Remembering the Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, June 1999)

Someone (my memory's shot) once pointed out that some aspect of traditional music has to appeal to the very young, or the tradition could not be carried on for generations. It's unlikely that most of the big tragic ballads would mean much to (say) a five-year-old, but there are other songs that do - lullabies, for instance. There is another genre, usually listed as "nonsense" songs by scholars, that seem particularly aimed at children, or to the part of us (I hope you have one!) who never grew up. These songs aren't really nonsense, though - they highlight the nonsense of ordinary thought and conversation. Sometimes they use silly rhymes, such as Jennie Jenkins ("I won't wear blue, 'cause the color's too true"), or silly depictions of historical characters that remind us of President Clinton's leadership:

O, the noble duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
And he marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
Now, when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
But when they were only halfway up,
They were neither up nor down.

Other nonsense songs demonstrate the irrationality possible by blindly applying standard grammatical rules to language: "a barefoot boy with boots on stood sitting in the grass." Another type turns clichés on their head, and the mother appears at the courthouse to urge that her wayward son be sentenced to a long term of hard labor. Yet another type, which I think of as hallucinogenic, is even further out. The origin of this genre may be the European Saturnalia or Mummer tradition, where the ordinary social hierarchy is turned on its head, and a fool is king for a day. Special songs are composed for the celebration, and, according to Jean Ritchie's commentary about the song Nottamun Town, it's considered bad luck if any part of the song makes sense. Nottamun Town, with its dulcimer and Ritchie's sweet voice, seems very English, even if it survived only in the Kentucky backwoods. My favorite among the American nonsense songs is Fod, whose only known source is a recording made by Todd and Sonkin of one Henry King in a migrant farm worker camp in Visalia, California, in 1941. This recording, part of an album first released in 78 RPM format, is still available from the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Life as cassette L2 (there are seventy albums available). To really impress a kid, you have to sing the song earnestly, and the spoken "Fod!" is a surprise every verse. Even a young child has learned that spoken words don't belong in songs. Learn this one and try it on yourself or a youngster. I think you'll find it's toad-lickin' good.


Complete Lyrics:

As I went down to the mowin' field,
As I went down to the mowin' field,
As I went down to the mowin' field,
A big black snake grabbed me by the heel,

I fell down upon the ground,
I Shut both eyes and looked all around.

I set upon a stump to take my rest,
I Looked like a woodchuck on his nest.

The woodchuck blammed a banjo song,
When up stepped a skunk with his britches on.

The woodchuck and skunk got into a fight,
The fumes was so strong that they put out the light.

They danced and they played till the tune began to rust,
It's hard to tell which smelled the worst.


Having been collected only once, this song appears primarily in "folk revival" anthologies. These include Alan Lomax's Folk Songs of North America and the New Lost City Ramblers Songbook ("Old Time Stringband Songbook").

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