On Top of Old Smoky
"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. It is catalogued as Roud Folk Song Index No. 414. In one version the first verse is the following; for more on the words see below.
History as folk song
It is unclear when, where and by whom the song was first sung. In historical times folksongs were the informal property of the communities that sang them, passed down through generations. They were published only when a curious person took the trouble to visit singers and document their songs, an activity that in America began only around the turn of the 20th century. For this reason it is unlikely that an originator of "On Top of Old Smokey" could ever be identified.
During the First World War, the English folklorist Cecil Sharp made three summer field trips to the Appalachian Mountains seeking folk songs, accompanied and assisted by Maud Karpeles. They found that the Appalachians, then geographically isolated, were a preserve of traditional music and that many of the people they met were naturally-gifted singers who knew a great number of songs. They were also intrigued to find that many of the songs the people sang to them were versions of songs Sharp had earlier collected from people in rural England, suggesting that the ancestors of the Appalachian residents had brought them over from the old country.
The version of "On Top of Old Smokey" that Sharp and Karpeles collected was sung to them on 29 July 1916 by Miss Memory Shelton in Alleghany, Madison County, North Carolina. Miss Shelton was 23 years old, and was part of a family several of whose members sang for Sharp. Memory Shelton's version differs in notes, rhythm, and wording from the version most people know today, but only modestly so; for instance the words of the first verse are as follows:
- On top of Old Smokey,
- All covered in snow,
- I lost my true lover
- By sparking too slow.
where sparking is (per OED) an archaic word that means courting. She also avoided the extreme prolongation of the syllables of Smokey and lover that are customary today, instead assigning just one musical beat to Smo- and lov- and two to -key and -er. These differences are to be expected because the Appalachian folk song tradition (like many other folk traditions) tended spawn multiple variants of the same song, sometimes drastically different from each other. To give an example, the following year (1917) Sharp and Karpeles collected another version of "On Top of Old Smokey" with a completely different tune. The version Miss Shelton sang has twelve verses. It was published in 1932, after Sharp's death, as part of the vast compendium of Appalachian folk songs that Karpeles edited from their field notes.
American field workers were also active in the Appalachians. A (tuneless) text for "On Top of Old Smokey", similar to what Memory Shelton sang, was published by E. C. Perrow in 1915, slightly before Sharp's fieldwork. In the following decades, still further variants of "On Top of Old Smokey" were recorded by fieldworkers in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Because the versions gathered in fieldwork vary so much, there is no particular version of "On Top of Old Smokey" that can lay claim to being the "authentic" or "original" version. The version collected by Sharp and Karpeles can be read on line (see Sharp and Karpeles (1917), in References below), and the version by Pete Seeger that greatly popularized the song in modern times is also on line.
"The Little Mohee"
The tune of "On Top of Old Smokey" (that is to say, the tune familiar to most people today) was also paired with a completely different set of words in a folk song called "The Little Mohee", about a frontiersman who falls in love with an Indian maiden (or, in some versions, a sailor who falls in love with a South Seas maiden).
Location of "Old Smokey"
Old Smokey is plausibly a high mountain somewhere in the southern Appalachians, since so many versions recorded by fieldworkers were collected there. Possibilities include Clingmans Dome, named "Smoky Dome" by local Scots-Irish inhabitants, but exactly which mountain it is may be lost to antiquity.
Emergence of the song in popular music
Cecil Sharp collected Appalachian folksong just before the dawn of the age when this music came to be "discovered" by the outside world and sold as a commercial product by the nascent recording industry (this development would ultimately create the modern genre of country music). The first to make a commercial recording of "On Top of Old Smokey" was de:George Reneau, "The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains," who worked as a busker in Knoxville, Tennessee, just west of the Appalachians. Reneau made the trip to New York City to record the song, and others, for Vocalion (Vo 15366) in 1925.
In the 1940s through the mid 1960s, the United States experienced a folk music revival, in which Pete Seeger was a leading figure. His music -- some of it drawn from scholarly sources like Sharp -- was popular and was disseminated widely in commercial recordings. Seeger modified a version of "On Top of Old Smokey" that he had learned in the Appalachians, writing new words and banjo music. He said that he thought that "certain verses go back to Elizabethan times." The sheet music for the song credited Seeger for "new words and music arrangement".
The Weavers, a folksong singing group that Seeger had co-founded, recorded a very popular version of the song using Seeger's arrangement on 21 February 1951. It was released by Decca Records as catalog number 27515. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart and No. 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 No. 10 on the Billboard chart in 1951.
The enormous popularity of these recordings (and others following in their wake; see below) led to the curious situation of the song re-attaining folk status; it is one of the few songs that most Americans know from childhood, and many are unaware of the mid-century recordings that promulgated it so widely.
Other modern versions
Following its reintroduction to America by the Weavers, the song became a standard item of popular music, sung by luminaries such as Bing Crosby and Perry Como, as well as (in a brief excerpt) Elvis Presley. A great many versions followed in the ensuing decades. The following list is ordered chronologically.
In 1951, Swedish revue group Flickery Flies with Brita Borg recorded a Swedish version. This was during a time of collaboration with showbiz impresario and songwriter Povel Ramel who in a revue paraphrased it as Högt uppe på berget, jag har till en vän, förlorat en femma, jag lär nog aldrig se den utigen (High up on the mountain, I have to a friend, lost a 5 kronor bill, I doubt I'll see it again).
