People die in folk songs. A lot. This collection has amassed an impressive body count: eight people dead or dying by the time I sing them all. Basically, I classify death songs into two groups: Those in which the victim dies right away (hopefully in the first verse) and gets it over with and those in which the he or she (usually she) lingers to the end (hopefully to the last word.) There are other songs, including in this collection “The Unquiet Grave,” in which the victim is dead before the song begins but appears as a ghost. I don’t know what to do with that one, but of my two main categories I prefer the former; with recently deceased out of the picture right away, the song becomes about the living left behind and how the death affects them. And, really, isn’t that what death is all about?
Women named Ellen really die a lot. In the Irish folk song, “The Maid of Tralee,” Ellen O’Reilly is a beautiful girl who lives until the last verse. She is loved by a man who goes to sea, and while he’s gone, she dies:
That cheek where the roses and lilies were spread,
Now boasts but the lily—the roses are fled;
That eye, whose bright glance the heart’s raptures reveal’d,
Now dim with a tear, no more lustre shall yield;
And broken with sighs, now for ever must be
The once tuneful voice of the maid of Tralee.
Fair Ellen, sweet Ellen, fair Ellen O Reilly,
Fair Ellen, the maid of Tralee. 1
The fated Ellen O’Reilly is just a beautiful cypher; we learn nothing about her other than she is pretty and dies. Not much of a song, in my book. Conversely, one of the best-known Ellens of folklore, Barbra Ellen (also Barbara Allen), is a survivor to the end, but we find out a lot about her. This Ellen is haughty and appropriately symbolized by the thorny briar. She spurns her lover, Willie, who is on his deathbed for the unrequited love of Ellen because she mistakenly feels he slighted her. When he does die, hearing the church bells, she realizes her cruelty and dies for him the very next day. And the death is glorious!
They carried them down to the Old North Church.
They laid him down beside her.
And out of his bosom grew a red, red rose…
From Barbara’s grew a briar.
They grew and grew, on the old church tower,
‘till they could not grow no higher.
Then they twined and mixed in a true lover’s knot:
The red rose round the green briar. 2
Yet another Ellen, “Poor Ellen Smith,” is a sad member of the other Time of Death category and meets her end in the first verse:
Poor Ellen Smith, how she was found,
Shot through the heart, lying cold on the ground.
The blood began to fly; the blood began to run,
That shot my poor Ellen with a .44 gun. 3
With the grisly act complete, the song turns to the story of the accused murderer. One of America’s best known murder ballads, you can appreciate the song’s variants as one might consider opposing testimony at a murder trial, the narrator playing the part of eye witness. In the variant I originally learned from The New Lost Cities Rambler Song Book, after Ellen’s demise, the narrative focus shifts to her lover who hides out for a while, is captured, tried and probably sentenced to death proclaiming his innocence to the last verse, “The jury will hang me, that is if they can/But God knows I die as an innocent man.” This is probably pretty close the actual crime upon which the song was based. Various historical accounts report that Ellen was romantically involved with Peter De Graff. She was murdered and De Graff “…fled North Carolina, but returned about a year later. He was taken prisoner and tried [and] convicted in August 1893. An appeal to the state Supreme Court failed, and De Graff was executed.” 4
In another variant, the lover apparently confesses his guilt after serving a 20-year sentence, “My days in this prison are ending at last/I’ll never be free from the sins of my past.” 4 As Bob Waltz, editor of Inside Bluegrass, points out, “…the ending varies: De Graff is executed, or sentenced to prison, or let off.” 5. The many variants and versions, along with the ambiguity of Ellen’s lover’s fate, reflect the true nature of the controversy surrounding the crime and subsequent trial. According to Waltz, “…there was significant popular doubt about his guilt (he proclaimed his innocence throughout the trial, though some say he made a gallows confession).” 5 In Rural Roots of Bluegrass: Songs, Stories and History, Wayne Erbsen reports “…tempers were running so high during the murder trial of Peter De Graff, that Forsyth County, North Carolina made it a misdemeanor to sing ‘Poor Ellen Smith’ in a gathering of any size because it always fomented a riot.” 6 It is never clear why Ellen is murdered, and the song possesses a pleasing ambiguity.
The two songs in this collection with which I have the longest relationships, about 35 years, are representative of my two “Time of Death” classifications, “The Jealous Lover” and “George Collins.” “The Jealous Lover” is my own favorite Ellen ballad, the version I found better that 35 years ago in the 1939 collection, Traditional Ballads Mainly from West Virginia, by John Harrington Cox. Ellen is dead from the first verse:
Down in the lonesome meadow where the violets bloom and fade,
There sleeps my blue-eyed Ellen, so lonesome in her grave.
