Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, February 2004)

Lyle Lofgren's account, last month, of the story of Frankie Silver(s) left one loose end: The Silver baby, left orphaned.

There aren't any songs about the littlest Silver, of course -- but there are plenty of orphan songs. This particular one is not based on any particular facts, as far as I know (though there is one report that the situation derives from an 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis). It's just an orphan song, reportedly written in 1888 by E. C. Avis and then known as Row Me Over the Tide. But it has a haunting feel, as if the children are walking up to Charon the boatman (thanks to Lyle for noting this).

This song came to me by a complicated route, and I probably would never have learned it had it not been for all the different versions I have heard. The song doesn't really seem to have gone into oral tradition; true field collections are almost unknown unless Bascom Lamar Lunsford made some. But it was fairly popular with old-time performers. At least two of them -- Bela Lam and Kelly Harrell -- recorded it in 1927, and many others soon after. Harrell's recording was, in effect, both the first and the second versions I ever heard: His recording inspired Joan Sprung's, which I learned long enough ago that I have the recording on LP. Then I picked up Harrell's on the Document reissue of his complete works (it's on Volume II, Document DOCD-8027). It was, in a way, Harrell's prime period: He had a fine band of Alfred Steagall on guitar (who, if he recorded more, might have alleviated the need for Maybelle Carter), Lonnie Austin on fiddle, and R. D. Hundley on banjo; for this cut, he was joined by Henry Norton on harmony vocal. Harrell himself was, ironically, the weakness in his version; he had a very precise diction, quite suitable for journalism but not really for tearjerkers.

So it wasn't until I heard Kathy Kallick's recording on My Mother's Voice that I really became interested in the song. Kallick sings a tune with slightly different timing (which is approximately the one I've shown here) and a very different lyric; at the end "The angels took them to their heavenly home, there with the saints to abide." This rewrite derives from the Blue Sky Boys (though prettied-up versions go back at least to the Lam recording) -- and, as far as I'm concerned, it pretty well ruins the song. The whole strength lies in the uncertain ending. It's too bad Kallick couldn't have worked her magic (and it is magic) on a better version.

I find this song somehow conjures up far more of an image than the words actually tell: I personally see a girl, ten or eleven, doing the talking, with her brother, perhaps seven, in tow. Your image may vary. And that's a good thing; it's what makes the best ballads so strong: You are told only what you need to know, and can imagine the rest. This isn't really a great ballad, but it's an exceptional tune, well worth knowing.

The range is something fierce, though -- almost an octave and a half. I transcribed it in G, because the guitar chords work so nicely, but you'll probably want to move it either a little lower or a little higher.


Complete Lyrics:
Two little children were strolling one day
Down by the river side.
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
"Row us over the tide.

Row us over the tide,
Row us over the tide ";
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
"Row us over the tide. "

"Be kind to us, mister, dear mother is dead;
We have no place to abide.
Our father's a gambler
and cares not for us;
Please row us over the tide.

"The angels took mother to her heavenly home,
There with the saints to abide.
Our father has forsaken us, he's left us alone;
Please row us over the tide.

"Papa and mama grew weary; one day,1
Jesus would come for their child
We are so tired of waiting so long;
Please row us over the tide. "

Footnote 1: No one really knows what Harrell sang here; Sprung heard it this way; I hear "mama so weary", both of which make nonsense. Uncle Willie of the Brandy Snifters offers "Papa and mama told Willie one day."
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