The Broadside section “Songs and Tunes” generally features a couple of tunes with background and music all laid out for the learning. In this edition we decided to shift focus a bit and include “Sweet Forget-me-not,” a beautiful and very sweet song in waltz time which has the reputation of being a favourite of Gerald Campbell, the recipient of this year’s St. John’s Folk Arts Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
As well as being Gerald’s signature song, “Sweet Forget-me-not” is associated with Newfoundland in general. A bit of research shows that the song is also popular with many recording artists, including:
Ryan’s Fancy recorded it on their album “Dance Around This One.”
The Willis Brothers include it on their recording “Singers for Fishermen - A. Frank Willis.”
Eddie Coffey describes on his web site (http://www.eddiecoffey.com/bio.html) his first recording session in Toronto. The song he picked to record was “Sweet Forget-me-not,” which he had heard Gerald Campbell sing at house parties in the St. Mary’s Bay - Placentia Bay area of Newfoundland. The song can be found on his album “Come Closer Eastcoaster.”
Ian Robb, a Londoner who has lived in Canada since 1970, has developed a reputation as one of Canada's finest performers in the "Anglo-Celtic" musical traditions. With Shelley Posen and Ann Downey, he makes up the trio Finest Kind; they played at the Folk Festival in Bannerman Park in 2003. Ian has recorded “Sweet Forget-me-not” twice – once solo in 1985 on “Rose and Crown,” and again with Finest Kind in 2003 on “Silks and Spices.”
Margaret Bennett writes on her web site (http://www.margaretbennett.co.uk) that in the 1970s, when she was a student of folklore at Memorial University, no get- together was complete without a performance of “Sweet Forget-me-not.” She recorded the song on her CD “In the Sunny Long Ago.”
Dolores Keane, the great Irish singer, learned the song from Gerald Campbell’s singing of it, as Delf Maria Hohmann indicates in his article on Campbell also in this issue. Keane recorded it with De Dannan on “Ballroom.”
So singers living in Newfoundland sing the song, and singers visiting Newfoundland have learned the song here, taken it away, and recorded it. Surprisingly, however, the song has a very different origin than one might expect. It was first published in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1877, with the following attribution:
“A new and magnificent song with a remarkably pretty waltz chorus, composed by BOBBY NEWCOMB of minstrel fame. It is sung by Primrose and West, of Haverly’s Minstrels; Delehanty and Hengler, of the “Tony Pastor Troupe;” Adah Richmond, and other first class artists all over the country. This song will surely be admired by everybody. Price, 40 cents per copy; can be had from any music dealer.”
The song was actually written in the USA by Bobby Newcome. The original sheet music and lyrics can be found on the internet (go to http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ and then search for “Sweet Forget-me-not”). It’s possible that Newcomb based his composition on an older song, but this seems unlikely. Another song, "The Big Sunflower," which Bobby Newcomb penned in 1868, bears some similarity to “Sweet Forget-me-not” – the title is the name of a flower, the metre is similar, and the song is about a man wooing his sweetheart, who finally answers “Yes” in answer to his proposal of marriage.
Here, for comparison, are the words of “Sweet Forget-me-not” and “The Big Sunflower.”
Two Songs by Bobby Newcomb
1. Oh fancy brings a thought to me,
of flowers sweet and rare,
With grace and beauty there combined,
And brightest hues so fair,
So like a maiden that I loved,
It was my happy lot
I whispered where we parted last,
Oh, you’ll forget-me-not
Graceful and as charming as a lily in the pond
Time has passed so swiftly for of her I am so fond
Daisies and the roses too, they grow around the spot
Where we parted and I whispered you’ll forget-me-not.
2. We met I really don’t know where,
But still ‘tis all the same,
For love walks in the busy streets,
As well as in the lane.
I gently pressed her tiny hand,
She glanced at me a shot.
She dropped a flower, I picked it up,
A sweet forget-me-not
3. At last there came a happy day,
And something that I said
Just caused her lips to murmur, yes,
And shortly we were wed.
A little garden by the brook,
And a tiny garden spot,
Where grows a little flower called
A sweet forget-me-not
THE BIG SUNFLOWER
1. There is a charm I can't explain
About a girl I've seen,
My heart beats fast when she goes past,
In a dark dress trimmed in green.
Her eyes are bright as evening stars,
So loving and so shy,
And the folks all stop and look around,
When ever she goes by.
And I feel just as happy as a big sunflower
That nods and bends in the breezes,
And my heart is as light as the wind that blows
The leaves from off the trees-ees.
2. As days past on and we became
Like friends of olden times,
I thought the question I should pop
And ask her to be mine.
But the answer I received next day,
How could she treat me so
Instead of being mine for life,
She simply answered no.
3. I went next day dressed in my best,
This young girl for to see,
To ask her if she would explain why
She had shaken me.
She said she really felt quite sad
To cause me such distress,
And when I said "Won't you be mine?"
Of course she answered “yes.”
The fact that “Sweet Forget-me-not” has a written origin, rather than an origin in oral tradition, probably accounts for the fact that most versions offer similar stories. The gentleman falls for the shy young lady, courts her, finally wins her, and they settle down together to country life. One version that provides an interesting twist, however, is that of Vince Ledwell of Calvert (Southern Shore, near Ferryland); his version of the song was collected and published in MacEdward Leach And The Songs Of Atlantic Canada © 2004 Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (see websites http://collections.ic.gc.ca/E/Alphabet.asp and http://www.mun.ca/folklore/leach/songs/NFLD1/1A_3.htm#stay). In this version, the young lady is somewhat more forward and Vince has her doing most of the propositioning, to the point of shocking her suitor with her forward behaviour! In the second verse, instead of “I gently pressed her tiny hand, / She glanced at me a shot. / She dropped a flower, I picked it up, / A sweet forget-me-not.” Vince sings “She threw her arms around me, / I glanced at her a-shocked. / She dropped a flower, I picked it up, / 'Twas a sweet forget-me-not”. In the last verse the proposal comes as follows: “At length there came a happy day, / When something that I said, / Which caused her little murmuring lips, / To say that we should wed.” However, it seems as if the singer likes his liberated lady – they still end up together in their little garden spot.
“Sweet Forget-me-not” thrives in Newfoundland, if not in Ohio where it was first penned. It remains more or less unchanged over time (although the lady may be more forward in some versions). It can still be heard live in pubs, bars, at house parties, in coffee houses and at Folk Festivals in Newfoundland, and it continues to be recorded by musicians who credit Newfoundland as being the spiritual home of this lovely song.
Now, I wonder how “The Big Sunflower” goes!
Sally Goddard’s love of traditional song was instilled in her at an early age; she is steeped in the folk traditions of her native England as well as her chosen home, Newfoundland. She is one member of “Atlantic Union” and her wonderful solo unaccompanied singing is a highlight of Folk Club’s open mic.
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