Remembering The Old Songs:


By Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July 2001)

Students of Linguistic History have remarked on "The Great Vowel Shift" of several hundred years ago, which makes earlier versions of English sound like a foreign language. A radical change also happened, although much more recently, to folksongs in the English language, which I identify as "The Great Pronoun Shift." Ballads, which use songs to tell a story, naturally fit into the third person, but the older versions of even laments have an impersonal feel to them, as if "I" were a third-person pronoun. Both "I" and "you" are rare in the songs that have survived, unless they occur in dialogue.

Here's an example of impersonal feel in an old lament, familiar from poetry books, but one that disappeared from oral tradition:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down may rain;
Christ that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

Compare this with the 1940s Country Western song:

All my life, I've always been so blue,
Born to lose, and now I'm losing you.

The second example has one less first-person pronoun, but, to me, the difference is analogous to circles in water radiating from a thrown stone compared with circles of stars rushing into a galactic black hole.

Even before the advent of the "Me" generation, most composed C&W songs emphasized First Person Singular, as in all alone by my lonesome. The New Lost City Ramblers used to threaten to sing a song titled I'm So Miserable Without You, It's Almost Like Having You Here. It's a rare contemporary composer, even one influenced by traditional songs, who avoids egocentricism. Written poetry seems to go through popularity cycles more often, so the cold impersonality of 20th century "modern" poetry (Eliot, Pound, etc.) that replaced Romanticism has been replaced by introspective poems about painful individual and family dysfunction.

As with any revolution or evolution, it's hard to find clear transitional forms, because change tends to wipe them out. Also, early musicologists were so enamored of ballads that they categorized non-story songs into a catchall "lyric" group, where they could be ignored. I like this month's song because it seems transitional, complete with floating verses from much older songs, specifically the "who will shoe ... " pair of verses. The first and third verses contain the poetic transformation to self-pitying first person singular, while the fourth verse feels like an older idea, as remote from us as the poor guy on top of some hill with the rain pouring down.

This version was recorded in 1928 by George (Shortbuckle) Roark, of Pineville, Kentucky, who played clawhammer banjo and sang the verses, while other members of his family sang along on the chorus. The best way to learn the banjo, the syncopation, and the wonderful high harmony for this piece is to buy the Yazoo CD 2030, The Rose Grew Round the Briar, Volume 1, which contains the Roark recording. That recording has the 2-line chorus repeated only at the end, but I find that too short, so I repeat it every time through, as shown below. An added advantage of floating verses in a song is that they don't have to remain connected in a logical order. All you have to do is remember another verse while you're playing the instrumental. I would say that the confusing information as to who kisses who in the last verse is a mistake on the singer's part, except that Roark recorded the song 10 years later for Mary Barnicle (Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song #1994A), and he sang it exactly the same way.

Truly Understand

Complete Lyrics:

I wish to the Lord I never been born,
Nor died when I was young,
I never would've seen them two brown eyes,
Nor heard that flattering tongue, my love,
Or heard that flattering tongue.

I truly understand that you love another man,
And your heart shall no longer be mine.
I truly understand that you love another man,
And your heart shall no longer be mine.

Who will shoe your little feet,
Who will glove your hand,
Who will kiss your red rosy cheeks,
When I'm in the foreign land, my love,
When I'm in the foreign land?

Remember what you told me, dear,
As we stood side by side,
You promised that you'd marry me,
And be no other man's bride, my love,
And be no other man's bride.

I never will listen what another woman says,
Let her hair be black or brown,
For I'd rather be on the top of some hill,
And the rain a-pouring down, down,
The rain a-pouring down.

My father will shoe my little feet,
My mother will glove my hand,
And you will kiss my red rosy cheeks,
When I'm in the foreign land, O love,
When I'm in the foreign land.

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