Sunday, June 6, 2010

In search of a song

Last week I ran across a song about Tennessee. I'll post the context in a couple of days, but what I wanted to share was the process of trying to identify the song.

The song came with a probable title, "Tennessee", but no author/writer and no date of origin. All I have is a chorus. and that it was written before 1898.

Like any good child of the internet age I started by searching online. But regardless of which line I pasted into my search, I came up with nothing. Even partial line searches were unsucessfull. OK, so it isn't a song online. At least not one find by the spiders. Just to be sure, I tried google books, still nothing.

So I went down to the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) to see if I could get some help. I started in the reading room. The librarians keep a "vertical file" of State songs. The file contained newspaper articles and sheet music for the four official state songs since 1920. Copies of legislation passed to recognize the songs was in the file too. But the song I was looking for was not one of them.

Next I was directed to Rose Music Collection. Kenneth D. Rose, a faculty member at Ward-Belmont College (now Belmont University) in Nashville from 1918 to 1952, assembled a vast and diverse selection of sheet music during his career. His collection, includes Confederate sheet music, comic songs, minstrel songs, war songs, patriotic songs, and sports songs. After his death the collection was donated to the TSLA. The card catalogue (sorry, it isn't electronic) is huge, including close to 30 songs with Tennessee in the title. But none of them were the one I was looking for.

I didn't think it would be this hard.

Now the librarians start to pull out the stops. We called the Nashville Public Library, but their music section is primarily music business. One librarian said there was another music archive at a University in Memphis, but they don't take phone research requests. I'll need to go in person. Another librarian called his roommate who teaches music classes at a local university (even after "singing" it to him over the phone - no luck). We start calling the Country Music Hall of Fame, and other local music archives. No one seems to know where this song came from. Maybe someone who reads this might have a suggestion. Here is the chorus.

We love the old plantation; we love the Lorrowe Tree,
We are going-we are going-many voices say to me.
We are going-we are going-from the land we thought was free,
We are going-~ are going-till we find our liberty.
Then farewell, O, farewell, old home and Tennessee.
O land of freedom grant us, a freemen’s right to be
By the rolling Mississippi and the rippling Tennessee.


Ardis said...

Your doggedness is admirable, and the enthusiasm of your librarians is inspiration -- imagine their becoming so wrapped up in your search that they made your query their own this way!

I've got nothing to offer in the way of a solution, but kudos to your librarians.

Coffinberry said...

A thought (that I"m following up on)... could that be "we love the Laurel tree"?

Coffinberry said...

Another observation... rhythmically it is a good match for Wabash Cannonball.

BruceCrow said...

The librarians have been wonderful here, not just on this search but on many others as well.

I'm guessing the person who wrote it down did so from memory, and may have leanred the song by ear so "Laurel tree" is quite probable. But even with that change nothing pops up in online searches.

Do you think the similarities in meter, period of origin (1880's), and even subject matter (a girl from Tennessee?) might tell us something about the source for this song?

Coffinberry said...


I really don't know. My only qualifications for commenting are that minor was music composition, I once took a folk-lore class at BYU, I once lived in Tennessee, I've been spending the past month trying to put together some old-time gospel songs from memory for a (largely non-LDS) family reunion next month, and musical group the Carter Family has a significant place in the random music rotation on my computer--in other words, certainly not as qualified as the people you've already consulted! I agree that the song is puzzling (and intriguing), and can see why those you've spoken with were instantly invested in finding the answer!

Assuming it is a laurel tree spoken of, that would suggest an Appalachian origin; but references to both the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers suggest an origin in the western end of the state. Indeed, the pairing of the two suggests that the place-location of the original song might be Kentucky instead of Tennessee.

The "exodus"-type references are also puzzling... because clearly someone is leaving the state, but wishing to come back because it is so beautiful there (alas, I too have been there, done that). The reason for leaving seems to have to do with freedom, but it doesn't sound like a reference to antebellum slavery, because the singer states that the people leaving had thought they were free before, but apparently learned that they were not. That would work, I suppose, for post-reconstruction conditions, which would match the timeframe. If the song were much older than 1897, a better fit would be the relocation of "the Five Civilized Tribes" in 1838.

The rhythmical similarities don't say much, really. It's just what it made me think of reading it in my head. If I were setting the text to music, I'd use a guitar, and a basic I-IV-V7 chordset. I can imagine it in both 4/4 and 3/4.

The fact that *you* are the one searching for it suggests that you found it in an LDS context; and that it's a song written in somebody's journal, and possibly reflecting someone feeling like they have to move 'west' (as in out to Utah) because their brand of religion just isn't accepted where they are. And that makes me think that it's an adaptation of some other song.

Coffinberry said...

(Let me know if I'm covering ground you've already covered...)

The Civil War ballad "On the Shores of Tennessee" offers a similar closing-couplet pairing of "freeman" with "Tennessee," and is rhythmically similar, but does not seem to share other elements.

(Is there a line missing from the offered transcript...? there are seven lines, but I would expect eight.)

BruceCrow said...

I think your qualifications are as good as any of the librarians I have consulted already, perhaps more so.

The elements of the song suggested to me that it was written outside Tennessee, by those who had left for some reason possibly during post civil war reconstruction. I hadn't thought of the the possibility of it being modified just for Mormons being forced from Tennessee. That would make it far more interesting.

As for the context, I have a post for tomorrow that will explain in more detail.

To be honest I have not kept track of the songs I have eliminated from my search, though I probably should have. And the fact that "I" am searching for it will tell you more about me than about the song (i. e. that I am easily distracted by the task of verifying minor details of larger stories).

And from the text I have, there does not appear to be any lines missong from the chorus.

Amy said...

Wow. Interesting search. Nice to get some librarians working on the search, and Coffinberry's comments on the song are very interesting and detailed.

BruceCrow said...

Thanks Amy. If you like this, just wait til you read the story about the song.

Mark and Marianne Egan said...

Thank you so much for posting about this song and the story of the mob. I loved the story when I first read it. I also tried to find a tune or any reference to the lyrics. When I read the journal, I assumed it was a familiar tune. If the elders knew it well enough to sing it without notice and Peter Johnson remembered the lyrics well enough to jot it in his journal. Such a mystery!

Garyatrics said...

I know I'm coming late to the party, but tonight my 90-year-old grandma suddenly recalled this song and started singing in her quavering elderly voice. Have you found any further information? I might try recording my grandmother for the melody, unless you have the music printed somewhere.

BruceCrow said...

I have found nothing else. I would love to hear you grandmother sing it. Would be willing to record her and send it to me?