Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, September 2003)

There's a festival tradition, as old as agriculture, surrounding important events in the crop growing cycle. The tasks involved (saving seed, fertilizing, plowing, harrowing, planting, hoeing, harvesting) must be done at just the right time. Before the machine age, most people in the community had to cooperate for this work. Festivals were a memorable way to pass on important knowledge to the next generation. Saturn, for example, was the Roman god of sowing, and his festival (Saturnalia) was held December 19th, at the end of the Italian winter sowing season. No business could be conducted. Activity that was prohibited the rest of the year was encouraged on Saturnalia. Drunkenness, licentiousness and gambling were rampant, of course, but the festival went beyond that. The normal hierarchy was inverted for a day. Slaves were waited on by their masters. A commoner, the more foolish the better, occupied the throne. Songs and skits were performed where sense was exchanged for non-sense. The festival was a reminder that, in order to get crops, you have to turn the earth over, so that what was on top is now underneath.

The Romans may have brought the festival to England, retaining the calendar date but losing its planting significance that far north. Around Christmastime, traditional British peasants dressed up in even more tattered clothes than they already wore. Called mummers, they blackened their faces, perhaps to hide their identities. They made the rounds of the manor houses, singing, acting foolishly, begging, and performing skits, as demonstrated by the Pyramus and Thisbe play inside Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream. By the 19th century, only the skit part, the mummer plays, remained. They had been conventionalized into short dramas, typically involving a sword or club fight, resulting deaths and miraculous revivification by a Quack Doctor.

Nottamun Town has been in the Kentucky Ritchie family for a long time. Cecil Sharp collected it from Jean Ritchie's aunts, Una and Sabrina, (see corrections below) in 1917 (Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians, 1932). They were attending Hindman Settlement School at the time. The Hindman teachers were big on reintroducing Kentuckians to their heritage. I'd suspect them of teaching it to the Ritchies from a British songbook, except an almost identical version (Nottingham Fair) was collected in Missouri, and it appears that the British had forgotten the song by then.

Jean has recorded it several times with slightly different words, and this is a compilation of some of those versions ( offers one version on a CD. [Note added 1/30/12: This link currently doesn't work. Try Amazon for her CDs.] Jean believes it's from the mummer tradition. I didn't find any relation to the play scripts (you can spend a whole day Googling "mummers" on the internet), but the tradition of songs with no rational sense does seem to be related to the Saturnalia-type festivals. This song is markedly different from the jocular, professionally composed songs such as Midnight on the Ocean, where a barefoot boy with shoes on stands sitting in the grass. The tune, haunting but simple, seems to be from before the invention of chords, or at least before the minor chord came along. Playing individual guitar strings rather than chords sounds better. Ritchie uses a dulcimer.

The last verse wipes any smirk off your face. This verse was mentioned by both Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia as pivotal in giving them mental permission to write the songs they did for The Grateful Dead. It didn't have to make sense on an everyday level, as long as it made sense on Saturn's day, somewhere in the universe.


Complete Lyrics:
1. In Nottamun town, not a soul would look up,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
To show me the way to fair Nottamun town.

2. I rode a gray horse, a mule roany mare,
Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down his back,
Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down his back,
There wasn't a hair on her but what was coal black.

3. She stood so still, she threw me to the dirt,
She tore up my hide, and bruis-ed my shirt.
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again,
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain.

4. Met the King and the Queen, and a company more,
A-walking behind and a-riding before,
Come a stark naked drummer, a-beating a drum,
With his hands in his bosom come marching along.

5. They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay,
They talked all the while, not a word did they say.
I bought me a quart to drive gladness away,
And stifle the dirt, for it rained the whole day.

6. Sat down on a hard, hot, cold frozen stone,
Ten thousand stood around me, yet I was alone.
Took my hat in my hand for to keep my head warm,
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.

Corrections, added 7/18/2011: Jacques Evrard sent me a message in June, 2011, telling me (gently) that I was guilty of faulty assumptions when I said that Una and Sabrina were aunts of Jean Ritchie. Una was an older sister, and Sabrina was a cousin. This information came from a letter Jean wrote to Roger McGuinn in 1999, posted at McGuinn's website. Jacques quotes from the letter:

The song … was collected at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, KY by Cecil Sharp around 1917 from the singing of my sister Una who was a student there (Una was 4th in our family of 14; I'm 'the baby one,' and am 77 now).

If you will check in Sharp's book of Appalachian songs he collected, you will find the Ritchie version … as notated from the singing of Una and Sabrina Ritchie (Sabrina was our cousin).

Jacques also sent a link to an interesting interview with Ritchie, where she says that, when Sharp collected at Hindman, Una and Sabrina had forgotten the words to this song, and had to ask Sabrina's father, Jason Ritchie. The same interview has some interesting information on the song: it's copyrighted by Jean, because she made up the fifth verse. If somebody has to copyright it, it's better that she, rather than Bob Dylan, did it.

Many thanks to Jacques for setting the record straight.

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