The nineteenth century was the great age of the tearjerker. Publishing houses cranked out songsheet after songsheet about orphans, blind fathers, lonely mothers, children dying in agony -- all the sorts of things modern TV news delights in using as a substitute for actual information about the events of the day.
Although there were all sorts of writers of this type of sticky syrup, among the most noteworthy was Will S. Hays, author of The Drummer Boy of Shiloh, Nora O'Neal (I'm Loving You Yet), and a wide variety of equally sentimental (and silly) material.
But Hays differed from all these hacks in at least one way: He could actually produce good tunes. His masterpiece was clearly The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, which has been used for an amazing assortment of pieces. But he did an equally fine job with this tune -- even if the subject has been done a thousand times before.
Fans of Bob Bovee and Gail Heil will be familiar with this song; they recorded it on Rural Route 2. I first heard it from them, and I know of no better performance. If you want to learn this song, go get that album. (It's a wonderful record.) But if you want a lesson in Old Time history, I'd also suggest that you pick up the song as sung by Kelly Harrell, their source. (His complete recorded works were released by Document in 1998.)
Harrell is usually regarded as an old-time musician, but this is one of those places where definitions get hazy. Unlike most of the big names in Old Time, Harrell did not play an instrument. Nor was he a professional performer; he made his living in the Virginia cotton mills. But he came from a very rich heritage; I don't know of any early country recording artist who had a bigger repertoire of old Anglo-American songs and ballads. Harrell was not, to my mind, an old-time singer; he was a ballad singer who happened to record with an instrumental accompaniment. (The majority of his recordings, made in 1925 and early 1926, were cut using very simple accompaniments performed by studio musicians; later on, he brought his own band up north with him, but by the late Twenties, the studios were refusing to pay Harrell to bring in these performers, and he was forced to stop recording). The result is a series of rather spare performances; they must sound very much like the early attempts in the Appalachians to add accompaniments to the old British a capella songs.
Bob and Gail play this in the key of F. That's a good singing key, but I doubt it would prove popular with too many closet pickers. I do it in G; if you have a fiddler, A should work just fine. Incidentally, this song also proves that you can play the banjo in triple time, even if straight clawhammer doesn't work. I usually play this on guitar, but you can do it on the banjo. After about ten seconds of goofing around, I found myself playing it with thumb and first finger. Have the first finger play melody, but use the thumb to pluck the string below the melody string. Since the entire melody plays on the three high strings, this works quite well.
The text here is exactly Harrell's, except that I fixed some of his mismatched antecedents by changing "their" to "her." Bob and Gail add a clever trick in the chorus: The last time through, they sing "even me" in the second line. (It fits quite well; you could do it throughout.) If it were me, I'd probably say "wide world" in the third verse rather than "cold world."
Lyle plans to take next month off, so watch out for more Kelly Harrel in June.
Out in this cold world alone,
Wand'ring about on the street,
Asking a penny for bread
Or begging for something to eat.
I'm nobody's darling on earth;
Heaven have mercy on me
For I'm nobody's darling;
Nobody cares for me.
When I was but a young lad,
Mother was taken from home;
Now I have no one to love me,
No one to call me her own.
While others are sleeping so sound
Or dreaming of silver and gold,
I'm out in this cold world alone,
Wand'ring about in the cold.
If I am fortunate enough
To get to that heavenly home,
I will have someone to love me,
Someone to call me her own.