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ON TOP OF OLD SMOKY

On Top of Old Smoky 1951

“On Top of Old Smokey” is a traditional folk song 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.

On top of Old Smokey,
All covered with snow,
I lost my true lover
For courtin’ too slow.

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.

One of the earliest versions of “On Top of Old Smokey” to be recorded in fieldwork was written down by the English folklorist Cecil Sharp, who during the First World War made three summer field trips to the Appalachian Mountains seeking folk songs, accompanied and assisted by Maud Karpeles. Sharp and Karpeles found to their delight that the Appalachians, then geographically isolated, were a strong 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 a now-rare 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. The version Miss Shelton sang has twelve verses. It was published twice; first in the preliminary volume of folk songs prepared by Sharp and Karpeles after their first summer of fieldwork (Sharp and Karpeles 1917), then in 1932 after Sharp’s death, in the much larger compendium of Appalachian folk songs that Karpeles edited from the full notes of their three summers’ fieldwork.

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.

Cecil Sharp collected Appalachian folksong just before the time 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. His version of “On Top of Old Smokey” used the alternative tune noted above