The Story Before The Song

Chris JonesEven if I’ve seemed dazed and/or confused by the origins of some of the songs we sing, I was nonetheless thrilled to recently discover a whole set of prequels to some of these traditional standards. They were collected by the renowned ethnomusicologist Dr. William “Squeaky” Parvenu, who found these song specimens during his extensive research trips through the British Isles, the Appalachians, and two or three pizza joints in northern New Jersey.

It’s a relief to know that these prequels exist and that they’ve been rescued from possible extinction by Dr. Parvenu (people are forever using old lyric sheets for house insulation or as firewood kindling). After all, in most cases, like Pretty Polly or The Rebel Soldier, we know there can’t have been any sequels, the major character being dead by the end of the song. How do you follow up a story that ends “I killed Pretty Polly and I’m trying to get away”? Even a song called “Little Willie’s Escape” would be a very short song, since Willie announced his escape plans while actually at the jailhouse.

The story leading up to the tragic murder, though, could potentially be interesting. How did Willie and Pretty Polly meet? One of these uncovered songs, in fact, is called “Willie and Polly’s First Date” (I’ll spare you the details on that one: it’s 28 verses long, with verses 16 and 17 devoted entirely to what Polly ordered at a local restaurant). How was the rebel soldier (or maybe the Lord Mayor of Cork) captured? What were the circumstances that led Amanda Gilbreath’s brother to stab the narrator of Hills of Roane County for some unknown reason? Now we may have the answers to some of these questions, though I’ll warn you that in some cases you’ll wish a few of these questions had stayed unanswered.

I was particularly excited to find a prequel to Molly and Tenbrooks that was called The Birth of Tenbrooks. However, after reading through it, I thought the story wasn’t all that compelling. Here’s verse 4 (the following may contain graphic veterinary images, reader discretion is advised):

Kiper, Kiper, what’s that on the ground?
It might be the placenta, better walk around
Better walk around, oh Lord, better walk around

In the last verse, Tenbrooks gets his first taste of oats, which he likes a great deal (oh Lord).

I was surprised to find out in the song, Before My Constant Sorrow Set In, that the “man of constant sorrow” was a lot happier in his youth:

For 10 long years I was contented
Not much at all was going on
I went to school and no one bugged me
And life just seemed to roll along
And life just seemed to roll along

This proves once again that happiness and contentment don’t make for exciting lyrics.

Jimmy Brown the Newsboy had some earlier years that had never been brought to light, until Dr. Parvenu found Jimmy Brown: Unemployed Youth.

This one is told from the point of view of Jimmy’s parents:

I just can’t seem to understand these lazy kids today
It’s time our Jimmy got a job and learned to pay his way
He should get a paper route and earn a little bread
Instead of hanging out all day expecting to be fed

In this new collection of songs, I was surprised to find one sequel after all, and it was to The Hills of Roane County. If you’re not familiar with the story, the song ends with the man being convicted for a murder he committed in his native Roane County, TN. He’s serving his sentence in a Nashville prison.

Well I’ve just been released from this prison in Nashville
A friendlier judge finally heard my appeal
I’m free to start my sad life all over
Soon I’ll get signed to a publishing deal
Hey mama rock me

The authenticity of that last line has been called into question.