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This is one of my favorite modal tunes — in part because it’s one of the few I know the words to. These aren’t the commonest lyrics, but they’re the ones I learned, probably from one of my brother’s banjo tablature books.
One charming verse I don’t sing here goes,
When I was a little boy, I wanted a barlow knife.
Now I want my Shady Grove, to have her for a wife.
As for the lyrics I do sing, “Harlan” is Harlan County, Kentucky, home of some of the bloodiest mine wars back in the day:
They say in Harlan County,
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
(“Which Side Are You On?”)
And now it’s a national sacrifice area. And when I say “sacrifice,” think “Aztec open-heart surgery.” A land is being eviscerated to enable our comfortable lifestyles.
Which does relate, however obscurely, to this song. I’m not sure how or why a woman might come to be called Shady Grove, but there’s something very appealing to me about this identification of woods with lover.
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