01 Mar

Farewell to Nancy

*my source singer for this transcription, Carrie Grover, varies her pitch selection on the asterisk-marked notes throughout her beautiful performance. Consult the online recording to get a feel for this and other aspects of her singing. A transcription can’t do it justice!

I’ve travelled this country both early and late,
I’ve travelled this country when hard was my fate,
Fell in love with a pretty fair maid, but she does me disdain,
Oft times she has slighted me, but I’ll try her again.

Oh, your parents are rich, love, and you hard to please,
I would have you take pity on your heart-broken slave,
I would have you leave your father and your mother also,
And through this wide world with your darling boy go.

“Oh, Johnnie, dear Johnnie, such advice will not do,
For leave my own country and to go along with you,
My friends and old sweethearts they would mourn my sad fate,
If I’d leave my own country and go follow a rake.”

Now my love she won’t have me, and away I must go,
To the wide spreading ocean where the salt breeze does blow,
To seek a companion, it is all my design,
Fare you well, dearest Nancy, must I leave you behind?

Fare you well, dearest Nancy, and merry may you be,
I will always think of you wherever you be,
But since you’ve proved unloyal to the one that’s so true,
May the wide spreading ocean separate I and you.

We return to the wonderful repertoire of New Brunswick/Maine singer Carrie Grover this month for a song you can hear online via the Carrie Grover Project website. Grover’s singing is full of character and nuance and is definitely worth hearing. As I say above, the recording does a far better job of conveying her style than anything I can transcribe (or describe!) here.

Grover’s “Farewell to Nancy” contains some “floating” lines in the first verse that turn up in versions of other songs including “Green Grows the Laurel” and the Scottish Bothy ballad “Airlin’s Fine Braes.” Steve Roud classifies “Farewell to Nancy” along with a song called “Little Susie” that was sung in parts of the southern US. A version of “Little Susie” collected by Max Hunter in Arkansas does share many words with Grover’s song.

It is Carrie Grover’s striking melody that I find most attractive here. I love the big leaps and interesting pitch variances in her performance.

01 Mar

The Cuckoo

Our meetings are pleasure, our partings are grief,
But a false-hearted young man is worse than a thief,
For a thief can but rob you and take all you have,
But a false-hearted young man will bring you to the grave.

The grave it will rot you and bring you to dust.
A false-hearted young man no maiden can trust,
They will kiss you and court you fair maids, to deceive,
And there’s not one in twenty that you can believe.

Oh, I can love little or I can love long,
I can love a new sweetheart when the old one is gone,
I can tell them I love them to give their hearts ease,
And when their back’s to me I will love whom I please.

Most of my song-sleuthing is aimed at finding English language songs that traveled across the north Atlantic with Irish immigrants and took hold in the north woods regions of North America. This particular Irish repertoire spread throughout the white pine belt as logging and other industries moved westward through the 1800s. While the songs can be traced, with almost no audio recording evidence of singers recorded pre-1920, it is harder to speak authoritatively about singing style in the lumber boom years of the 19th century. Still, it is safe to state that Irish singing style, as it existed in that century, did mark the approach used in the north woods. I think it is also safe to say that the blends of Black American and Scots-Irish song traditions that formed the folk traditions in Appalachia and further south were less present in the north woods historically. There was an Irish-influenced “woods style” of singing that was distinct from styles prevalent to the south.

Of course, singers of those earlier times didn’t worry as much about these distinctions as we do! And the songs themselves crossed from community to community regardless of origin. This month we have a song that began as a broadside ballad in England and, skipping Ireland almost entirely, took hold in the American south where it became a standard of the Appalachian repertoire (and Americana music today). Whether “The Cuckoo” stopped in the lumbercamps before going south is unknown but it did end up in the repertoires of several woods singers in New England and the Canadian Maritimes. It is interesting to compare the stylistic differences between how it was sung by northern singers and the more commonly heard southern versions (for a quintessential southern version see this amazing video on YouTube of Clarence Ashley). 

Thanks to the massive collection of recordings brought together by Helen Hartness Flanders and now available freely online via archive.org, we have several northern versions of this song to enjoy. The melody and first verse above are from Hanford Hayes at Stacyville, Maine as recorded by Flanders in May 1942. The additional verses are from Nova Scotia/Maine singer Carrie Grover. A similar melody (basically a pared down version of lines 3 and 4) was used by singer George Edwards in the Catskills area of New York.

I love Hayes’ dark and quirky melody and his leisurely style. I’d recommend listening to the online recording to hear the way he ornaments the long note in the first bar of each line. His style is masterful and reminiscent to me of the great Angelo Dornan of nearby New Brunswick.

01 Mar

At the Close of an Irish Day

Oh, tonight in fancy come and take a trip across the sea,
And we’ll meet our old companions in the place we long to be,
For stamped upon our memory are the friends we used to know,
So just tonight lets revel in the thoughts of long ago.

Through little lanes and meadows we will take a stroll once more,
For to meet the laughing boys and girls we met in days of yore,
The rivers, woods and moonlit night have the same old charm still,
And the whistler on a summer’s eve comes rambling o’er the hill.

It’s oft we rove through yon green groves with our young hearts light and gay,
‘Mid the golden ray of the setting sun at the close of an Irish day,
The music from the hills around re-echoed clear and true,
As down the path we wandered ’mid the fragrance and the dew.

Oh, don’t you recall, sweetheart of mine, the place where I met you,
‘Mid the rosy bower of happiness where love’s young dream came true?
The air was full of love’s sweet song as I promised to be thine,
And you forever pledged your word that you would be always mine.

Oh I’ll ne’er forget when I set sail across the ocean blue,
We stood on deck and watched the mountains slowly fade from view,
At the last glimpse of old Erin sure our hearts went up in prayer,
Oh, God forbid we’d e’er forget that dear little isle so fair.

We return this month to a song recorded by Tom Dahill and Barbara Dahill in 1976 from Mayo-born singer Dominic Caulfield who lived in St. Paul. Caulfield was a skilled singer with a deep repertoire of songs. On the tape recording, Dominic, Tom and Barb chat and read through a list of song titles between Dominic’s singing. They also refer to lyrics on a page so he was likely consulting a song book of his own at the time.

“At the Close of an Irish Day” is thought to be a composition of the early 20th century even though no known composer or early published text is known. The earliest appearance I can find is a recording by the McNulty Family made for Decca in New York City in 1940. Melodeon player Annie Burke McNulty was from Roscommon and she performed with her American-born children Eileen and Peter who sang and danced. The song was released at the height of their popularity when they were the most well-known Irish act in the US.

The song was taken up by traditional singers on both sides of the ocean. Eddie Butcher and others sang it in Derry and it appears in Hugh Shields’ book Shamrock, Rose and Thistle: Folk Singing in North Derry. In the late 50s, it was recorded by international superstar Bridie Gallagher and from there became associated with Irish stage singers—perhaps causing it to be passed over by folk revival song collectors who thought it too modern to be a “real” folk song.