Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January, 2009)

This cynical dramatic dialog about the tradeoff between social rank and greed dates from at least 1852, the date of publication of three almost identical pieces of sheet music, titled Billy Grimes, the Drover; Billy Grimes, or the Country Lassie and her Mother; and Tomorrow I'm Sweet Sixteen, a Comic Song; copyrighted by, respectively, N.C. Morse, Wm. H. Oakley, and Richard Coe. The simultaneous copyright claims are suspicious. Most likely, an existing uncopyrighted song suddenly became popular, perhaps on the variety theater circuit. A similar thing happened in 1924, when Vernon Dahlhart's recording of the Wreck of the Old 97 became immensely popular, jamming the courts with authorship claims.

In the mid-19th century, drover, one who drives cattle or pigs to market, was about the lowest possible profession. No mother would want to refer to "my son-in-law, the drover," so the audience understood the conflict. By 1927, when this version was recorded, the term was no longer current. The last of the drovers were in the west; they rode horses and called themselves cowboys. So, in this song, Drover lost the initial "D," even though it's unlikely that a girl trying to convince her mother of Billy's suitability would use rover as an appellation.

This version (Victor 20865, re-released on Yazoo CD 2029, Times Ain't Like They Used To Be, Vol. 2) was recorded by the Shelor Family during the famous 1927 Bristol, TN, Victor recording sessions. Personnel were Jesse and Pyrhus Shelor (fiddles), Joe (Dad) Blackard (vocal and banjo), and Joe's daughter, Clarice (great rhythm piano). Sometime during the 75 years between the 1852 initial publications and the recording, the song picked up some filler verses that don't change the story. Perhaps they were composed to fill out a 3-minute recording.

The Bristol sessions are mainly remembered because they launched the careers of both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The Shelor group recorded 4 excellent sides, two of which were released as being by Dad Blackard & his Moonshiners. Why Rodgers and the Carters were immediate hits but few people bought the Shelor/Blackard records is one of those musical mysteries. The group never recorded again.


Complete Lyrics:
Tomorrow morn I'll be sixteen
And Billy Grimes, the rover,
He's popped the question to me, Ma,
And he wants to be my lover.

And he'll be here in the morning, Ma,
And he'll be there quite early
To take a pleasant walk with me
Across yon fields of barley.

Oh, daughter, dear, you shall not go,
There is no use in talking,
You shall not go with Billy Grimes
Across yon fields a-walking.

Just think of such presumption, too,
The dirty ugly rover,
I wonder where your pride has gone
To think of such a lover.

Oh, Mama dear, I must confess
That Billy isn't quite clever,
But a nicer beau could not be found
In this wide world all over.

Oh, daughter dear, I am surprised
At your infatuation.
To think of having Billy Grimes,
It would be ruination.

Oh, Mama dear, old Grimes is dead
And Billy is the only
Surviving heir of all that's left,
About six thousand yearly.

Oh, daughter dear, I did not hear
Your last remarks quite clearly,
But Billy is a nice young man
And no doubt loves you dearly.

[Click HERE to hear a MIDI file playing a simple, unexpressive, version of the tune.]

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