Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May 2003)

Morbidity sells: there's a channel on cable TV that seems to devote itself mostly to murder trials. Traditional ballads are no exception, and I haven't been upholding my reporting duties, because I've avoided murders lately. To make up for it, here's a warhorse from both the Old-Time and Bluegrass repertoire.

These words are from G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter's 1927 record, Rose Conley, while the bluegrass versions all stem from Down In The Willow Garden, Charlie Monroe's 1947 cover of the Grayson & Whitter version, hopped up in typical Monroe fashion. If Charlie had promoted his band, The Kentucky Partners, as aggressively as brother Bill promoted his, KBEM might be broadcasting Partner Saturday Morning.

This song is familiar to many of you, so I won't dwell on the peculiarities of a true love who's almost as hard to kill as Rasputin, but instead talk about how little we know about its origins. All the recordings I've found are by people who had heard the 1927 G&W recording. Folk Songs of the South, a collection of West Virginia songs edited by John Harrington Cox, prints a version collected in 1915, and says it was popular in the area in the 1890s. The murderer gives a name (Patsey O'Railly) which indicates the song might be of Irish origin. Some other key evidence (G&W's pronunciation of "sabre" as sabree, for example) tells me it must have been printed at some point, perhaps by its author (I doubt any first-person criminal song was really written by the perpetrator). No early printed copy has been found, however -– maybe one is hiding in someone's piano bench.

The burglar's or burgalar's wine is most puzzling of all. Commentators typically brush it off as a mishearing of burgundy, as did Monroe, but that doesn't make linguistic sense (enn and ell sounds rarely get confused), and the oldest (Cox) version serves merkley wine. Some scholars have suggested that burglar's wine is a term for drugged wine. That may be true, but no one that Bob Waltz contacted on the subject could quote any source. Doped wine is the modus operandi of partying football players rather than burglars. Besides, the song says the wine was poisoned, not just drugged. I searched likely words on the internet, Webster's and Oxford dictionaries, and John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (4th ed., 1889). This last book gave me a candidate: burgaloo, a popular pear variety at the time, identified in the dictionary as a variant of virgelieu. Burgaloo wine would be more at home in Virginia than imported burgundy. If you run across any ideas about the mysterious wine or its vintage, let me know. [See addendum below].

If the key is too low, capo up. G&W play the major sub-dominant (F) chord shown, while Monroe and almost everyone else play the more-uptown relative minor (Amin) chord at the same places in the song. Let your conscience be your guide.


Complete Lyrics:
Down in the willow garden, where me and my love did meet,
Oh, there we sit a-courting, my love dropped off to sleep.
I had a bottle of the burg(a)lar's wine, which my true love did not know,
And there I poisoned my own true love down under the banks below.

I drew my sabre through her, which was a bloody knife,
I threw her in the river, which was a dreadful sight.
My father always told me that money would set me free
If I'd murder that pretty little miss whose name is Rose Connoley.

He's sitting now in his own cottage door, a-wiping his weeping eyes,
A-looking at his own dear son upon the scaffold high.
My race is run beneath the sun, low hell is now waiting for me,
I did murder that pretty little miss whose name is Rose Connoley.

Note added 2/28/2007: I was thrilled that someone did send me more information about the song. I received the following message from one Bob Moore:

I found your post about "Willow Garden" from 2003. You asked for the origin of the song. My Mother, who was born in 1900, sang this song to my family. She learned it from her father, John Duncan Sullivan, who was a wonderful folk singer. She remembered him singing it in her very early childhood; so it is at least as old as @ 1900. He told her it came from Ireland.

I was always interested in what the words meant in all of her songs. She told me that she had asked the same questions of her father. The Sullivan family was of Scotch/ Irish descent. Her explanation of the song was that the man was of a higher class than Rose, and that she became pregnant. His father did not want him to marry beneath his class and encouraged him to kill Rose; since he thought that his money and position would buy the boy out of trouble.

As for the term "burglars wine"; she told me that in the olden days, travelers would stay at roadside inns at night. Crooked inn keepers would dope wine to give to them so that when they went to sleep it would be easy to steal their valuables. This makes sense in that the songs murderer wanted to make sure that she did not resist when he stabbed her. Even in my early days, I am now almost 70, to poison someone did not necessarily mean to kill them. Looks like a well planned crime. In her version the last of the song was:

My race is run beneath the sun
Low hell is waiting for me
For I did murder my own true love
Whose name is Rose Conley

The term "low hell" refers to the 7 levels of hell. The lowest being reserved for the worst crimes. What crime could be lower than murdering one's own true love?

We were poor country folks in the late 1930s and 1940s when I was young, and were quite isolated from other folks. There were 10 children. We had to make our own entertainment. The thing we loved the most was my Mother's singing of numerous old songs, along with popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s. I wrote down many of her songs before she died in 1981. I only wish I had recorded them. She still had a wonderful voice even into her 70s. Hope this helps.
Bob Moore

This explanation makes so much sense that I changed "lo" to "low" in the lyrics given above.  I also asked Bob for more information about his family background. His response:

As best as we can determine our ancestor Henry Sullivan or (O'Sullivan) came to Pennsylvania in 1746. Probably from County Cork. He was a peasant farm worker or maybe a servant type. There is evidence that he was a servant to a Samuel Flowers to whom he was in servitude for 4 years to pay his passage to the new world. His offspring migrated to Tennessee around 1800 and settled in Green County. For an absolute certainty we know our family decended from a Henry Sullivan who was born in Pennsylvania around 1788. He and his wife moved to Bledsoe County, TN by 1815. The family spread into White, Warren and Van Buren Counties. My Grandfather, John Duncan Sullivan, was born in 1868, in rural White or Warren County, TN. My mother was born at Bone Cave, Van Buren County, TN in 1900. Much of the family started west in covered wagons in 1906; but illness plagued them shortly after departure and they ran out of money. My Grandfather worked in a limestone quarry in Sherwood, Franklin County, TN. This is in the Crow River Valley near the Alabama border.

My Grandfather and 4 others of the family are burried there. I suspect, though I have no evidence, that this song had it origin in Ireland. Many of the other songs he sang came from there. My mother said that he told her he learned the songs from his mother. If that is so, the song would date to at least before his birth date.

Bob Moore

Thanks for the valuable information, Bob. If an Innkeeper offers me wine, I'm gonna refuse.

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