On Top of Old Smoky

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"On Top of Old Smoky" is a traditional folk song and a well-known ballad of the United States. As recorded by The Weavers, the song reached the pop music charts in 1951.

On top of Old Smoky, all covered with snow
I lost my true lover, for courtin' too slow...[1]

Origins[edit]

Old Smoky may be a high mountain somewhere in the Ozarks or the central Appalachians, as the tune bears the stylistic hallmarks of the Scottish and Irish people who settled the region. Possibilities include Clingmans Dome, named "Smoky Dome" by local Scots-Irish inhabitants, but exactly which mountain it is may be lost to antiquity.

It is unclear when, where and by whom the song was first recorded. Pete Seeger modified a version that he learned in the Appalachians, writing new words and banjo music.[2] He said that he thought that "certain verses go back to Elizabethan times."[2] The sheet music for the song credited Seeger for "new words and music arrangement".[2] The liner notes identify an early recording as the first, saying, "It was first recorded by George Reneau, "The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains," for Vocalion (Vo 15366) in 1925."

Popularity[edit]

The Weavers, using Seeger's arrangement, recorded a very popular version of the song[1] on February 21, 1951. It was released by Decca Records as catalog number 27515.[3] It reached #2 on the Billboard chart and #1 on the Cash Box chart, and sold over a million copies. The song also became one of Burl Ives' signature songs, with his recording reaching #10 on the Billboard chart in 1951.

There are many varied versions of this song out there. In addition to the versions previously mentioned, there is one by Dave Van Ronk on his album The Mayor of McDougal Street: Rarities 1957-1969. This version sounds much more Celtic in nature, with more vocal ornamentation and a looser rhythmic structure. There is also a version by Harry Belafonte that changes the feel to a jazzy-bluesy waltz and moves the vocal phrasing around quite a bit.

Notable usage in popular culture[edit]

The song is parodied often. One well-known parody version which was a hit in 1963, "On Top of Spaghetti" by Tom Glazer, deals with the loss of a meatball "when somebody sneezed." Some of "On Top of Spaghetti" was sung by DJ & Stephanie in an episode of the American TV series Full House and the song was featured in a few episodes of Barney and Friends as it has been popular as a children's song.

Another parody version sometimes sung by children has various lyrics, but it typically begins: "On top of Old Smokey/All covered with blood/I shot my teacher/With a forty-four gun (or, slug)."

In his medley "Schticks Of One And Half A Dozen Of The Other", Allen Sherman sings a modified version: "On top of Old Smokey, all covered with hair/Of course I'm referring to Smokey the Bear."

The Mexican trio in the Goofy short "For Whom the Bulls Toil" made in 1953, attempted to sing "On Top of Old Popocatépetl".

Alvin and the Chipmunks covered the song for their 1962 album The Chipmunk Songbook.

The country music singer Kenny Rogers sometimes uses the first part of "On Top Of Old Smoky" as a joke in concert. The opening bars to "Lucille" (one of his biggest hits) play, with Rogers saying to the crowd something along the lines of "None of you know what song this is", when the audience reply with "Yes, we do", Rogers then begins to sing "On Top Of Old Smoky."

The Swedish showbiz impresario and songwriter Povel Ramel wrote and recorded a Swedish version:[citation needed] Högt uppe på berget, jag har till en vän, förlorat en femma, jag lär nog aldrig se den utigen (High up the mountain, I gave to a friend, lost a 5 kronor bill, I doubt I'll see it again). Also, Swedish comedy group(s) Galenskaparna och After Shave performed a variant in their "Grisen i Säcken" revue.

Little Eva, singer of "The Loco-Motion", recorded a version called "Old Smokey Locomotion", with lyrics describing how the residents of Old Smokey caught on to The Locomotion.

In 1964 during Beatlemania, Al Fisher & Lou Marks had "Paul George John And Ringo (All The Way To The Bank)" sung to the tune of Old Smokey (Swan LP-514)

In Germany, the tune of the song was used as the chorus to singer Manuela's hit single "Ich geh' noch zur Schule" in 1963. The recording, though, had nothing to do with the traditional heritage of the original song: "Ich geh' noch zur Schule" (meaning "I Still Go to School") tells the story of a teenage girl denying the tempting offers of a talent scout, claiming she wants to finish school first, but she might agree to a recording contract the following year after her final exams.

Alternative country band The Gourds gangstered the lyrics to "On Top Of Old Smoky" in the song "I'm troubled" on their 1998 release Gogitchyershinebox.[4][5]

Fans of English football League One side Notts County FC chant the song during games. However, they have changed the lyrics to 'I had a wheelbarrow, the wheel fell off' after mishearing a Shrewsbury Town fan sing the original song in a west country accent.

In 1978, "On Top of Old Smokey" was released by Swedish pop group ABBA as part of a medley that also included "Pick a Bale of Cotton" and "Midnight Special". The medley featured as the B-side to the group's single "Summer Night City".

Use in classical music[edit]

In 1953, Ernő Dohnányi used the tune (and also two other traditional American folktunes) in his final composition American Rhapsody.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Pete Seeger interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969).
  2. ^ a b c Liner notes from Pete Seeger American Favorite Ballads, Vol 1, Folkways SFW CD 40150
  3. ^ Decca Records in the 27500 to 27999 series
  4. ^ Gourds Chords Page (archived)
  5. ^ Sparks, Jack (30 June 2004). "El Platáno Blanco's Guide to Live Music". Retrieved 20 December 2012. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Mockin’ Bird Hill
Cash Box magazine best selling record chart
#1 record

May 19, 1951
Succeeded by
Mockin’ Bird Hill
Preceded by
Mockin’ Bird Hill
Cash Box magazine best selling record chart
#1 record

June 2, 1951
Succeeded by
Too Young