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from my


Laura Stephenson

When I was a kid, songs were always something to be learned by ear— in the car from our tapes of folk music, in the bath singing rounds

with my mother. So I was surprised at first to find this physical artifact of the songs she taught me. Just as the folksongs in these pages are at once romantic and grotesque, the illustrations offer both childlike joy and sinister warnings. There are jilted lovers that will be avenged, outlaws, young girls tricked by dangerous men. The songs came over to the Americas from England and Ireland, and then drifted into the mountains of Appalachia, where they hid and took on new lives, new melodies, garbled and perverted verses. Some of the songs, like the famous “Barbara Allen,� have hundreds of versions, each with a slightly different arrangement of verses, each adding to the tale. So even though I learned some of these songs from my mom, when I look at the sheet music I often find completely different notes from what I expect, and I know that I have embellished them as well, started to find my own way of singing them. v

the lily of the west 1. When first I came to Louisville

3. Down in yonder shady grove

5. I had to stand my trial

Some pleasure there to find

A man of high degree

I had to make my plea

A damsel there from Lexington

Conversing with my Flora there

They placed me in the criminal box

Was pleasing to my mind

It seemed so strange to me

And then commenced on me

Her rosy cheeks, her ruby lips

And the answer that she gave to him

Although she swore my life away

Like arrows pierced my breast

It sure did me oppress

Deprived me of my rest

And the name she bore was Flora

I was betrayed by Flora

And I still love my faithless Flora

The Lily Of The West

The Lily Of The West

The Lily Of The West

2. I courted lovely Flora

4. I stepped up to my rival

Some pleasure there to find

My dagger in my hand

She turned unto another man

I seized him by the collar and

Which sore distressed my mind

I boldly made him stand

She robbed me of my liberty

Being mad to desperation I pierced

Deprived me of my rest

him in the breast

Still I love my faithless Flora

All for my lovely Flora

The Lily Of The West

The Lily Of The West

Railroad Bill Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, he doesn’t work and he never will And it’s ride, ride, ride, ride Buy me a chicken, send me a wing. It’ll look like I’ve been working, but I ain’t done a thing And it’s ride, ride, ride, ride Railroad Bill was a mighty mean man He shot the midnight lantern out of the breakman’s hand And it’s ride, ride, ride, ride I’m going up a mountain, I’m going out west Got a forty four pistol sticking out my vest And it’s ride, ride, ride, ride Railroad Bill, he took my wife He said if I don’t like it, he would take my life And it’s ride, ride, ride, ride Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, Rollin’ up a cigar with a ten dollar bill And it’s ride, ride, ride, ride I’m gonna find me a pistol as long as my arm I’ll kill everybody who’s ever done me harm And it’s ride, ride, ride, ride

Or Barbry Allen or Barbary Allen IN SCARLET TOWN WHERE I WAS BORN


There was a fair maid dwelling

And sorrow dwells within me

Made every youth cry well-a-day

No better, no better I never will be.

Her name was Barbry Allen

Til I have Barbara Allen.”



When all gay flowers were a bloomin’,

When I was at the tavern,

Sweet William on his death-bed lay

You gave your drinks to the ladies there

For the love of Barbara Allen.

But you slighted Barbara Allen?”

HE SENT HIS SERVANT TO THE TOWN To the place where she was dwelling Said, “You must come to my master’s house, If your name be Barbara Allen.” SO SLOWLY, SLOWLY SHE GETS UP, And to his bedside going She drew the curtains to one side And says, “Young man, you’re dying.”


HE REACHED UP HIS PALE WHITE HANDS Intending for to touch her She turned away from his bedside And says, “Young man I won’t have you.” HE TURNED HIS CHEEK INTO THE WALL And bursted out a crying “What I do to thee I do to all And I do to Barbara Allen.” SHE HAD NOT MORE THAN REACHED THE TOWN She heard the death bells ringing And as they rolled they seemed to say, “Hard-hearted Barbara Allen.” “Oh Mother, oh mother go make my bed Make it both long and narrow Sweet William died for me today I’ll die for him tomorrow.” Sweet William was buried in the old church yard And Barbara there anigh him, And out of his grave grew a red, red rose, And out of hers, a briar. They grew and grew to the old churchyard, Where they couldn’t grow no higher, And there they tied in a true love’s knot. The rose wrapped around the briar.


Songs from My Mother  

Spreads from a project exploring ways to document the illustrations and personality of folksong books.

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