The Stories Behind Folk Songs

Like many writers, I am inspired by songs. Usually it is something that caught my attention because of the way it sounds, or the instruments, or even the singer’s voice. I am also a fan of folk songs and ballads.

“Trees They Do Grow High” is a bit of an inspirational song to me. Any feminist will be up in arms, but the song is about how we make the best of not-so-great situations. This first appeared in print in 1792 (or so says Wikipedia, so take that for whatever it is worth) and is about a father who arranges a marriage for his daughter with a boy half her age. Now the actual ages vary by a couple of years, but the version I am familiar with has the boy wed at 14, father by 15, and dead by 16. The daughter is almost always referred to as “twice twelve”, or 24 years old. As a 23 year old myself, I can say I would have the same objections as she did.

Here is one version of the song:

The trees they grow high,
the leaves they do grow green
Many is the time my true love I’ve seen
Many an hour I have watched him all alone
He’s young,
but he each day he’s growing.

Father, dear father,
you’ve done me great wrong
You have married me to a boy who is too young
I’m twice twelve and he is but fourteen
He’s young,
but he each day he’s growing.

Daughter, dear daughter,
I’ve done you no wrong
I have married you to a great lord’s son
He’ll be a man for you when I am dead and gone
He’s young,
but he each day he’s growing.

Father, dear father, if you see fit
We’ll send him to college for another year yet
I’ll tie blue ribbons all around his head
To let the maidens know that he’s married.

One day I was looking o’er my father’s castle wall
I spied all the boys aplaying at the ball
My own true love was the flower of them all
He’s young, but he each day he’s growing.

And so early in the morning
at the dawning of the day
They went out into the hayfield
to have some sport and play;
And what they did there,
she never would declare
But she never more complained of his growing.

At the age of fourteen, he was a married man
At the age of fifteen, the father of a son
At the age of sixteen, his grave it was green
Have gone, to be wasted in battle.
And death had put an end to his growing.

I’ll buy my love some flannel
and I will make a shroud
With every stitch I put in it,
the tears they come tickling down.
Once I had a true love,

but now I have none,
but I’ll enjoy our son while he’s growing.

This is just one of those stories that you can’t help but say “wow” to.  You feel her dilemma at the beginning of the song, and when she starts to fall for him, you can’t help but wonder why and what he must be like to have earned her heart despite their ages. The listener is still hesitant when the son is born, and it is only when the child-husband is dead and gone that the listener feels an emptiness without him, a sense of knowing that he can not be replaced.

Now, how can a character who has not spoken a word have this much of a profound influence? We do not know what he looks like, though we can assume he either is handsome or that he will be. Whoever he is, we know that our protagonist grew to love him greatly, and so much so that she overcomes some very sizable objections. Perhaps the real takeaway from this song is that it does not matter who you are, but rather what matters is your influence on others. Sometimes what people do matters more than anything else, and if you have touched one heart profoundly, your life continues on even when it has concluded.


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