She died not broken hearted nor from diseases fell
But in one instant parted from the home she knew so well.
But this Ellen is brought back to life through a flashback only to die again—finally—in the last verse, and in a sense, the song represents both Time of Death categories. Not only does this Ellen live to the end, she manages to get in the last word. Her lover stabs her out of jealousy, but she turns the tables on him, “Dear Edward I’ll forgive you came from her dying breath/‘I never have deceived you,’ and she closed her eyes in death.” Dear Edward has to be scratching his head wondering if her final words were true or is she was just messing with his head. I like to think she was messing with his head.
So powerful is “The Jealous Lover” as an example of the art and craft of the anonymous folk poets who created the song in many versions, the artist Thomas Hart Benton illustrated it in his painting, “The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley.” In the paining, Benton acknowledges the duality of folksongs that serve both to preserve historical accounts of notable events and enhance those events as artistic expression in the popular culture. Archie Green describes the painting in his essay, “Tom Benton’s Folk Depictions:”
The artist balances dual sets of central figures: a girl fatally stabbed by her knife-in-hand lover [and] three mountain musicians with a jug on their table…The paintings flowing lines suggest music’s movement from performers to ballad actors. 7
As examples of the multimodal communication of their day, folksongs at once transmitted the news, entertained the public and taught important life lessons.
“George Collins” is my favorite song in this collection. I’ve sung it for close to 40 years and have never tired of it. I learned the lyrics from The New Lost Cities Ramblers Songbook, and that version is an Americanized variant of “Lady Alice,” Child Ballad #42 (note) The song is a heart breaking example of the dying-in-the-first-verse Time of Death category:
George Collins drove home one cold winter’s night;
George Collins drove home so fine.
George Collins drove home one cold winter’s night;
He was taken sick and he died.
That’s it. George came home and died. A fine example of narrative compression, that’s all we learn about him: Let the Mourning Begin.
No song I know better represents the folk poet’s art than the spare, economic description of young Nell’s grieving for her lover. George’s death is sudden, and upon receiving the news, his her reaction is remarkably stoic:
His sweet, little Nell in yonder’s room
Sat sewing her silks so fine,
But when she heard her poor George was dead
She laid her silks aside.
Her stoicism, though, is more than balanced by the sincerity of her grief as she tells her mother she will never love another because “Poor George has my heart/And his stay on earth it is done.” This sincerity is further developed in the intimate funeral verse,
So set down the coffin; take off the lid.
Lay back the linins so fine,
So I may kiss poor George’s cold lips
For I know he’ll never kiss mine.
Finally, the song ends with two floating verses dedicated to grief and loss that have been absorbed and included in many, many folk songs via the oral tradition.
Oh, can’t you see that snow white dove;
She flies from pine to pine.
Just mourning for her own true love
The way I mourn for mine.
Look down, look down that long, lonesome road;
Hang down your head and cry.
The best of friend are sure to part,
So why not you and I?
The song ends with a question, and no answer is forthcoming, an appropriate conclusion for a song about death.
And now…prepare yourself for a truly monstrous essay: “Creature, Creature, Triple Feature!”
Time of Death
- “The Maid of Tralee.” The Mudcat Cafe. http://mudcat.org/ Detail. CFM?messages__Message_ID=2822824. Retrieved 2/15/12.
- “Barbra Ellen.” Irish Jam @ N-SSA. http://www.freewebs.com/irishjam/ blyrics.htm#561101380. Retrieved 2/15/12.
- “Poor Ellen Smith.” The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book. John Cohen and Mike Seeger, Editors. Oak, 1964.
- Waltz, Bob. “Poor Ellen Smith.” Remembering the Old Songs. http://www. lizlyle.lofgrens.org/RmOlSngs/RTOS-PoorEllenSmith.html. Retrieved 2/15/1.
- “Poor Ellen Smith.” Bluegrass Songs. http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/ bluegrass-lyrics/Poor_Ellen_Smith.html. Retrieved 2/15/12.
- Erbsen, Wayne. Rual Roots of Bluegrass: Songs, Stories and History. Mel Bay, 2003. http://books.google.com/books?id=Xwicw5kc3G0C&pg=PA134&lpg= PA134&dq=poor
- Green, Archie. “Tom Benton’s Folk Depictions.” Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture. University of North Carolina Press, 2001. http://books.google.com/books?id=R6KBKY7stGwC&pg=PA126&dq=Archie+Green+ “the+artist+balances+dual+sets+of”&hl=en&sa=X&ei=8WnRUqDxLYuqwGqjoH4Cg&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAA – v=onepage&q=Archie Green “the artist balances dual sets of”&f=false7