Lily of the West

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"Lily of the West" is a traditional Irish folk song, best known today as an American folk song. The American version is about a man who travels to Louisville and falls in love with a woman named Mary, Flora or Molly, the eponymous Lily of the West. He catches Mary being unfaithful to him, and, in a fit of rage, stabs the man she is with, and is subsequently imprisoned. In spite of this, he finds himself still in love with her. In the original version, the Lily testifies in his defense and he is freed, though they do not resume their relationship.

"Handsome Mary, The Lily of the West"[edit]

The words to "Handsome Mary, The Lily of the West" dating erroneously to 1878:[1]

When first I came to Louisville some pleasure there to find,
A damsel fair from Lexington was pleasing my mind.
Her cherry cheeks and ruby lips, like arrows pierced my breast,—
They called her Handsome Mary, the Lily of the West.
I courted her awhile, in hopes her love to gain,
But she proved false to me which caused me much pain.
She robbed me of my liberty, deprived me of my rest,—
They called her Handsome Mary, the Lily of the West.
One evening as I rambled, down by a shady grove,
I saw a man of low degree conversing with my love.
They were singing songs of melody, while I was sore distressed,
O faithless, faithless Mary, the Lily of the West!
I stepped up to my rival, my dagger in my hand.
I caught him by the collar, and boldly bade him stand ;
Being driven to desperation, I stabbed him in the breast,
But was betrayed by Mary, the Lily of the West!
At length the day of trial came, I boldly made my plea,
But the judge and jury they soon convicted me.
To deceive both judge and jury so modestly she dressed,
And there she swore my life away, the Lily of the West.

Handsome Mary is said to have been the daughter of a clergyman from Lexington, Kentucky.[2]

Historical information[edit]

The song is often interpreted as a metaphor for the English, Scots-Irish and general British and Irish experience in western early and colonial America, with nods to their earlier experiences on the margins of Ireland, Scotland, and the Borders. Some versions of the song, notably the cover by The Chieftains and Rosanne Cash from The Chieftains' album Further Down the Old Plank Road, end with the man's being released and traveling across the Atlantic to "ramble through old Ireland/And travel Scotland o'er". Despite leaving America, he finds that he is still in love and mentally fixated on the woman, known in this version as Flora. Another Chieftains cover, from their earlier album The Long Black Veil and sung by Mark Knopfler, is set in Ireland.

The song has been recorded by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Chieftains, Bert Jansch - Live At The 12 Bar, Josh Andrews, The Flash Girls, Caroline Groussain, Sheri Kling, Show of Hands, Peter, Paul and Mary (as "Flora"), Mark Knopfler, Crooked Still, Dirty Linen, Branimir Štulić (in Croatian, titled "Usne Vrele Višnje"[3]) and Pat Gubler (PG Six) on the album Slightly Sorry (Amish Records 2010) among others. The "Green Mountain Bluegrass Band" does a version of this song as well.

From "The Collected Reprints from Sing Out! the Folk Song Magazine Volumes 7-12, 1964-1973" page 6, preceding the song's notation and lyrics:

“ This old ballad has been kept alive over the centuries by both print and oral tradition. Originally an English street ballad (or broadside), the song became particularly popular in the United States by parlor singers and ballad-printers. During the 19th century it was known throughout the country and, in time, became part of the folk heritage. Its popularity was such that in Kansas, local versifiers used the song for a parody: Come all you folks of enterprise who feel inclined to roam Beyond the Mississippi to seek a pleasant home. Pray take a pioneer's advice, I'll point you out the best - I mean the state of Kansas, the Lily of the West

The traditional tune is a version of that also commonly used for the folk song The Lakes of Pontchartrain.


  1. ^ Cowan, Southwestern Pennsylvania in Song and Story, pp. 412–414.
  2. ^ Cowan, Southwestern Pennsylvania in Song and Story, pp. 412-413: "The heroine is said to have been the daughter of a clergyman of Lexington, Kentucky — her name, Mary Morrison, on account of her great beauty and accomplishments, styled 'The Belle of Lexington' and 'The Lily of the West'."
  3. ^ "Usne vrele višnje". Azra. Retrieved 2008-04-28. 


  • Cowan, Frank. Southwestern Pennsylvania in Song and Story. Greensburg, Pa.: Privately printed (1878).

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