to the original sheet music when they learned it. Instead, it is more than likely that A.P. Carter collected it from one of his many informants in southwest Virginia or Tennessee. It’s also possible he learned it from Leslie Riddle, the ace guitar player who traveled the backroads with A.P. collecting songs and was a major influence on Maybelle Carter’s guitar style. Adding further evidence that the Carters didn’t learn the song from the original sheet music is the fact that their melody was completely different from that of the original. 

It was only natural that the Carter Family record “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” since their repertoire was populated by such sentimental and nostalgic songs as “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” “Poor Orphan Child,” “The Dying Soldier,” “I Have No Loving Mother Now,” “Darling Little Joe,” “The Dying Mother,” “Faded Coat of Blue,” “Grave on the Green Hillside,” “I Have an Aged Mother,” and “Poor Little Orphan Boy.” “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” was surely the perfect vehicle to showcase Maybelle’s virtuosic guitar skills. 

After the Carter family recorded “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” on November 25, 1929, the song basically laid dormant until Flatt & Scruggs brought it back to life with their May 9, 1951 recording for Columbia. With Lester singing lead, it became one of their most requested numbers. Earl’s outstanding Maybelle Carter style guitar playing certainly put the song over the top and helped pave the way for a revival of the music of the Carter Family. Beyond that, Earl’s playing was an early example of fancy lead guitar work at a time when most bluegrass guitarists stuck timidly to playing rhythm.

At the same time the song was released, Flatt & Scruggs published a song folio entitled Songs and Picture Album. This booklet included the lyrics of “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy.” It’s interesting to note that the lyrics in the folio were very close but were not an exact transcript of the way Lester sang it on the recording. In their 1962 songbook, Folk Music with an Overdrive, a full page was devoted to “Jimmie Brown, The Newsboy,” as published by Peer International, who held the copyright of all the Carter Family songs. On Peer’s sheet music, take special notice of the song credits – “Words and Music by A.P. Carter.” In this songbook, it’s interesting to note that two of the verses were reversed from the way Lester sang it on their recording. By the way, the catchy phrase “Folk Music with Overdrive,” was the creation of Alan Lomax, who published it in an October 1, 1959 article for Esquire Magazine

What really shocked me when I compared Flatt & Scruggs’ June 11, 1951 recording of “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” with Hays’ original lyrics and those of the Carter Family is that two mystery verses appeared in the Flatt & Scruggs song that were nowhere else to be found. They were NOT in Hays’ original 1875 composition nor in the Carter Family’s 1929 recording:

You can hear me yelling “Morning Star” running along the street,
Got no hat upon my head, no shoes upon my feet.

My mother always tells me, Sir, I’ve nothing in the world to lose,
I’ll get a place in heaven, Sir, to sell the Gospel News.

Here is my transcription of the lyrics exactly the way Flatt & Scruggs recorded it on the Foggy Mountain Jamboree album: 

I sell the morning paper, Sir, my name is Jimmy Brown,
Everybody knows that I’m the newsboy of the town.

You can hear me yelling “Morning Star,” running along the street,
Got no hat upon my head no shoes upon my feet.

Never mind, Sir, how I look, don’t look at me and frown,
I sell the morning paper, Sir, my name is Jimmy Brown.

I’m awful cold and hungry, Sir, my clothes are mighty thin,
I wander about from place to place, my daily bread to win.

My Father died a drunkard, Sir, I’ve heard my Mother say,
I am helping Mother, Sir as I journey on my way.

My mother always tells me, Sir, I’ve nothing in the world to lose,
I’ll get a place in heaven, Sir, to sell the Gospel News.

These two mystery verses sparkle with charm. Flatt & Scruggs’ “Morning Star” verse is among the best of the entire song. The “Gospel News” verse was nothing short of a stroke of genius because it tied the whole song together by creating a unifying and meaningful ending where Jimmie is selling his newspapers in heaven. The big question to ponder is “Where in the heck did those two mystery verses come from?” The finger points at the two most likely suspects: A.P. Carter (who is credited on Peer International’s sheet music) and Lester Flatt, who recorded the version that included the two mystery verses. Both men have their champions and detractors. 

