"Shady Grove" and the tradition of living songs

Jean Ritchie (with Pete Seeger watching) performing her version of “Shady Grove”:

We think of songs, in the current popular sense, as fixed points: once the lyrics are written and the music composed, that’s it. Our vast music industry supports this notion, because that’s how they make their living (organizations such as ASCAP exist entirely to enforce the idea that “this is the song.”) But historically, before songs could be fixed in either documents or recordings, this wasn’t the case. Songs changed each time someone sang them, and especially when they were brought to new areas. An example: “Shady Grove.”

This little ditty is a bluegrass/country/folk standard, having been recorded by the likes of Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs and the Everly Brothers. I first encountered it on Jennifer Goree’s self-titled debut album. And to show how fascinating it is, I’d like to compare Goree’s version with folksinger Michael Johnathon’s version, both from 1997.

Musicological scholarship says “Shady Grove” originated with the song “Matty Groves,” That song dates reliably to the early 1600s. As it traveled from Europe to the US, it grew more abiguous and mysterious. Is “Shady Grove” a place, or a person? Evidently the answer is, “Yes.”

In the two versions I’m comparing, Shady Grove is clearly a person, a female character very dear to the singer. But the lyrical differences are significant. Here’s an example:

Goree sings:
Well, I went to see my Shady Grove, she was standing in the door
Flowers and beads all in her hair, and little bare feet on the floor

“My mother sang it to me as a baby,” she says. “I don’t think I’d ever heard a ‘real’ version of it before I recorded mine. It’s just a lovely melody and I kind of made up my own version of the lyrics since I didn’t have much to go on. That is the beauty of such songs!”

In this version, Shady Grove seems to be a child dear to the singer. There’s a tenderness and wistfulness to it, not least because it’s done a capella. When I asked her, she agreed that she sees Shady Grove as a child, “Yes, that is what i think too: a little girl standing in the doorway of an homesteader’s house.”

She continues, “But there is something a little more romantic /grown-up about the second verse: wish I had a big white horse corn to feed him on pretty little girl just to stay at home and to feed him when I’m gone…so it is a little mysterious as to whether shady grove is a daughter or a lover…maybe that is why it is an compelling song.”

Michael Johnathon’s version is much darker, played with a full, almost rock-band arrangement. In his book WoodSongs II he says, “The old chestnut ‘Shady Grove’ is actually about an abusive, over-protective stalker. Yet thousands of folks sing it as if it was a simple mountain tune.” This evokes all those happy couples who play “Every Breath You Take” at their wedding.

Jonathon sings:
The first time I saw Shady Grove, she was standing at the door,
Shoes and stockings in her hand, little bare feet on the floor.

The image is blatantly sexual, post-coital and possibly illicit. The meaning, Jonathon says, depends on which verses the singer chooses. “To me, Shady Grove was a young woman literally stalked and possessed by her lover. She was probably very lonely, very humble, very scared. If you listen to the lyrics of the verses I chose for the song, it is a reflection of violence and spousal abuse.”

He first encountered the song in grammar school in upstate New York. “Can you believe this is taught in schools? That’s why I love folk music. Then I moved into the Appalachian Mountains and traveled up and down the hollers with my guitar and banjo hearing scores of verses to the song I never even knew exsisted. I collected over 38 verses before I stopped.”

In recording his version, he says, “Because of the dramatic nature of the lyrics, I wanted the song to be more powerful than just a simple Appalachian ballad. Jean Ritchie starts the song off with her lap dulcimer, the way folks played it in the mountains for two centuries … but then we power in ast her and bring the song forward. I play it in drop-D on the guitar, which gives it a deeper, ominous tone.”

How could two, let alone hundreds, of variations of the same song exist? It’s significant that both Goree and Jonathon first learned the song not from records or the radio, but from other people. For centuries that was the way people did it, a process that couldn’t avoid change. “Matty Groves” becomes “Shady Grove,” and if technology hadn’t codified it on record, CD and digital file, it might’ve mutated further. It stands as a fascinating artifact of a time when the music was as alive as those who played it.

I’ll leave you with the Stray Cats in Paris, circa 1989:

(Special thanks to Jennifer Goree and Michael Johnathon for sharing their insights.)

