Listening to British folk singer Andy Irvine today, I was stuck by a song I had never heard before: “The Girl I Left Behind.” This is neither the same song nor even the same tune as the famous fiddle tune “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” which is in every bluegrass band’s repertoire. The song I was enjoying struck me, however, as having a very familiar tune itself, and with a little research I discovered that it is essentially the same music as “I’m a Good Old Rebel,” “Lily of the West,” and “Lakes of Ponchartrain.” I am not certain when this song dates to, but I do feel that it could easily have an Irish origin and might be as old as the late 18th or early 19th century. Perhaps someone can comment on that. At any rate, the tale told in Irvine’s version of the song struck a chord in me (literally and figuratively! – here is a link to his wonderful version –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MQilZw1LZ8), and inspired me to try my own hand on a new variant. Below are the results of today’s glorious obsession!
[Incidentally, Irvine wrote this in his liner notes accompanying the album Way Out Yonder (2000), on which his version of the song first appeared: “I’ve known the first part of this song since I was quite young. I heard it on a Library of Congress Album sung by Mrs Pearl Borusky, who recorded it in Ohio. I later heard the great Seamus Ennis sing it at a party in Peggy Jordan’s in Dublin. I found this full version late one Summer’s night in Sam Henry’s Collection “Songs of the people”–How had I never seen it before ?”]
The Girl I Left Behind (2015)
There was a gentleman farmer at Everton Grange he dwelled
He had one only daughter in love with her I fell
She was so tall and brilliant, so funny and so fair
No other girl in England with her I could compare.
We rambled and we courted for two years near about
She showed me Merry Old England, its meadows, fields, and routes
Through Oxfordshire and Hampshire, Old London, and sweet France
The farmer’s daughter smiled on me, and made my heart to dance.
Then news from home it reached me and Lord it beat me down
And I knew that I must leave her and return to my own town
Over the hills and far away from England I must go
But to leave the farmer’s daughter it filled my heart with woe.
I asked if it made any difference if I crossed over the main
She said her heart was ever mine, that we would meet again,
That we would meet on foreign shores, this greatly eased my mind
So we kissed and then we parted and I left my girl behind.
Straightway I flew from Londontown unto Americay
My mother she was so relieved to see me on that day
My father and my sons rejoiced when I came down the line
But the girl I left behind me was always on my mind.
We wrote each other when we could but things were not the same
She moved off to another place far from our haunts and hame
A new life beckoned and off she flew, the sun upon her shined,
But I was far away without the girl I left behind.
My business settled at home I flew to see my bonnie bird
But her heart was cold and hurting when my words of love she heard
She said she didn’t love me now and a new love I should find
As my tears fell down away she walked – the girl I left behind.
Since then across wide oceans I’ve traveled o’er the earth
I’ve roamed and rambled this wide world over to soothe my aching heart
But my tears still fall like the storms of Thor and she’s always on my mind
I’ll always love the farmer’s daughter – the girl I left behind.
Now, compare these lyrics written today with the traditional lyrics sung by Andy Irvine:
There was a rich old farmer lived in the country nigh
He had one only daughter on her I cast my eye
She was so tall and slender so delicate and so fair
No other girl in the neighbourhood with her I could compare.I asked if it made any difference if I crossed over the main
She says it makes no difference if you’ll come back again
She promised she’d be true to me until death’s parting time
So we kissed shook hands and parted and I left my girl behind.
Straightway I sailed from old Ireland to Glasgow I did go
Where the work and money was plentiful and the whiskey it did flow
Where the work and money was plentiful and the girls all treated me kind
But the girl I left behind me was always on my mind.
One day as I went walking down by the public square
The mail boat had arrived and the postman met me there
He handed me a letter which gave me to understand
That the girl I left behind me was married to another man.
I stopped and gazed around me my heart was filled with fear
O oftentimes she promised me that she would prove sincere
On the Sunday of our parting ‘twas on the Book she swore
That she would wed no other man and she vowed it o’er and o’er.
I advanced a few steps forward full knowing these words to be true
My mind being bent on rambling I didn’t know what to do
My mind being bent on rambling this wide world to see o’er
I left my dear old parents perhaps to see no more.
Straightway I sailed to old New York strange faces for to see
Where Handsome Peggy Walker she fell in love with me
My pocket being empty I thought it was full time
For to stop with her and think no more on the girl I left behind.
One day as I sat musing she says my boy don’t grieve
For I have money in plenty to support both you and me
Your pocket will be laden hard labour you can give o’er
If you’ll agree to marry me and rambling go no more.
Well if should agree to marry you I would be much to blame
Your friends and your relations would look on me with shame
And I mean to see my parents before that they resign
And to bid farewell and a last adieu to the girl I left behind.
Well if all that you reveal be true our friendship’s at an end
Since first you came to this country I’ve always proved your friend
You had my money at your command when fortune seemed to frown
And my boy’s cause I still maintained when others ran you down.
At this my heart it did relent for what she said was true
And I promised for to marry her, oh what else could I do ?
Now Peggy’s mistress of my heart she loving and she’s kind
But the perjured vows I’ll ne’er forget of the girl I left behind.
“But let’s remember, there are four parts to our definition of a folk song: anonymity is important – nobody knows who wrote it; age; travel; change. When you have these four elements, when you can test a song by these four criteria, I think you can tell whether a song is a folk song or not.”
Frank M. Warner, Folk Songs of the Eastern Seaboard: from a Collector’s Notebook, 1963