Known to radio listeners across the Southwest from the 1920s to the 1940s as the “King of the Ditty Singers”, Dallas’ own “Peg” Moreland was surely among the most prolific pre-war folksingers from the State of Texas, yet most unfortunately he has since fallen behind that so-common veil of obscurity.
“Peg” was born Arnot Jackson Moreland (though he switched his first and middle names later in life) on October 29, 1892, on a farm in Rienzi, Texas, a no-longer-extant community in Hill County, one of at least eight children of Samuel Jackson and Mollie (née Arnot) Moreland. From a young age, Moreland memorized folk songs he picked up from his southwestern environment. Not long after 1900, the family moved west to Canyon, Texas, where Pa Moreland operated a grocery store until his untimely death in 1908. There, the young Moreland played piano, clarinet and saxophone in the Canyon Municipal Band. Jackson served in the National Guard for three years prior to the First World War, attaining the rank of corporal, and was later justice of the peace in Randall County for three years beginning in 1921. At some point between 1917 and 1925, Moreland lost his right leg in a railroad accident, presumably during his work as a brakeman on the Santa Fe, the replacement for which gained him the nickname “Peg”. He moved to Dallas with his family in 1924. With guitar in hand and a head full of folk ditties, Moreland began singing on Dallas’ venerable radio station WFAA in 1925. Moreland sang in a light and pleasant tenor croon—akin to other popular radio folksingers like Bradley Kincaid—and played guitar in a snappy, syncopated, ragtime-esque flatpicked style. His repertoire—said to consist of over two-thousand “ditties”—was not too dissimilar from that of Georgia’s Riley Puckett, with material ranging from cowboy ballads, to old minstrel and parlor songs.
For a short time, Moreland went west to work as a railroad mail clerk on the Arizona run before returning to WFAA in 1927. In July of 1928, Moreland traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company; in his first session, he cut five sides, followed by three more two days later. While he was there, he spent a brief time performing on the WLS National Barn Dance as “Tex” Moreland before returning home to Texas. The next year, Victor came to him, conducting a field trip to Dallas, during which he recorded another three sides. He later attended Victor field trips to Memphis and Atlanta, in 1929 and ’30, respectively, resulting in a further eight sides. All of the sides he recorded, nineteen in total, were released, some on split releases shared with the likes of Harry “Mac” McClintock and Blind Jack Mathis. After 1930, Peg Moreland made no further commercial recordings, but his radio career was far from over, and he also performed frequently in local vaudeville and functions. He remained a fixture on WFAA, its associate station KGKO, and other stations around Texas and Oklahoma, at least as late as the Second World War. Moreland never married and lived with his mother and brothers until her death in 1943. Late in his life, Moreland lived in hotels around the city of Dallas, including the New Oxford and Lawrence. “Peg” Moreland died on January 11, 1973 in Dallas, Texas, of a coronary. His death certificate still listed his occupation as “entertainer” and WFAA as his employer.
Victor V-40008 was recorded on July 5 and 3, 1928, respectively, at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois—Moreland’s first session. “Peg” Moreland sings and accompanies himself on the guitar. It was released the following January, and sold a total of 23,808 copies, making it one of the top sellers in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” (V-40000) series.
Peg first sings one of my favorite home-spun ditties: “Stay in the Wagon Yard”. The song tells the humorous tale of a farmer who comes to town to bring his crop to market. He leaves the wagon yard to “see the ‘lectric lights and watch the cars come in,” only to be taken on a drunken spree by some city dudes. He warns his fellow farmers to “buy a half-pint and stay in the wagon yard.” Probably best known by Grandpa Jones’s rendition, Moreland’s recording was the first of several contemporaneous versions, including ones by Georgia fiddlers Lowe Stokes and Earl Johnson, as well as Alabama folkster Lew Childre. The Fresno State Traditional Ballad Index lists Arthur Tanner—who sang on the Stokes recording—as the probable writer, though this seems unlikely, seeing as Moreland, from Texas, made his recording of the song more than a year prior. It seems more likely that Stokes and the gang, who followed Moreland’s verse almost to the letter with the exception of omitting the last stanza, heard it from Moreland’s record, though where Moreland learned the song I couldn’t say; he was not a songwriter himself and denied ever producing any original songs, instead drawing fully on traditional material. In addition to Moreland’s Texan heritage, the line “I’m a deacon in a hard-shell church down near Possum Trot” could suggest a Texas origin, assuming it refers to the predominately black farming community near the Louisiana border, though there are places by that name in several other states. It is worth noting that Earl Johnson’s 1930 recording adds several verses not heard in Moreland’s or Stokes’s records. Quite a few recordings have been made since, and the song’s popularity with old-time string bands endures to this day.
Moreland’s rendition of the popular folk song “The Old Step Stone”—commonly known by the title “Goodbye to My Stepstone” or some variation on that—was his first recorded side. The song in its original form is believed to date back to 1880, when it was published as “Old Doorstep” by one J.O. Webster.
Updated with improved audio on March 21, 2021.