Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bound for the Shady Grove

If there's anything sweeter than Emmylou Harris singing with Jean Ritchie, I cannot imagine what it is. This has to be the perfect combination: Emmylou and Jean singing a Carter Family song on Mountain Stage. If heaven exists, this is what it must sound like.

I've never been to Mountain Stage, but I've seen both performers a few times. Emmylou Harris is, of course, the Goddess of Music, as anyone who has hung out at this blog should well know. Jean Ritchie is one of those musical legends I am so glad I got to see before it was too late. She has been a regular at the Kentucky Music Festival here in Louisville for years and years. Seeing her is always a rare and special treat.

A couple of years ago, Keith went backstage to have her sign a picture he had taken of her performing. Her husband, who is a photographer, started chatting with Keith about cameras. Before long, she told both of them to either be quiet or leave the area so she could hear the other performers. Keith still regards being shushed by Jean Ritchie to be one of the highlights of his life!

Here's a bonus video of Jean Ritchie singing "Shady Grove" back in the day. This is probably my favorite traditional tune.

I first heard this song at the "Down from the Mountain" tour that started in Louisville a few years ago. I think it was the second DTM tour. Emmylou sang "Blue Kentucky Girl" and I was just in heaven.

Patty Loveless was filling in for Allison Krauss and one of the songs she did was a version of "Shady Grove." Loveless had just released her Mountain Soul album, which was a kind of a tribute to the mountain music she grew up with. She sang "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" that night and made the hair on my arm stand up.

What I remember most about her version of "Shady" was that she accompanied her band by beating a rhythm on her hips as she sang. It was actually kind of comical. For a long time after that, every time we heard the song, I'd start slapping my hips in time.

Not sure why I like this song so much. The driving melody, particularly when played on a banjo is kind of compelling. It's also kind of refreshing to hear a traditional tune about love that doesn't end with someone getting killed.

Like a lot of traditional songs, this one has been recorded and performed innumerable times. A search on YouTube turns up dozens of performances, by both the well-known, the less known, and the unknown. Wikipedia has an incomplete list of artists who have performed the song.

Another characteristic of traditional music is the variety of versions that exist. Some verses are more common in some regions than others. According to Wikipedia, over 300 verses have been claimed for Shady Grove.

Probably the most common variation comes in the chorus. The last line ranges from "I'm going to go away" to "I'm bound for the Shady Grove" (as in Jean Ritchie's version above) to a popular version here in Kentucky that says "I'm going back to Harlan."

Harlan is a city in Southeast Kentucky. I'm convinced that someone around these parts realized that "darlin'" and "Harlan" kind of rhymed and a new chorus was born:

"Shady Grove, my little dove (or love)
Shady Grove, my darlin"
Shady Grove, my little love (or dove)
I'm goin' back to Harlan"

Obviously, that's the version I'm most familiar with.

When my mom bought my great-grandparents' farm fifteen or so years ago, she referred to it for a while as "Shady Grove Farm" which kind of had a nice rhythm to it, since it was located in Falls of Rough, Kentucky on Pleasant Run Road.

Shady Grove Farm
Pleasant Run Road
Falls of Rough, Kentucky

Sounds like a quaint, peaceful place, doesn't it? Almost makes you want to visit. Living there was kind of my mom's dream for a long time. I'm glad that she got to do it for so many years before she got sick. The place was auctioned off several weeks ago. Somebody else will develop it according to their own vision. But a part of it will always be my great-grandparents old farm, my mom's home, Shady Grove Farm.

I just can't be bound for that particular Shady Grove any more.

Back to the musicology, there's some speculation that this British folk song is the basis for "Shady Grove" given their similar melodies. It's a good old tune in the "someone's got to die" tradition. There's an annoying midi file of the song that starts up when you get to the site, so turn your speakers down.

And in amongst the recordings and performances by the usual suspects, there are a few surprises. One of them is this gem, by the Stray Cats, which is surprisingly faithful to the song's roots:

And, with that, I'm bound for the Shady Grove myself. Or am I going back to Harlan? I never can remember....

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