Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July 2003)

As we all know from history class, Americans followed Horace Greeley's famous advice long before he gave it. As soon as they debarked, they found the place too crowded and headed west for opportunity. Opportunity consisted of intensive farming that, without refertilization, quickly ruined the land. The logical solution, as long as more land was available, was to abandon the worn-out farms and move still further west. The story of the settling and ruining of the Appalachians is well told in Night Comes To The Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill (Little, Brown, 1963; out of print but available cheap on the web at used book sites).

Frederick Law Olmsted, a writer and landscape architect who would later become famous for designing New York's Central Park, traveled through the Old South in the mid-1850s, and in a series of newspaper articles documented the miserable living conditions at the time. These articles have been often re-published in book form, the most recent being The Cotton Kingdom (Knopf, 1953). He described a typical abandoned field in Virginia:

Old fields -- a coarse, yellow, sandy soil, bearing scarcely anything but pine trees and broom-sedge. In some places, for acres, the pines would not be above 5 feet high – that was land that had been in cultivation, used up and 'turned out,' not more than 6 or 8 years before. ... At long intervals, there were fields in which the pine was just beginning to spring in beautiful green plumes from the ground, and was yet hardly noticeable among the dead brown grass and sassafras bushes and blackberry vines, which nature first sends to hide the nakedness of the impoverished earth.

This month's song about searching for new land to ruin was picked up by Peggy Seeger from Byron Arnold's book, The Folksongs of Alabama (U. of Alabama, 1950). As far as I know, any recorded versions come from her. Arnold's informant said:

I believe that this song was composed about 1880, when there was a large migration of people from the county (Marshall, in the hill country of northeastern Alabama) going to the new lands of Texas.

The composer was not a professional, since the song avoids the sentimental cliches that abounded then, but was not the narrator, either, because the conflict between the urge to move and the need to settle is too skillfully presented. The narrator's descendants grazed out Texas, then squeezed out all the oil, and now, moving further west, are preparing to pump out the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

This version is from Mike Seeger's Third Annual Farewell Reunion (Rounder CD 0313), sung with his sisters, Peggy and Penny. I found that, compared with the book version, Peggy rearranged the verse order and made the tune a little more interesting, but respected the odd timing and made no changes that are outside the tradition.


Complete Lyrics:

You say you can not go with me,
You turn your eyes away;
You say you will not follow me,
No matter what I say;
I'm going to the West.

1. In this fair land I'll stay no more,
Here labor is in vain.
I'll leave the mountains of my birth
And seek the fertile plains;
I'm going to the West.

2. Three years have passed since we first met,
And you became my bride,
Now I must journey far away
Without you by my side;
I'm going to the West.

3. I'll leave you here in the land you love,
Mid scenes so bright and fair,
Where fragrant flowers are blooming,
And music fills the air;
I'm going to the West.

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