An Alabama Songbook: Ballads, Folksongs, and Spirituals Collected by Byron Arnold

An Alabama Songbook: Ballads, Folksongs, and Spirituals Collected by Byron Arnold

by Robert W. Halli Jr.


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A lavish presentation of 208 folksongs collected throughout Alabama in the 1940s.

Alabama is a state rich in folksong tradition, from old English ballads sung along the Tennessee River to children's game songs played in Mobile, from the rhythmic work songs of the railroad gandy dancers of Gadsden to the spirituals of the Black Belt. The musical heritage of blacks and whites, rich and poor, hill folk and cotton farmers, these songs endure as a living part of the state's varied past.

In the mid 1940s Byron Arnold, an eager young music professor from The University of Alabama, set out to find and record as many of these songs as he could and was rewarded by unstinting cooperation from many informants. Mrs. Julia Greer Marechal of Mobile, for example, was 90 years old, blind, and a semi-invalid, but she sang for Arnold for three hours, allowing the recording of 33 songs and exhausting Arnold and his technician. Helped by such living repositories as Mrs. Marechal, the Arnold collection grew to well over 500 songs, augmented by field notes and remarkable biographical information on the singers.

An Alabama Songbook is the result of Arnold's efforts and those of his informants across the state and has been shaped by Robert W. Halli Jr. into a narrative enriched by more than 200 significant songs-lullabies, Civil War anthems, African-American gospel and secular songs, fiddle tunes, temperance songs, love ballads, play-party rhymes, and work songs. In the tradition of Alan Lomax's The Folk Songs of North America and Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs, this volume will appeal to general audiences, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, preservationists, traditional musicians, and historians.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817357658
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 06/28/2013
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 9.80(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Robert W. Halli Jr. is Associate Professor of English and Director of the University Honors Program at The University of Alabama.

Read an Excerpt

An Alabama Songbook

Ballads, Folksongs, and Spirituals

By Byron Arnold, Robert W. Halli Jr.

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8734-1


Love's Triumphs

* * *

The Miller's Daughter
(Child 95, The Maid Freed from the Gallows)

In American tradition, this very popular ballad is generally called "The Hangman," and its condemned prisoner is just as likely to be male and his rescuer female as the reverse. The song is popular at least partly because it is easily remembered, even by little children, and it is inherently dramatic, perfectly suited for singing games and juvenile theatrical performances. Although there is little textual variation among recovered versions of the ballad, Mrs. Hester's is singular in that she sings three-line "Hangman" stanzas. All other versions have a fourth line in that stanza, usually something like "She's walked many a mile." But Mrs. Hester's treatment makes narrative and musical sense. She evidently considered the song a lullabye and, following the sixth stanza, she told Arnold: "Additional verses may be added here, substituting 'brother' or 'sister' or any other relative until you run out of breath. But you always end up with the truelove bringing the gold before the baby goes to sleep." The prisoner's calling the executioner "dear hangman" is found in many other versions of the ballad.

Sung by Mrs. Myrtle Love Hester, Florence, 8 June 1947.

4 "Oh hangman, dear hangman, hang up your rope,
And wait a little while,
I think I see my father a-coming.

5 "Oh Father, dear Father, did you bring my gold?
Did you come to set me free?
Or did you come to see me hanged
On a weeping willow tree?"

6 "My Daughter, dear Daughter, I did not bring your gold,
And I did not come to set you free.
But I came to see you hang
Upon a weeping willow tree."

7 "Then hangman, dear hangman, hang up your rope,
And wait a little while,
I think I see my sweetheart a-coming.

8 "Oh lover, dear lover, did you bring me my gold?
Did you come to set me free?
Or did you come to see me hang
On a weeping willow tree?"

9 "My darling, my darling, I brought your gold,
And I came to set you free.
But I did not come to see you hang
On a weeping willow tree."

* * *

Pretty Mohea
(Laws H 8, The Little Mohea)

Scholars of folksong have long debated this ballad's origin. Some contend it is derived from British broadsides, while others believe the broadsides were stimulated by this traditional song. Some believe the "Indian lass" is a member of the Miami tribe and the man English, because he must sail to get to his homeland. Others believe the girl is a South Sea Islander, an inhabitant of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, and the man either an Englishman or, much more likely, an American. This last seems the strongest possibility, and it is supported by the fact that "Pretty Mohea" was sung as a sea shantey by the Pacific whalers. Singers of folksong do not worry about such scholarly matters. They have been taken by the ballad's rather exotic narrative and have spread it across America. The song was popular with early "hillbilly" radio and recording artists such as Buell Kazee, who earned a flat fee of under one hundred dollars for his recording, which sold about fifteen thousand copies. Mrs. Hester, who said that the song was also known as "The Cocoanut Grove," could not remember the second line of her last stanza.

