Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, February 2003)

Last month, Lyle gave us a song about a messed-up relationship and a meadow. This being valentine's month, what choice did I have? I'm going with the song about a messed up relationship and a meadow.

Springfield Mountain is one of those songs that's buried deep in the consciousness of almost all old folkies; I've heard it called (on very bad evidence) "the earliest American folksong." It's so familiar that I just subconsciously assume that everyone knows it. But that may be a bad assumption. So here it is.

It is widely believed -- though no one has actually proved it -- that this is based on an actual incident which took place on August 7, 1761: A Timothy Myrick, formerly of the Springfield Mountain area, died of snakebite in Farmington, Connecticut.

From that point, tradition had its way. Philipps Barry points out that this song falls into four subfamilies, the serious "Curtis" and "Myrick" groups and the comic "Molly" and "Sally" types (this being a "Molly" version). With this, it is hard to argue -- but it isn't easy to credit Barry's claim that the song originated around 1830. Sigmund Spaeth credits it to one Nathan Torrey, but gives no evidence. He also attributes it to the political campaign of 1840! (A very singing campaign, that, but I can't see how this could possibly relate to either Martin Van Buren or William Henry Harrison, the major candidates of the 1840 election. Nor can I see a connection with the Panic of 1837, which was ultimately the primary issue.)

Whatever the details of its history, the song became very popular; my library contains over thirty texts taken from tradition plus assorted reprints, rearrangements, and items of doubtful traditional status.

Malcolm Laws seems to think the humorous versions of the ballad rather beneath his attention, but given how common they are, we can hardly ignore them.

This may not be the earliest American folksong, but it's quintessentially American: I know of collections from every part of the country except the Pacific Northwest, and the failure to find it there may just be lack of collectors. Nor does it seem to occur outside of the United States -- not even in Canada. It's extremely rare to find a folk song so respectful of geographic boundaries. Especially one so common in New England; most such songs turn up at least occasionally in the Canadian Maritimes. Not here.

I don't really know where I learned "my" version; the recordings I hear in my head sound like Ed McCurdy and Jean Ritchie, which means that I learned it out of my parents' record library. That also means I'm having to dredge the words out of my memory -- naturally a dubious process, though the result is so close to some of the printed texts that I thought about just printing one of those.
At least this version is short; no moralizing about leaving your lover when he's mowing, or being wary around tall grass, or just generally being Warned.

The tune, at least as I hear it, is rather odd; it's in triple time, but observe how often the chord changes on the second beat of the measure. That strange musical pattern seems to have affected some versions of the song; I've seen at least one tune that was marked as being in 5/4 time! Even so, it's quite easy to play -- at least on the guitar; I don't think I've ever heard it on banjo (until I tried it just now) or mandolin.


Complete Lyrics:
On Springfield Mountain there did dwell
A lovely youth, I loved him well.
Too-roo-dee-loo, too-roo-dee-ay,
Too-roo-dee-loo, too-roo-dee-ay.

One Monday morning he did go
Down to the meadow for to mow (etc.).

He had not mowed half 'round the field
When a pesky serpent bit at his heel.

They took him home to Molly dear,
Which made him feel so very queer.

Now Molly had two ruby lips
With which the pizen she did sip.

She also had a rotten tooth,
And so the pizen it killed them both.

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