“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” said Yogi Berra. Or maybe not. He, after all, also complained, “I never said half the things I said.” Still, nostalgia (Greek for home-ache) as homesickness is a relatively recent diagnosis — the Oxford English Dictionary lists 1780 as its first usage. Odysseus, on his 20-year voyage back to Ithaca, didn’t spend a lot of time missing the old home place. But the violent displacements wrought by the European post-bubonic-plague population explosion and the Industrial Revolution gave a whole lot of people reason to be nostalgic (before that, they seldom left home). The popular 19th – 20th century poets strove to fill that empty place. As change accelerated, the poets and songwriters expanded nostalgia to include a longing for the good old days as well as for home, and what seems from this distance as excessive sentimentality was just the right amount to ease the heartache of the displaced people in the impersonal cities.
“Step Stone” is an unusual nostalgia song, in that the singer is experiencing future grief, missing home even before he leaves. It has a great tune, though, which I think saved it from oblivion . It was reportedly first published in 1880 as “Old Doorstep,” written by one J.O. Webster. (I couldn’t find words for it on the internet. An earlier possibility, “The Old Door Stone,” by I.B. Woodbury, 1855, is not related). From there it entered that 40-50 year latency period that seems common with popular songs recorded in the 1920s as “Old Time Tunes.” It didn’t completely disappear, however. While going through family papers, I ran across a newspaper clipping of “Step Stone” as a poem, pasted into a scrapbook by an aunt, probably in the 1910s.
This version is by the Floyd County Ramblers (Vi 40331, recorded 1930. Reissued on Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be, Vol. 5, Yazoo CD 2063). They were two pairs of brothers from Virginia named Boone and McNeil who recorded 6 sides in one session, then were never heard from again. Bascom Lunsford and Ernest Stoneman both recorded this song earlier, in 1928, but I prefer the Floyd County version.
1. I stand on the doorstep at evening time now,
The wind whispers by with a moan;
The fields will be white and I will be gone
To roam o’er this wide world alone.
I stood on the doorstep when school time was o’er,
And longed for the time to go by;
And now it has gone and I stand here tonight,
To bid this dear step stone goodbye.
Goodbye, to my step stone, goodbye to my home,
God bless those I leave with a sigh;
I’ll cherish their memories when I am away,
Goodbye, dear old step stone, goodbye.
2. It is hard to be parted from those whom we love
When reverses in fortune have come;
The strongest of heart strings have broken in twain
By the absence of loved ones at home.
But I bid this poor heart cease repining in vain,
And hushed be each deep-breathing sigh;
Though the pain it will cause me, none ever can know,
To bid this old step stone goodbye.
[Click HERE to hear a MIDI file playing a simple, unexpressive, version of the tune.]