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That Wagoners Lad

January 30, 2010

Featured Article, Listen

LISTEN: An a cappella version of “Wagoner’s Lad” |

I’ve fallen into a Wednesday night gathering in Huntington, W.Va., of ne’er-do-well singers and players with the entertaining band The 1937 Flood. They live up to their billing as “West Virginia’s most eclectic string band.” After each session, they post a song from that night’s playing, and last week Charlie, the master of musical ceremonies, requested my a cappella version of “Wagoner’s Lad.” I first learned this version from an old Trapezoid album, “Another Country,” a version sung by the late, lamented Freyda Epstein.

After discovering the song on Charlie’s Facebook fan page, I went and checked the lyrics to see if I’d mis-remembered any of them. Turns out, as is often the case with these old story ballads, that there are several versions, especially in one of the key lyrics. The way I learned it, the woman says “her parents don’t like HIM because he is poor….” Other versions have it that “His parents don’t like ME because I am poor…” I am inclined to go with the second one and re-learn that lyric as it would add more pathos to her tale. (Although asking my brain to re-learn a song deeply itched into its neural pathways after two decades, might be asking too much of the poor, tired thing.) The provenance of old songs is always fascinating and I appreciated Charlie fleshing out the story behind this sad Celtic tale of a woman in love, bound by the restrictions of her birth and time. Charlie writes:

This song is related to a lot of American folk songs, from “My Horse’s Ain’t Hungry” and “Rye Whiskey” to even “Pretty Polly” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” The verses, found in many songs, can be traced back to England in the 1730s and a song called “The Ladies Case.”

Here are the full lyrics:

The Wagoner’s Lad

Oh, hard is the fortune of all womankind.
She’s always controlled, and always confined
Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife.
A slave to her husband for the rest of her life.

Oh I am just a poor girl, my fortune is sad.
I’ve always been courted by the Wagoner’s Lad
He’s courted me daily, by night and by day
But now he’s a’leavin’ and going away

My parents don’t like him because he is poor.
They say he’s not worthy of entering my door.
He works for a living, his money’s his own,
And if they don’t like him, they can leave him alone.

“Your horses are hungry, go feed them some hay,
then sit down here by me as long as you may…”
“My horses ain’t hungry, they won’t eat your hay
So fare thee well darling, I’ll be on my way…”

“You’re wagon needs greasin’, your whip I can mend.
Then, sit down here by me as long as ye’ can.”
“My wagon is greasy, my whips in my hand.
So fare thee well, darlin’, no longer to stand.”

Oh, hard is the fortune of all womankind.
She’s always controlled, and always confined
Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife.
A slave to her husband for the rest of her life.

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