Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November, 2009)

If songs about the travails of a bad marriage existed before the mid-19th century, they haven't survived. Perhaps there was a redefinition of the ideal marriage, or perhaps composers found that the topic was popular with the urban, but not urbane, audience of vaudeville shows. To the composers, it didn't matter whether misery loves company or schadenfreude is pleasurable. The songs sold.

There were two distinct categories. Women's marriage songs are not humorous — they're about poverty, drunken husbands and hungry babies. The men's songs are all jocular and sound like the complaints you might hear at a Super Bowl party. The common thread is a warning for the single to stay single and avoid entanglements, thus ensuring the extinction of the human species. Fortunately, no one heeds the warnings.

We're going to cover a man's song this month. It was originally published as The Party That Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man, composed 1908 by, ironically, a woman named Fleta Jan Brown. She probably stole the idea from earlier British broadsides extolling the joys of bachelorhood. It was recorded in 1910 by Eddie Morton, a vaudeville / minstrel singer (Victor 16758, available at ). Brown apparently composed to order, because most of her compositions are seriously sentimental, such as Somewhere My Love Lies Dreaming.

Morton's version is mostly recitative, and not very interesting , but at some time between 1910 and 1927, the song was recomposed. The tune and some of the words are the same, but the speaking parts are dropped and extra verses added. In 1927, two North Carolina musicians, Charlie Parker (not the jazz man) and Mack Woolbright, recorded The Man Who Wrote The Home Sweet Home Never was A Married Man on Columbia 15236D (reissued on Good For What Ails You: Music of The Medicine Shows, 1926-1937, Old Hat CD 1005).

Mack Woolbright (c. 1891 - 1960) was a blind 3-finger banjo player who was an early influence on Earl Scruggs. Scruggs was about 6 years old when he saw and heard Woolbright sitting on a porch playing the original 1823 Home Sweet Home tune out of the Minstrel C (also called "Standard") tuning (gCGBD), and was thrilled by the complexity. Although Scruggs often played "Home Sweet Home" in the D tuning (aDF#AD) using his eponymous pegs to glide between the notes [but see Note], I also heard him play a straight version using Woolbright's tuning — a high compliment from one banjoist to another.


Complete Lyrics:
1. Man gets up early in the morn
And leaves his wife in bed.
She lies there as the kids wake up and cry,
"Get up and cook some bread."
Let me tell you a thing or two,
That a woman like that won't never do,
And the man that wrote the Home Sweet Home,
He never was a married man.

CHO: He never had no loving wife
To greet him with a frying pan.
She'll meet you at the door when you go to come in
And knock you down with a rolling pin,
And the man that wrote the Home Sweet Home,
He never was a married man.

2. Man comes in at dinner time,
Hungry and he wants to eat.
Finds his wife piled up in the bed,
Lying there sound asleep.
Gets so mad that he pulls his hair,
He swears and declares that he won't stay there,
And the man that wrote the Home Sweet Home,
He never was a married man.

3. Man comes in from work at night,
Tired and he goes to bed.
The baby lying there in the cradle,
Screaming like he'll raise the dead.
He'll sit and rock for about an hour,
And never a hand to help prepare,
And the man that wrote the Home Sweet Home,
He never was a married man.

Note (added 7/15/2010): Wayne Shrubsall of Albuquerque, NM, e-mailed me and pointed out that Scruggs always played the tune using the Minstrel C tuning. I have to admit I could find no reference to Scruggs ever playing it out of the D tuning. The internet says that Allen Shelton first played Home Sweet Home out of the D tuning using Scruggs pegs.

But I think I confused Scruggs with Don Reno, who definitely used Scruggs pegs at Melody Ranch in Maryland in 1955 (recording made by Mike Seeger -- I believe it's unpublished except by exchange between enthusiasts). Everyone seems to agree that Reno played it in D tuning, but some say he achieved the slurs by stretching the strings. I tried that, and I can't stretch them enough to get a whole-step slur. So I still maintain that Reno used Scruggs pegs every time he played it, not just in 1955. Too bad we can't ask him. -- Lyle

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