My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean: British Songs in the USA

By Komara, Edward | ARSC Journal, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean: British Songs in the USA


Komara, Edward, ARSC Journal


My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean: British Songs in the USA. Various artists. Nehi Records NEH 3X1 (3 CDs).

Roscoe Holcomb: San Diego State Folk Festival 1972. Tompkins Square TSQ 5210 (1 CD).

Joe Bussard Presents The Year of Jubilo: 78 rpm Recordings of Songs from the Civil War. Various artists. Dust to Digital 47 (1 CD).

How much Anglo music has been retained in the United States? This intriguing question may be explored with historical eras, and with recordings made in America before World War II when many Anglo-American communities still existed, especially in the Appalachian Mountains and in the South. Of course the notated transcriptions taken down by early fieldworkers before 1920 provide a great deal of information toward an answer, but the sound recordings give ample evidence and also some fascinating performances in their own right. An American researcher armed with a stack of British folk music songbooks would be capable of giving a very good survey of American retentions of Anglo music, but a British expert listening to a stack of American 78s may notice and report on songs that the American may miss or take for granted.

British folk music authority Steve Roud compiled Nehi's three-CD collection My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. There are seventy-five selections arranged by recording date (from 1925 through 1945), which means that the historical order of song provenance is quite scrambled. Roud annotates each song with cross-references to Francis J. Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published 1882-1898), George Malcolm Laws' two books Native American Balladry (revised ed. 1964), and American Balladry from British Broadsides (1957), and Roud's two databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index (both are available at http://www.vwml.org/search/search-roud-indexes, accessed January 22, 2016). For this review, I will also cite Maud Karpeles' edition of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians Collected by Cecil J. Sharp (second edition, 1932), for which the published transcribed songs were collected in 1916, with additional songs collected in 1907-1910. This volume is quite useful for confirming many of the American musical descendants that Roud selected for this three-CD set. For those Roud selections that are also represented in some way in the Sharp book, I will give the number designations given by Sharp and Karpeles (e.g., Sharp #102).

Nine of Roud's selections have antecedents dating before 1720 or thereabouts. Two of them are children's songs, like Chubby Parker's "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O" (known also to the lyrics of "Froggie Went A-Courting" [Sharp #220]) and Gid Tanner's rendition of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." But from this early time there were chestnuts like "Barbara Allen" (Sharp #24) (which Samuel Pepys mentioned in his famous 1660s London diary), "Demon Lover" (Sharp #35) heard as the melody to Clarence Ashley's "House Carpenter" and the Carolina Tar Heels' "Can't You Remember," "Gypsum Davy" (Sharp #33) (or "Black Jack David" as Cliff Carlisle and the Carter Family each sang it on their respective records), and "Golden Vanity" (Sharp #41) (as sung by the Carter Family on two records picked by Roud, "Sinking in the Lonesome Sea" and "The Wave on the Sea").

With the mid-eighteenth-century repertory, British retentions seem to be found in great abundance in early American recordings. "Purty/Pretty Polly" (Sharp #49) has five recordings in the Nehi set, performed by banjoist John Hammond, Dock Boggs, B. F. Shelton, Pete Steele, and the Coon Creek Girls (including Lily Mae Ledford). There are also two recordings of "Henry Lee," one by Dick Justice, another by Jimmie Tarlton to the title and words "Lowe Bonnie." Also from the mid-eighteenth century, according to Roud, is the antecedent for "Storms May Rule the Ocean" (performed here by Rutherford and Foster), whose melody (Sharp #114, "True Lovers' Farewell") is better known to us with the words "Who's going to shoe your pretty little feet. …

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