Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May 2002)

When you get old like me, you need every brain cell that's left, so now when I sing I depend on material that doesn't require many. This month's offering is as attractive as Katie Dear (March 2002) in that neither of them require much memory. The Q&A narrative method used here, which could be called Dramatic Dialog, is a technique used by many of the oldest British ballads. I can't think of any psychological reason why this might be easier to remember than other narrative techniques. Maybe it's memorable because it's

Sir Walter Scott, who collected it on the Scottish border as Lord Randal, thought it possibly referred to Randal, Earl of Murray, who was allegedly poisoned in 1332. Child, though, found lots of related songs from all over Europe, which indicates the story is less local than Scott thought. None of the British versions give True Love's motive in poisoning Lord Randal, although jealousy might have something to do with it.

Before you throw out all your eel-with-onion recipes, you should know from the related ballads that those eels were really snakes. Other suitable materials are juice from punctured toads or dead snakes steeped in wine for awhile. In all those instances, though, bloated dead dogs are a sure sign of ingested-reptile poisoning. If you really get into this stuff, another ballad tells you how to blind your husband by feeding him eggs and marrowbone. Just watch your step when you try to push him into the water.

I learned this version from a 1950s Stinson LP by Harry and Jeanie West of North Carolina, so it's probably from that state. Changing "Lord" into something democratic like "Jimmy" is typical of the Americanization of British songs. The condensation also omits a whole lot of verses where Jimmy dictates his will, dividing his possessions among various relatives, but bequeathing damnation to True Love.

As with Katie Dear, I tested my theory about the power of a song like this to overcome SWI (Singing While Impaired) by writing out the words as I remembered them after about 40 years without hearing the original. The only mistakes were interchanging verses 2 and 3 and substituting "butter" for "onions" (cholesterol anxiety?).


Complete Lyrics:
"Where have you been, Jimmy Randall, my son,
Where have you been, my handsome young one?"
"I've been to my true love, Mama,
I've been to my true love, Mama,
Make my bed soon, Mama,
For I'm sick to my heart."

"Where are your hounds, Jimmy Randall, my son,
Where are your hounds, my handsome young one?"
"They swelled up and died, Mama, (X2)
Make my bed soon, Mama,
For I'm sick to my heart."

"What did you eat, Jimmy Randall, my son,
What did you eat, my handsome young one?"
"Fried eels and onions, Mama, (X2)
Make my bed soon, Mama,
For I'm sick to my heart."

"I'm 'feared you're poisoned, Jimmy Randall, my son,
I'm 'feared you're poisoned, my handsome young one."
"I'm 'feared I'm poisoned, Mama, (X2)
Make my bed soon, Mama,
For I'm sick to my heart."

Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.