Seven syllables of grass, and The Rebel Soldier

Chris JonesThough I respect people who chose this profession, I’m glad I never became an ethnomusicologist. For one thing, it’s a non-German word with seven syllables (one more than “paleontologist” or “mandolin-playing-guy”), and that requires a permit to use, which I’ve applied for but not yet received. I also find researching the history of traditional songs to be a very tricky and unsatisfying business, so I’d rather leave it to more qualified people with seven-syllable word licenses.

I alluded last week to the issue of the true origin of The Rebel Soldier, having come up recently on my Truegrass show. I think I used the phrase “can of worms” to describe it (that was only a reference to what they were serving the inmates in the dreary Yankee prison).

It turns out to be a pretty complicated question, as it seems to be with most songs that are centuries old. This is especially true when many of them have traveled across the sea to get here and have been passed on through the generations, eventually to land on some disreputable web site with completely mangled lyrics.

Taking The Rebel Soldier specifically, more than one listener had pointed out to me that Charlie Moore had merely adapted the song from an older Irish song, telling the story of an Irish prisoner in a dreary British prison.

I received confirmation of this from an Irish friend and bluegrass supporter Richard Hawkins. It turns out, after further reading, that the song was written specifically about Terence MacSwiney (code name: “Charlie Waller”), the Lord Mayor of Cork, who died by hunger strike in a (dreary) British prison in 1920.

The melody is associated with the song Kevin Barry. Barry was an Irish rebel who was executed at a young age, shortly after MacSwiney’s death, which caused a great outcry among the Irish public.

It’s interesting information, and it adds a whole new dimension to a song we mostly associate with changing keys twice.

Other reports I read, though, muddied the waters some with claims that Kevin Barry wrote the song himself. I never took seriously the story that Charlie Moore was in a British prison with Lord Mayor MacSwiney, or that the song is actually of Bulgarian origin, and first began with the line, “In a dreary Turkish prison.”

Where song research tends to fizzle is in the last sentence of someone’s scholarly explanation, where it will say something like, “the tune itself may have west African origins,” or “the original story may date back to pagan times when rocks were thought capable of independent thought.” In the end, they let us know that they’re just not too sure where the song originally came from.

In the case of the Rebel Soldier, I read statements like “the tune may have an earlier history” or “the song may have been borrowed from a song with American Civil War origins.” Stop the presses! So it may have been a dreary Yankee prison after all and the song had a round trip ticket across the Atlantic (though songs were usually stowaways in those days, and didn’t pay full fare).

I once tried to track down the origins of Man of Constant Sorrow. Big mistake. Many people are under the impression that Ralph Stanley wrote it, while some  think that Bob Dylan did. Still others believe George Clooney is the writer (those same people also didn’t realize that the popcorn sold in movie theatres actually comes from corn).

It turns out that our earliest American knowledge of the song comes from a Kentucky fiddler named Dick Burnett who published it in a 1913 songbook of his. But, when country music historian Charles Wolfe asked Burnett if he had written it, he got this evasive response: “No, I think I got the ballad from somebody – I dunno. It may be my song.” Bob Dylan has probably given a similar response (following it up with “Go away! You bother me!”) to questions about traditionally derived songs of his like Fare Thee Well and The Girl From the North Country.

This is the kind of dead end that historians like Wolfe run into day after day. It has to be discouraging at times.

The “Willie” series of murder ballads has its own set of multiple fuzzy origins, which I have discussed in a previous column. The Knoxville Girl may have origins back in 17th century Shropshire, England (the University of Tennessee was located there at the time), and the song was originally called The Berkshire Tragedy, The Bloody Miller, or sometimes Hot Corn Cold Corn.

One thing we can be sure of: no one’s too sure about anything, from the origins of the lyrics, to the title, to the melody of songs like these. Even the supposed writers themselves, like Dick Burnett (above) are pretty hazy on the subject.

What this means is that if you’re performing any of these songs yourself and feel like adapting them slightly to your own circumstances, go ahead, and then claim you wrote it, sort of. You can always half-deny it later. We know you won’t be the first.