Remembering The Old Songs:


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

The closing of the American frontier in the last half of the 19th century led to profound changes in rural areas. The newly sedentary families sent their children to school to learn to read, write, and reckon. The students came home from school and recited the literary sentimental poems they'd memorized, making the parents hungry for a similar sophistication, equal to the city slickers. Publishers were only too happy to feed the need, with professional composers like Stephen Foster cranking out piano sheet music of "parlor songs," poems set to singable tunes. These self-conscious songs were a long ways stylistically and poetically from the old traditional ballads, but the folk liked them. Some composers even looked further for inspirations, including stealing a poetic technique made popular by Robert Browning: the dramatic monolog. This conceit uses the speech of only one protaganist to both set a theatrical scene and tell the story. The Gypsy's Warning, with sheet music first appearing in 1864, is one such dramatic monolog.

The song must have been very popular. Proving once again that nothing exceeds like excess, it generated at least 4 responses using the same meter, and presumably to be sung to the same tune. There were the Lady's Answer to the Gypsy's Warning, where the lady responds to the gypsy; the Answer to the Gypsy's Warning, where the scoundrel says he's really a sensitive guy who daily brings flowers to the gypsy's daughter's grave; the Decision in the Gypsy's Warning, where the lady decides to heed the gypsy advice and get rid of the rotter; and, finally, Trust Him Not, where the lady tells her mother about the whole thing. The sheet-music-buying public at last said "enough," and there were no more parodic responses. When I was young, the radio was overloaded by The Wild Side of Life, Answer to the Wild Side of Life, and a third one I vaguely remember having something to do with "Nyah, nyah, nyah, you're still a Honky Tonk Angel." Back then, I thought Tin Pan Alley overburdened a shallow idea. Now I understand that, by comparison, those leeches were using admirable restraint.

I learned this song because I liked the tune more than because of the words. It's from a recording made in Atlanta in October 1926 (Okeh 45096), sung by a blind fiddler named Gooby Jenkins, and is pretty close to the original sheet music. Several blind musicians of that era memorized long literary parlor songs that they presumably learned by listening to sighted musicians. If you don't give the public what it wants when singing on a street corner, your hat will be empty.


Complete Lyrics:
1. Gentle lady, do not trust him,
Though his voice is low and sweet;
Heed not him who kneels before you,
And who gently to you pleads.
Now your life is in its morning,
Do not trade your happy lot;
Listen to the gypsy's warning,
Gentle lady, trust him not.

2. Do not turn so coldly from me,
I would only guard your youth
From his stern and withering power.
I would only tell the truth.
I would shield you from all danger,
Save you from the tempter's snare
Do not trust that dark-eyed stranger,
I have warned you, now beware.

3. Lady, once there lived a maiden,
Pure and bright, and, like thee, fair,
'Til he wooed and then he won her,
Filled her gentle heart with care.
Then he heeded not her weeping,
Nor cared he her life to save.
Soon she perished, now she's sleeping
In that cold and silent grave.

4. Keep your gold, I do not want it,
Lady, I have prayed for this,
For the hour when I might foil him,
Rob him of expected bliss.
Gentle lady, do not wonder
At my words so cold and wild,
Lady, in that green grave yonder
Lies the gypsy's only child.

(Repeat last 4 lines of verse 4.)

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