Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ballad Genealogy

A few weeks ago, Pete took me to a Great Big Sea show at the Orpheum for my birthday. It was a great show, and even though they did play a lot of songs from their new album, they played a healthy dose of traditional music as well, including "The River Driver," a song from the logging camps of Newfoundland. Since I can't turn my brain off, I spent the duration of this song wondering about the origins of this song, which is clearly related to several other well-known songs.

The chorus of "The River Driver" should sound familiar to anyone with a passing interest in English/Scottish/Irish folk music:
I'll eat when I am hungry and I'll drink when I am dry,
Get drunk whenever I'm ready, get sober by and by,
And if this river don't drown me, it's down I'll mean to roam,
For I'm a river driver and I'm far away from home.
When I got home, I went through my iTunes library and identified other songs that include the "I'll eat when I'm hungry . . ." line. As it turns out, these songs have variations of another phrase in common: "I'll build me a castle on some green mountain high / Where I can see my darling as she goes passing by." Other similarities include the phrase "far from my home" and a theme of separation from a lover, often because her parents disapprove of the match.

These songs come from all over the British diaspora, from Newfoundland to Louisiana, from Appalachia to Ireland, recorded by music archivists and icons of popular music alike. They clearly have a common ancestor. I can't find an obvious antecedent among the Child Ballads, but it's there somewhere. I've found some sources that link these ballads to an 18th-century ballad called "The Cuckoo," but nothing older than that. Any suggestions?

The River Driver
recorded by: Great Big Sea

Rye Whiskey
recorded by: Woody Guthrie

The Moonshiner
recorded by: The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem
The Moonshiner
recorded by: Bob Dylan*
*This version is substantially different from the Clancy Brothers' version.

The Cuckoo
recorded by: Hem

The Rebel Soldier
recorded by: Bobby Horton

Jack o'Diamonds
recorded by: Ed McCurdy

Stewball (or Skewball)
recorded by: Steeleye Span
(Steeleye Span's version does not include the relevant verse, which I found in Alan Lomax's American Ballads and Folksongs. Lomax recorded a version sung among African-American prisoners in the American South that includes the verse, "Gwine to build me a castle on de mountain so high / So's I can see ol' Stewball as he passes by."

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