Remembering the Old Songs:

Barney McCoy

by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, April 1998)

Suppose you had a choice between Freedom and Constraint. Easy pick, right? Now choose between Loneliness and Community. Also pretty easy. Now suppose that the first choice in each pair always went together, and the last choice in each pair were also inseparable. The decisions get a little tougher.

Every once in awhile, l run across a book that changes the way I interpret the world around me, and affects me for years. The above thoughts about Freedom vs. Community were inspired by Lewis Hyde's The Gift (Vintage, 1983). Hyde contrasts two old-time gods, Eros and Hermes, as personifications of two societal tendencies: Eros is the god of connections, and holds communities together. He presides over old-time Barn Raisings, county fairs, volunteer activities, and (ideally) the Monday Night Square Dance Collective. Hermes is the god of crossroads, commerce, and the marketplace. He is satisfied only when everything moves in hyperdrive. Money is his sustenance, because it quickly converts any one thing into another, and the highest bidder always wins. If you can't find a job in New Ulm, move to New York. For him, the highest human calling is rootlessness.

It's possible, but not easy, to find Eros at work in America; he's more competitive in Europe. That's easy to explain: the immigrants to America were more influenced by Hermes than those who stayed, or they wouldn't have been so anxious to leave. Starvation, of course, had something to do with it, as exemplified by the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s This month's song was probably inspired by that famine, but, more than any other I've found, it dramatizes the battle between Hermes and Eros that Hyde was discussing in his book.

I'm confident that the original was a music hall or vaudeville "composed" song: Irish, like African-Americans, were the butt of much of the stage entertainment of the last half of the Nineteenth century. This song was learned by Alec "Uncle Eck" Dunford of Galax, Virginia, from a schoolmate whose parents were Irish immigrants. The earliest report of the song (per Randolph) was in the 1870s, although it wasn't copyrighted until the 1880s. Eck recorded it, with beautiful harmony by Ernest Stoneman, in the 1920s (Victor 20938B), and the version Randolph later collected in Missouri was obviously learned from that record. In 1937, Alan Lomax (collecting for the Library of Congress) came through Galax. Ironically, Stoneman had already been forced by economic circumstances to leave to work in Maryland factories, so Eck repeated the performance with the Bogtrotters band, which consisted mainly of the Ward family: Fields, Crockett, and Wade. This recording was reissued on volume six of a (probably out of print, alas) fabulous fifteen-volume LP series, Folk Music in America, that the Library published in 1977 to commemorate the bicentennial. The easy tune and regular rhythm make it a perfect stringband piece. We'll never know if Nora came along, but I think the song's worth learning, if only to remind ourselves that the promised land might have been back at home, after all.
Barney McCoy

Complete Lyrics:

"I am going far away, Nora darling,
Going to leave such an angel far behind;
It will break my heart in two, which I fondly give to you,
For no other is so loving, kind, and true.

"Yes, I'm going far away, Nora darling,
Just as sure as there's a God that we adore;
And remember what I say, that until the judgment day,
You will never see your Barney anymore.

"Then, it's come to my arms, Nora darling,
Bid your friends and old Ireland far behind,
And it's come and go with me to the dear land of the free,
Living happy with your Barney McCoy.

"I would go with you, Barney darling,
But the reason why I told you oft before;
It would break my mother's heart, if from her I was to part,
And go roaming with you, Barney McCoy."

"I am going far away, Nora darling,
And the ship is now anchored in the bay;
And before tomorrow's sun, you will hear the signal gun,
So, be ready, it will carry us away.

"Then, it's come to my arms, Nora darling,
Leave your friends and old Ireland far behind,
And it's happy we will be in the dear land of the free,
Living happy with your Barney McCoy."

"I would go with you, Barney darling,
If my mother and the rest of them were there;
For I'm sure we would be blessed, in that dear land of the west,
Living happy with you, Barney McCoy."


This song is not common in tradition; the only collected version I know of is Randoph's (#776). There is a copyright claim from 1881.

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