“On Top of Old Smokey”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1911 (Belden)
Keywords: courting love rejection lyric warning floatingverses
Found in: US(Ap,So)

Description

"On top of old Smokey, All covered with snow, I lost my true lover, From courting too slow." The singer laments (her) lover's infidelity, saying that a "false-hearted lover is worse than a thief." (She) claims one cannot trust one in a thousand

Notes

The relationship between this song and "The Wagoner's Lad" is problematic. The two are occasionally listed as one song (e.g. by Leach, Scarborough, and implicitly by Shellans; also, at least in part, by Roud); indeed, this was done in early versions of this Index. This was done under the influence of the Lomaxes, who classify the songs together.

Further study, however, seems to show that almost all versions which have common material are derived from the Lomaxes, and the minor exceptions are usually fragments of floating verses. The plots of the two songs are different, their tunes are distinct, and there does not seem to have been any overlap in ordinary versions. It would appear that the identification of the two is purely the result of the sort of editorial work the Lomaxes so often committed.

Due to this inconsistency, it is suggested that the reader check all versions of both songs, as well as both sets of cross-references, to find all related materials.

It also appears that certain key lines, beginning "A meeting's a pleasure, a parting's a grief, And an (unconstant young man) is worse than a thief," predate this song, as they appear in several British texts which otherwise bear little resemblance to "Old Smokey." For the moment, these British Isles variations are filed under "The Blackbird and Thrush," at least until I find a more authoritative source.

Another interesting question: Does this song refer to the Great Smoky Mountains, which run along the North Carolina/Tennessee border? This seems reasonable based on the geographical distribution. The flip side is, the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains is Clingmans Dome, 6643 feet/2025 meters, the highest point in Tennessee. My information is that it is not snow-covered in summer; it is low enough and far enough south that the snow melts every year. Hardly anyone lives near Clingman's Dome, but if it's the highest point in the Smokys, what are the odds of year-round snow on some other peak in the range? Of course, the song could have taken place in winter, when there is snow in the Smokys, but it seems an odd way of identifying the place. - RBW

Same tune

Cross references

Recordings

References

  1. Belden, pp. 473-476, "The Unconstant Lover" (3 texts, 1 tune, none of which mention Old Smokey; the second mixed with "The Cuckoo" and the third short enough that it might be any of the "never place your affection on a green willow tree" songs)
  2. BrownIII 253, "Old Smoky" (2 texts plus 3 excerpts and mention of 3 more); also 248, "The Inconstant Lover" (5 texts plus a fragment, admitted by the editors to be distinct songs but with many floating items; "A," "B," and "C" are more "On Top of Old Smokey" than anything else, though without that phrase; "D" is primarily "The Broken Engagement (II -- We Have Met and We Have Parted)," "E" is a mix of "Old Smokey" and "The Cuckoo," and the "F" fragment may also be "Old Smokey")
  3. Hudson 50, p. 166, "Jimmy" (1 text, more this than anything else but starting with "A-walking, a-talking, a-walking foes I, To meet pretty Jimmy, he'll be here by and by" and continuing with many floating verses, e.g. "The cuckoo is a pretty bird," "If I am forsaken, I am not foresworn, And he is mistaken who thinks I will mourn")
  4. Randolph 49, "The Cuckoo" (4 texts, of which "A" is about half "Inconstant Lover/Old Smokey" verses and "B" never mentions the cuckoo and appears to be mostly floating verses; 1 tune)
  5. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 117-118, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 49A)
  6. Cambiaire, p. 38, "Sweet Willie" (1 text, six verses derived from at least two and probably three or four songs; the largest portion is "On Top of Old Smokey" but there is a bit of "Farewell Ballymoney (Loving Hannah; Lovely Molly)" and something from one of amorphous the "courting is a pleasure" group)
  7. MHenry-Appalachians, pp. 2-3, "Old Smoky" (1 text, starting with a full "On Top of Old Smokey" text and then including a long set of verses from "The Roving Gambler" or perhaps "The Wagoner's Lad"); pp. 18-19, "Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, I'm Going Away" (with five verses of "Old Smokey" preceded by two "Roving Gambler"-type floaters); p. 33, "Advice to Girls" (a pure "Old Smokey" version)
  8. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 272-282, "The Waggoner's Lad" (9 texts, 6 tunes on pp. 428-431, but the entry combines many songs; A (no title), B ("My Fortune's Been Bad"), and E ("My Horses Ain't Hungry") are extended versions of "The Wagoner's Lad"; C ("The Last Farewell") is a short text probably of "The Wagoner's Lad"; D ("Old Smokie") combined one "Smokey" verse with three "Wagoner's Lad" verses; "F" ("Old Smoky") is a very long "Old Smokey" text which seems to have gained parts of other songs; G ("A False Lying True Love") is "Old Smokey" minus the first verse; H ("I'll Build My Cabin on a Mountain So High" is "Old Smokey" with a first verse from a drunkard song and a final floating verse supplying the title; I (no title) is a fragment probably of "Old Smokey")
  9. SharpAp 78, "I'm Going to Georgia" (2 texts, 2 tunes; as with many pieces listed above, I've filed the SharpAp "I'm Going to Georgia" songs here for want of a better place for them, using the "never place your affections" line as the delineator. - PJS)
  10. Brewster 89, "The Unconstant Lover" (1 text, with no mention of Old Smokey and many floating verses)
  11. Leach, pp.738-740, "The Wagoner's Lad" (2 texts, with the "B" text being a composite of "Wagoner's Lad" and "Old Smokey" verses)
  12. Wyman-Brockway II, p. 1, "An Inconstant Lover" (1 text, 1 tune)
  13. Fuson, pp. 119-120, "Old Smoky" (1 text)
  14. Lomax-FSUSA 18, "Old Smoky" (1 text, 1 tune)
  15. Lomax-FSNA 112, "Old Smokey" (1 text, 1 tune)
  16. PSeeger-AFB, p. 60, "On Top Of Old Smoky" (1 text, 2 tunes)
  17. Silber-FSWB, p. 165, "On Top Of Old Smoky" (1 text)
  18. JHCox 143, "A Forsaken Lover" (1 text, which appears to be a compound: Three verses of a forseken lover song, followed by an Old Smokey text less the first verse)
  19. JHCoxIIB, #13, pp. 151-152, "Old Smoky" (1 text, 1 tune)
  20. Opie-Oxford2 121, "The cuckoo is a merry bird" (text 2 is "The Forsaken Lover" which omits the "Old Smokey" lines; dated c.1780 (The Merry Gentleman's Companion, according to Opie-Oxford2))
  21. Fuld-WFM, p. 416, "On Top of Old Smokey"
  22. DT, OLDSMOKY
  23. Roud #414
  24. BI, BSoF740