Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow
Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow is a great song with a history that tells us much about how country music came to be. I became interested in the song and its history after hearing it as the uncredited and untitled bonus track on The Greencards new CD, The Brick Album (it’s on the latter part of the same track as the reprise of Tale of the KangaRio). Here’s a nice video of The Greencards doing the song live:
When I heard The Greencards version, it occurred to me that this old song had been on a recent record, but I couldn’t place it at first. A few days later I realized that Rosanne Cash had included the song in The List (titled Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow). Ms. Cash’s website and presumably the album jacket (my copy came from iTunes, so I’m no help) attributes the song to A.P. Carter. Couldn’t find a live video of Ms. Cash doing the song, but here’s the studio version, with lyrics appended (she sounds so good!):
Chris Thile and Michael Daves recorded the song on their new CD, Sleep With One Eye Open (titled Bury Me Beneath The Willow). The song’s authorship is listed as “traditional” on their album. Here they are doing the song live, with excellent lead vocals by Mr. Thile:
Bury Me has been recorded many times under at least 6 titles. Like a lot of old songs, there is confusion about its origins, and subseqent recordings and writings do little to clarify the issue. For example, Natalie Merchant recorded the song in 2003 on her import album The House Carpenter’s Daughter, calling it Bury Me Under The Willow, and crediting the song to A.P. Carter. A recent Roughstock review of The Greencards’ Brick Album notes the presence of the song as a bonus track, then attributes its authorship to Natalie Merchant.
So who wrote this song? No way to know for sure (except we can be reasonably certain that Natalie Merchant didn’t write it). Here’s a link to an interesting discussion thread on Mudcat.org, in which Mother Maybelle Carter is quoted about the song. If the quote is accurate, the Carter Family had sung the song all their lives. She names the believed author as Bradley Kincaid, but it is more likely that Mr. Kincaid simply “collected” the song during his travels in the mountains, since a written version was in existence when he was only 14, and already in tradition. We do know that The Carter Family recorded the song at Bristol, Tennessee in 1927, as Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow Tree. It may have been the first song they ever recorded. The Bristol recordings are generally considered a jumping off point in country music. Ralph Peer brought a Victor Talking Machine crew to Bristol at the beginning of August that year and recorded The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, according to Bill Malone’s booklet Classic Country Music (companion to Classic Country Music: A Smithsonian Collection).
We also know something about who recorded Bury Me commercially, and when they did it. A definitive reference is Country Music Sources, by Meade and Spottswood, which chronicles pre-World War II commercial recordings of traditional folk and country music.
Country Music Sources declines to name an author for Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow (which is the title used in its main heading). It notes the Carter Family recording in 1927 as the ninth commercial recording of the song, with the first recording by Henry Whitter in New York City on December 10, 1923. Ralph Peer was involved in that recording, too.
There’s no claim that Whitter wrote Bury Me, but he was involved in the origins of the first million-selling country song, The Wreck of the Old 97, which resulted in a lawsuit over its authorship and the name of Rhett Miller’s band. But that’s another story. Actually, two other stories.
Here’s the Carter Family’s 1927 recording with a nice video of still photographs. Enjoy!
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