Top 10 Whimsical Songs with a Dark Story

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We are all pretty familiar with folk songs. Most people know the popular tunes pretty well and can probably sing the refrain from many different songs. However, most people don’t really know more than a verse or two, and if they did they might think twice before singing many of these. It turns out that just like modern times, many of the folk songs of the past had lyrics that, upon closer inspection weren’t as nice and quaint as their melodies made them seem. In fact, some of them are downright depressing.

10. Oh My Darling, Clementine

clementine-folk

Often known simply as “Clementine”, this song is about a coal miner who is grieving after losing the woman he loves in a tragic accident. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the song starts out like this:

“In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine
Dwelt a miner forty niner,
And his darling Clementine.

Oh my darling, oh my darling,
Oh my darling, Clementine!
Thou art lost and gone forever
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.”

The song is a downer, but it seems innocent enough. Unfortunately, if you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics you might not notice that it quickly takes a much darker turn. The song continues to meander on in a folksy fashion about how Clementine fell in the water when she was going to see the ducks and drowns because the miner can’t swim. However, it gets much worse, because the song ends with:

“How I missed her! How I missed her,
How I missed my Clementine,
But I kissed her little sister,
I forgot my Clementine.”

So our innocent, if depressing, folk song is about a man whose darling drowns because neither of them can swim, so he decides to get with her sister instead and all is well. That’s good old fashioned family values for you right there.

9. My Old Kentucky Home

kentucky-folk

Many people are familiar with the state song of Kentucky, known as “My Old Kentucky Home.” It’s a sad melody about poor folk living in the country. The current version of the song starts out with:

“The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home

Tis summer, the people are gay”

It seems about as innocent as a song can get, however, the original version went a little more like this:

“The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home

Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

In one of the later verses we get this little gem:

“The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darkey may go:
A few more days, and the trouble all will end
In the field where sugar-canes may grow.”

The original version of the song was about a slave who lived in a plantation in Kentucky, but was being sold to another owner and was leaving his family and friends behind for his new “work”. Before it became the state song it went through a ridiculous whitewashing process to remove any references to “darkies” or anything that might have to do directly with slavery.

8. Oh! Susanna

susanna-folk

In a similar vein to “My Old Kentucky Home”, this one is also a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster. The song is about as folksy as any song can possibly get, the guy is coming to see his sweetheart, and he even has a banjo on his knee! However, when we said minstrel song we mean it was originally written with the intent to have white performers wear black face while singing and use a fake “negro” accent to make fun of black slaves. It gets much, much worse though. It turns out that in Foster’s time this sort of entertainment was quite popular and he was able to get away with a verse that most people today would object very strongly to:

“I jumped aboard de telegraph and trabbled down de river,

De lecktrick fluid magnified, and killed five hundred nigger,

De bulgine bust and de hoss ran off, I really thought I’d die;

I shut my eyes to hold my breath – Susanna don’t you cry.”

If you had trouble understanding the above verse it’s because it is deliberately written in what the music writers of the time thought was a good “mock black accent.” So the whimsical, popular folk song about a man who’s coming to see his darling has a verse with a racial epithet about killing black slaves. If you think racism is a problem now, consider this, Fredrick Douglass once said that Stephen Foster’s racist minstrel songs may actually help awaken sympathy for black slaves. That’s right, the days of legalized slavery were so messed up that a leading abolitionist and freed slave thought that the minstrel shows might actually be helpful.

7. Blue Tail Fly

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The song, alternately known as “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Blue Tail Fly”, is often popular among children because it has an extremely catchy soon. Most people just consider it nonsense as no one really knows who Jimmy is or why he is cracking corn in the first place. And of course like many songs by the time kids generations later see it; many of the old implications have been smoothed over by lyric changes. Regardless, the story essentially tells the story of a slave who had the thankless job of following his master, who was riding a horse, on foot and brush away any flies that might upset the steed. One of the flies sends the horse into a panic and the master dies – the slave isn’t in trouble because the fly is blamed for the incident.

“De pony run, he jump and pitch

An’ tumble Massa in de ditch;

He died, an’ de jury wondr’d why

De verdict was de blue tail fly.”

This gives a new perspective on the line “Ole Massa gone away.” He hasn’t gone on vacation, he’s dead. And his slaves are celebrating the fact with a jaunty tune. The worst part is, considering this is the old south it likely doesn’t mean they’ve gained anything resembling freedom, it’s only a temporary respite from a terrible situation.

6. Black Betty

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When most people think of Black Betty, they don’t really think folk song in the first place. It’s a really catchy, upbeat tune and couldn’t possibly be about anything dark, right? Well, it turns out this song actually has a lot of history. It was first recorded by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, back in the early 1900’s, but likely is even older. See, Ledbetter was just recording his own version of a song commonly sung among black inmates in southern prison. Those catchy upbeat lyrics:

“Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bam-ba-lamb,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bambalamb,
Black Betty had a baby,
Bambalamb,
Black Betty had a baby,
Bambalamb.”

Apart from the racist wording with phrases like “Oh, lawd”, the truth is that Black Betty actually refers to a whip that was often used to beat prisoners in old southern prisons. In other words, the “bam ba lam” part of the song is the whip striking someone on the back, which puts the song in a whole new light.

5. Cotton-Eyed Joe

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Almost everyone has heard this song, although most people probably only know the refrain. This is quite understandable, as it has a catchy tune, but the lyrics have certainly gone through changes over the years. However, the original version was not really a lighthearted song if you listen to the lyrics. Now, the song actually starts out pretty depressing:

“Don’t remember, don’t you know,

Don’t you remember Cotton-Eyed Joe?