Sung by Mrs. Myrtle Love Hester, Florence, 6 August 1945.

2 She set down beside me, taken hold of my hand,
And says, "You're a stranger and in a strange land.
If you'd only consent, Sir, to come live with me
And go no more roving far over the sea.

3 "If you'll only consent to come live with me,
I'll teach you the language of the pretty Mohea."
"No, no, my dear maiden, that never could be,
For I have a sweetheart and I know she loves me."

4 But when I had landed on my own native shore,
And my friends and relations gathered 'round me once more,
I looked all around me, but none could I see
That was fit to compare with the pretty Mohea.

5 And the girl I had trusted proved untrue to me
I'll turn my course backward; from this land I'll flee.
I'll go spend my days with the pretty Mohea.

* * *

Katie Dear
(Laws M 4, The Drowsy Sleeper)

Descended from British broadsides and recorded frequently before World War II, this song is more widely distributed in the United States than "The Silver Dagger" (see p. 27), from which Mrs. Hester's version, like many others, borrows its weapon. Her version, however, lacks the familiar opening stanza in which the young man awakens "the drowsy sleeper" and calls her to the window so he can ask her the questions here. Much is also omitted between Hester's fourth and fifth stanzas. In some versions the girl says she will die of grief, in others (borrowing again from "The Silver Dagger") the two lovers commit suicide, and in a third group the girl decides to forsake her parents and flee with her lover. Hester's last stanza clearly links her version with this more cheerful sort, though it is impossible to determine whether Katie or Willie speaks those hopeful lines.

Sung by Mrs. Myrtle Love Hester, Florence, 7 August 1945.

2 "Oh Willie dear, that would be useless.
She's in her room taking her rest
And by her side lies a silver dagger
To plunge into my true love's breast."

3 "Oh Katie dear, go ask your father,
Ask him if you my bride may be;
And if he denies you, love, come and tell me,
And that'll be the last I'll trouble thee."

4 "Oh Willie dear, that would be folly.
He's in his room taking his rest
And by his side lies a golden dagger
To plunge into my true love's breast."

5 "Then don't you see that cloud a-rising
To shield us from the rising sun;
Oh, won't you be glad, my own true lover,
When you and I become as one?"

* * *

Last Night I Dreamed of My True Love
(Laws M 13, Locks and Bolts)

This ballad's history can be traced back at least to a 1631 British broadside titled "The Constant Wife." "Locks and Bolts" has flourished in American oral tradition, though the basic premise of its story has usually been lost. In the original versions, the young woman is very rich and her beloved suitor very poor. To prevent their marriage, her family sends her away in secret to live as a prisoner in an uncle's house. Here she is found and rescued by her true love. Mrs. Hill's is one of the longest and finest versions of this ballad ever recovered in the United States.

The confused last line of Mrs. Hill's fifth stanza is probably the result of mishearing a line about the locks and bolts such as: "I broke 'em all asinder" (or "asunder"). Almost all American versions are confused at the point of Hill's seventh stanza. Tradition supports a stanza composed of the last two lines of Hill's sixth stanza and the fragmentary seventh. Sometimes a stanza is composed of the statement and repetition of the first two lines of the sixth stanza; or those lines are sometimes dropped — the first appears in Mrs. Hill's eighth stanza.

Sung by Mrs. Lena Hill, Lexington, 10 June 1947.

2 When I woke and found it was a dream,
I was forced to stay without her.
Next morning I rose, put on my clothes,
Determed to find my lady.

3 I rode o'er hills and valleys through,
Determed to find my lady.
I rode up to her uncle's gate;
I asked him about my lady.

4 He answered me so soft and low,
"I have no such in keeping."
She answered me my voice below,
She answered me from the window,

5 Saying, "I'd not be here, I would not be here,
But locks and bolts doth hinder."
"I'll break them locks, I'll bend them bolts,
I'll knock them into sinder."

