Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May, 2009)

A short survey: who's the greediest, most dishonest person you've heard about? How many chose Madoff? How many chose bonus-hungry CEOs? How many chose millers? I thought not. But millers had a bad reputation for centuries.

Grain must be ground before it's digestible, and if you try to do it by hand, you're likely to starve before you get enough for a loaf of bread. A mill on a stream requires capital investment, such as a dam, penstock, waterwheel, millhouse and millstones. Mills were not common, so in the era before modern roads, a farmer's wagon trip to the mill to get his grain ground could take several days. The mill was an attractant to farmers, so others opened stores nearby and became merchants, starting a village. Agriculture was mainly a barter economy, so the miller's toll was a portion of the grain, which the miller then sold to the villagers. A miller, with a local monopoly and a customer who invariably was shopping over at the general store while his grain was being ground, would naturally be tempted to maximize his profits at the expense of the uneducated farmer. Given the human propensity for greed, even honest millers were suspect.

The dishonest miller was probably an old story when Goeffrey Chaucer (late 14th century), described a miller who took three times more than the farmer thought he would, and used a thumb on the scales when selling flour:

He was a jangler and a goliardese And that
was most of sin and harlotries. Well could he
stealen corn and tollen thrice, And yet he
had a thumb of gold pardee1.

The concept of the cheating miller was popular enough that "The Old Miller's Will" is probably not directly related to the Chaucer tale. The song first appeared in print in a broadside published in England about 1764. In the typical story, the miller has 3 sons, and, starting with the eldest, asks each one what toll they'll charge. The answers 1/4 and 1/2 are unsatisfactory, but the youngest will take all the grain. So, contrary to the English custom of primogeniture (brought over by the French with the Norman Conquest), the youngest son gets the mill.

This version, recorded in 1929 by the Carson Brothers and Sprinkle2, reduced the inheritance question to a single son, perhaps due to the 3-minute time limit on 78 RPM records. I couldn't find out much about the band. They recorded in New York City, they sound as if they were from the US southeast, and one of the Carson Brothers was probably named Edward3. They made 6 sides at this session, but only this one record was released after the stock market crash caused a similar crash in record sales.

I tried to transcribe the instrumental response between phrases, which is played on fiddle on the original recording, but could also be played on guitar or banjo.


Complete Lyrics:
1. There was an old man, that lived on a hill,
And he didn't have nothing but a little old mill.
And when he died, he made his will,
And he didn't have nothing but a little old mill.

Whack to du-ree, whack to du-rye,
Whack to du roll-ee rye-oh.

2. He called to him his only son,
Says, "You know my race is almost run;
And if to you my will I'd make,
Tell me how much toll you'd take."

3. "Oh, father, you know my name is right,
And stealing corn is my delight.
I'd take it all and hide the sack,
Then catch thunder when he got back."

4. "The mill is yours," the old man said.
"Well, the mill is yours," the old man said.
"The mill is yours," the old man said,
He closed his eyes and he was dead.

5. And where he's gone, no one can tell,
Where he's gone, no one can tell,
Where he's gone, no one can tell,
But everybody thinks he's gone to (thump).

1. Portrait of the Miller, from Prologue to Canterbury Tales, lines 560ff:

2.0keh 45398, re-released on Yazoo 2028, "Times Ain't Like They Used To Be, Vol. 1"

3. According to Tony Russell's "Country Music Records," "Edward J. Carson" recorded this same song for Gennett in Richmond Indiana only 3 weeks after the Okeh recording, with the same fiddle, banjo and guitar accompaniment. That record was not released.

[Click HERE to hear a MIDI file playing a simple, unexpressive, version of the tune.]

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