A.P Carter certainly had the songwriting ability, but not the apparent motive, to add new lyrics to the song as recorded by the Carter Family in 1929. But why bother to rewrite a song that was not an especially good seller when there were no plans afoot to rerecord it? It was not among the songs A.P. and Sara later recorded in the Acme sessions of the 1950s. It’s possible, but unlikely, that Ralph Peer or Roy Horton, who worked alongside Peer, pressured A.P. to go back and brush up the lyrics by luring him with the promise of future royalties. Perhaps they convinced A.P. that the Carter Family would eventually get the recognition they deserved, so his “investment” in polishing up the song would be rewarded. If this was their vision, it came true in spades because Flatt & Scruggs’ success with their own recordings of “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” played a part in bringing the music of the Carter Family back into popularity. Remember that Flatt & Scruggs’ second version of the song on their 1961 album, Songs of the Famous Carter Family, came out at a time when the Folk Music Revival of the early 1960s was taking the country by storm. 

 Lester Flatt had every reason to brush up the lyrics of “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” by adding additional verses. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, Flatt & Scruggs were riding high with their own syndicated TV show on WSM, regular spots on the Grand Ole Opry, and a strong sponsor in General Mills, producers of Martha White Flour. Their records were flying off the shelves, which was a strong incentive to polish any song they recorded to a high gloss. Lester certainly had the songwriting chops to rewrite “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy,” if that’s what he did. He had already crafted such songs as “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” “My Little Girl in Tennessee,” “Get in Line Brother,” “I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open,” “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” and countless others. 

Beyond that, Lester soon recorded another deeply sentimental song that also originated in the late 19th century, “Over the Hills to the Poorhouse.” But the question remains, if Lester added the two additional verses, why didn’t he copyright his arrangement and take credit for it in his and Earls’ 1951 and 1962 songbooks? In fact, in the 1962 Flatt & Scruggs songbook, writing credits for “I’m On My Way to Canaan’s Land” listed “Words and Music by A.P. Carter, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.” We can only speculate that Lester and Earl did not want to upset Maybelle Carter, since they had become close friends, and even recorded an album together, Songs of the Famous Carter Family. Throwing cold water on this theory is the fact that Earl’s wife, Louise, who was Lester and Earl’s savvy business manager, was no pushover. I cannot imagine how she would have shied away from claiming copyright credit and royalties if Lester and Earl had, in fact, added two words to the song, not to mention two verses!

So, the mystery remains. Was it A.P. Carter or Lester Flatt who added the two additional verses of “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy?” Even after all this detective work, the case remains far from closed. Will the real songwriter please step forward and claim his or her prize?

Now, let’s get busy and learn a version of “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy” on the guitar. Below is a simplified tab from my new book, Easy 2-Chord Songs for Guitar

Let me say a word about the tab. Instead of using numbers to represent the string and the fret, I invented an “improved” tab where the actual name of the note is used. This requires that you learn the names of the notes, which is certainly a good thing to do. A single line sprouting up from a note is a quarter note, two notes grouped together are each eighth notes and a double line poking above a note is a half note. 

Credits: On writing this article, I have gained valuable information and guidance from numerous friends, including Dr. Thomas A. Adler, Penny Parsons, Wayne Seymour, Pete Peterson, Darren Moore, Ken Landreth, Brody Hunt, Charles Pennell, Stephanie P. Ledgin, Jordan L. Laney, Barry Mazor, Charlie Walden, Dana Ward, Annie Erbsen, Katrina Ohstrom, Barbara Swell, Neil V. Rosenberg and Tim O’Brien. Thanks, folks!


Wayne Erbsen is a music historian, musician, author, educator and radio host. Check out his Rural Roots of Bluegrass book for more bluegrass history or his instruction books for clawhammer and bluegrass banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and ukulele www.nativeground.com