Silver Dagger (song)

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"Silver Dagger"
Song by Joan Baez
from the album Joan Baez
Released1960 (1960)
Melody[1] About this soundPlay 

"Silver Dagger", with variants such as "Katy Dear", "Molly Dear", "The Green Fields and Meadows", "Awake, Awake, Ye Drowsy Sleepers" and others (Laws M4 & G21, Roud 2260 & 2261), is an American folk ballad, whose origins lie possibly in Britain.[2][3] These songs of different titles are closely related, and two strands in particular became popular in commercial Country music and Folk music recordings of the twentieth century: the "Silver Dagger" version popularised by Joan Baez, and the "Katy Dear" versions popularised by close harmony brother duets such as The Callahan Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys and The Louvin Brothers.

In "Silver Dagger", the female narrator turns away a potential suitor, as her mother has warned her to avoid the advances of men in an attempt to spare her daughter the heartbreak that she herself has endured. The 1960 recording by Joan Baez features only a fragment of the full ballad.[4] "Katy Dear" uses the same melody but different lyrics, telling a similar story from a male perspective.[5]



The song exists in a large number of variations under many different titles, and with lyrics that may show a mixture of different songs. Steve Roud observes on one version of the song titled "O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother":

"A whole book could be written on this song and its connections with other songs which involve young men at their sweethearts' windows at night, disapproving parents and silver daggers. Hugely popular with North American traditional singers, 'Drowsy Sleeper' was also collected regularly in Britain and appeared on broadsides there from at least the 1820s" [6]

Of interest are early versions of two songs, "Silver Dagger" and "Drowsy Sleeper", that are related thematically, but differ in lines, verse rhythm and outcome in their lyrics.[7] The texts of these two songs may share a common origin in the older theme of night visit in traditional English songs.[8][9] The plot of "Silver Dagger" is similar to that of "Drowsy Sleeper" whereby the parents object to a match between a boy and a girl, except that in "Silver Dagger" the dagger is used as a suicide weapon by the young lovers, while in "Drowsy Sleeper" the couple elope.[7][10] However, at some point in the 19th century, there also appears to have been a fusion of these two different songs whereby the tragic ending of "Silver Dagger" becomes attached to "Drowsy Sleeper", giving rise to some later variations of the song.[7]

The earliest known text of "Drowsy Sleeper" in Britain may be dated to 1817, and the first verse of a variant of the song appears in a songbook of American folk songs first published in 1855, John G. McCurry's The Social Harp.[10][11] Early publications of "Silver Dagger" in the US may be found in Spirit of the Times and Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule and Odd-fellows' Family Companion in 1849.[12][13] A version of "Drowsy Sleeper" published in a broadside as "Who's at My Bedroom Window?" by H. J. Wehman in 1890 shows a mixture of "Silver Dagger" and "Drowsy Sleeper".[14] A version collected in Kentucky was printed in The Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1907, and three versions were collected by Henry M. Belden in 1908.[15][16] Cecil Sharp published an English version from Somerset in 1908 as "Arise! Arise!".[17] Sharp also collected a version of the song in the United States as "Awake, awake", sung by Mary Sands in Madison County, North Carolina on August 1, 1916.[10][18]

The differences in titles and some lyrics may also be a result of the song being handed down through the unwritten, oral tradition, or adapting from different sources, and where each performer may add their own verses and nuances to the song.[19] These songs have been sung using different tunes. Relation to other songs such as "Old Virginny"/"Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies" have also been noted.[8][10]

Early recordings[edit]

The song was recorded commercially as "O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother" by Kelly Harrell in 1926, as "Sleepy Desert" by Wilmer Watts And The LoneLy Eagles in 1929, and as "Wake Up You Drowsy Sleeper" by The Oaks family in 1930. As "Katie Dear (Silver Dagger)" it was recorded by the Callahan Brothers in 1934, and as "Katie Dear" by the Blue Sky Boys in 1938.[10] (Country music authority Bill C. Malone states that the Callahan Brothers learned traditional ballads like "Katie Dear" from their mother). In 1956 it was recorded by the Louvin Brothers.[20] The song was part of the repertoire of the Country Gentlemen, who toured both the bluegrass and folk music circuits during the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1960s, "Katie Dear" was recorded by folk revival musicians, including Joan Baez, and Ian & Sylvia. Today it is commonly performed and recorded by bluegrass musicians.


Recordings and performances[edit]

The song has also been widely performed and recorded by bluegrass musicians, as many songs thought of as traditionally bluegrass songs actually trace back to what is now known as "old-time" music.

