Remembering the Old Songs:

When First To This Country a Stranger I Came

by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, February 1999)

If you've recently been following my half of the Old Songs articles, you'll remember about the 1934 treasure John and Alan Lomax discovered In Austin, Texas: the Gant Family and their collection of unusual songs. I imagine the Lomaxes were not very impressed when they recorded this song by Foy and Mrs. Maggie Gant and an unidentified guitarist (Library of Congress Archives of American Folk Song # 65A2). As a performance, it's a mess. They had never tried a guitar with it before, so the instrument and voices could not come close to agreement on the timing. The Gants, originally from Tennessee, were strangers in Texas, and the song itself is a stranger. It's not related to any of the classical British ballads, but it's not a popular nor vaudeville nor cowboy song, either. It has a frontier feeling, as well as a recently-composed aura, yet has gone through at least one generation of the folk process: the two singers precisely agree on the weird timing and the muddled words.

I believe it would have languished unnoticed, except Peggy (and later Mike) Seeger heard this recording while growing up, and both have performed it. If you hear anyone sing this song, they probably learned it from one of those sources. Several of the words the Seegers sing are different from those I hear (reproduced below) on the original recording. The song seems malleable enough that the different hearings, though they produce some variances in the meaning, are all authentic. The timing given in the sheet music is approximately based on the Seegers' regularization of the song for guitar accompaniment. Throughout the balance of the song, the rests occur regularly after each of the first two lines (except when you don't feel like resting), and I've indicated which vowel(s) in the third line should be held by using an underline symbol after it (them). Still, to fit it all in, you have to hold some syllables, and compress others. Use your own judgment; there isn't space to notate the whole song. I think the D-series chords go well with the song. If the key is wrong for your voice, buy a capo.

Even if we could agree on the correct words, I'm attracted to some other mysteries here. Whether it's a dray horse or a gray horse, why does the narrator steal it, since he's already riding one? Is it a desperate attempt to impress Nancy? The transformation of dried beef from inedible to comestible came long after the infamous "Bully Beef" the WWI soldiers got for their meals. The last verse includes some interesting clothing themes. My father, a farmer born towards the end of the nineteenth century, advised never to hire a farm worker who arrives with his hands in his pockets: an obvious sign of indolence rather than boldness. He would never have hired the narrator. And the bible story has Joseph with a coat of many colors, not Jacob. Yet, Jacob gave it to Joseph, and the brothers' return of the coat is proof that the favored son no longer exists. It now belongs to Jacob again, and Joseph is in bondage. Is the transformation in the song a mishearing or a sophisticated interpretation of the bible story? No way to tell -- to me it could be both, which is why it's one of the songs I sing while driving around town. That eccentric guy next to you at the stop light, singing his heart out to no-one in particular -- I have to confess it's me.

When First Unto This Country

Complete Lyrics:

When first to this country
A stranger I came,
I cou_rted a fair maid
And Nancy was her name

I courted her for love,
Her love I didn't obtain;
Do you thi_nk I've any reason
Or right to complain?

I rode to see my Nancy,
The pride of my life,
I cou_rted dearest Nancy,
My own heart's true delight.

I rode to see my Nancy,
I rode both day and night,
Till I sto_le a fine dray horse
From Captain William White.

The Sheriff's guards, they followed,
And overtaken me.
They ca_rted me away
To the penitentiary.

They opened the door
And welcomed me in;
They clea_red off my head
Instead of my chin.

They beat me and they banged me,
They fed me on dried beef,
Till I wi_shed to my own soul
I'd never been a thief.

With my hands in my pockets,
I felt that I'se so bold,
With my coa_t of many colors
Like Jacob's of old.


Although well-known due to the recordings by the New Lost City Ramblers and the Seegers, this song is very poorly attested. All versions, including that printed in the New Lost City Ramblers Songbook (Old-Time String Band Songbook) seem to derive ultimately from the Gants.

Songs beginning with the line "When first (un)to this country a stranger I came" are common, but the only other use of the full first stanza is in the Irish song Lovely Nancy (H637 in the Sam Henry collection; p.385 in Sam Henry's Songs of the People). This is not, however, the same song; either the Henry text mixes this with some love song (possible, as the Henry version contains assorted floating verses) or the Gant text combines an Irish love song with an American prison song.

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