I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky #68

From October 1, 2010 through to the end of September 2011, we will, each day, celebrate the life of Bill Monroe by sharing information about him and those people who are associated with his life and music career. This information will include births and deaths; recording sessions; single, LP and CD release dates; and other interesting tidbits. Richard F. Thompson is responsible for the research and compilation of this information. We invite readers to share any tidbits, photos or memories you would like us to include.

  • December 7, 1946 Footprints In The Snow (Columbia 37151) peaked at number 5 in the Billboard country singles music chart.

The story behind the song …….  I Traced Her Little Footmarks in the Snow, Written and Composed by Harry Wright

The majority of music-hall songs share a common fate, that of obscurity; some more fortunate ditties live on usually in chorus form only. Apart from the work of researchers with interest in complete text, verses are rarely resurrected. The songs that do survive can sometimes turn up in the unlikeliest places, as with the subject of this article.

In May 1975, I saw the ‘Father of Bluegrass Music,’ Kentucky mandolinist Bill Monroe with the Bluegrass Boys, when they visited England, and in the course of a fine concert one of the songs they performed was I Traced Her Little Footprints in the Snow. Not long after that, searching through a pile of sheet music in a junk shop, I came across a song of the same title (well nearly!), although this struck me at the time as little more than a coincidence.

Having bought the sheet, a closer study of the lyrics revealed that the two songs were basically the same. Later Jan (Jerrold) found a couple of friends who could read music (but didn’t know the song), and they performed it with piano accompaniment, which showed the similarity of the tune, although the piano arrangement naturally makes it more melodic.

The song sheet I bought, originally published by Howard and Co., was undated, but Jolly Little Lewis, the singer illustrated on the cover died on 6th July 1893. Later research shows that the song sheet was originally published in 1877 with W W Walton (presumably Witty Watty Walton) as performer. Thus Bill Monroe is helping to keep alive a song over 100 years old.

Bill Monroe says he got the song from one of the Cumberland Ridgerunners. This was the house band of the WLS Barn Dance between 1928 and 1937, and included Red Foley and Karl & Harty (best known for their song Kentucky). Bill presumably learned it when the Monroe Brothers were associated with the Barn Dance (1932-1934), and, although he didn’t record it until 1945, was singing it as early as 1939 when he hired his first Blue Grass Boy, Cleo Davis.

Cliff Carlisle also recorded the song (in 1940) with lyrics more or less the same as Monroe’s apart from the second verse. The song’s journey from Jolly Little Lewis on the English music hall stage to various rural American musicians in the 1930s can well be imagined.  The song sheet gives no American agent and possibly the song was not published there, but the British families migrating to the “promised land” took their musical heritage with them. In this way many songs made the trip across the Atlantic, a fact amply borne out even today by a study of white American country music and its roots.

Bill Monroe’s version differs from that written and composed by Harry Wright in that it verses two and three are condensed into the new second verse, and a new third verse is added.

Some folks like the summer time when they can walk about
Strolling through the meadow green is pleasant there’s no doubt
But give me the winter time when the snow is on the ground
For I found her when the snow laid on the ground

I traced her little footprints in the snow
I found her little footprints in the snow
I bless that happy day when Nellie lost her way
For I found her when the snow laid on the ground

I dropped in to see her there was a big grand moon
Her mother said she’d just stepped out but she’d be returning soon
I found her little footprint and traced it to and fro
And I found her when the snow laid on the ground

Now she’s up in heaven, she’s with the angel band
I know I’m going to meet her in that promised land
But every time the snow falls it rings that memory
For I found her when the snow laid on the ground

Cliff Carlisle’s version replaces Monroe’s second verse with:

I treasure all those happy days I’ve had in my life
But the day that I treasure most is when Nellie became my wife
I found her little footprints and traced them through the snow
I found her when the snow was on the ground.

Compare those with Wright’s lyrics…

Some folks like the summer time when they can stroll about,
Spooning in the meadows may be grand without a doubt;
But give me the winter time, for the girl I have made mine,
Was captured while the snow lay on the ground.

I traced her little footmarks in the snow,
I traced her little footmarks in the snow,
I bless that winter’s day when Nellie lost her way
And I traced her little footmarks in the snow.

I called to see the girl I loved one winter’s afternoon,
That she had gone out walking they informed very soon,
They said she’d strolled away, but where they could not say,
So I started off to find her in the snow

I saw her little footprint just outside the cottage door,
I traced it down a country lane, I traced it to the moor,
I found she’d lost her way, there she stood in blank dismay,
Not knowing where to steer for in the snow

I called her, she saw me, and as we were walking home,
She promised me that never more without me would she roam,
I’m happy now for life, for her I’ve made my wife,
Whose footmarks I traced plainly in the snow

Here’s Bill singing his version with Kenny Baker on fiddle, Blake Williams on banjo, Mark Hembree on bass and Wayne Lewis on guitar. Judging from the lineup, this is likely a recording from the early 1980s.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.