Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, August 2007)

A short time ago, I had a talk with Jim Kirsling, who writes our column about songwriting. He disagreed with the numbers I cited last month, about how "death" is more popular in traditional song than "love." That was a difference in the data sets we were using, because I was talking only of traditional songs. He's doubtless right that what Nashville looks for is love songs. But traditional music, and by extension bluegrass, is full of death songs (e.g., things like Put My Little Shoes Away).

Jim also wondered about the distinction between "love" songs, "courting" songs, and "marriage" songs. There is certainly a progression there. But arranged marriages result in marriage without love or courting, and the many sweetheart-in-the-army songs involve love and courting without marriage.

Then there is this song, about courting and marriage but not love.

This song is not particularly widespread in tradition; this version is Charles Ingenthron's (minus the seventh and eighth verses, which don't advance the plot and are even more objectionable than the rest to my ears -- and I was running out of room); it was also found by Sturgis & Hughes in Vermont. That seems to be it for field collections. But this song has had a second life; Jimmy Driftwood took a text very like this one, rewrote it a little, added a chorus, and gave us the pop-folk song The Unfortunate Man. In lyrics, the result is so close that they could still be considered one song, though the tunes are different. (Norm Cohen sees a similarity to The Little Mohee in the traditional tune. The third line is certainly Little Mohee; the rest I would consider distinct.)

I don't really consider this song to be particularly funny. I doubt women sang it very often, either, which may explain why it is rare in tradition. But it is an interesting demonstration of the way traditional song can often produce a different twist on a topic.


Complete Lyrics:
There once was a lawyer whom I call Mister Clay.
He had but few clients and those did not pay.
At length of starvation he grew so afraid
That he courted and married a wealthy old maid.

At the wedding the lawyer made one big mistake,
'Twas not in omitting the cards or the cake;
The ring was well chosen, the parson well feed,
But the groom didn't insist on a warranty deed.

That night in their chamber the lady arose
And began to prepare to retire to repose.
While her husband sat near her admiring the charms
Which gave him such pleasure to hold in his arms.

She went to the washstand to bathe her fair face,
But the process destroyed all its beauty and grace;
The rose in her cheeks, whether ruby or faint,
When displayed on the towel it was nothing but paint.

She went to the mirror to take down her hair,
But when she had done so, her cranium was bare.
She said, "Don't be frightened to see my poor head;
I'll put on my cap when I get into bed."

The husband was sitting in stupid surprise
To see such things doing before his own eyes.
But now he jumped up And rushed out of the door,
And poor Mistress Clay never saw him no more.

Now, all you young men, when you agree for a wife,
'Tis the greatest agreement you'll make in your life.
Don't trust to good looks, of my counsel give heed,
But be sure to insist on a warranty deed.

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.