Remembering the Old Songs:

The Little Carpenter

by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December 1996)

During most of this series, we've been presenting songs with impressive pedigrees -- written proof from early collections that they've existed in the oral tradition for hundreds of years. It's like a museum collection of Rembrandts, with the exception that, unlike portraits of Dutch burghers, the old ballads are both beautiful and still relevant to modern life. This time, let's look at a song that was first recorded in 1937 by Alan & Elizabeth Lomax (Library of Congress 1376B2) in Harlan, KY, sung by a blind fiddler named Jim Howard. As far as I can tell, no one before that time had collected a song remotely related to this one. Although it announces in the first verse that it is recent, I'm willing to bet my reputation, and five bucks to boot, that it's an old song. Why would I make such a daring statement?

Voice: The first verse is third person, which then, without warning, switches to first person, feminine. I don't have a Freudian or Jungian theory about this, but the certifiably old songs tend to switch voice between stanzas, leaving you to figure out that a scenery change has taken place.

Action: In a traditional ballad, the dramatic action is explicit, usually involving violence. Here, the dramatic action involves love, rejection, and bonding, but it's still explicitly brought out in terms of action, with introspection strongly downplayed. That lack of introspection indicates passage of the song through several generations, rather than a recent love-song-type composition. (Compare, for example, Laurie Lewis's marvelous compositions, which always involve introspection). Still, the song is not extremely ancient, because the female narrator has a choice; and courting occurred without parental interference. The occupations, though, were all important in villages before the Industrial Revolution.

Tone: One folklorist we consulted about this song theorized that it might be a religious song in disguise. Jesus was a carpenter, of course, but there are other oddities here: the stressing of the carpenter as "little," for example, the opposite of the modern idea of male attractiveness. Also, the spurning of worldly gifts for the solidity represented by the carpenter's broadax could be related to a woman's decision to spurn the world and enter a nunnery. This is probably placing too great a burden on such a delicate song, but there's still something undefinably other-worldly happening here.

Props: Handkerchiefs, gold chains, and specifically "finger rings" smacks of European rather than American origin.

Location: Barbara Allen also came from Scarlet Town, but I don't know of anybody from the post-ballad age who did.

Tune: It's in the major scale, but it's pentatonic. In western harmonic tradition, the tune usually ends in the tonic key, so this one should be in D, but the tune feels like G. F is sharped in the key of G, and C is additionally sharped in the key of D, but both of these notes are missing, so there's no guidance. Actually, the tune doesn't work well with a guitar -- you can run a D chord through it all the way, or switch between G as a tonic and D as a dominant -- it doesn't really matter, because the tune is not related to harmonies at all; it is a non-harmonic major key tune. That makes it sound very ancient, or at least not related to modern classical European music. Thus, Jim Howard's fiddle followed the tune behind his singing, and the only currently available recording I know of (The New Lost City Ramblers, Vol. II: Out Standing In Their Field, Smithsonian Folkways SF CD40040) wisely uses only fiddle and banjo behind the voice. Both of these instruments follow only the melodic line. [Editor's Note: Hence the tab without chords.]

I could be wrong, of course. If a museum makes a mistake on a Rembrandt, and finds on the basis of X-rays that it is a nineteenth century forgery, they get embarrassed and stop displaying the picture. I've never understood that -- the artistry is the same, so why hide it in shame? In the unlikely case that someone should be able to prove me wrong, and demonstrate that Jim Howard composed this song when he heard the anthropologists were coming up the road, it's still a traditional song that is worthy of being placed in the pantheon of great antique songs. And its cost is a lot less than even a fake Rembrandt.
Little Carpenter

Complete Lyrics:

I'll tell to you a new song that's lately been made,
'Tis of the little carpenter, he courted a fair maid;
He courted her, he courted her, he loved her as his life;
Oftimes he's asked her if she would be his wife.

Along come an old man, he came from Noey's ark,
A long ways a traveling and courting in the dark;
I can't fancy you, old man, you look too old and grim;
Oh, my little carpenter, oh what's become of him?

Along come a blacksmith, it was the other day,
He gave to me a handkerchief, or so the people say;
He gave to me a gold ring to talk with him again;
O-oh little carpenter, oh what's become of him?

Along come a young man, he came from Scarlet town,
With gold chains and finger rings, he threw them on the ground;
I can fancy you, young man, you look so neat and trim,
O-oh little carpenter, what would become of him?

Along came the carpenter, he come so neat and slow;
All the money that he makes, he brings to me to show;
He uses his broadax all day, and sets by me all night,
Oh, my little carpenter, my own heart's delight.

Note added 4/15/2011:
On 4/2/2011, I received the following exciting e-mail from Virgil Phillpott:

Having read your piece on The Little Carpenter, I thought you might be interested to know you are absolutely correct in your suppositions… the song is an old English folk song!

I live on the Isle of Wight and sing traditional songs from Southern England in harmony in a trio calledThe Dollymopps. Over the last 18 months we have been researching the Island’s traditional songs and in doing so came across a song called The Little Cappender in a recreation of an old Hooam Harvest celebration in William Henry Long’s Dictionary of Isle of Wight Dialect, published in 1886.

W.H. Long was from a West Wight farming family and the songs he includes in his Dictionary were all “collected from the mouths of the peasantry” on the Island in the early part of the Nineteenth Century.

I attach a scan of the song as it appears in the Dictionary and you will see that it is clearly related to Jim Howard’s version. ..

Sadly, the English air to it has not been preserved so we now sing it using Howard’s tune. Our first CD of "Long Songs” is nearly finished and, should you be interested, I’ll happily email you an MP3 of our re-Anglicized version!

Little Carpenter Source

[Note added by Lyle: Of course I'm interested! The entire chapter about the Hooam Harvest, also known as "Harvest Home," is on the web at this site. Click on the Dollymopps website for a sample of Little Carpenter.]

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