“The Legacy” | Stephen Griffith | American Songbag Stay-at-Home Series, Day 95

It started, like so many things these days of pandemic and sheltering in place, with a simple keyword search …

The morning after Christmas, Debi and I were relaxing by the fireplace. She was busy with her book project, taking notes and writing on a lapboard, while I noodled around with fiddle tunes and shape-note hymns on my baritone dulcimer. Something reminded me of a song with lyrics by the Irish poet Thomas Moore that we used to sing at New Salem, but I couldn’t call the melody to mind.

So I decided to find the music online to jog my memory.

While I was looking, a keyword search led me to the video at the top of this post. It suggested other searches, and what I turned up in those search engine directories suggested still other keywords. It was like following Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs in the forest, except these breadcrumbs led me in deeper — and I think they’re leading me in a direction I ought to go.

Finally, a good 12 hours later, I decided to post the links and call it a night.

I found the song quickly enough — it’s called “The Legacy,” with lyrics by Thomas Moore set to a jig tune of mixed Scottish and Irish origin called “How Can We Abstain From Whisky.” Young Abraham Lincoln famously sang it from a shape-note tunebook called the Missouri Harmony at New Salem’s Rutledge Tavern. At least so goes the legend.

What else I found:

  • An online project by folksinger Stephen Griffith, who intends to put videos of all 340-odd songs in Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag (1927) up on YouTube. It’s prompted, if not exactly inspired, by the pandemic. Griffith, who started recording it in March when everyone went in lockdown and outside gigs were canceled, calls it his American Songbag Stay-at-Home Series.
  • New information about the song, which I had researched 15 years ago when I was a volunteer interpreter at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site. At least its Scottish connection was new to me. While Moore’s lyrics morph it into a parlor song, it was also played as a fife and fiddle tune. It’s in 6/8 time, and even when I’ve heard it sung at shape-note singing conventions, it’s almost impossible not to sing it with the lilt of a jig.
  • A notebook I prepared for a presentation at New Salem in 2012 that I titled “‘Abe … Never Could Sing Much: Camp Meeting Songs and Fiddle Tunes in New Salem.” The quote is from Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks, who in 1865 wrote to Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon, “Abe youst to try to Sing pore old Ned But he Never Could Sing Much.” Hanks also said Lincoln sang some “Little Smuty Songs I wont Say any thing a Bout.”

Stephen Griffith’s YouTube blurb on “Legacy” notes that it’s one of several pieces in Sandburg’s Songbag with a strong connection to New Salem:

This continues my exploration of Sandburg’s chapter “The Lincoln and Hankses” which focuses on the songs popular during Abraham Lincolns days in Illinois. This is the last shape note song in the chapter. The shape note pages in the American Songbag were photostats of the Missouri Harmony, with little additional comment. My rendition of the shape-note songs is merely a folksinger’s interpretation of the songs, without any harmonies. This song is actually what’s called a ‘secular hymn’. Sandburg writes, “LEGACY, is an old Irish air with words by Thomas Moore; the tune was used by country fiddlers at dances.”

The tune has a fascinating local history. I wrote more about it in 2006 for the interpreters’ newsletter, the Prairie Picayune, and copied it in an earlier iteration of this blog at https://hogfiddle.blogspot.com/2006/07/irish-jig-recreates-past-of-deserted.html, along with other New Salem lore about the tune.

According to a legend that Sandburg picked up in The Prairie Years, part of his multi-volume biography of Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln and his sweetheart Ann Rutledge sang from the book in the Rutledge tavern in New Salem, Illinois, according to old settlers there.” As so often happens with Sandburg, he gets the poetry of Lincoln’s story right — his biography is a classic — but he also notes that “residents have told of how Lincoln parodied ‘Legacy’.” That’s closer to the facts of the historical record: It’s true that young Lincoln sang “The Legacy” at the Rutledge Tavern, but it wasn’t like the legend had it.

As the story came down to Herndon, he butchered the song. Lincoln would tip back in his chair and bellow it out so loudly it frightened Ann’s little sister Sally, who was a toddler at the time.

“When in young company, he has been known to excite the most uproarious laugher by singing the tune called ‘Legacy’ in the ‘Missouri Harmony,'” Ann Rutledge’s brother Robert told Herndon, by “substituting the word ‘Old Gray’ for ‘red Grape.’ The effect is very ludicrous as any one can see by reference to the lines quoted.”

(Uproarious laughter? I guess you had to be there.)

The song lived on locally in oral tradition. In 1914, the poet Edgar Lee Masters would spend an evening with a fiddle player whose father had been a close friend of Lincoln’s at New Salem. He played it for Masters, sang the lyrics and said it was called “Missouri Harmony.”

