Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May 2001)

In case you haven't noticed, we're pulling you back and forth between Certified Old Songs and Sorta Old Songs, and this month, we're going way back to the story of a male lover who catches an acute disease and dies in an unheroic manner. Child (see note below) called it Lady Alice, stressing the reaction of the lady lover rather than the guy who dies. Most versions, even those that give George the song-title honors, kill him off in the first verse and pay attention to the lover left behind.

The on-line Ballad Index ( entry for Lady Alice has information on some scholarly quibbles about this ballad, which has been collected in many parts of western Europe, including a German source from 1310. Some think it's a fragment of a more-complicated older story. Others think Collins died from kissing a mermaid or other water sprite before he rode home. I always understood that water-beings got over-enthused if you kissed them, dragging you under water to drown, so I don't know what to make of the mermaid deadly-kiss idea. At least the "cold winter night" of the following version points to a mundane cause: pneumonia.

Pneumonia is no longer fashionable, so a modern version might have him wipe out on the freeway. The result, sudden news of an unexpected death, is the same. Nell's laconically understated response in the second verse is a nice artistic touch. I learned this version from a record by Roy Harvey and the North Carolina Ramblers, made in Ashland, KY on 2/16/1928 (Brunswick 250). I re-listened to the original, and found that I had unconsciously added the third verse given here from some other version. Not being limited to 3 minutes like the old 78 RPM records, I'm leaving it in. You can do as you choose.

George Collins

Complete lyrics:
George Collins rode home one cold winter night,
George Collins rode home so fine,
George Collins rode home one cold winter night,
Was taken sick and died.

Dear little sweet Nell in yonders room
Was sewing her silks so fine,
But when she heard that George was dead,
She laid her silk aside.

She followed him up, she followed him down,
She followed him to the grave;
And there she sat on a cold, cold stone,
She wept, she mourned, she prayed.

"Set down the coffin, take off the lid,
Lay back the linens so fine,
And let me kiss his cold, pale cheeks,
For I know he'll never kiss mine."

"O daughter, dear daughter, why do you weep so?
There's more young men than one."
"O mother, O mother, George has my heart,
His day on earth is done."

Look up and down that lonesome road,
Hang down your head and cry;
The best of friend is bound to part,
And why not you and I.

O, don't you see that lonesome dove,
There, flyin' from pine to pine;
He's mournin' for his own true love,
Just like I mourn for mine.

Note by Lyle, 2005: "Child" refers to Francis James Child's 5-volume collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published between 1882 and 1898 and, fortunately for those of us who are obsessed with these songs, republished in a paperback edition by Dover in 1965.
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