"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.)

2 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!

    Cuan

  2. Pingback: Ebook Notes – Taylor Brown “Fallen Land” | TiaMart Blog

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