20th century[edit]

  • 1926 – Kelly Harrell – "O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother", Victor Vi 20280 (BVE-35667).[21] Reissued on Worried Blues, The Complete Commercial Output of Frank Hutchison and Kerry Harrell JSP Records JSP7743 (2005), My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean: British Songs in the US Nehi Records NEH3X1 (2015).
  • 1927 – B. F. Shelton – "Oh Molly Dear" (BVE-39735).[22]
  • 1929 – Wilmer Watts & His Lonely Eagles – "Sleepy Desert", Paramount Pm 3282.[10] Reissued on Gastonia Gallop, Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues Old Hat Records CD-1007 (2009), My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean: British Songs in the USA Nehi Records NEH3X1 (2015).
  • 1930 – The Oaks Family – "Wake up, You Drowsy Sleeper", Victor Vi 23795 (BVE-62575).[23] Reissued on My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean: British Songs in the USA Nehi Records NEH3X1 (2015).
  • 1934 – Callahan Brothers – "'Katie Dear (Silver Dagger)", Banner Ba 33103. Melotone Me 13071, Oriole Or 8353, Perfect 13017, Romeo Ro 5353. Reissued on The Dixon Brothers with The Callahan Brothers JSP Records JSP77113 (2011).
  • 1938 – Blue Sky Boys – "Katie Dear", Bluebird BB B-7661, Montgomery Ward Records MW M-7468. Reissued on The Blue Sky Boys, The Very Best of Classic Country Remastered JSP Records JSP7782 (2007).
  • 1938 – The Carter Family – "Who's The Knockin' On My Window", Decca De 5612, Montgomery Ward Records MW M-8071, Melotone (Canada) MeC 45275. Reissued on The Carter Family, Volume 2, 1935-1941 JSP Records JSP7708 (2003).
  • 1956 – The Louvin Brothers, Tragic Songs of Life.[20]
  • 1960 – Joan Baez's version of "Silver Dagger" was included in her 1960 debut album, and song became identified with her. On her performances, Baez used a double-time acoustic guitar as accompaniment to her vocals.[24]
  • 1963 – The Country Gentlemen, on Hootenanny: A Bluegrass Special and on Bluegrass Country.
  • 1964 – Ian & Sylvia, Four Strong Winds.
  • 1964 – Bob Dylan – "Silver Dagger" appears on The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall album, with Baez singing what she refers jokingly to as "one of Bob's earlier songs". Dylan does not sing, but plays acoustic guitar and harmonica in accompaniment.[25]
  • 1964 – Dave Van Ronk performs a version of the song in his album Inside Dave Van Ronk.
  • 1960s – Chet Powers – The song appears, in the long version, on his album released in 2011 under the name of Dino Valente, Get Together...The Lost Recordings.[26]
  • 1970s – The Eagles – During their concerts in the early 1970s, the Eagles usually prefaced "Take it Easy" with an a cappella version of four lines from "Silver Dagger", beginning with "My Daddy is a handsome devil..." Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner would harmonise around one microphone at the front of the stage with Don Henley also contributing from behind his drum kit.[27]
  • 1987 – The Men They Couldn't Hang recorded a version of the song which is included as a bonus track on some releases of their 1987 album Waiting for Bonaparte.
  • 1999 – Dolly Parton recorded the song in 1999 for her The Grass Is Blue album.

21st century[edit]

  • Old time revival string band Old Crow Medicine Show has a version of the song on their 2001 album Eutaw.
  • Roger Mcguinn, the lead singer and guitarist on many of The Byrds' hits, released a version of the song on the four-CD box set The Folk Den Project 1995-2005.
  • Silver Dagger was recorded for the 2005 live album Smugglers and Bounty Hunters by British band The Men They Couldn't Hang
  • Irish-American Celtic group Solas recorded it for their 2006 album Reunion: A Decade of Solas.
  • The song has been recorded by White Antelope aka Robin Pecknold of the Seattle band Fleet Foxes.
  • This song has also been recorded by Lac La Belle, on their first album, called Lac La Belle, in 2009 (Detroit, USA).
  • Jim Moray has recorded a version of this song which is available on his 2010 album In Modern History.
  • The song is sung by Marideth Sisco in the 2010 film Winter's Bone.
  • English folk trio The Staves often perform the song live. It has been included in their Live at Cecil Sharp House EP (2011).
  • In season 5, episode 2 ("Gently with Class") of the British television series Inspector George Gently, the song is performed by Ebony Buckle, who plays the role of singer "Ellen Mallam" in that episode.
  • Seasick Steve has a version on his album Sonic Soul Surfer (2015)
  • The High Bar Gang included the Dolly Parton arrangement (she is credited as its author) on their 2016 album Someday the Heart will Trouble the Mind
  • The song was included in the 2016 CD "Side Orders" by Circe Link and Christian Nesmith.


