Remembering the Old Songs:

Henry Lee

by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, October 1996)

Success in politics and advertising is achieved by finding the Lowest Common Denominator, by trumpeting the concept that is so dumb that anyone can understand it. Similarly, every field of art has its panderers to the popular taste, trying to please, distinguished from the artists who create from inside themselves. One of the oddities of folk music, however, is that many of the best old songs are also the most widely distributed; appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator here has retained the best art. This month's example is Young Hunting (Child #68), a Scottish ballad (with Scandinavian relatives) that, although extinct in Britain, is widespread in America: it appears in at least twenty-five written collections, as well as at least thirteen recordings in the Library of Congress collection as of 1940. It's certainly been popular with me. Over the years, without even trying, I've memorized four different versions, including two of Jimmie Tarlton's Lowe Bonnie (very different from each other in both tune and phrasing) and a marvelously compressed five-stanza Loving Henry by Maggie Gant of Austin, Texas (recorded 1937 by John & Alan Lomax, Library of Congress #66A1). When I have to choose only one, though, I have to pick the first one I learned: Henry Lee, by Dick Justice, from the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume 1. Justice's version contains more of the old story, including a tattletale bird, than many of the other recorded versions, and has more melodic variation between verses. I transcribed it in his key (G), even though I have to gargle with a special Tabasco sauce tonic to sing it there -- D or E might be more comfortable.

Part of the charm of the old ballads are the terms and speech patterns left over from an earlier time. I can't reliably distinguish between this and genuine mistakes, though, so I try to transcribe the words as Justice sang them. You'll have to use your own judgment. "I'll never will forsake" may be a genuine mistake. We've had an ongoing family argument as to whether "in deed of property" should be "indeed, a property." "Bend and bow" is "bended bow" in most sources. "Wobble" is Appalachian for "warble." (In some versions, Henry states that he feels his own heart's blood "come twinkling o'er my knee"). In case you wonder how a pen-knife could be so fatal, it was originally a "weapon knife," pronounced "weepin' knife," from whence "wee pen-knife," and an easy verbal jump to "little pen-knife." Unfortunately, in spite of the best efforts of marriage counselors and other Relationship Therapists, the story is still current.

Henry Lee

Complete Lyrics:

"Get down, get down, little Henry Lee, and stay all night with me.
The very best lodging I can afford will be fare better'n thee."
"I can't get down, and I won't get down, and stay all night with thee,
For the girl I have in that merry green land, I love far better'n thee."

She leaned herself against a fence, just for a kiss or two;
With a little pen-knife held in her hand, she plugged him through and through.
"Come all you ladies in the town, a secret for me keep,
With a diamond ring held on my hand I'll never will forsake."

"Some take him by his lily-white hand, some take him by his feet.
We'll throw him in this deep, deep well, more than one hundred feet.
Lie there, lie there, loving Henry Lee, till the flesh drops from your bones.
The girl you have in that merry green land still waits for your return."

"Fly down, fly down, you little bird, and alight on my right knee.
Your cage will be of purest gold, in deed of property."
"I can't fly down, or I won't fly down, and alight on your right knee.
A girl would murder her own true love would kill a little bird like me."

"If I had my bend and bow, my arrow and my string,
I'd pierce a dart so nigh your heart your wobble would be in vain."
"If you had your bend and bow, your arrow and your string,
I'd fly away to the merry green land and tell what I have seen."


The Folkways recording listed above includes some sixteen references to printed collections. The classic is, of course, Francis James Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Young Hunting, of which Henry Lee is a variant, is #68.

In Britain, the song seems to have been largely confined to Scotland, but in America it has been found in most areas east of the Mississippi (there are also several versions from Texas). Bertrand Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads lists forty-three melodies, mostly American but also from Ireland and Canada's Maritime provinces.

Versions with strong connections to modern old-time music can be found in Belden and Randolph. The most recent publications are in Warner and in Cazden/Haufrect/Studer.

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.