Heritage Tune Competition: The Story Behind ‘Shady Grove’

Pretty Little Miss
The song “Shady Grove” was first written down in 1658

In 2012, I participated in the Heritage Tune competition at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddler’s Convention. The competition is open to musicians of any age who have competed in one of the festival’s twelve instrumental competitions. I competed in the Mountain Dulcimer category, so I was eligible for the Heritage Tune competition. One prize was awarded, consisting of cash and a ribbon. I won, but not on the strength of my playing. I won on the strength of my spoken presentation (thanks to years of public speaking training in Toastmasters International).

I intended to post the performance video, but due to technical problems with the instrument mic and the camera, I am unable to. Below is an audiogram of the spoken portion over a screenshot from the video.

Here’s the transcription of the audiogram:

<Moderator> Wayne, Why do you think that your tune should be included in a catalog of the all-time best heritage tunes?

<Wayne Jordan> Just about every Old-Time and bluegrass band plays one version or another of this tune. I learned it just few weeks ago from a woman named Peggy Carter, who is a dulcimer player from Texas. She taught it to me as Susanna Gal, but here in North Carolina and Virginia, West Virginia, it’s primarily known as Fly Away My Pretty Little Miss. If you go out into Kentucky, Tennessee, or Ohio, out that way, it’s known primarily as Shady Grove. Down in Texas and nearby states, it’s known as Susanna Gal. And when you hit Colorado, and move west, it’s known as Western Country. It’s known by different names played in slightly different ways in all these places.

Over time, there have been more than 300 stanzas written for this tune. Now, like a lot of tunes that are really old, it started off in England. The first time this was written down was in 1658, in a publication called Wit and Drollery. Now, I don’t think that the lyrics of this tune are witty or droll, but they’ve certainly survived the trip across the ocean.

A Storied Tune Across Time and Place

In England, the original story was about a young man named Matthew Groves or Matty Groves. And Matty had a little thing going with the wife of the Lord of the Manor, and his Lordship didn’t like that very much. As a lot of these Old English love ballads go, the relationship ended badly. But the song survived and made the trip across the ocean. Over the next couple of hundred years, Matthew became Shady and went from being a boy to being a girl known as Shady Grove. It’s still a love tune. It’s still love lost. And depending on what name you’re hearing the song under, the lyrics might change. For example, Shady Grove is a love song, but Susanna Gal is a whiskey drinking card player I think there’s something for everybody in this tune.

What I’ve done, in honor of all that’s gone before, is I’ve tuned the dulcimer down to an old timey sounding EAA tuning, and I’ve taken bits and pieces of all of it and put it together in a tune that I call Fly Around My Pretty Little Susanna Gal from Shady Western Country.

<Moderator> Sounds like a tune for all occasions. So let’s welcome Wayne Jordan, Susannah Gal, and the rest.

Here are three variations of the tune Shady Grove. You’ll immediately recognize the similarities in each.

Below: Billy Strings plays Shady Grove

Below: the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys play Susanna (Susan-Anna) Gal

Below: Dirk Powell plays Western Country


Leave a Reply