  • Dame Darcy recorded a quite different version of the song, found on her Greatest Hits album.
  • British band Saint Etienne's song "Like a Motorway" is based on the ballad. It was featured on their album Tiger Bay (1994), an homage to folk music presented in a modern style. The melody follows the original closely, but new lyrics paint a darker picture of the suitor's fate.
  • Hey Rosetta gave us their own take on this song, which found on her Red Songs EP. The song however, is entitled, "Who Is At My Window Weeping" rather than "Silver Dagger".
  • William Gibson in the second book of his Sprawl Trilogy, Count Zero, uses the third stanza of this song to hint at the past of the heroine, Angie Mitchell.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Matteson, Richard L.; Jr. (2010). Bluegrass Picker's Tune Book, p.204. Mel Bay. ISBN 9781609745523. and (2012). Acoustic Music Source Book, p.194. Mel Bay. ISBN 9781619110991.
  2. ^ "Roud Folk Song Index - search result for 711". Vaughan Williams Memorial Library entry - Roud Folk Song Index. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27.
  3. ^ Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle. "Silver Dagger (I), The [Laws G21]". The Ballad Index.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
  4. ^ "Silver Dagger". The Contemplator's Folk Music and Carolan Resource Center.
  5. ^ Lyle Lofgren. "Remembering The Old Songs: KATIE DEAR (Laws G21)." 2002-03. Inside Bluegrass. Retrieved 2010-12-15.
  6. ^ Roud, Steve, 2015, Song notes to My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean: British Songs in the USA (CD boxset), Nehi Records NEH3X1.
  7. ^ a b c Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht, Norman Studer (June 1983). Folk Songs of the Catskills (annotated ed.). State University of New York Press. p. 195. ISBN 978-0873955805.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
  8. ^ a b Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht, Norman Studer (June 1983). Folk Songs of the Catskills (annotated ed.). State University of New York Press. pp. 196–198. ISBN 978-0873955805.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
  9. ^ Charles Read Baskervill (December 1921). "English Songs on the Night Visit". PMLA. Modern Language Association. 36 (4): 565–614. doi:10.2307/457352. JSTOR 457352.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Matteson, Jr., Richard L., Richard Matteson (2006). Bluegrass Picker's Tune Book. Mel Bay Music. p. 204. ISBN 9781609745523.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ John G. McCurry. Daniel W. Patterson and John F. Garst, eds. The Social Harp (PDF). University of Georgia Press. p. xix.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  12. ^ "Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature". New York City.
  13. ^ Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule and Odd-fellows' Family Companion. 10-11. New York, N.Y. 1849. p. 66.
  14. ^ John Harrington Cox, ed. (1925). Folk-Songs of the South. Pelican Publishing Company. p. 350. ISBN 9781565545922.
  15. ^ The Journal of American Folk-Lore. Forgotten Books. pp. 338–339.
  16. ^ G. L. Kittredge (1917). "Ballads and Songs". The Journal of American Folklore. 30 (117): 283–369.
  17. ^ "Folk Songs from Somerset (Sharp, Cecil)".
  18. ^ "A Nest of Singing Birds: Cecil Sharp, Mary Sands and the Madison County Song Tradition". Musical Traditions.
  19. ^ "Arise Arise / Awake Awake / The Drowsy Sleeper / Silver Dagger / Waking Dreams". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music.
  20. ^ a b "The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs Of Life".
  21. ^ "Victor matrix BVE-35667. O! Molly dear, go ask your mother / Kelly Harrell". Discography of American Historical Recordings.
  22. ^ "Victor matrix BVE-39735. Oh Molly dear / B. F. Shelton". Discography of American Historical Recordings.
  23. ^ "Victor matrix BVE-62575. Wake up, you drowsy sleeper / Oaks Family". Discography of American Historical Recordings.
  24. ^ James E. Perone (October 17, 2012). The Album: A Guide to Pop Music's Most Provocative, Influential, and Important Creations. Praeger. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-0313379062.
  25. ^ John Nogowski (July 30, 2008). Bob Dylan: A Descriptive, Critical Discography and Filmography, 1961-2007 (2nd Revised ed.). McFarland. p. 167. ISBN 978-0786435180.
  26. ^ Dino Valenti Archived 2016-01-25 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ In Concert - The Eagles. BBC. April 5, 1973. Event occurs at 21:40–26:40.

External links[edit]