In 1966 I heard Lu Mitchell, a Dallas singer-songwriter, sing She’s Someone’s Grandmother (The Kugelsburg Bank), her song about a white-haired lady who over many years embezzled millions of dollars from a Texas bank (a true story). It had a lovely tune, which I suspected was not original, but I didn’t know its origin. A few years ago I heard a hammered dulcimer player play it as the traditional tune Bendemeer’s Stream. A little research on the Internet revealed that Thomas Moore (1779-1852) wrote lyrics for this tune as Bendemeer’s Stream. But Moore borrowed the tune from an older Irish air. John Charles Thomas (1891-1960) singing Bendemeer’s Stream:
It was also used for the song Carrigdhoun (The Lament of the Irish Maiden) by Ellen Mary Patrick Downing (1828 – 1869), a political song telling of the flight from Ireland of Sarsfield’s “Wild Geese” in 1691 (Carrigdhoun is situated west of Cork City in Ireland) – sung by Mary O’Hara:
Around 1900 Percy French wrote the lyrics by which the tune is better known, The Mountains of Mourne – sung by Paddy Reilly:
Bendemeer’s Stream (a.k.a. Carrigdhoun and Mountains of Mourne) is one of the most beautiful tunes I know, and it has probably been used for dozens of folk songs, both old and new. This illustrates a folk tradition – good tunes that pass the test of time are recycled many times into other songs.
Another tune that has been recycled even more is Star of the County Down (written by Cathal McGarvey, likely in the 1920s and set to a very well-known traditional tune). The oldest reference to this tune is the song Gilderoy in Alex. Stuart’s Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection of Scots Songs, c 1726. It predates Star of the County Down by over 200 years. This tune and its variants have been used for numerous traditional songs, including Divers and Lazarus, The Murder of Maria Martin, and Claudy Banks, and also several English and American Hymns and Carols. It can be adapted to many songs – if you use just the verse melody (leave out the chorus) to Star of the County Down, you can sing Robert Service’s famous poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee. This is Star of the County Down sung by Loreena McKennitt.
Old Rosin is a tune that has been used for many old and new Songs. From John Avery Lomax’s book, Cowboy Songs & Other Frontier Ballads (1910): “This [Old Rosin] must have been a very popular song throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, for its melody was used for no fewer than four political songs between 1840 and 1875. The origin of Old Rosin is not clear, but it must have been English or Scottish or Irish, and it probably dates from the opening of the century… Curiously enough, the name of the hero was generally given as Rosin, the Bow, and it is quite possible that this was considered a descriptive title for a fiddler or some other type of minstrel. But the authentic spelling is unquestionably ‘Beau’, and there is still nothing to prove that old Rosin was anything more than popular ladies’ man with alcoholic tendencies.” Here is The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem singing Rosin the Bow:
There is also a nineteenth century version about a cheerful fiddle player who does not drink:
I’ve always been cheerful and easy,
And scarce have I heeded a foe,
While some after money run crazy,
I merrily Rosin’d the Bow.
The Old Settler (Acres of Clams), written by Francis Henry of Pierce County, Washington, around 1874, also uses this same tune. Here is Pete Seeger singing The Old Settler:
A parody of this song is Acres of Limelighters (remember the 1960s folk-singing group?):
These and many other parodies can be found on the Mudcat (Digital Tradition) – just type the keyword – ROSINBOW – into the Digitrad and Forum Lyrics & Knowledge Search box) .
Perhaps the most prolific borrowers (pirates?) of tunes and words were Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Woody wrote Roll on Columbia, the Official Washington State Folk Song, in 1941 while working for the Bonneville Power Administration on the Columbia River. For the chorus he took the tune from Leadbelly’s popular theme song Goodnight Irene. Leadbelly was said to have borrowed his tune from an old pop song from around the turn of the last century. So here we may have an example of a reverse folk process – a popular song evolves into a folk song. John McCutcheon once remarked in a concert that you can sing almost anything to the tune of Goodnight Irene, and then went on to prove it!
An example of Bob Dylan’s borrowing of lyrics is his song Tomorrow is a Long Time. It comes from a 16th century poem Westron Winde:
Westron Winde, when will thou blow
The smalle raine downe can raine
Christ, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bed again
Which Dylan changed to:
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again
Dylan went to England early in his career to hear traditional songs from which he got material for his future songwriting. From this he got the following tunes: Bob Dylan’s Dream (Lord Franklin), Girl of the North Country (Scarborough Fair), Farewell (Leaving of Liverpool), and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (Lord Randall).
Traditional music is not static, but continues to evolve and forms the basis of newer music. William Blake (1757-1827) wrote “The difference between a bad artist and a good one is the bad artist seems to copy a great deal; the good one really does copy a great deal.”