"Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies," whose cautionary words to young women about young men is a standard folk motif, seems to be one of those fairly rare American Appalachian originals - I say rare because so many other ballads from the southern mountains have clear antecedents in Britain or Ireland. "Ladies" may as well, and some experts think so, but no clear bloodline exists to any one song from the British Isles, or even from one family of songs. My usual sources for consultation - mainly John A. Lomax and Lesley Nelson-Burns (from The Contemplator site) both identify the song as American, as does British expert on Appalachian songs Cecil Sharp. That should be good enough for anyone - though in some of the lyrics there are distant echoes of UK songs like "The Water Is Wide," among others.
But Lomax has more to say pertinent here in his 1947 Folk Songs of North America. In fact, he uses a musical setting for "Ladies" in his introduction as an example of how folk music should not be arranged - with sixth and augmented chords of the kind that we hear in several of the pop folk versions below but not in the traditional ones. He especially disliked "chromatic upholstery, overrichness of harmonic texture, [and] modulations." Whew.
First, a couple of almost-traditional versions. Maybelle Carter of the legendary original Carter family (and as a guitarist, the inventor of the "Carter lick" that most of us use in some form) performs our first version:
The autoharp adds a nice touch, I suppose - but it's not a traditional mountain instrument, having been patented in the 1880s in Germany and in the 1920s in the U.S. What is authentic here, though, is a simple accompaniment of major chords with an occasional minor thrown in.
The Abbott Family also hails from the mountains - the Coast Ranges of Santa Cruz, CA. But they have been born again into mountain music, and though using the Carter Family melody, they go fuller-on trad in their instrumentation:
Now for the versions that John Lomax wouldn't like - first, the Kingston Trio:
Very smooth, soft, and thoughtful - but the syncopated rhythm of the guitar line and occasional sixth note in the harmony makes this version anathema to purists. Pleasant listening, though, if you don't mind a bit of sophistication in your folk music...
...which you can also hear in this version from Ireland's Lumiere, consisting of Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon:
The guitar part sounds as if it had been arranged by Paul Simon in his heyday. Really lovely.
Gene Clark of the Byrds (with Carla Olson) in his last recording before his death in the 1980s gives the song a signature folk-rock setting:
Jackson Browne from 1975 shows his folkie-country roots here:
(Ed. Note: Jackson B. is down for Copyright - so here is the stunning soprano of the early Joan Baez recording.)
And finally, the classically-trained and oriented Ishtar from Belgium with a lovely take on the song:
Not surprisingly, I find this last and the Lumiere versions to be the most affecting, likely in part to the plaintive feminine voices in these videos. They are also (with the Kingstons) the most musically complex. The debates about what constitutes folk music are long past - it seems to be today whatever you want to make it. While I truly enjoy Mother Maybelle and the Abbotts, I also feel that a good song like this one benefits from creative license. A good part of the ultimate value of the Folk Revival, I think, will prove to be that it both rediscovered and popularized traditional music but at the same time made it available for thoughtful re-creation.