There was an urban legend circulating among my fellow coffeehouse folk performers in the late '60s that went something like this. Once upon a time, some time in the early 1960s, two enterprising young men were given what they regarded as an impossible assignment in a class in the UCLA department of folklore, one of the most distinguished of such university departments in the world. The assignment was to do some field work in folk music - to go off into a rural section of the Mountain West and find either a traditional song that had been as of then undiscovered, or a significant variant of a song already known. Well, our two young heroes made a valiant attempt to do so over a long spring break, covering hundreds of miles and visiting dozens of small towns in the rural Nevada/California border country in the shadows of the lofty escarpment of the Eastern Sierra and along the Walker River (pictured). Their efforts proved fruitless, and in desperate fear of failure on the assignment and perhaps in the class, the two decided to write an original song about a pair of ill-fated young lovers in the Old West in a traditional ballad mode and submit it as a "discovery." The song sounded so convincingly authentic that the professor of the class awarded them an A for the project. The students were alleged to have been Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell (who hailed from Nevada, not too far from the "Yerrington town" of the lyric) and their creation was what many a singer back in the day referred to as "the fake folk song, 'Darcy Farrow.'" There are variations on this tall tale, which has itself turned into a bit of folklore, but that's the way I heard it first years ago.
The tale is not nearly so far-fetched as our jaded 21st century media-saturated sophistication might have us believe. Only a bit more than a decade and a half before the real Gillette was a student in 1965 in Westwood, a bright young English lit major at the University of Virginia named Paul Clayton was hired as a research assistant by celebrated folklorist Arthur Kyle Davis and given just such an assignment. In the company of his fellow assistant Matthew Bruccoli, later America's most renowned scholar on the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clayton scoured the hills and hollers of central Appalachia for several months and actually uncovered a number of variants of established folk songs and fragments of several that had been previously unknown, including two that Clayton appears to have fused into a song whose copyright bears his name, "I Feel Like I Gotta Travel On." Even later in the mid-1950s, at the urging of mountain dulcimer legend Jean Ritchie, American Diane Guggenheim (yes, those Guggenheims) went to Ireland on a similar mission, returning to the U.S. with a passel of unfamiliar Celtic folk tunes and a very young Liam Clancy in tow.
Such doings lent an air of believability to the "Darcy Farrow" story, but alas! - it was cut from wholly fabricated cloth by what appears to have been none other than Ian Tyson himself. Ian and Sylvia were the first to record the Gillette/Campbell composition, and the liner notes on their 1965 Early Mornin' Rain album on which Darcy made her graceful debut are a bit vague about the song's origins. Gillette had been a major fan of the Canadian duo, catching their act as often as he could and eventually opening for the pair as the "local talent" musician at The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, CA, where he and Campbell played a number of their own creations for the folk stars. It was "Darcy Farrow" that made the deepest impression, and Ian and Sylvia became the first of more than three hundred artists to perform and/or record the song, additionally employing Gillette as the opening act for most of their California engagements and helping him to secure a contract with Vanguard, the label on which they themselves recorded.
Gillette has told the rather more interesting real story of the song's composition in a number of interviews. "The song is based on something that happened to my little sister, whose name is Darcy. At 12 years old she was running behind her horse, chasing it into the corral, when she was kicked. She broke her cheekbone but had no other lasting effects; there was a three-day period where she was in the hospital, and we were all concerned she might have a concussion. During that time, my friend, Tom Campbell, my co-writer on the song, took a melody I had written and came up with a story about the two young lovers and the tragic fall. I was a little horrified about the idea since it was so dark and involved my sister's name, but as we worked with it and took it in the direction of the old cowboy songs, I was much more comfortable with it. So many of the old cowboy songs take their melodies from Scottish-Irish musical traditions." Gillette added to Jon Einarson in Einarson's recent Four Strong Winds biography of Ian and Sylvia that "The story that Tom and I wrote the song to fool a college professor isn't true, but Ian told that story for years. That wasn't the case. We really wrote it just as a song."
The very genuine and quiet loveliness of "Darcy Farrow" has moved dozens of musicians to record it, each remolding it to fit his or her own skills and artistic visions. Still, as with many other great songs, the very best version may well be that by the composer himself - here is Gillette from his eponymous debut album from 1967:
"Darcy" was a highlight on an album full of highlights, including other tunes like "Back On The Street Again," which became a hit single for The Stone Poneys with twenty-year-old Linda Ronstadt singing the lead and which was covered wonderfully by The Sunshine Company and The Sandpipers as well, and "A Number And A Name," which I heard both John Denver and Michael Johnson perform live on different occasions. And lest we think that time must have its way with us - here is Gillette just a couple of years ago sounding as good as he did in '67, with his wife and performing partner Cindy Mangsen:
Ian and Sylvia's recording predated Gillette's own by a year or so, and the duo speeds the tune up a bit to that Canadian country tempo that they pioneered:
And in a moment of harmonic convergence, Ian and Sylvia included the aforementioned Ms. Ronstadt in their rendition for their 1984 reunion show. All the videos of this single performance have been taken down from YT for copyvio, but for some reason the whole show is still there. Ronstadt joins the Tysons for "Darcy" at exactly the 33 minute mark:
Ronstadt's third part lends a sweetness to the song that contrasts to the high lonesome sound of Gillette's original, and Ian and Sylvia have clearly slowed the tempo from their own 1966 recording...
