Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Wildwood Flower,” a Carter Tweak

UKULELE MUSING 37, 21 SEPTEMBER 2019: “Wildwood Flower” vs. I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets”—The Evolution of a Song. 

Those of you who have been watching the Ken Burns PBS special series on Country Music this week are probably up to date on the history of Virginia’s Carter Family and their early recordings.  These—and the radio broadcasts that featured their music—cemented them and their work as true American musical pioneers. 

We have several of their songs in our Blue and Yellow Books and one of the most musically beautiful and haunting of these is the ballad “Wildwood Flower.”  The Carter Family discovered and gave us this lament by a young woman whose “true love” turned out to be a two-timing rascal who made off with someone else.  Our heroine—who calls herself a “pale wildwood flower”—reflects on and then rejects her sad state.  She then vows to move on while wishing her roaming ex-lover his “regrets.”  You go girl!  How many times have we heard this story in musical genres from blues to country to rap?  This song is the grandmama of them all!

Here is the original Carter Family version from 1928:

Carter Family: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyw6G7TPLYo

Of particular interest to music historians is Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar playing style, dubbed the “Carter Scratch.”  She played melody with her thumb on the low strings and harmony on the high ones—a finger picking style adopted by many folksingers today.  You can try this on your uke if you have it set up with a low G.

The “Carter Scratch”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XE80Ed59uCY

With music composed by Joseph Philbrick Webster

and words by Maud Irving, the original version of the song was published in 1860 and titled: “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.”   

Webster was a well-known composer whose most famous work was the hymn “In the Sweet By and By.”  Irving, on the other hand, was probably a pseudonym used by one J. William Van Namee, a poet and spiritualist who used this more feminine name when his rather eclectic poetry was published in the “lady’s magazines” of the day.  Needless to say, many other versions of the song evolved in the decades before the Carter Family “harvested it from the hills” and remade it their own.

It’s worth it to take a look at the poetry of the original 1860 lyrics, a tad different and certainly more poignant than the simple lyrics found in our Yellow Book!

I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets/Of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale/And the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright/With an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus/With eyes of bright blue.

I’ll sing, and I’ll dance/My laugh shall be gay,
I’ll cease this wild weeping/Drive sorrow away,
Tho’ my heart is now breaking/He never shall know,
That his name made me tremble/And my pale cheek to glow.

I’ll think of him never/I’ll be wildly gay,
I’ll charm ev’ry heart/And the crowd I will sway,
I’ll live yet to see him/Regret the dark hour
When he won, then neglected/The frail wildwood flower.

He told me he loved me/And promis’d to love,
Through ill and misfortune/All others above,
Another has won him/Ah! misery to tell;
He left me in silence/No word of farewell!

He taught me to love him/He call’d me his flower
That blossom’d for him/All the brighter each hour;
But I woke from my dreaming/My idol was clay;
My visions of love/Have all faded away.

Here’s the original song performed by Robin and Linda Williams with a good introduction:

Robin and Linda Williams:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3wnNNrTwc4

The Carter version includes the line about “wishing his regrets.”  But the original lyrics clearly show that our young lady remains heartbroken and lays out the sad, tragic nature of the song.  On the other hand, the Carters (and our Yellow Book) seem to give us an updated version with—to me—a bit more upbeat ending.  Was this an early attempt to keep a song commercially viable for a rural radio audience in the hard times of the 1920s?  Hmmm  . . .

On a further note, the melody of our song had another well-known incarnation. 

It was used by that famous re-worker of traditional melodies, Woodie Guthrie, in his song: “The Sinking of the Reuben James”—a musical plea to “remember the names” of the 100 sailors who perished in the 1941 sinking of the American convoy escort USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy ship sunk by German U-Boats in World War II. 

Later, during the war, Guthrie served with the US Merchant Marine on convoy duty and twice survived torpedo attacks himself.  Who knew? 

Reuben James:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrZjJsIA1EI

Goes to show—you can always tweak an old song with a few new lyrics; and—in folk or country music—you can’t keep a good melody down.

Stay Tuned!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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