Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July, 2011)

Pull out your February, 2003, issue of Inside Bluegrass, which has Bob Waltz's writeup of Springfield Mountain. (If you can't find it in your magazine rack, you could look it up on the Old Song archive. Springfield Mountain was originally a serious song about snakebite, complete with a tragic ending. Once it hit the vaudeville stage, it became a tragicomic song, with the audience laughing at the deaths of two lovers: the young man died of snakebite, while the lady succumbed by sucking out the venom without getting her dental cavities filled first.

This month's song has nothing to do with Springfield Mountain, except that, by contrast, it never had a tragic phase, but started out as a tragicomedy, written to be performed by a minstrel troupe. At least, the first published version, Peter Gray (Oliver Ditson & Co., 1858), says it was performed by Morris Brothers, Pell & Huntley's Minstrels. And the text is clearly meant to be funny in a gruesome way. It says that Peter was "killed and drest" by the Indians, implying that they were cannibals. The original printing also included the idiosyncratic chorus, which must have been imported from a sea chanty without regard to relevance.

Uncle Dave Macon (1870 - 1952) recorded this version, Johnny Grey, in 1938 (Bluebird B-8379, reissued on County CD CCS-CD-115). When Macon was a teenager, his parents ran a boarding house in Nashville's theater section, and young Dave learned songs and banjo tricks from the traveling minstrel performers who stayed there. He undoubtedly learned this song from them, and this truncated version is probably the best he could do to remember the words 50 years later. His version is in the key of D, which is high for my voice, so I transcribed it in C with the assumption that you can use a capo to find your best key.

Macon sang with only his banjo, but the song lasted less than the 3-minute standard for 78 RPM records. He didn't want his audience to feel cheated, so after the song is over, a fiddle (played by Mazy Todd?) breaks in, and the record ends with a fabulous fiddle-banjo duet of Rye Straw, sending Johnny and Lucy Izree off to the graveyard in style.


Complete Lyrics:
There was a little feller,
His name was Johnny Grey;
The state where Johnny Grey was born
Was Penn-syl-vain-eye-ay.

Blow, you winds of morning,
Blow, you winds hi ho;
Blow, you winds of morning,
Blow, blow, blow.

Well, Johnny fell in love, all
With a nice young girl;
The name of her most positive
Was Lucy Izree Anna Curl.

When Johnny asked her father,
Her father, he said "no,"
And brutally sent her
Beyond the O-hi-o.

Johnny went out a-west a-trading
In furs and other things,
And soon he found himself in dutch
With the chief of the In-dye-ans.

When Lucy Izree heard of this,
She straightway went to bed,
And never did get up from there
Until she die-ah-eye-ed.

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