From The Side of the Road… making murder ballads safe for school

In past columns, we’ve discussed the fact that while bluegrass bands get booked at weddings, there are almost no appropriate bluegrass songs to play at these weddings. Most either involve a groom failing to show up for his own big day (Bury Me Beneath the Willow) or perhaps an accidental murdering of the bride (Veil of White Lace). Most bands choose to either mumble the lyrics or just play instrumentals.

What about songs for school programs, though? Outreach to schools for the purpose of introducing young people to our music is becoming an increasingly important part of the mission of bluegrass bands, and is actively encouraged by the IBMA. Are there enough age-appropriate songs in the bluegrass repertoire to perform for school children? 

Some will say these video game-addicted youths are already jaded enough to handle the lyrics of Knoxville Girl, and perhaps they’re right. Still, the schools and the presiding teachers are probably expecting something a little more wholesome than lyrics like “I drew a sabre through her, it was a bloody knife” (Down In The Willow Garden).

Others will point out that bluegrass songs are no more macabre than some of the standard children’s songs and lullabies we’ve been teaching our kids for years. For starters we have this innocent gem:

Three blind mice, three blind mice
See how they run, see how they run

They all ran after the farmer’s wife
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife

Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice

Or this:

Rockabye baby on the treetop
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bow breaks the cradle will fall
Then down will come cradle, baby and all

Sweet dreams, kids!

Then we have this one, sung with accompanying physical actions:

Ring around the rosey
A pocket pull of poseys
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

This was thought to have Plague origins, with falling down representing mass death and ashes symbolizing cremated bodies. This is starting to make The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake seem pretty tame. Mind you, that theory about the song has since been discredited, but this is 2022, so I try not to let the fact that a story isn’t actually true stop me from sharing it with as many people as possible.

Even if it were true, we have to acknowledge that we live in a very different era, one without the worry of plagues and illnesses killing massive numbers of people worldwide. We need to present children with songs that won’t give them nightmares, or worse, give parents something to bring up at the next school board meeting.

I think a few minor lyric adjustments will make most of our best-known bluegrass songs appropriate to any fresh-faced Third Grade class:

The Little Girl and the Fuzzy Stuffed Snake:

Original lyrics:

I heard the scream of a little girl far far away
Hurry Daddy, there’s an awful dreadful snake

Revised lyrics:

I heard the voice of my little girl far far away
Hurry Daddy, here’s the cutest fuzzy snake  . . .

Rock Salt and Nails (The Acorn Song):

Original Lyrics:

If the ladies were squirrels with high bushy tails
I’d fill up my shotgun with rock salt and nails

Revised lyrics:

If the ladies were squirrels with high bushy tails
I’d bring them some acorns in a five gallon pail

Julie Ann (rewritten to be about a popular babysitter):

Original lyrics:

Dress yourself in silk and satin, put some ribbons in your hair
But don’t say you’re going to leave me, it’s more than I can bear

Revised lyrics:

Dress yourself in jeans and sneakers, put a ribbon in your hair
And take us to the movies ’cause Frozen’s playing there

Pretty Polly (also about a babysitter):

Original lyrics:

He opened up her bosom as white as any snow
He opened up her bosom as white as any snow
Stabbed her through the heart and the blood did overflow

Revised lyrics:

We opened up her backpack as white an any snow
We opened up her backpack as white as any snow
Her iPad fell out and her books did overflow

Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (now The Chuck E. Cheese Song):

Original lyrics:

Dim lights thick smoke and loud loud music
Is the only kind of life you’ll ever understand

New Lyrics:

Bright lights, loud games and bad bad pizza
Is the only way to spend a Saturday night

When the form asks if you have a program prepared for schools, you can now put down an emphatic “yes!”