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Songs They Sang

Down in the valley, the valley so low Hang your head over, hear the wind blow Hear the wind blow, dear, hear the wind blow; Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.

“Down in the Valley” a song with English roots, was a ballad in ¾ time sung both as a courting song, a lament, and sometimes a lullaby. It gained fame during the development of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. around 1870. There are many verses and many variations on this song, one of the most famous sung as if confined in the Birmingham Jail (1925). You can hear Otis Redding sing a modern-day version on You Tube.

Oh, the cuckoo she's a pretty bird. Lord, she warbles as she flies. She'll cause never more trouble And she'll tell you no lies. “The Cuckoo” sung by Mama as a lament, is a song of British origins. The cuckoo’s warble is an ancient symbol for the coming of summer. It is also a symbol of fickleness, false love, and infidelity because the cuckoo lays eggs and leaves them to be hatched in another bird’s nest. In Greek mythology, Zeus changed into a cuckoo in order to seduce Hera. Hence the word “cuckold.” A mid-sized bird with long tail and short legs, it has dark gray feathers with white edges and spots on the ends of the tail. It is diurnal, but solitary, and often only its distinctive call is heard. There are numerous versions of the “The Cuckoo,” sung by the Appalachian music collector Clarence Ashley; folk singer Jean Ritchie; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Taj Mahal.

Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don’t sing, Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring….

“Hush Little Baby” is a traditional lullaby sung by Mama to her sick baby. It is heard all over the United States since the mockingbird is a New World bird. Another pretty bird, it is dark gray with a white breast and white spots on its wings and under its long tail feathers. It’s called ‘mocking’ because it is known for mimicking other bird calls and also human sounds, which can be loud and annoying. “Hush Little Baby” can be lively and it can be melancholy, but its wishes for the baby are universal. Women poor and rich alike sing it for their infant. You will know the song if you’ve seen “The Miracle Worker” a play and film about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Many versions are found on You Tube.

These three songs Mama or Aunt Ola sang in The House on Harrigan’s Hill are old folk tunes, originally from England and brought to the New World by colonists. In other cases the tunes were made up in Appalachia and spread across the country once settlers learned of the hard life and hard love that was here, just like in England.

The oldest daughter, Alta, chooses “Sweet Adeline,” a favorite song in her day, for the school assembly in The House on Harrigan’s Hill. Richard H. Gerard wrote the lyrics in 1896 for a girl named Rosalie. It was rewritten as Sweet Adeline in 1903 by Gerard with music by Harry Armstrong. It spawned the name for the women’s harmony choral group “The Adelines.” The ballad lends itself to harmony for a barber shop quartet. The song was so popular that the grandfather of JFK, John F. Fitzgerald, made “Sweet Adeline” his theme song when he ran for mayor of Boston in 1909. You can hear versions by The Seekers (1960s) and currently from Phish.

Sweet Adeline, my Adeline, At night, dear heart, For you I pine. In all my dreams, Your fair face beams. You're the flower of my heart, Sweet Adeline.

originally posted March 2015

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