The American Songbag, Part II: Of Doves and Crows

Last week, I shared some highlights from Carl Sandburg’s folk song collection, The American Songbag. This week, I dig a little deeper.

In perusing The American Songbag, I was excited to discover evidence of a connection between some songs (or song families?) that I already knew and liked but which I had assumed were unrelated. The first song in the book is “He’s Gone Away.” Though the tune was unfamiliar to me, I immediately recognized the words as being like those of Crowfoot’s “Winter’s Night.” Here are selected verses from each:

“Winter’s Night”

Fare you well, my own true love
Fare you well, for a while
I’m going away, but I’m coming back
If I walk ten thousand miles

And who will shoe your feet, my love?
And who will glove your hands?
And who will kiss your ruby lips
When I am gone to a foreign land?

Father will shoe my feet, my love
And Mother will glove my hands
And you may kiss my ruby lips
When you come back from a foreign land

Don’t you see that lonesome dove
Flying from vine to vine
She mourns the loss of her own true love
Why not me for mine?

“He’s Gone Away”

I’m goin’ away for to stay a little while,
But I’m comin’ back if I go ten thousand miles.
Oh, who will tie your shoes?
And who will glove your hands?
And who will kiss your ruby lips when I am gone?

Oh, it’s pappy’ll tie my shoes,
And mammy’ll glove my hands,
And you will kiss my ruby lips when you come back!

Look away, look away, look away over Yandro,
On Yandro’s high hill, where them white doves are flyin’
From bough to bough and a-matin’ with their mates,
So why not me with mine?

The notes for “He’s Gone Away” say it’s “of British origin” and that “[o]ther mountain places in the southern states have their song about going away ten thousand miles.” Particularly noted is the “exceptional theme of the white doves flying from bough to bough and mating,” so I thought it was interesting that Crowfoot’s version also includes the dove, though in a different way.

Then, much farther along in the book, I came upon “Who Will Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?”, which Carl Sandburg heard from one Prof. Frank C. Senour. There is only one verse, and it’s almost identical to Crowfoot’s:

O, who will shoe your pretty little foot,
And who will glove your hand,
And who will kiss your ruby lips
When I’ve gone to the foreign land?

With this song, however, Sandburg includes two other texts. The first, “Fair Annie of Lochyran,” is from Alexander Whitelaw’s “Book of Scottish Ballads” and is a bit further removed from the texts I’m most interested in. The second, however, given to Sandburg by R. W. Gordon (I don’t know who any of these people are), made me very excited. The text is entitled “The True Lover’s Farewell,” and the first three stanzas are more or less those I’ve already shown (ten thousand miles; a series of questions about shoes, gloves, and kisses; answers about father, mother, and the lover), but the fourth and fifth are these:

You know a crow is a coal, coal black,
And turns to purple blue;
And if ever I prove false to you,
I hope my body may melt like dew.

I’ll love you till the seas run dry,
And rocks dissolve the sun;
I’ll love you till the day I die,
And then you’ll know I’m done.

These verses strongly recalled another song I love, “The Blackest Crow,” from the album Converting Grace by Molly & Maggie and The Ephemeral Stringband. Specifically, the third verse:

The blackest crow that ever flew
Would surely turn to white
If ever I prove false to you
Bright day would turn to night
Bright day would turn to night, my love
The element’s would mourn
If ever I prove false to you
The sea would rage and burn

The most obvious similarities are the presence of the crow and the line “If ever I prove false to you,” but there’s also the sea. Also, the end of the second verse of “The Blackest Crow” is “You are the one I will adore / Until my dying day,” which is similar to the third line of the fifth verse of “The True Lover’s Farewell” above (“I’ll love you till the day I die”). The crow turns a different color in each version, and “The Blackest Crow” seems to make more sense in that a black crow turning white is anomalous (just as the lover proving false would be). In “The True Lover’s Farewell,” a black crow looking purple blue just sounds like a trick of the light. It’s presented as a fact, not an event connected to the lover’s potential falseness, and it kind of comes off as just setting up the rhyme with “dew.”

Now, the reason I got so excited about this text in The American Songbag is because it contained in one song textual elements of two songs (Crowfoot’s “Winter’s Night” and Molly & Maggie’s “The Blackest Crow”) that I had previously never connected. This may not be terribly surprising, given that these songs share a common theme, but still. Additionally, Sandburg’s notes on “Who Will Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?” conclude with: “A little book could be written around this song and all its ramifications in the past.” Indeed!

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