Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November 2004)

Every once in awhile I hear a song that piques my interest, and I keep playing it until I get it out of my system. This one is on Ginny Hawker's marvelous CD, Letters From My Father (Rounder 82161-0491-2). I was intrigued by the hymn-like tune and her majestic voice soaring over a bleak continuo from a bowed bass. And the words are odd. The narrator is a peasant girl, but the flowery language and pessimistic musing about an afterlife that's just like this one indicates that the narrator is not the author. Very old ballads about interclass matings, such as Little Mattie Groves, are told in 3rd person or dramatic dialog form, and include swordfights. The nobility-peasant theme identifies Britain as the source, while the poetic style points to an author who was an educated late 19th century professional composer.

Hawker's notes say she learned it from Evelyn Beers at a West Virginia State Folk Festival. The Beers family tend to perform songs from published sources, so I investigated further. Since the song was new to me, I was surprised to find that almost everyone else knew it. Even Joan Baez sang it in the 1960s. All the versions I found had almost exactly the same words and tune, which indicate a recent written source, but the title varied: The Palace Grand, Lady Mary, and even The Sad Song. (This last title was from poet-collector Carl Sandburg.) The solution to the mystery: the song was collected numerous times, but all of them from the same informant, Mrs. May Kennedy McCord of Springfield, Missouri. Born in 1880 and raised in the Ozarks, she must have memorized every song she ever heard. She knew hundreds, including many old Child ballads. The Missouri collector Vance Randolph discovered and recorded her. She said she heard this song about 1900, but didn't know the title, which explains why it had so many of them. That also makes it difficult to find any trace of the original written source.

McCord, encouraged by Randolph, went on to energetically encourage Ozark culture. She began to write a regular newspaper column on Ozark folkways. At age 64, she started a radio program, Hillbilly Heartbeats, that continued for 24 years. She died in 1979 at age 98, demonstrating that singing ballads is as good for your aerobic system as an exercise bike. Maybe even better.


Complete Lyrics:
1. He came from his palace grand,
And he came to my cottage door.
His words, they were few, but his looks
They will linger forevermore.
With the look in his sad dark eyes
More tender than words could be;
But I was nothing to him,
Though he was the world to me.

2. And there in his garden strolls,
All dressed in satins and lace,
Lady Mary so strange and cold,
Who has in his heart no place.
For I would have been his bride
With a kiss for a lifetime fee,
But I was nothing to him,
Though he was the world to me.

3. And now in his palace grand
On a flower-strewn bier he lies,
With his beautiful lids tight closed
On his beautiful sad dark eyes.
And among the mourners who mourn,
Why should I a mourner be?
For I was nothing to him,
Though he was the world to me.

4. And how will it be with our souls
When we meet in that spirit land?
What the human heart ne'er knows
Will the spirit still understand?
Or in some celestial form
Will our sorrows repeated be?
Will I still be nothing to him,
Though he is the world to me.

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