Remembering the Old Songs:

A True Lover of Mine

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November 1995)

The Red Mules come from Ohio, and perform many Ohio folk songs and tunes. In their honor, and because I have a page to fill, I am starting this new column devoted to the history of old songs. I will run it as space permits. ill try to print music and guitar tab for each song, and I am willing to take requests. (I love researching old songs. Just make sure they are really old -- pre-twentieth century, anyway.)

I imagine that almost everyone my age or older (which is nearly everyone in MBOTMA) has heard the song "Scarborough Fair" -- from Simon and Garfunkel if no one else. But few realize how deep the roots of that song are. It actually goes back to an old British ballad called "The Elfin Knight" (Child #2, for all you ballad scholars out there).The oldest version known to me dates back to 1673, but the original song probably dates back to the sixteenth century or earlier.

There's a lot more to this song than you might realize at first glance. In the oldest versions, the man who comes courting is an elfin knight (or some sort of magical being), who is trying to steal the young woman's virtue -- or even her soul. Fortunately, she realizes the trap, and defeats his purpose by demanding impossible conditions for marriage.

The chorus of herbs found in many versions also has ancient significance. Scholars today refer to it as "Elizabethan flower symbolism." To the Elizabethans, each herb referred to some sort of emotions. Some are obvious even today -- a rose stands for love, sage for wisdom, rue for melancholy. But some were much more obscure -- for instance, rosemary for remembrance (Shakespeare mentions that one in Hamlet!) and thyme for virginity or chastity. (There is a whole genre in Britain of "thyme songs" about girls who let young men lead them astray.)

But lest you think that all of this is some obscure old British muck, I would point out that literally dozens of versions of "The Elfin Knight" have been found in America, usually descended from the "Scarborough Fair" family. It's had many melodies, on all sorts of scales (the one here is in major, but I've seen them in minor, and "Scarborough Fair" is usually sung in the Dorian mode.) I've printed one of two Ohio versions here. An almost identical text has been found in Missouri, and other versions have been found in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Vermont, Indiana, throughout the Appalachians, and even in British Columbia.The titles used for the song have been many: "Strawberry Lane, "Scarborough Fair," "The Cambric Shirt," "A True Lover of Mine," "The Devil's Courting," "The Wind Hath Blown my Plaid Awa'." Other versions of the story have been found all over Europe, and may predate the Roman Empire. If ever there was an old-time song, this is it!

True Lover

Complete Lyrics:

as given by Miss Annie Byers, Perrysville, Ohio.

When you go down to yonder town,
  Rosemary and thyme,
Send my respects to that young man,
  And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Go tell him to buy six acres of land
Between salt water and sea sand.

Go tell him to plant ten acres of corn
And harrow it with a mooley cow's horn.

Go tell him to cut it with a sickle of leather
And haul it all in with a pea fowl's feather.

Go tell him to thresh it against the wall,
And do not let one grain of it fall.

Go tell him to take it to yonder mill,
And each kernel of corn shall one bag fill.

Go tell him that when his work is done
To come to me with the kernel of corn.

When you go down to yonder town,
  Rosemary and thyme,
Send my respects to that young maid,
  And she shall be a true lover of mine.

Go tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Without one stitch of needle work.

Go tell her to wash it in yonder well
Where water never rose and rain never fell.

Go tell her that when she has done her work,
To come to me with that cambric shirt.

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