Something I felt like singing.
History: It’s a popular (or it WAS popular) American (Appalachian) folk song that apparently descended from a British air. I guess it only makes sense that my grandmother would have performed it, being from “Bloody” Harland County, Kentucky. Research gave it a historical era of: Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
Another name for it is Birmingham Jail, but my grandmother and I never sang the Birmingham jail part. Our version was different from that, so that I wonder about the Birmingham version. Grandma wouldn’t have changed the lyrics to protect her young grand daughter, she simply would have skipped that stanza entirely if it was a problem. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.
While doing a bit of research to see if I could track down what British air the song came from, I found something particularly interesting that definitely applied to my grandmother’s history. From this website:
“When I had lived in the mountains of Virginia in 1939-40,” Sundgaard recalled late in life, “among the songs I heard was ‘Down in the Valley.’ I felt that song suggested the kind of story we could write.” The song–a traditional Ozark ballad about a condemned prisoner and the woman he loves, set to a deceptively serene tune–first appeared in print collections in the 1910s. It also appeared under the titles “Bird in a Cage,” “Birmingham Jail,” and “Down on the Levee.” The lyrics varied from version to version, but the following composite gives a good idea of the raw material from which Sundgaard constructed the plot:
Down in the valley, valley so low
Hang your head over, hear the train blow
Hear the train blow, love, hear the train blow;
Late in the evening, hear the train blow.
Build me a castle, build it so high,
So I can see my true love go by,
See her go by, love, see her go by,
So I can see my true love go by.
Write me a letter, send it by mail;
Bake it and stamp it to the Birmingham jail,
Write me a letter containing three lines
Answer my question, will you be mine?
Roses are red, love, violets are blue;
God and his angels know I love you,
Roses love sunshine, violets love dew
Angels in heaven, know I love you.
Weill was enthusiastic about Sundgaard’s suggestion of “Down in the Valley” and began looking for other folk songs for their radio opera. He found “The Lonesome Dove,” “Little Black Train,” and “Hop Up, My Ladies” in his own collection of songbooks. Sundgaard set about revising the songs’ traditional lyrics, adapting them to the plot. By November 1945, Weill and Sundgaard had completed a 25-minute work which they began trying out for potential backers–Weill playing the piano and singing, Sundgaard doing the speaking roles–without success. Then Weill orchestrated it and an audition tape conducted by Maurice Abravanel was recorded. That didn’t inspire any backers either, and the production company was disbanded.