The venerable folksong collection, The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book, contains a whole chapter entitled, “Take Warning,” and another devoted to “Occupational Hazards.” 1 In those chapters can be found lyrical warnings about flood and fire, warnings about working in the mills and working on the railroad, warnings about buying on credit and unscrupulous merchants, warnings about travel at sea and warfare on the ocean, warnings for men about marrying the wrong woman and for women about marrying the wrong man.
Sometimes the warnings, though graphic, are implied. “The Demon Lover,” recorded in 2006 by Irish singer Pauline Scanlon, 2 is a variant of the almost excessively recorded “The House Carpenter.” Both variants tell the story of a woman married to a carpenter but dissatisfied with her station in life. She is persuaded by a man—presumably of a higher station—to abandon her family and follow him to sea. She is grief stricken that she’ll never see her children, but it’s too late. The boat “sprung a leak In the middle of the sea” 3 and sinks; the implication of the last two verses is a dark warning to mind one’s position in society:
What hills, what hills are those my love,
That look so far away?
Those are the hills of heaven my love;
They’re not for you or I.
What hills, what hills are those my love,
That look so dim and grey?
Those are the hills of hell my love,
Where you and I must stay. 2
In other songs, the warning is presented as a “goodnight verse,” a direct, explicit admonition often delivered by a dying protagonist in the final verse: a plea to not do the things he’s done. “The Gambler’s Dying Words” is about a young man who wastes his life and is filled with regret. The song concludes:
Don’t take my body to the church; say nothing o’re my remains.
Somebody will think that I am saved, in Hell I’ll be in chains.
My cards and dice, they burn my hands and fear I know it well,
And gamblers if you do not change, I’ll see you when you come to Hell. 4
The take warning trope is so common is English-language folksongs, that the goodnight verse sometimes seems tacked on to a song just for the sake of including a heavy handed lesson. My least favorite take warning song is “The Wreck of the Old 97,” the tale of a railroad engineer who dies in a horrific wreck. Throughout the entire song there is no mention of his wife or their relationship, but in the final verse, some long forgotten balladeer must have decided the song needed a moral, and so, put the blame on the engineer’s absent wife:
Now, ladies, you must all take warning
From this time on and learn:
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband;
He may leave you and never return. 5
I suspect the verse is more about the balladeer’s marriage than the engineer’s. Indeed, the engineer’s own recklessness, not anything his wife did, is his downfall. He speeds the train in an effort to “Put her in Spenser on time” and dies “scalded to death by the steam” and “found in the wreck with his hand [still] on the throttle,” a prophetic foreshadowing of the modern man consumed by his work. 5
Perhaps the work ethic driven, conservative Christian dominated culture of our folksong writing forebears demanded that spending valuable time on a diversion as frivolous as composing and singing songs had better at least be moralistic. Or perhaps folksongs have always been a way of teaching, of passing on hard-won life lessons to proceeding generations in an enticing way: the after school specials of their day.
A frequently recurring warning directed at women through folksongs—to beware the lustful ways of men and protect one’s chastity—is represented in this collection by “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.” As I was first thinking about this project, I told a colleague who is also a folk musician about my plan to document folksongs that are not G rated. He responded, “Bloody or sexy?” “Mostly bloody,” I said. Bloody is easy, and this collection includes ghastly scenes like “I dragged my razor ‘cross his throat, and my baby paid the fine,” from “Pink,” and “In her snow white bosom, he plunged the fatal knife,” from “The Jealous Lover.” Sex, though, is trickier and is usually artfully obscured, like a fan dancer teasing her audience, careful never to reveal too much.
“Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” is a warning to women to protect their virginity, but in order to obscure the intent and avoid graphic sexuality, virginity is presented symbolically as the herb, thyme. The symbolic use of plants is a long tradition in Western civilization, going back at least to the ancient Greeks and Romans who rewarded victorious competitors with wreaths of bay (laurel) leaves. That herb represents victory, glory and honor; 6 thus, to “rest on one’s laurels” symbolically means “to be so satisfied with your [past] achievements that you make no effort to improve.” 7 Likewise, thyme has long represented purity and virginity, so knowing that, the admonition, “Beware, beware! Keep your garden fair/Let no man steal your thyme…” comes clear.
The beauty of this particular song is in the extension of the metaphor to include so much plant imagery and symbolism that it literally requires the inclusion of a gardener as a character. If a woman’s thyme is stolen, then a man “will care no more for you/And every place your thyme was waste will all spread o’re with rue…” Rue is the herb symbolic of regret, and to this day “you’ll rue the day” refers to regretting one’s past actions. In “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” the woman expresses the depths of her regret in terms of symbolic plants:
The gardener’s son was standing by;
Three flowers he gave to me:
The pink, the blue and the violet, too,
And the red, red rosy tree…”
So, she had a way out. The gardener’s son, clearly smitten even though the protagonist lost her thyme, does still care for her and offers the violet, symbolic of forgiveness devotion, and faithfulness, and the rose, symbolic of romantic love. 6 But the protagonist will have none of it. Instead, she “[forsakes] the red rose bush and [gains] the willow tree,” symbolic of sadness and grief (as in the bluegrass standard, “Bury Me Beneath the Willow”:
Oh, bury me beneath the willow,
Under the weeping willow tree,
So she will know where I am sleeping
And perhaps she’ll weep for me. 8
Finally, the fallen protagonist and her deceitful lover are depicted as plants themselves:
For woman is a branchy tree,
And man’s a clinging vine.
