Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May 2005)

This month we're going to examine a different twist on the unrequited love story, one that could show up on Dr. Phil (or perhaps Judge Judy) any afternoon now. The narrator is a complete rotter: a drunken, wandering gambler, who complains because the girl he left behind opted for something better. He's not going into treatment, though. He's going to defiantly continue his self-destructive pattern. It's not the easy way, but it's the cowboy way.

As in most of these cases, we don't know anything about the original, but versions of this song traveled widely in the 19th century, both in the British Isles and America. It seems to have spread by broadside or newspaper as much as by oral tradition. It's sometimes called The Girl I Left Behind, not to be confused with the bouncy Civil War fiddle tune, The Girl I Left Behind Me. I find it interesting that, in all the collected versions I found, the rambler doesn't ramble nearly as far as the song has rambled. In Scottish versions, he sails to Ireland. If he starts out from Missouri, he goes to Iowa. This version was recorded by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter in 1928 (reissued on Old Hat CD-1001, Music From the Lost Provinces: Old-Time Stringbands from Ashe County NC and Vicinity). It holds the record for short rambles: the narrator goes to Marion, Virginia, and then on to Johnson City, Tennessee. Total distance from the girl he left behind would be about 100 miles. A small world, indeed.

The guitar accompaniment requires both D and C major chords, which don't usually go together, so I did some research on musical modes. The everyday modes are Ionian (major) and Aeolian (minor), and they're familiar because they're the modes in the western European scale that are easiest to harmonize. If you have a keyboard, you can play the major mode by playing all the white keys starting with C, and the minor mode by playing all the white keys starting with A. Although it uses only 5 different notes, this tune is evidently in the Mixolydian mode, which you play by using all white keys starting with G. Notice that these are not different scales: the same notes are being played. The only difference is where the half-tones occur in the scale. Thus, the intervals in a major octave are: WWHWWWH (W=whole tone; H=half tone), while the intervals in the Mixolydian octave are: WWHWWHW. The key of D-mixolydian has only one sharp instead of the two sharps used for D-major or the one flat for D-minor. Still, major-mode chords work with Mixolydian mode. Some modes require special chords, while others don't seem to go with guitar chords at all.

I've Always Been A Rambler

1. I've always been a rambler, my fortune's been quite hard.
Always loved the women, drink whiskey and played cards.
My parents treated me kindly, they had no boy but me,
My mind was bent on rambling, at home I couldn't agree.

2. There was a wealthy farmer who lived in the country by.
Had one handsome daughter on who I cast an eye.
She was so tall and handsome, so pretty and so fair,
There ain't one girl in the wide world with her I could compare.

3. So I asked if it made any difference if I crossed o'er the plain.
She says it'll make no difference so you return again.
She said that she'd prove true to me until I proved unkind.
Kissed, shook hands and parted with the one I left behind.

4. I left old North Caroliner, to Marion I did go,
Then on to Johnson City, gonna see this wide world o'er.
Where money and work was plentiful and the girls treated me kind,
The only object of my heart was the one I left behind.

5. I rambled out one evening down on the public square.
The mail had just arriven when the post-boy met me there.
He handed me a letter which give me to understand
The girl I'd left in Caroliner had married another man.

6. I read a few lines further 'til I found that it was true.
My heart was filled with trouble, I didn't know what to do.
My heart was filled with trouble, while trouble's on my mind,
Going to drink and gamble for the one I left behind

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