Shady Grove

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


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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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John Callahan

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This is me on Marine Band harmonica and vocals (yikes!). You’ll probably want to turn the volume down…

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This might be a good time to remind ourselves of the one salient feature of folk music that distinguishes it from art music and pop music: though master musicians play a pivotal role, it depends also on amateurs, of all levels of technical expertise, to play it and pass it on.

I’m thinking I should file this under “humor.”