...most likely because the highest profile that "Darcy Farrow" ever enjoyed was due to its inclusion in the 1972 multi-platinum Rocky Mountain High album that boosted another young singer-songwriter named John Denver into pop super-stardom - and Denver chose the slower tempo of Gillette's own first recording above:
This video is from the 1995 Wildlife Concert that Denver staged just two years before his tragically early death in a light plane crash. It was a wonderful show in most respects, though in many cases I preferred JD's earlier studio recordings of some of the songs. This "Darcy," however, is much better vocally than the '72 version and it fully and completely illustrates his most committed fans' contention that he was singing better at the end of his career than he was at its beginning. Even Denver's most rabid and contemptuous critics had to admit that he was a masterful showman, and this is a brilliant arrangement: note the gradual and sequential introduction of accompanying instruments verse by verse, the understated quiet of the performance, and Denver's own mellow, rounded, and emotional vocals. This video reminds me more than almost any other of how much I miss having Denver as part of the musical landscape today.
John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson, founding members of The Nity Gritty Dirt Band, reunited last year for an album and DVD called "Nitty Gritty Surround." This video is of only about half of the song and is a promo for the discs, but the arrangement and performance are so lovely that it needs inclusion here:
If you are not a Dirt Band fan - that's Ibbotson on lead vocals and McEuen, master of all things stringed, leading off the recording on guitar.
For something startlingly different, roots music star Nanci Griffith a capella, or almost so:
I will hazard the opinion that the light conga accompaniment is intended to evoke the canter of a pony without replicating it. Griffith's vocals have the slightly rough edge of genuine old time country music.
Matthews Southern Comfort is the name of several differently configured bands organized by UK roots legend Iain Matthews, himself a member of Fairport Convention and several other high profile groups. This performance is from a house concert in the Netherlands last June:
The piano accompaniment and vocal harmony make this version unique, and Matthews' singing is beautifully restrained.
Finally - in 1967, the Kingston Trio was at the point of disbanding after a ten year run, but the group wanted to put out a final album of contemporary numbers before breaking up. The three performers of the group, Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and John Stewart, each recorded in the San Francisco studio that they owned some rough run-throughs of songs that they planned to include on the record. However, when Decca (their label at the time) shelved the project, the unfinished tapes went into the vault for 40 years until Collectors' Choice Music resurrected them and released them in 2007 as The Lost Album. John Stewart, who was himself about to embark on a long and distinguished if under-appreciated career as a singer-songwriter until his death in 2008, laid down this very rough track of his take on "Darcy Farrow":
I had mixed feelings about making this video and posting the JS version to the article because his "Darcy" was never intended to see the light of day in this form. Stewart was a far better singer and guitarist than this shows, though you can hear the rudiments of what could have become a good recording here. Stewart had a tinge of loneliness in his voice that served him well on this track as it did in many of his own best songs, and a refined and finished cut might well have been a worthy one.
I have to say that despite my 40 years as a college teacher (or maybe because of them), I find the image of a couple of clever students snookering an old prof to be an appealing one somehow. But as is almost always the case, the reality of what Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell achieved with the writing of "Darcy Farrow" far transcends the myth of undergraduate hijinks that has become attached to the tune - because they succeeded in creating a song that does indeed and in fact evoke both the Celtic and Old West melodies that they sought to emulate and that is so well-crafted and so moving that we can be pretty sure that someone will be singing it a century from now when we are all naught but dust and bones. And that is what I would term a "real" folk song.
...And A Late Addition 7/5/2012
I just found this outstandingly arranged version by bluegrass band Chesapeake from their album Rising Tide - sublime harmonies and instrumentation:
Steve Gillette has uploaded to YouTube two instructional videos on how to play "Darcy Farrow" as he wrote and performed it. It's worth pointing out how generous this is of Steve - after all, he could be charging folks for sheet music or tabs off of his website (which is HERE and which includes the one, true, accurate rendering of the lyrics to the song). There are plenty of far wealthier musicians who do just that. Hats off to Mr. G, who seems to understand that he has created a classic that has found its way into our popular folk culture.