Remembering the Old Songs:

Papa, Papa, Build Me a Boat

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

This is an appropriate time of the year to celebrate true love. Contrary to popular belief, many songs passed down through the generations acknowledge that true love can exist. Unfortunately for our romantic sensibilities, though, the folk are doubtful about love's permanence. It seems to last only if one or both of the lovers are absent. If they're still alive, the story always ends when they reunite. If one or both are dead, more possibilities arise: One may return as a ghost to retrieve the other, or the living one might commit suicide or take ill and quickly join the dead lover. After both die, their love often remains in either frozen form (a stone turtledove on a grave) or a weird living form: a rose and a briar -- one beautiful and prickly, the other ugly and prickly, which climb to the top of a church steeple where they entwine "for all young people to admire," as Jean Ritchie sings in her version of Lady Margaret. This symbolism can even spawn a subsidiary modern song, like The Bramble and The Rose (sung by Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin on Our Town, Rounder CD 0304). Those of us who love the old songs never tire of them the way you might tire of your favorite novel after reading it for the twentieth time. The messages from earlier generations feel as if they're embossed into your genes, and in a sense, they are.

Many of the old ballads tell long stories that require way too much attention span from those who were raised on Sesame Street. As if anticipating that condition, the folk process has occasionally produced Reader's Digest versions that tell their story in the space of only a few stanzas. Instead of being abridged, though, the story is reduced like a French sauce to its concentrated essence, until it becomes almost too pure, too painful. Dock Boggs of Norton, Virginia, sang a good example in Papa, Papa, Build Me a Boat, on Dock Boggs, Volume 2 (Folkways LP FA 2392, published 1965).* Dock had recorded several banjo songs in the 1920s (although not this one), and was well acquainted with a number of musicians around Norton. He learned this song from Charlie Powers, who played banjo and also recorded with his father's string band, Fiddling Powers & Family. I presume Dock sang the song roughly as he learned it. I admire the story-telling artistry, particularly the warping of narrative time: anxious search in the present, revelation of a tragic event that has already occurred, and then a long flashback to the sailor's parting words. The song, a dialog in only four stanzas, proceeds by indirection and appears to be wasting its time, yet somehow satisfactorily completes the tale before you realize it's begun. Perhaps to counteract the compressed emotion, the tune cheerfully bounces along like a calliope on a merry-go-round.

The song is so widespread that it probably was published on broadside sheets several times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Different versions of the song, some substituting soldiers for sailors, were collected all over the south , as well as in England and Labrador, in the earlier half of this century. There are also several recorded versions. If you'd like a more straightforward (though not much longer) story and conventional tune, try the Carter Family's My Lover's on the Deep Blue Sea, which is undoubtedly on some Carter reissue, or alternately is well reproduced by the original New Lost City Ramblers on their first album, The New Lost City Ramblers (Folkways FA 2396, published 1958). At the other end of the spectrum, Mike Seeger sang a very interesting unaccompanied (and unaccompaniable, at least by instruments that use chords) version, Black is the Color of my True Love's Hair on Music From True Vine (Mercury LP SRM 1-627, published 1972).

Papa, Build Me A Boat

Complete Lyrics:

"Papa, papa, build me a boat,
So on this river I can float.
Every ship I chance to see
I'll inquire of Sweet Willie."

"Captain, Captain, tell me true,
Does Sweet Willie sail with you?"
"No, oh no, he don't sail with me,
He got drownded in the deep blue sea."

"I'm a-goin' away, little darlin' girl,
I'm a-goin' away for awhile.
But I will return to you, sweetheart,
Should I go ten thousand mile."

"Stars may rule the oceans, sweetheart,
And heavens may cease to be,
This earth will lose its motion, sweetheart,
Should I prove false to thee."

* You can still get Folkways albums that have not been re-released as CDs on cassette copy from Smithsonian-Folkways, 414 Hungerford Dr., Suite 444, Rockville, MD 20850. (301)-443-2314 or 443-1819.

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