Willie Moore

by

edited from http://mbmonday.blogspot.com:

Willie Moore is not royalty, he’s just a proper young man.  He’s likely not even wealthy, in that courting a country girl living in her parents’ cottage is not something you’d expect from such a man.  If he was wealthy, it’s hard to grasp why Annie’s parents would reject his perfectly respectful advances.

No, he’s a ‘king’ – a fine young man, a stand up guy who’s doing everything right.  He courts properly and does right by Annie and her parents.  I think that’s a key to the song, because it’s plain to see that this story isn’t really about Willie, and the moral wouldn’t work if Willie was anything but impeccable.

Annie is likewise upright.  She doesn’t simply give in to Willie – he has to court her “night and day” before she agrees to marry, though she presumably found him attractive from the start.  And, while the lyrics make clear that she spent a good deal of time in his arms, there is absolutely no intimation of physical impropriety.

Annie is as impeccable as Willie, and the narrative needs them to be that way.  There’s no premarital intimacy, and there will certainly be no running off together.  Willie doesn’t ask and Annie doesn’t suggest it.  The answer they get from her parents is clear – their marriage “never can be.”  Annie is who she is, a dutiful daughter; and so she does what she feels she must do in the face of what seems like the end of any chance for happiness in her life.

The last two verses of the full lyrics above tend not to appear together, though the penultimate one is more common today.  Willie takes to rambling and goes far away, given what seems to be the Appalachian origin of this song, then dies of a broken heart. There can be little doubt of the expected emotional evocation.  The listener is supposed to imagine Annie’s parents spending their remaining days in mourning, asking every day “Good Lord, what have we wrought?”

The earliest known instance of this song is a recording from November 3, 1927, cut in Atlanta for Columbia Records by the seminal Kentucky fiddle and banjo duo Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford.  While Burnett and Rutherford’s recorded and live performances gained them genuine regional popularity before World War II, it was this particular recording’s inclusion by Harry Smith on his watershed Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 that brought the ballad to the ears of a truly widespread American audience.

In the liner notes for the Anthology, Smith condenses the narrative in his typical way.  He then notes a highly questionable story regarding an informant of Vance Randolph’s who claimed to be *the* Willie Moore when Randolph was researching the ballad for his Ozark Folksongs, published immediately after World War II.
One possibility is that the ballad is original to Burnett or Rutherford, and that it spread with their recording.  Ten years would be enough time for small variances in lyrics to appear in local performances and, given the availability of phonographs, for it to spread from Kentucky across the South.

However, while the chronology and locations of the recordings support this possibility, the lyrics themselves simply don’t *sound* like old time music from the ’20’s or the earlier 1900’s.  They sound, simply put, like those of a British ballad.  They do not seem forced or as if they are pastiche.  What would be the point of faking it?

The old time and string band musicians before World War II certainly didn’t shy away from the old ballads, but even so they embellished them with newer instrumentation and vocal approaches, and more often left them far behind for newer, more progressive compositions of their own or that were circulating at the time.

 Perhaps then the most likely possibility is that this song is indeed from the 19th century, as the lyrics and themes seem to suggest, but remained local to eastern Kentucky and thereabouts – where someone appalled by some local domestic horror might still find his or her rage best expressed in the old formula and language of the traditional ballad.  Three of the six sites of the early collection of the song are between 45 and 175 miles of Burnett and Rutherford’s home in Monticello, Kentucky.  Burnett and Rutherford’s recording of an old local ballad they’d learned could then still be responsible for the lion’s share of spreading it beyond the Cumberlands before the Folk Revival.  And of course, when it comes to professional folk performance, Harry Smith gets rightful kudos for the song’s ‘rediscovery.’
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