Shady Grove


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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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8 Replies to “Shady Grove”

  1. Dave….always liked that song too. Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie had beautiful versions. I use to play it myself on the dulcimer. Very badly, I might add. The lyrics on those old songs are great.

  2. Fred – You know, I’m finding that an indifferent talent is no obstacle to virtual performance. If you have a mike, you can download this free software called Audacity, which makes it easy to do multiple takes and splice them together, or simply cut out the parts containinf egregious mistakes. (In point of fact, though, I did this one in a single take, and only had to cut out a half-second.) So maybe it’s time to get that dulcimer out of the mothballs…

    bev – Thanks, I’m glad you feel that way! It gives me something to post when inspiration doesn’t flow.

    I really started doing this so I could provide audio versions of my poems, but this folk song thing is turning out to be kind of fun, too, so I started two seperate channels at Odeo:
    shadow cabinet and milk of amnesia.

  3. This song is an old favorite of mine, too. I always like the way it works as a zipper song — though such liberties horrify the purists. You can zipper in other lyrics of profoundness, like “Went to kiss my love last night, had to do it sneakin’, missed and kissed him on his nose, and the goldarn thing was leakin’.”

  4. Yeah, that works! Not quite what first came to mind when I read “zipper song,” though.

    I think even the traditionalists sneak in lyrics that originally belonged to “Fly Around My Blue-eyed Gal.” Of course, in the old-time blues, that sort of mix-and-match approach was not only permitted — it was how songs took shape. Each performance was (ideally) a unique creation, never to be repeated in the exact same way. I think we can all learn from that approach.

  5. Excellent new feature! I hope it catches on: I’m with you on home performance. Too bad my education didn’t favor me with an instrument.

    I like your singing, too. It has character, and it has freedom. Two of the best virtues.

    The version of this song I know and love is Martin Simpson’s “Georgie,” off his wonderfully titled “Righteousness and Humidity” album. I’ll send the track to you in a week or so, when I’m back among my CDs.

  6. As someone who’s Massively Shy about signing within earshot of other people, I say “Yay for you!” Ditto on Teju’s compliments — loved the harmonica crackling along too.

    The only way you’ll hear me sing is if someone puts a hidden mic in my car and posts what they swipe. I sing freely, sometimes loudly, and usually off-key-and-kilter when driving…that is, when driving with no passengers.


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