6 I drew my sword in my right hand,
And in that room I enter;
Her uncle and another man
Came stepping in together,

7 Saying, "Go out of here, go out of here,
Or in your blood you'll wallow."

8 I drew my sword in my right hand,
My lady in the other.
"I'm in this room with my true love,
And I'll die before I'll leave her."

9 We'll join our hands in wedlock bands,
We'll live in peace and pleasure,
We'll join our hands in wedlock bands,
We'll live and die together.

* * *

Jack the Sailor
(Laws N 7, Jack Monroe)

After learning the identity of her love, Mary's wealthy father has him sent overseas to war. Mary follows in disguise, finds him, and (evidently) marries him. Although it carries no impact in Mrs. Hill's version, the father's calling his daughter "Mrs. Strater" (more frequently "Mrs. Frazier") is normally sarcastic, because he applies to her the surname of her love. Women who dress as men to accompany or seek out their lovers in battle appear with some regularity in Anglo-American balladry (see "Oh Johnny," p. 11). It is pleasant to find that Jack's "deadly mortal wound" is not fatal. The fourth line of each stanza is repeated, prefaced by "Oh."

Sung by Mrs. Lena Hill, Lexington, 10 June 1947.

2 She had sweethearts a-plenty,
To court her day and night,
But on Jack the sailor
She placed her heart's delight.

3 Her father called his daughter one day,
And quickly she went in.
"Good morning, Mrs. Strater,
I've learned your sweetheart's name."

4 She said, "Father, here is my body,
And it you may confine.
There's none but Jack the sailor
That will ever suit my mind."

5 Her father flew in a passion,
And quickly he did go
To bargain with the captain
To bear Jack far away.

6 Now Jack has gone a-sailing
All o'er the deep bright sea,
And there he'll spend his days
In the war of Germany.

7 Now Mary sits at leisure
With money at her command.
She took a sneaking notion
She would view some distant land.

8 She went into a tailor shop,
Men's clothing she put on,
Then bargained with some captain
To bear her far away.

9 He said, "Before you go on board, Sir,
Your name I would like to know."
She smiled upon him and said,
"You may call me Jack Monroe."

10 He said, "Your waist it is too slender,
Your fingers are too small,
Your face it is too delicate,
To face a cannonball."

11 She said, "I know my waist is slender,
My fingers they are small,
But to get to see my true love
I would face a cannonball."

12 She sailed east, she sailed west,
Till she came to the war of Germany,
And none but Jack the sailor
Could run the raging sea.

13 She went up on the battlefield;
She viewed them round and around.
At length she found her true love
With a deadly mortal wound.

14 She picked him up all in her arms;
She carried him round and around.
At length she found a physician
That would heal his deadly wound.

15 Now Jack is well and married,
And she is bringing him home.
Now Jack is well and married,
And she is bringing him home.

* * *

Oh Johnny
(Laws O 33, The Girl Volunteer)

This is a better version of "Oh Johnny" than most of those that achieved widespread popularity during the folk revival of the fifties and sixties. Although its story is similar in several points to that of "Jack the Sailor" (see p. 9), there are also significant differences between the songs, and it is most unlikely that both ballads derive from the same broadside source. The chorus is sung to the same tune as the stanzas.

Sung by Miss Callie Craven, Gadsden, 26 August 1945.


"Oh Johnny, my jewel,
It seems as you're unkind;
It seems as I've loved you
From all other mankind.

2 "It seems as I've loved you,
Which grieves my heart so.
Oh, may I go with you?"
"Oh no, my love, no.

3 "Tomorrow is Sunday
And Monday is the day
My captain commands me
And I must away."


4 "You'll be standing on picket
Some cold snowy day;
Your red rosy cheeks
Will soon fade away.

5 "Your red rosy cheeks,
Which grieves my heart so.
Oh, may I go with you?"
"Oh no, my love, no."


6 "Oh Daughter, dear Daughter,
You'd better stay at home,
You had better stay with your mother
Till Johnny comes home."

7 "Oh Mother, dear Mother,
You need not talk to me.
I'll follow young Johnny
Across the flowing sea.


8 "I'll cut off my hair;
Men's clothing I'll put on.
I'll pass as your messmate
As we march along.

9 "We'll cross over Jordan.
Your troubles I will bless.
Oh, may I go with you?"
"Oh yes, my love, yes."

