The American Songbag, Part III: The Lover’s Lament

Today I conclude my series on The American Songbag. You can also read Part I and Part II. This post is a continuation of Part II.

Last week, I talked about finding in “The True Lover’s Farewell” elements from different songs I hadn’t thought were related. I then discovered a third song in The American Songbag, “The Lover’s Lament.” “Blendings from five or six old ballads are in this song of parting lovers,” Carl Sandburg says. This song has an A and a B text, but there is no indication as to whether they have different sources. Anyway, the verses of “The Lover’s Lament” seem to connect everything even more. Get ready for a lot of texts!

Before acquiring The American Songbag, I heard Tim Eriksen’s “Every Day Is Three” (from the album Josh Billings Voyage) and noticed its textual similarities to “The Blackest Crow.” Here is a comparison of the relevant verses of each:

“The Blackest Crow”

As time draws near, my dearest dear
When you and I must part
How little you know of the grief and woe
In my poor aching heart
‘Tis but I suffer for your sake
Believe me dear it’s true
I wish that you were staying here
Or I was going with you

I wish my breast was made of glass
Wherein you might behold
Upon my chest your name lies wrote
In letters made of gold
In letters made of gold, my love
Believe me when I say
You are the one I will adore
Until my dying day

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

“Every Day Is Three”

Oh, my dearest dear, the time has come when we must part
No one knows the inner grief of my poor aching heart
Or what I set sail or sank for the one I love so dear
I wish that I could go with you or you could tarry here

I wish my breast was made of glass and in it you might behold
Your name in secret I would write in letters of bright gold
In letters of bright gold true love, pray believe me what I say
You are the one that I love best until the dying day

The crow that’s black, my dearest dear, will turn its colors white
If ever I prove false to be the brightest days to night
The brightest days to night, true love, all the elements shall mourn
If ever I prove false to be the raging seas shall burn

Now, we can dive into “The Lover’s Lament,” whose stanzas strongly resemble selected stanzas from “The Blackest Crow,” “Winter’s Night,” and “Every Day Is Three” (as well as the other American Songbag songs I’ve mentioned—but the text of “The Lover’s Lament” is actual closer to those of Molly & Maggie’s, Crowfoot’s, and Tim Eriksen’s songs than to the others in Sandburg’s book, which almost suggests these three more recent songs were derived from this text or a connected source). Interestingly, “The Lover’s Lament” has a refrain that doesn’t look much like anything else I’ve seen.

Verse 1 of Text A of “The Lover’s Lament” is very close to the first half of verse 1 of “The Blackest Crow”:

“The Lover’s Lament”

My dearest dear, the time draws near
When you and I must part;
But little do you know the grief or woe
Of my poor troubled heart.

“The Blackest Crow”

As time draws near, my dearest dear
When you and I must part
How little you know of the grief and woe
In my poor aching heart

Then, verses 2 through 6 of “The Lover’s Lament” are similar to just about all of the verses of “Winter’s Night” (excluding refrains! Because, in fact, “The Lover’s Lament” is the first song with the shoes/gloves/kisses motif that never mentions “ten thousand miles”!):

“The Lover’s Lament”

As I walked out one clear summer night,
A-drinking of sweet wine,
It was then I saw that pretty little girl
That stole this heart of mine.

Her cheeks was like some pink or rose
That blooms in the month of June,
Her lips was like some musical instrument,
That sung this doleful tune.

[Omitting verses about shoes, etc.]

You are like unto some turtle dove,
That flies from tree to tree,
A-mourning for its own true love
Just as I mourn for thee.

“Winter’s Night”

As I walk down on a winter’s night
Drinking of sweet wine
Walking with the girl I love
The one who stole this heart of mine

My love is like a red, red rose
Newly sprung in June
She is like a violin
Sweetly played in tune

[Omitting verses about shoes, etc.]

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?

Just as a side note, I think Crowfoot’s version is an improvement upon the words in “The Lover’s Lament.” I mean, “Her lips was like some musical instrument”?!

Verse 7 of “The Lover’s Lament” shares part of its text with “The Blackest Crow” and “Every Day Is Three,” though its first half does not overlap with these other two songs, which instead share the imagery of bright day and night:

“The Lover’s Lament”

You are like unto some sailing ship
That sails the raging main,
If I prove false to you, my love,
The raging seas will burn.

“The Blackest Crow”

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

“Every Day Is Three”

The brightest days to night, true love,
all the elements shall mourn
If ever I prove false to be
the raging seas shall burn

Verses 1 and 2 of Text B of “The Lover’s Lament” are very similar to the second verse of both “The Blackest Crow” and “Every Day Is Three,” but the greater similarity is with Tim Eriksen’s song:

“The Lover’s Lament”

I wish your breast was made of glass,
All in it I might behold;
Your name in secret I would write
In letters of bright gold.
Your name in secret I would write,
Pray believe in what I say;
You are the man that I love best
Unto my dying day.

“Every Day Is Three”

I wish my breast was made of glass
and in it you might behold
Your name in secret I would write
in letters of bright gold
In letters of bright gold, true love,
pray believe me what I say
You are the one that I love best
until the dying day

If you’re wondering why “Every Day Is Three” has that title, it’s because Tim Eriksen’s version of the song has two more verses that don’t overlap with anything in “The Blackest Crow” or “The Lover’s Lament.” Also, it’s worth noticing that Text B of “The Lover’s Lament” is addressed to a man, while most of Text A is addressed to a woman, like in “Winter’s Night”. Lastly, despite the fact that “The Lover’s Lament” contains material that matches the first and second verses of “The Blackest Crow” and “Every Day Is Three,” it does not mention the black crow!

What do I conclude from all of this? I’m no ethnomusicologist, but it seems to me that there is a set of WHO WILL SHOE YOUR FEET songs and a set of BLACK CROW songs, and then there are songs that belong to both sets, pointing perhaps to some common origin or else the mixing of texts with common themes. Carl Sandburg did call “The Lover’s Lament” a blended text, but is that also the case with “The True Lover’s Farewell”? Before poring over The American Songbag, I never thought there was any connection between two of my favorite songs: Crowfoot’s “Winter’s Night” and Molly & Maggie and The Ephemeral Stringband’s “The Blackest Crow.” Now I know! And because I couldn’t help myself, I created this chart comparing the imagery in all the songs discussed in this post and the last one! Song Chart

P.S. At a recent shape note singing in Los Angeles, we sang “Forster” from Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music (1813), and I noticed one of the verses begins: “We’re often like the lonesome dove / Who mourns her absent mate / From hill to hill, from vale to vale / Her sorrows to relate.” Could there be a connection? Of course, this is sacred music, so the next line is: “But Canaan’s land is just before…”

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