I think that there must be a sentimental afterglow suffusing my spirit this spring in the wake of St.Patrick's Day and my "Molly Malone" post last week. Were that not sufficient to induce a kind of tempus fugit melancholy, then my attendance at a 70th anniversary screening of the piercingly romantic Casablanca in an event sponsored in selected theaters by Turner Classic Movies a couple of days ago surely did the trick - because I have found this week's song, a very old North Carolina ballad, haunting both my conscious thoughts and my dreams for the last several days. Not a problem at all, because "He's Gone Away" ranks with "Shenandoah" and "The Water Is Wide" as among the loveliest airs ever to grace a nation's traditional music.
I say "North Carolina ballad," but not surprisingly the song may have its roots in the British Isles, though exactly where is a matter of predictable dispute, with England garnering the most support, though I have always thought that the general tune sounded more Scots or Irish or even Welsh than English. The problem is that there are no close variants musically in Britain or Ireland (though some scholars maintain that the melody is derived from a Child ballad known as either "Lord Gregory" or "The Lass of Loch Royal") - and the hallmark lyric about returning even if the singer goes 10,000 miles appears in a number of songs in each country. Even if there is a foreign origin for "He's Gone Away," the chord accompaniment in the versions we know today has a distinctively Appalachian twist to it at the end of the chorus - instead of switching from the I chord or tonic ("But I'll be coming back") to the expected V7, the melody walks down a step on the "ten thousand," as from a G to an F, before resolving into the seventh chord on "miles." If that point seems just incomprehensible, as writing about music often does, simply think about the chord progression in mountain classics "Little Maggie" or "Darlin' Corey" where the same kind of shift occurs.
"He's Gone Away" appears in musical archives across America, with some very old printed copies stored in state libraries in Kansas and Missouri as well as in Appalachia. It has several variant titles as well - "The Railroad Man," "Over Yonder," and "Yandro" among others. Some people claim it to be a song from a Confederate volunteer leaving his intended to go off and fight in the war, others that it is the plaint of a runaway slave. It seems likely that the tune is much older than the Civil War, and just as I associate the haunting loveliness of the tune with "The Water Is Wide," the parting lovers motif strikes me as of the same nature as "The Wagoner's Lad", which goes back to 1790 or earlier.
Unlike "Water" and "Shenandoah," however, "He's Gone Away" survives in performances today in choral, orchestral, and jazz versions rather more than it does in guitar-based folk repertoires. I find that disappointing because the song is ideal for a single voice and one instrument, as it might have been done by, say, Judy Collins. So to get a kind of base version from which to start, I had to select a fine, simple choral rendition from the "WJMS Choir":
For the life of me I cannot find out the full name, location, or age of this chorale despite a really extensive search. However - after watching scores of YouTube videos in search of the answer, I think it likely that the "MS" in the YT name stands for "middle school" - which means that that wonderful rendition was executed by a group of 13- and 14-year-old girls. Stunning. Repeated queries via email, telephone, and YouTube email have failed to turn up the artists here - I called school districts in Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas to no avail - so for the moment we'll just have to appreciate the lovely performance without knowing who presented it.
Better luck here with another middle school chorus in a slightly more ornate arrangement with a rather larger ensemble:
I'm surmising that TMEA is the Texas Music Educators Association. This rendition is by their Region 8 All-Region Middle School Treble Choir, recorded on January 31st, 2009 at Midway Middle School in Hewitt, Texas.
Rather less surprising is the quality of the performance turned in here by operatic couple Charles H. and the late Mary Elizabeth Wagner, from 1987 in Chicago:
Folk fans will have already noted the lyrical similarity to both "Hard, Ain't Hard" and "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?" with the plaint by the singer wondering who will care for her in her lover's absence.
American classical composer Roy Harris used the melody as the fourth movement of his 1941 "Folk Song Symphony," and while there is no recording of that currently on YT, contemporary composer Rick Kirby has created a similarly moving and thoughtful piece from the musical theme:
Composer Robert Beaser also created an instrumental from the song, originally as a duo for guitar and flute. Matthew Slotkin and Craig Butterfield changed the instrumentation to guitar and double bass to a satisfying effect:
One of the greatest of 20th century American poets was Carl Sandburg, and he has appeared frequently in the articles on this site because he was also one of the great collectors of traditional folk songs in this country and one of the genre's greatest promoters. Late in his life, Sandburg retired from poetry, political activism, and his native Midwest to move to North Carolina, where he devoted all of his energies to folk singing for about a decade until his death in 1967. Here is his simple, unaffected take on the song, with a final chorus that I have heard before but which appears in no other versions on this page:
The surprise of the day is the legendary pop/jazz star Peggy Lee translating a folk number into a bluesy cabaret show-stopper:
Perhaps the best-known version in recent years is from 1997 by master jazz instrumentalists Pat Metheny of Missouri (guitar) and Charlie Haden (bass) from Iowa, both of whom recalled the tune from their country-bred parents and grandparents:
While several major folk stars of the revival era attempted "He's Gone Away," curiously the only version that I found on YouTube (going thirty pages into the search, I'll have you know), is a rewrite from the Kingston Trio that recasts the lyrics as a paean of admiration for the original seven American space explorers, the Mercury program astronauts - this is titled "These Seven Men":
Equally curiously - this rewrite was not done as I had thought for years by Trio member John Stewart but rather by his brother Michael, later one of the founding members of the folk-rock group "We Five" of "You Were On My Mind" fame. The excitement surrounding the original astronauts is, I think, captured well in the adulation and very Kennedy-era idealism of the lyrics.
The sheer and quiet beauty of this song has kept it a favorite of mine for decades, and I am disappointed that there are not more folk versions available to listen to. On the other hand, it is a testament to the evocative power of "He's Gone Away" - of lovers separated by time and space but with the yearning hope of reunion - that it has morphed into so many differing styles. If nothing else, that last fact has shaped this into the most musically unusual and eclectic of the 158 articles I've posted on this site.