“Shady Grove” permeates this blog and in fact permeates my nonfiction life as well. It is probably the first song I ever learned, and is part of my earliest memories.  When I was no more than 8 or 9, my family went to an outdoor folk / bluegrass festival in, I think, Tennessee, and saw Doc Watson perform Shady Grove live; it was sort of a “major life moment.” I have seen Doc twice since then, but have never been fortunate enough to hear him play Shady Grove.

Once when I was about 18, a musician friend in college who was the patient ‘recipient’ of many of my late-night anxiety attacks and drunken reminisces had his band learn and perform a version of Shady Grove as a birthday present for me; it was probably the finest, most thoughtful birthday present I have ever received, and I would give nearly anything to have a recording of that performance.  Once when I was in Savannah at a steakhouse that used to have live bluegrass, I begged the band to play Shady Grove, but they said they didn’t know the words; I spent so long writing verses I knew on a napkin (instead of just sticking with a good three or four and making an end of it) that they left the stage before I was finished.  But I am always up for hearing another version of Shady Grove (even though I think nothing will ever top Doc’s version for me).

  • Doc Watson – Shady Grove, the definitive American version, in my opinion.  Lyrics here.
  • Stray Cats – Shady Grove, live in Paris 1989.  I never knew this existed when I was a teenager listening to the Stray Cats.  I am pleased to say that Brian Setzer’s voice does this piece of 18th century Americana justice.  And he acquits himself on the banjo quite well.
  • Charlene Darling and the Darling Boys on the Andy Griffith show (played by Maggie Peterson and the Dillards) – Shady Grove

The melody, if not the same tale, of Shady Grove can be heard in another, older folk song, variously called Mattie Groves, Matty Grove, Little Musgrave, Little Mattie Groves, etc which dates from at least the 17th century and is probably older.  It is a bloodier tale of adultery discovered and punished, where to me Shady Grove (while different versions have emphasized different angles of the dynamic between the speaker and his [or her] sweetheart) has a less epic, more domestic type of sadness, one that focuses on the (sometimes immense) sadness of young love having to grow up and deal with interfering circumstances.

  • Alela Diane and Alina Hardin – Mattie Groves –  a beautifully harmonized version with traditional instrumentation
  • Planxty – Little Musgrave. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this tune with the words before.
  • Tom Waits – Little Mathie Grove, a delightfully demented acapella version from his album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards.  It features one of my favorite bits of litotes, the brilliant warning that if Lord doesn’t return in time, “there’ll be some huggin’ done.”

Mattie Groves is Child ballad # 81, and the tale type appears in Scotland, England, and America. The Mudcat Cafe page lists some related songs and some forum discussions.


last link check: 20 May 2013