10 Comments on “"Shady Grove" and the tradition of living songs”

  1. Thank you so much for this information,

    shady grove has been a song I have been developing a relationship with for years and it always felt a little dark and troubled, like an abuser of some kind taking possession of a very unfortunate girl and having a completely unrealistic idea of where this relationship is going. It is an awful thought, but yet so compelling to sing. Anyhow, the song makes much more sense to me now and when I sing it this saturday at a charity gig I may introduce it with some confidence- or if that seems like a bad idea, just let the audience make up their own minds!

    thanks again!


  2. The Garcia, Grisman, and Rice version that I favor most makes me think of Shady Grove as a lively town, away from home where our Protagonist goes to meet with his lover. He seems displeased with his wife when he is home and longs for the woman he wants abroad. Please see referenced version here:

    1. You mean this verse: “When I was a little boy
      I wanted a Barlow knife.
      Now I want my Shade Grove
      To say she’ll be my wife”? – I think it’s just about changing priorities as one is growing up and getting older. I am not sure how it looks now, but even in the times of my childhood (1980s) getting one’s own knife (usually a pocket knife or a belt knife) was a dream of most boys. It was usually given by one’s father when a boy was found by him to be old enough to wield such a tool (and every knife is a dangerous tool anyway), it was almost a passage rite. Therefore I think the stanza is about growing up and comparing two moments in a singer’s life: childhood dreams about having a knife versus the adult dreams about getting married.

  3. The place where the song goes dark is when he mentions wanting a special type of knife as a little boy. Why, with all the “prettiest brown eyes” and “my little love” images do we suddenly switch to “I’m bound to go away” and the recollection of a knife?
    Beautiful, haunting melody. Ambiguity makes this song a mystery.
    “Shady Grove” is of my all-time favorite pieces.

  4. Howdy: My take on Shady Grove. The knife: When I was a young kid at in the 1950s Sunday school always ended with a game of jackknife split. Every one that played it carried a jack knife. It was an essential tool in farm country. That was in southern Ohio near the river. My grandfather from farm background in Vermont told me that , “you are not a boy if you don’t have a knife in your pocket.” He wanted me to make him a shoe lace. Shady Grove was a place where lovers could meet in secret. Using the term for a person was a metaphor or a private reminder to a lover. Like; my covered bridge girl , back seat girl, back door door man, ect. Not much has changed.

  5. “Michael Johnathon’s version is much darker, played with a full, almost rock-band arrangement. In his book WoodSongs II he says, “The old chestnut ‘Shady Grove’ is actually about an abusive, over-protective stalker.” – “Stalker” is an over-interpreation IMHO. Remember that the times and attitudes were totally different. As late as in the 20th century it was seen as a normal thing to go on courting the girl until she accepted, gave up or definitely turned away. It comes from Romanticism I think (or maybe even Renaissance era?), all those scenes of a trubadour equipped with a lute or a guitar singing serenedes at his sweetheart’s window; if she didn’t like it,she simply shut her window… or poured some water on the lover-to-be’s head, or even thrown some objects (as flowerpots ) onto him 🙂 It wasn’t considered stalking, it was considered romantic back then.
    I agree that Shady Grove is probably a very young girl. Again, back in the 18th or 19th century nothing wrong was seen in it. Girls as young as 15 were getting married on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In many European countries 15 yo girl was seen old enough to get married and a girl 20 yo has often been considered a “spinster” (a lady so old that she had a bare chance to get a spouse). Also, in many cases (at least in Europe), parents decided about their children marriage. For instance, there is plenty of Polish folk songs telling about a young girl (mentioned 15yo or a bit older) “given” by her parents to someone (usually an older man, in his middle age, eg. 45-50).
    Much thanks for this article! Greetings from the Eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean.

  6. Personally I thought the song was of a time of ‘forbidden love,’ and a man who did much travelin’. Possibly a travelin’ salesman?
    Love the song. Playing it over & over & over on my guitar is giving me an opportunity to learn a lot about melody. Drop ‘D’ tuning? I’ll have to try that. Darker I’m sure which is the feel of this ol’ ditty.

  7. Considering that the tune evolved from being ‘Matty Groves’ in England to ‘Shady Grove’ in US, my assumption is that Shady Grove refers to Matty’s lover, who wants to be his wife and to take his name, but is bound by the shackles of her upper class husband and of patriarchy, and cannot leave (except by dying :/)

  8. Pingback: Miscellaneous: Story of a Song – Shady Grove – Talkin' Grass

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