And from her branches carelessly
He’ll take what he can find…”
The song’s warning is clear. The first line of a variant of the song, “The Bunch of Thyme,” says it all: “Thyme, It is a precious thing.” 9
If “Thyme” represents a premarital warning to women, “George Collins” and “The Unquiet Grave” represent a common post-marriage warning offered up in folk songs: Woman, get on with your life! “George Collins” is an American variant of the Child Ballad, “Lady Alice.” 10 In the song, Collins drives home one night and dies. His “Sweet little Nell in yonders room” puts down her work and begins to grieve. In some versions, Nell is identified as Mrs. Collins, presumably a young wife since before the song is over, her mother is telling her how to live her life, “Oh daughter, oh daughter, why do you weep/There are more young men than one.” In some versions, this scolding comes even before the funeral verse in which Nell, in mourning, commands
Set down the coffin; take off the lid.
Lay back the linens, so fine,
So I might kiss poor George’s cold lips
For I know he’ll never kiss mine.”
Woman, get on with your life!
A particularly eerie take on this “take warning” motif is delivered by a ghost in “The Unquiet Grave.” In this ballad, a young girl is driven by the death of her lover to mourn to an excessive degree; she resolves to
…do as much for my true love
As any a young girl may.
I’ll sit and mourn all on his grave
For twelve months and a day.
Again, the girl is admonished to get on with her life, not by an intrusive parent, but by the long-dead lover himself, and he is not pleased!
When the twelve months and a day was passed
The ghost did rise and speak,
“Why do you sit all on my grave
And will not let me sleep?”
In a stern tone, the ghost warns that continuing on her path of excessive mourning will lead the girl to her own death,
My breast is cold as the clay.
My breath is earthly strong,
And if you kiss my cold, clay lips,
Your days will not be long.
In another version of the song sung by contemporary English folksinger Kate Rusby, the enraged ghost can barely contain his anger toward the girl,
And if you weren’t my own sweetheart
As I know you well to be,
I’d rend you up in pieces small
As leaves upon a tree. 11
Woman, get on with your life!
This warning—this lesson—is is a common motif in English-language folksongs and is associated with ancient belief that “…excessive grief prevented the dead from resting [and] the tears shed by the mourners pierced holes in the corpse.” 12 Considering that so many of the songs were composed pre-20th Century, it makes sense. The common people who populate these stories couldn’t afford the luxury of lengthy mourning. Women in particular were dependent upon the security a traditional family structure provided. It was simply a matter of survival, and folksongs, the after school specials of their day, delivered engaging lessons with no less than life or death consequences.
Are you ready for “Sex, Drugs and…Traditional Folk Songs?”
1. “The Gambler’s Dying Words.” The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book. John Cohen and Mike Seeger, Editors. Oak. 1964.
2. Scanlon, Pauline. “The Demon Lover.” Hush. Audio recording. Compass Records. 2006.
3. Rice, Tony. “The House Carpenter.” Church Street Blues. Audio recording. Sugar Hill. 1983.
4. “Poor Ellen Smith.” The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book. John Cohen and Mike Seeger, Editors. Oak. 1964.
5. “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Classic Country Lyrics. http://www.classic- country-song-lyrics.com/thewreckoftheold97lyricschords.html. Retrieved 3/20/12.
6. “Symbolism of Herbs.” The Gardening Guru. http://www.herbgardeningguru. com/symbolism-herbs.html. Retrieved 3/20/12.
7. “Rest on One’s Laurels.” The Free Dictionary. http://idioms.thefreedictionary. com/rest+on+laurels. Retrieved 3/20/12.
8. “Ricky Skaggs – ‘Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow Tree’ Lyrics.” Let’s Sing It. http://artists.letssingit.com/ricky-skaggs-lyrics-bury-me-beneath-the-weeping-willow-tree-24rmjcf. Retrieved 3/20/12.
9. “Thyme, it is a Precious Thing.” Digital Tradition Mirror. http://sniff. numachi.com/pages/tiTHYMEPRE;ttTHYMEPRE.html. Retrieved 3/20/12.
10. “George Collins,” Folksongs of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and America. http://www.contemplator.com/child/collins.html. Retrieved 3/20/12.
11. Rusby, Kate. “The Unquiet Grave.” YouTube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYftA_FQ_zY
12. Reinhard, Zierke. “The Unquiet Grave.” Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/lloyd/songs theunquietgrave.html