10 "Farewell to all sweethearts,
Farewell to all beaus,
I'll follow young Johnny
Wherever he goes."

* * *

A Fair Damsel
(Laws N 42, Pretty Fair Maid)

This is one of the most popular of a large number of "returning lover" ballads. It appears on broadsides dating back to the early nineteenth century, was a favorite of early recording artists, and remains current in oral tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. No version makes clear why the damsel fails to recognize her lover immediately, but without that failure there would be no song. After testing her constancy, the soldier shows his damsel a token. Mrs. Griffin's treatment of this in the fifth stanza is somewhat obscure, probably the mishearing of a line such as "He pulled out the ring that was broken between them." This confirms the soldier's identity, and the lovers are happily reunited. Griffin's version is unusual because its first and fourth stanzas contain six lines.

Sung by Mrs. Mary A. Griffin, Lexington, 10 June 1947.

2 "Go way from here, you rebel soldier,
My poor heart's in misery.
My own true love is across the ocean,
No man but him can marry me."

3 "Now suppose your own true love is drownded,
Or suppose he's in some battle slain,
Or suppose he's stole some girl and married,
His face you never shall see again."

4 "If he's drownded I hope he's happy,
If he's slain I wish him well,
And if he's stole some girl and married,
I once loved him, I love him still;
And if he's stole some girl and married,
I'll love the girl that married him."

5 He ran his hands all in his pocket,
His fingers seeming neat and small,
He took out a rule that was written between them,
And at his feet she humbly did fall.

6 He picked her up all in his sorrow,
The kisses he give was one, two, three.
"This is your poor little rebel soldier,
Returned back home to marry thee."


Love's Tragedies

* * *

Billy Came Over the Main White Ocean
(Child 4, Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight)

Among the most widespread of traditional songs is this ballad about a young woman who disposes of a villain as he would have disposed of her. In the United States, however, the mysterious, supernatural elf-knight of British and European variants has been rationalized into a greedy human suitor. Mrs. Hill's sixth and seventh stanzas are particularly interesting because they contain the heroine's request, unique in America, that the man turn away to ponder the moral consequences of murder. His doing so, of course, provides her the opportunity to kill him in self-defense. Most frequently, she asks him to avert his eyes from her nakedness, as in Mrs. Ezell's version, which is otherwise less complete and interesting than the A text. Like a number of American singers, Hill may have considered allusion to a naked woman in poor taste. In many versions, when the heroine returns home her parrot threatens to tell all it knows of her rendezvous and is silenced only by the promise of a fine new cage. All that is left here of this scene is the somewhat confusing last stanza and a misplaced reference to the heroine herself as "pert bird" in the fifth stanza.

As sung by Hill, the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas are defective. Mirroring the preceding, the third stanza should probably include the second stanza's second line, and perhaps the first line of the fifth stanza should really be the third line of the fourth stanza, with "They rode" dropped from "the length of a long summer day, day, day." Following the record of other American texts, we can locate what seem to be the results of mishearings in Hill's rendition. "Damsel" in the fourth and tenth stanzas should probably be "dapple," and "false-haired" should be "false-hearted." But "false-haired" certainly carries intriguing implications. Other American versions also open with a stanza in the first person.


Excerpted from An Alabama Songbook by Byron Arnold, Robert W. Halli Jr.. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Love's Triumphs,
2. Love's Tragedies,
3. Love's Disappointments,
4. Pathos/Children,
5. Pathos/Adults,
6. Crimes and Criminals,
7. Humor,
8. The Civil War and After,
9. Blues,
10. Railroad Work Songs,
11. Serious Songs of Love,
12. Courting,
13. Marital Relations,
14. Risqué Characters,
15. Humor,
16. Frolic Tunes,
17. Children Choosing Partners,
18. Children Playing Games,
19. Answering-Back Songs,
20. Songs Appealing to Children,
21. Nonsense Songs, Rocking Songs, and Lullabies,
22. Worldly Woe,
23. Songs of Forgiveness,
24. The Love of Jesus,
25. Passing,
26. Going to Heaven,
27. The Apocalypse,
28. Jubilation,
Appendix A: Informant Biographies from Folksongs of Alabama,
Appendix B: Selected Song References,
Works Cited,
Index of Names,
Index of Song Titles and First Lines,

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