Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November, 2008)

Say, Darling, Say belongs to a tradition of children's songs that use progression. Some of them, such as The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, use logical progression to arrive at a conclusion that's both illogical and logical at the same time:

I know an old lady who swallowed a horse.
She died, of course

The Old Lady song is a little extreme if you're trying to get a child to fall asleep. A milder progression song is Hush, Little Baby, in which the recipient is promised a series of items, each one contingent on the previous one being unsatisfactory in some rhyming way. An extended version of this song (probably with extra composed verses) first hit the pop market on a Weavers 1956 LP, and was covered by a number of commercial folk-boom trios. As I remember, that version ends something like:

And if that horse and cart fall down,
You'll still be the cutest little baby in town.

By that time, all of us are snoozing.

Ernest Stoneman (1893-1968) of Galax, Virginia, was one of the first Appalachian musicians to record for a commercial record company (1924), and later helped define the country music industry as a talent scout who gathered together many of the musicians for Ralph Peer's 1927 Victor recording sessions in Bristol, TN. (see for a list of the recordings made at those sessions).

"Say, Darling, Say" was first recorded by Stoneman & The Sweet Brothers in 1928 (Gennett 14017A). Different takes were released in 1929 on other labels, using the pseudonyms Justin Winfield and Uncle Ben Hawkins (a common practice at the time).

Stoneman said he learned the song from a couple of older cousins who also taught him to play guitar and harmonica. We can only speculate how much he might have changed the verses to produce a record that would appeal to listeners old enough to buy the record. Despite similar words to Hush, Little Baby, this is not a lullaby but a breakdown. The progression does not go far, and the promise of hard work while tending to a drunken spouse is not likely to lead to restful sleep. If you want to take the progression further than Stoneman did, add more of the Hush Little Baby lyrics. One example is at


Complete Lyrics:
1. Oh, little darling, if you was mine,
You wouldn't do nothing but starch and iron,
Say, darling, say.

2. Starch and iron'd be your trade,
And I'd get drunk and lay in the shade,
Say, darling, say.

3. Hush up, darling, don't say a word,
I'm going to buy you a mockingbird,
Say, darling, say.

4. Mockingbird, if it don't sing,
I'm going to buy you a diamond ring,
Say, darling, say.

5. Diamond ring, if it turns to brass,
I'm going to buy you a looking glass,
Say, darling, say.

6. Looking glass, if it gets broke,
I'm going to buy you a billy goat, Say, darling, say.

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