Dave Van Ronk included the song 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.
In The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in episode #3.13 "Blue-Tail Fly" (ca. 1961), Dobie, Zelda and Maynard use the tune and change the lyrics to "The Name's Dobie Gillis" to use as Dobie's campaign song for his student council election bid.
Harry Belafonte recorded a version on his 1962 album The Midnight Special. On the sleeves notes it states; 'He wrote and tried out OLD SMOKEY during his 1961 summer tour'.
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.
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)
On the 1978 Sesame Street album, Bert & Ernie Sing-Along, Grover sings a version of the song, but changes the lyrics to something about him losing his clothes, lunch, and his way home, but eventually finding his way home and finding his mother with all the stuff he sang about losing.
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".
On top of spaghetti
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball
When somebody sneezed.
This version, too, seems to have entered modern folklore and is widely known to children; one source writes of the original "On Top of Old Smokey", "if you can listen to it and not think about spaghetti, sneezing and meatballs, more power to you." 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 performed by Snuffy in an episode of Sesame Street.
Use in classical music
In 1953, Ernő Dohnányi used the tune (and also two other traditional American folktunes) in his final composition American Rhapsody.
- Pete Seeger interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
- See Folk song.
- See Sharp's Preface to Sharps and Karpeles (1932).
- See .
- See Sharp and Karpeles (1916), and for full life dates (1892-1992) see .
- See , as well as Sharp and Karpeles (1916) identifying Memory Shelton as daughter of Mrs. Noah Shelton.
- This was published in Sharp and Karpeles (1932), vol. 2, p. 127. For two other versions of this alternative tune see Brown and White (1977). Indeed, it appears that Memory Shelton first sang this alternative tune to Sharp and Karpeles, then thought better of it, because yet another version of the alternative tune appears, crossed out, at the top of the page of field notes Sharp and Karpeles made (Sharp and Karpeles 1916) when they worked with Miss Shelton.
- Sharp and Karpeles (1932), vol. 2, song 64A
- Perrow is not clear on where he got the text from; his label says: "From North Carolina; mountain whites; MS. written for E. N. Caldwell; 1913". E. C. Perrow (1915) Songs and Rhymes from the South. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 108 (Apr. - Jun., 1915), pp. 129-190. Available on JSTOR (pay site), and currently posted on line at .
- Seven versions collected in North Carolina are given by Brown and White (1977:170-173).
- A list (without words or music) of five versions is given in Edwin C. Kirkland (1946) A Check List of the Titles of Tennessee Folksongs. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 59, No. 234 (Oct. - Dec., 1946), pp. 423-476. Available on JSTOR.
- See .>
- "The Little Mohee" can be perused in Richard Chase (2014) American Folk Tales and Songs. Courier Corporation. Extract on line at Google Books: .
- Williams (1995) gives 1923 as the first year that a folk musician was recorded for commercial purposes; this was a recording of the North Georgia fiddler John Carson by the Okeh Record Company. Williams, Michelle Ann (1995) Great Smoky Mountains Folk Life. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, p. 58
- Liner notes from Pete Seeger American Favorite Ballads, Vol 1, Folkways SFW CD 40150
- See John Morrish (2007) The Folk Handbook: Working with Songs from the English Tradition. Hal Leonard Corporation, p. 180.
- Seeger was himself a fieldworker as well as performer; see Thomas A. Adler (2011) Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals University of Illinois Press, p. 72.
- Seeger's view is not implausible, since many American and English folk songs have common ancestry (see above), and the words for some English ballads are indeed preserved (as broadside ballads) from Elizabethan times.
- "DECCA (USA) numerical listing discography: 27500 - 27999". Retrieved May 4, 2016.
- 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."
- "Brita Borg". Archived from the original on 4 June 2015. Retrieved 4 May 2016.
- Brita Borg med Flickery Flies - Högt uppe på berget. 7 February 2012. Retrieved 4 May 2016 – via YouTube.
- "Allan Johansson". Discogs. Retrieved 4 May 2016.
- Glatter, Lesli Linka; Peyton, Harley; Engels, Robert (3 November 1990). "Episode 13". Twin Peaks. Season 2. Episode 6.
- sv:Grisen i säcken
- Gourds Chords Page (archived)
- Sparks, Jack (30 June 2004). "El Platáno Blanco's Guide to Live Music". Retrieved 20 December 2012.
- See http://soundbeat.org/episode/on-top-of-old-smokey/
- Brown, Frank, and Newman Ivey White (1977) The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore: Vol. V: The Music of the Folk Songs. Durham: Duke University Press. The material on "On Top of Old Smokey" can be read on line at Google Books: .
- Sharp, Cecil and Maud Karpeles (1916) "Old Smokey", unpublished page of field notes. Archives of Clare College, Cambridge; posted on line by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library: .
- Sharp, Cecil and Maud Karpeles (1917) English folk songs from the southern Appalachians : comprising 122 songs and ballads, and 323 tunes. New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons. An early sketch containing a subset of the material in Sharp and Karpeles (1932). The relevant page of the book is currently posted on the internet at .
- Sharp, Cecil and Maud Karpeles (1932) Folk songs of the Southern Appalachians. Oxford: Oxford University Press. "On Top of Old Smokey" is song 64A of Volume 2.