The tune — and its relatives in Scotland, Ireland and America

There’s a lot about the song I didn’t know about it when I wrote it up in 2006. In fact, there are important facts about it that I didn’t know till this afternoon.

For one thing, the original melody isn’t Irish. It’s Scottish. No doubt it’s more accurate to say it’s both Irish and Scottish, but it seems to have originated as a Scottish jig called “How Can We Abstain From Whisky.” It moved around freely, both before and after before it got to America.

The music is available online, both in shape notes and standard notation.

No dulcimer tab is available, alas. One more reason for dulcimer players to learn to follow the standard notation on our lead sheets.

Andrew Kuntz’ online Fiddler’s Companion, still indispensable after all these years, has this background on “How Can We Abstain from Whisky,” quoting Simon Fraser’s authoritative 19th-century collection:

HOW CAN WE ABSTAIN FROM WHISKY. AKA ‑ “How Shall We Abstain From Whiskey.” AKA and see “The Legacy [1].” AKA ‑ “Cia mar is urra’ sinn fuireach o’n Dram.” Scottish, Jig. G Major. Standard tuning. AAB. “The editor has great pleasure in asserting his country’s claim to this melody lately introduced as Irish, under the name of ‘The Legacy’, supposed new, whereas it has been current in the north for sixty years as the composition of John MacMaurdo of Kintail, since emigrated to America” (Fraser). “The editor has already attempted to rescue this melody from a clain of its being Irish. The author, John MacMurdo or MacRae of Kintail, was one of the most sentimental composers of song ever known in the north, and several others of his will be pointed out in this work. He observes, in the words to this air, that though his wife may sometimes brawl at him for consuming, in convivial excess, his means of supporting her and his young family, he must devote a part of it to social friendship, that often links men closer than chieftainry or relationship” (Fraser). Fraser (The Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles), 1874; No. 61, pg. 21.

And this on Moore’s Irish melody, which got around quite a bit in America before it reached New Salem and the kids in the Rutledge Tavern:

LEGACY [1], THE. AKA and see “How Shall We Abstain From Whiskey?” “Constant Billy.”  Scottish, American; Jig. B Flat Major (Hardings): C Major (Raven): D Major (Cole): G Major (Kerr): A Major (Kennedy). Standard tuning. AAB (Raven): AABB (Cole, Hardings, Kennedy, Kerr). Thomas Moore wrote a song to the air beginning “When in death I shall calm recline.” “The Legacy” was also employed as jig for dancing and for marital use. It appears in James Hulbert’s Complete Fifer’s Museum (Greenfield, Mass., 1811), Paff’s Gentleman’s Amusement, No. 1 (New York, 1812), Blake’s Gentleman’s Amusement (Philadelphia, 1824), Blake’s Martial Music of Camp Dupont (Philadelphia, 1816), and Edward Riley’s Flute Melodies, vol. 1 (New York, 1814). In the Camp Dupont publication it is indicated the melody was the signal for ‘doublings of the troop’. In manuscript form it can be found in the copybooks of fiddler John Fife (Perthshire and at sea, 1780-1804) and in an American commonplace book entitled “Greenfields” (now in the collection of the Litchfied, Conn., historical society). “The Legacy [1]” is also related to “St. Patrick’s Day (in the Morning).”

It’s related, all right, but I don’t think it’s a very close relation. Kunz has a lengthy entry on St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning, which “has been danced and marched to in North America for some two hundred years where it has been very popular, sustained in part by the large immigrant Irish population as a signature anthem.” It shows up as a contradance, a military pipe tune, a fife and drum tune, and, as Kunz notes, “[t]he tune is, of course, still a popular marching tune played at annual St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States.” To my ear, it’s closer to tunes like “Garry Owen” and the “Kerry Dance,” but Kunz has this:

Samuel Bayard (1981) observes there are two main sets of the tune which have coexisted; a standard form and an extension form (having extra measures: 10, 12, 14 or 16 have been recorded). He notes references under the given title above date back to 1748 and 1762 (see Moffat, pg. 272). Another form also has also existed for over 150 years to which Thomas Moore wrote his song “When in death I shall calm recline;” this form often appears in older collections under the title “The Legacy [1].” Bayard collected both the standard and extension forms of the tune in southwestern Pennsylvania (he also collected a 2/4 version {No. 225, pg. 183} the source called by the floating title “The Drunken Sailor”).

I’m not going to argue with Kunz or Bayard, either one.

Like breadcrumbs in the forest …

Griffith’s American Songbag videos are by far one of the best things to come out of the pandemic. In some ways, I realize that’s setting a low bar. But they’re something I want to get back to. Maybe I need to get back to.

