Remembering the Old Songs:

A Rose in Grandma's Garden

by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, February 1997)

I'm very fond of unexpected art, particularly of the un-self-conscious type, and we drive backroads in hopes of finding it: The world's largest ball of twine in Darwin, Minnesota, for example; or a collection of wine bottles hanging from trees just off the road near Victorville, CA; or Simon Rodia's Watts Towers (a hundred and fifty feet tall, built of scrap iron rods and decorated with broken 7-Up bottles) in Los Angeles. So, as you might guess, I'm thrilled to run across a quilt made from old neckties or a gaudy beach-house built of flotsam. This month's song is one of those -- assembled from other parts, like Frankenstein's creation.

It was sung with banjo by Louise Foreacre on Folkways LP FA 2315, Old Time Tunes of The South: The Stoneman Family, Sutphin, Foreacre & Dickens, still available on cassette from Smithsonian-Folkways. She says her father "wrote it," and that's probably true in the sense of sitting on your porch recalling snatches of old songs. Identification of the source ballads is left as an exercise for the student. They are variants of two popular themes: the star-crossed young lovers who commit suicide and the separated lovers reunited after a test of the woman's faithfulness.

In an earlier article (The Little Carpenter, December 1996), we talked about songs without classical (major or minor key) chord structure. This time, we're lacking a rigid rhythm structure. Unaccompanied Appalachian singing holds some notes for long times, and compresses others. The concentration is on meaning or on certain syllables rather than on regularity. One folklorist, trying to transcribe ballads, reportedly said that they could be properly notated only in 1/1 time. On this song, Foreacre preserves a loose singing rhythm, even with accompaniment, by playing the banjo fast and singing slowly, so the banjo keeps a steady rhythm while still following the song's vagaries. I associate this style mostly with Kentucky, although it's found elsewhere in the south. I transcribed the song in 2/4 time because that's the basic rhythm of clawhammer banjo: "bump-diddy" is a quarter-note followed by two eighth notes. Still, it's only an approximation of the vocal rhythm, which changes with each verse, adding or deleting measures. You really have to hear it to learn it right. If you use a guitar, keep a fast, strong 2/4 rhythm. If you try to loosen the bond between voice and instrument with arpeggios, you'll develop the urge to go get a black turtleneck sweater and a tall wooden stool, and find a 1961 college coffeehouse where everyone sits around playing chess and discussing Existentialism.

The song contains two unusual words. "Impost" is a verb-formation from a noun, and it means to place a handicap weight on a race-horse, or, alternately, to tax something. Notice that it is not a mistake, because "impose" is also used in the song. "Marrow" is provincial Scottish, either verb or noun, relating to mating. My advice is to learn these words and use them in everyday speech -- it'll make you more difficult to understand, and, therefore, more interesting.

Grandmas Garden

Complete Lyrics:

Go straightways and ask your mama
Oh it's if I can be your loving darling bride;
If she says yes, come back and tell me,
And if she says no, we'll run away.

Come, my little girl, don't impost on beauty,
For beauty is a fading thing;
It's like a rose in Grandma's garden,
It will fade away in the month of May.

You're not the man of noble honor,
To impose on a young girl like me,
For I have a true love gone to the army,
Your loving darling bride I can never be.

Perhaps he's taken some pretty girl to marrow,
Perhaps he's in some battle slain field,
Perhaps he jumped in the river and drownded,
I love that girl that'll marrow him.

Here's this diamond ring I'll give you,
Place it on your lily-white hand,
And when I'm in some distant land,
Lord, give it to no other man.

Come, my little girl, don't impost on beauty,
For beauty is a fading thing,
It's like a rose in Grandma's garden,
It will fade away in the month of May.

Bibliography by Robert Waltz

This song is essentially a combination of two others. The first verse and tune come from The Drowsy Sleeper [Laws M4], while the remaining verses belong to the huge family of "Riley" ballads (Johnny Riley, Fair Young Maid in a Garden, Riley's Farewell, My Father's Servant Boy, etc.).

Both song families originated in Britain, but The Drowsy Sleeper survives almost exlusively in America. Laws lists some 45 American versions (mostly from the Appalachians and Southeastern U.S., but ranging as far afield as Vermont, Michigan, Nebraska, and Utah, plus several Canadian versions). Only a half dozen or so British variants are known, several from broadsides. The reader is referred to Laws' bibliography or the Ballad Index for further details.

As for the Riley ballads, some of the better-known are Willie and Mary (Mary and Willie; Little Mary; The Sailor's Bride)" [Laws N28]; A Seaman and His Love (The Welcome Sailor) [Laws N29]; William Hall (The Brisk Young Farmer) [Laws N30]; Lovely Nancy (I) [Laws N33]; The Dark-Eyed Sailor (Fair Phoebe and her Dark-Eyed Sailor) [Laws N35];John (George) Riley (I) [Laws N36]; John (George) Riley (II) [Laws N37]; The Mantle So Green [Laws N38]; The Banks of Claudy [Laws N40]; and the best-known of all, Pretty Fair Maid (The Maiden in the Garden; The Broken Token) [Laws N42] (often known as John Riley").

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