Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, March, 2008)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), thought that "natural humans" were degraded by civilization, a concept usually described as the noble savage theory. His ideas strongly influenced the academics who first began to study folklore. They devised various theories, all of them romantic and most of them silly, about the origin and transmission of folksongs. For example, Francis Gummere, a 19th-century scholar, hypothesized that ballads originated with pre-literate people dancing around a campfire, leading to spontaneous communal composition of long songs. He concluded this because ballad comes from the French word ballare, to dance. He neglected to notice that scholars, not the folk, first called the songs ballads. All of the theories depended on the existence of an unsophisticated illiterate folk population in a state of nature1.

A more extravagant romantic was Jean Thomas (1881-1982), who founded the American Folk Song Festival in Ashland, Kentucky, and ran it from 1932-1972. She found a blind fiddler named J.W. Day, re-named him Jilson Setters, invented a romantic biography for him, and took him on Barnumesque tours. John Lomax exhibited Leadbelly in a similar manner, although Lomax didn't have to invent a life for him.

And I'm a romantic in the sense that I prefer very old songs to those recently composed by professional songwriters. The country people who bought records, though, made no such distinction, and a lot of the recordings of old-time Appalachian songs that sold well were from Tin Pan Alley composers and were transparently artificial -- they shouldn't have appealed to "natural humans" at all.

This one, for example: originally titled I'll Be There, Mary Dear, was published in 1902 by Harry Von Tilzer (1872-1946), who also gave us such sentimental parlor classics as A Bird in A Gilded Cage. Charlie Poole (1892-1931) and the North Carolina Ramblers recorded it in 1929. They had undoubtedly learned it from sheet music rather than from oral sources, once again confounding romantic theories about traditional song transmission. And Poole was far from a Noble Savage banjoist: in addition to the chording accompaniment he used while singing, he could play classical banjo ala Fred Van Epps.

The reference to "transport" in this song confirms that it's about the Spanish-American War of 1898, fought in Cuba and the Philippines, since earlier wars were fought in America. The soldier is wounded but survives, while the stay-at-home girl dies: a twist of fate that could draw a tear or two from the listener. But when the next war arrived, it brought the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans and perhaps 100 million people worldwide. There are no songs about that. The horror was inexpressible.


Complete Lyrics:
1. "Goodbye, Mary, I must go,"
Said the lad, "Now don't weep so,
For sad duty calls me far across the sea.
Take this autumn leaf of gold,"
Said the lad, "'Twill ne'er grow old,
Always keep it near your heart and think of me."

"I'll be there, Mary dear, I'll be there,
When the fragrance of the roses fills the air;
'Neath the oak tree grand and tall,
When the leaves begin to fall,
I'll be there, I'll be there, sweet Mary dear."

2. See the lad with an empty sleeve
Of his comrades taking leave;
They were home again, the transport had come back.
"If she loved you once before,
She won't love you less, I know,
And one arm will do to fold you to her, Jack."

3. It was autumn time again
As he wandered down the lane;
There beneath the old oak tree he found a grave.
As he knelt in silent prayer
For the one he loved slept there,
And the tears fell on the golden leaf she gave.

1. For an entertaining account of the theories, look for a copy of Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898, by D.K. Wilgus (Rutgers University Press, 1959).

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