I’ve had a copy of Sandburg’s Songbag on a bookshelf next to the fireplace since I was an interpreter at New Salem, using the Appalachian dulcimer to interpret the Southern upland culture that early settlers brought to central Illinois. I consulted it often, especially the chapter on music that young Lincoln got from the Hanks family, and I’ve been curious about other songs. But I’m one of those guys who’s essentially self-taught, and I haven’t been able to pick up the melodies from the printed page.

So now it looks like I’ll be able to hear the melodies.

More breadcrumbs, in other words, leading into the forest. All of this connects with a growing hunch the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, and our local jam sessions will stay on hiatus … so I may as well get out my dulcimers at home in the interim.

And it reconnects me with a longstanding interest in folk song, early music and historically informed performance. It more or less went dormant in the last few years, but it’s been bubbling up again as social media algorithms helpfully rekindle the interest when I’m on YouTube. All I have to do is call up a favorite song or fiddle tune, and the “Up next” feature has a good half dozen selections I want to hear. So I’m off and running.

(Another factor: The tunes I can play most readily on a dulcimer are songs and slow airs. Asking me to rip through a fiddle tune up to speed is on the same order of magnitude as playing Beethoven’s Ninth on a washtub bass. The instrument just isn’t suited to the music, at least not the way I play it.)

Hearing the stay-at-home Songbag on YouTube

On March 29, Griffith posted a sort of prospectus for his Sandburg project to his FolkSongIndex website at http://www.stephengriffith.com/folksongindex/carl-sandburgs-american-songbag/ . Now living in Asheville — not far from Sandburg’s home and national historic site near Flat Rock, N.C. — has recorded podcasts with Asheville singer-songwriter Watson Frawley based on the American Songbag. And when the pandemic hit western North Carolina, he started putting songs up on YouTube. He explains:

The Corona Virus has disturbed my plans, and everyone else’s on the planet. So for the last 12 days, cooped up at home I’ve recorded (in a very, simple rough way) from Sandburg’s AMERICAN SONGBAG. Statring with a song embedded in Sandburg’s preface to the book, I’m tackling the songs in order. I’ll post two a day until I catch up with my regular daily recording.

At this point, up to Christmas Eve, he’s up to Day 281 of the American Songbag Stay-at-Home Series. The song is a captivating little — what to call it? Sandburg calls it a “fragment of a spiritual,” and I guess that’s what it is. Griffiths includes the lyrics — in their entirety — in his blurb on YouTube, followed by Sandburg’s original headnote:

“By’m by, by’m by, Stars shining, Number, number one, Number two, number three, Good Lord, by’m by, by’m by, Good Lord, by’m by.” Sandburg writes: “The stealth and mystery of the coming out of the stars one by one on the night sky … a fragment of a spiritual heard in Texas in the early 1880’s by Charley Thorpe of Santa Fe.”

It’s lovely! I have to learn it.

A couple of others that jumped up out of Griffith’s YouTube directory: El-l-a-noy (“Way Down Upon the Wabash …”); Hallelujah I’m a Bum, to the tune of “Revive Us Again,” Er-i-e (“oh the Erie was a risin’, and the gin was gettin’ low / I scarcely think we’ll get a drink till we get to Buffalo?); He;s Gone Away (“… look away, look away, over Yandro”).

None of these are exactly jam tunes, but — what the heck? — it’s going to be a while until we can have jam sessions anyway. So I can stay at home and learn some tunes from the stay-at-home Songbag.

More breadcrumbs … leading to Galesburg

While I was checking out Griffith’s virtual stay-at-home Songbag, I discovered an explanatory headnote that the Rare Book and Manuscript Library staff at UIUC put on a reprint of an article “Digging the Depths of The American Songbag,” that he wrote for the Carl Sandburg Historic Site Association’s Summer 2020 newsletter, Inklings and Idlings. It explains how the YouTube videos came about and scatters a rich trail of links and still more breadcrumbs for further exploration:

Editor’s Note: Writer and musician Stephen Griffith (http://stephengriffith.com/) is working on several projects relating to Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag (1927). A recent visitor to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, he is turning over everything he can find about Sandburg’s ground-breaking collection of American folk songs. However, with many of his projects on-hold due to the pandemic, Stephen is taking advantage of isolation to record his renditions of each and every song in the Songbag—all 315 of them! 

I’ d never heard of the Carl Sandburg Historic Site Association, but the UIUC library blog explains it’s “a 503c organization supporting the Carl Sandburg birthplace in Galesburg, Illinois—as well as all things Sandburg.” It links to the Association’s website at http://www.sandburg.org/. Galesburg is a little bit like a second (or third) home town for me, and when this damn pandemic settles down a little, they’re worth checking out.

[Published Dec. 31, 2020]

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