Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December 2001)

December again. Chance once again to show how few traditional Christmas songs there are, at least of any quality.

I'm not even going to try. Instead, I'm going to give you a song that's a gift to me, just because it lays out so nicely on the banjo.

It's also a brilliant example of the way by which British Isles songs become American songs. The original of this piece is a Scottish song, The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie-O, first printed in about 1794 in a version already much corrupted by word of mouth. The Bonnie Lass has a first verse something like:

There was a troop o' Irish dragoons
Cam' marchin' doon through Fyvie-O,
And the captain's fa'en in love
Wi' a very bonnie lass,
And the name she was ca'ed was pretty Peggy-O.

In this version, the girl rejects her suitor not because he is poor (she's poor, too) but simply because he is a soldier (a very low-class occupation in eighteenth century Britain, where the officers were landless younger sons and the troops were recruited by getting them drunk). The song ends something like this:

It's lang ere we won tae auld Meldrum toon
We had oor captain to carry-O,
And lang ere we won tae bonnie Aberdeen
We had oor captain to bury-O.

It's green grow the birks upon bonnie Ythanside
And low lie the lowlands of Fyvie-O;
Our captain's name was Ned
And he died for a maid;
He died for the chambermaid o' Fyvie-O.

And there the song rested for a couple of hundred years, until Cecil Sharp found it in the Appalachians. The tune was different, the meter altered, the song much shorter and perhaps not as intense, but still obviously the same and still very singable. Many of the words, such as the references to the clinking guineas, obviously take us back to the life of an English soldier, tricked into the army, with little to boast of save his poor salary.

It's one of those little ironies that the only recording I've heard of the Scottish version (by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger) is played on banjo in a pure old-time style; except for being in Braid Scots, it could have been an old-time song. But the first version I met of the American form (by Joan Baez, maybe? I'm not sure) was very British-sounding.

It's an old-time song, though, as the collection by Cecil Sharp attests, and I somehow learned to play it on banjo. It's a lot more fun that way than the Baez way, too. It's a great song for practicing pulling and hammering, both on guitar and banjo.

The words here are as I sing the song; I believe learned the lyrics from the version in the Folksinger's Wordbook, which I gather is based on the version sung by George and Gerry Armstrong, but they've evolved in my head; the Wordbook gives the name in the first line as "Fernario," and I conflated two verses to produce the second verse here.

Pretty Peggy-O

Complete Lyrics:
As we marched down to Fennario, (x2)
Our captain fell in love
With a lady like a dove,
And the name she was called was pretty Peggy-O.

Come tripping down the stair, pretty Peggy-O, (x2)
Come tripping down the stair
And comb back your yellow hair;
Take a last farewell of your mammy-O.

What would your mother think, pretty Peggy-O, (x2)
What would your mother think
If she heard the guineas clink
And the soldiers all a-marching before ye-O?

You 're the man that I adore, handsome Willie-O, (x2)
You 're the man that I adore,
But your fortune is too low;
I'm afraid my mother would be angry-O.

If ever I return, pretty Peggy-O, (x2)
If ever I return,
All your cities I will burn
And destroy all the ladies in the area.

Our captain he is dead, pretty Peggy-O, (x2)
Our captain he is dead,
And he died for a maid,
And he's buried in the Louisiana country-O.

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