Cotton-Eyed Joe, Cotton-Eyed Joe,

What did make you treat me so?

I’d ‘a’ been married forty year ago

Ef it hadn’t a-been for Cotton-Eyed Joe”

Cotton-Eyed Joe sounds like a real jerk, doesn’t he? Apparently this “Joe” prevented him from being married and he is so bitter he’s still singing about it forty years later. See, according to the lyrics, the man had a very beautiful young woman who he absolutely loved and she promised to stay with him forever. In one verse he mentions that “An’ swore fum me she’d never move”, but he claims that the other man hoodwinked her and “Tuck my gal away fum me, carried her off to Tennessee”. This upbeat song is the sad lament of a guy who was engaged to be married with the woman of his dreams, and then another man came and stole her away. Also, considering that this was originally a plantation song, it may not have necessarily been meant to be taken entirely literally. Slave families were broken up in the old south all the time, and this could have been a lament at such occurrences. The song mentions the woman ending up in Tennessee, which may indicate that the love of his life was sold to someone in another state. The song also suggests that the singer feels he was mistreated by Cotton-Eyed Joe, which would make sense, especially if the slave master sold off his lover out of spite.

4. Git Along, Little Dogies

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Git along, Little Dogies is a quintessential cowboy folk song and gained even greater fame when sung by Roy Rogers back in the 1940’s. The songs refrain goes:

“Whoop yi ti yo, get a long little dogies!

It’s your misfortune and none of my own.

Whoop yi ti yo, get a long little dogies!

For you know that Wyoming will be your new home.”

It seems like a silly cowboy song at first and probably doesn’t make much sense upon closer examination, as one of the later verses says:

“Early in the springtime we round up the dogies,

Slap on their brands and bob off their tails;

Round up our horses, load up the chuck wagon,

Then throw those dogies up on the trail.”

You might wonder upon reading that why I have constantly misspelled the word “doggie” and also why they are branding poor little dogs and then making them trudge along a trail. Well, it turns out the truth of the song isn’t much better. See, in the cowboy slang of the time a “dogie” was a name for a young calf that had lost its mother. In other words, the cowboys are rounding up all the orphaned cattle for some sort of processing in Wyoming and don’t seem to be at all sympathetic.

3. Banks Of The Ohio

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Banks of the Ohio was first recorded back in the 1920’s, but likely stemmed from folk variations from much earlier, like many folk songs. It starts out as a pleasant romantic tale about a man and a woman walking along the banks of the Ohio and talking about their plans for marriage. However, unfortunately there were complications involved. Essentially, her mother didn’t approve and this was a time when that meant a lot more than it does now. Unfortunately, the man could not bear the thought of not having the woman he loved, so he killed her, ensuring no one else would have her:

“They say that you’ll be mine,

In no other arms entwine,

I held a knife unto her breast,

As in my arms she trembling pressed.”

So we have a jealous lover who decides to murder the woman he loves because he can’t have her hand in marriage. She even has a chance to beg him for her life, which she does, and he still decides to go through with it and kill her anyway.

2. Oh Shenandoah

shenandoah-folk

The song “Oh Shenandoah” was considered for the state song of Virginia, but didn’t end up successfully taking the spot because it didn’t seem to connect enough to the state. See, the problem is there are many different variations and interpretations of the song. Some believe the original had to do with the river itself; however, many of the earliest versions were actually referring to a Native American whose name was Shenandoah. In fact, in one of the earliest versions the river mentioned is the Missouri and the song is about a man who is trying to cross the river, because he is smitten with the daughter of a local chief. In fact, the song starts off with a racial epithet for Native Americans in the very first verse”

“Miss-ou-ri, she’s a mighty riv-er.

A – way you rolling riv-er.

The red-skins’ camp, lies on its bor-ders.

Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.”

The song goes on to explain that the man tries to offer the chief money for his daughter and the chief refuses, as his daughter is not a commodity, but a person. However, two of the last verses give the story a much darker turn:

“At last there came a Yankee skipper.

A – way you rolling riv-er.

He winked his eye, and he tipped his flipper.

Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.”

And then:

“He sold the chief that fire-water,

A – way you rolling riv-er.

And ‘cross the river he stole his daughter.

Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.”

So the young Native girl avoids being sold to one guy, only to have some other jerk get her father drunk on firewater so he can’t stop him and then literally take her away across the river. We aren’t sure this song could really get any more depressing.

1. Buffalo Gals

buffalo-folk

You’ve probably heard the song “Buffalo Gals” before, and are at least familiar with the tune, which is quite catchy. The refrain is pretty innocuous and goes like this:

“Buffalo gals, can’t you come out tonight

Can’t you come out tonight, can’t you come out tonight

Buffalo gals, can’t you come out tonight

And dance by the light of the moon”

On the surface there really isn’t anything wrong with the lyrics. In fact, dancing by the light of the moon sounds like a perfectly reasonable activity. However, some of the other verses hint at something else going on. He mentions in the song that he meets a beautiful woman on the street and asks her if she’d like to “have some fun”. Unfortunately for those who think this song is just about dancing, it turns out that the women mentioned in the song are actually prostitutes that the men are trying to find. See, after the Erie Canal was constructed in Buffalo, there were a good many men looking for a woman on the street corner, hence the song. Sometimes the song would change the city name, but the rest of the lyrics usually still ran along a similar vein. Essentially, this song is calling for the prostitutes in the city to come out and play.


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