Singer is courted successively by an old man, a blacksmith (who gives her a handkerchief and a finger ring) and a handsome young man (from Scarlet town!); she rejects all, preferring the little carpenter who, "hews with his broadaxe all day and sits by me
Little Carpenter (I), The Complete text(s) *** A *** Collected by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax from Jim Howard of Harlan, Kentucky in 1939. Library of Congress #1376B2. Transcribed by Lyle Lofgren. I'll tell to you a new song that's lately been made, 'Tis of the little carpenter, he courted a fair maid; He courted her, he courted her, he loved her as his life; Oftimes he's asked her if she would be his wife. Along come an old man, he came from Noey's ark, A long ways a traveling and courting in the dark; I can't fancy you, old man, you look too old and grim; Oh, my little carpenter, oh what's become of him? Along come a blacksmith, it was the other day, He gave to me a handkerchief, or so the people say; He gave to me a gold ring to talk with him again; O-oh little carpenter, oh what's become of him? Along come a young man, he came from Scarlet town, With gold chains and finger rings, he threw them on the ground; I can fancy you, young man, you look so neat and trim, O-oh little carpenter, what would become of him? Along came the carpenter, he come so neat and slow; All the money that he makes, he brings to me to show; He uses his broadax all day, and sets by me all night, Oh, my little carpenter, my own heart's delight.
I've included the keyword, "magic" because the appearance of the handkerchief and finger ring hint at now-lost magical elements. Curiously, the field recording cited under, "Earliest Date" is the only time the song has been found, although its diction and images make it sound European. - PJS
Lyle Lofgren, who did a detailed examination of this song for a historical column, agrees. He notes several indications that the song is old: The change from third to first person, the "props" such as finger rings, the pentatonic melody (centering on the fifth rather than the tonic), and the general tone. One scholar speculated that it is a religious song in disguise.
The other very faint possibiility is that it's about the historical Cherokee chief Attakullakulla, known as "Little Carpenter," who lived at the time of the French and Indian Wars and ended up surrendering some land in the region of South Carolina after a nasty campaign in which both sides suffered significan casualties. I can, by twisting very hard, make some of the references here make sense in his context. But I think it highly unlikely, unless we find another version which makes the matter clearer. - RBW