Sunday, July 02, 2006

Wildwood Flower - A Song Mystery

I'll twine 'mid the ringlets of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale and the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright with an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus with eyes of bright blue.

I'll sing and I'll dance, my laugh shall be gay;
I'll cease this wild weeping drive sorrow away,
Tho' my heart is now breaking, He never shall know
That his name made me tremble and my pale cheeks to glow.

I'll think of him never I'll be wildly gay,
I'll charm ev'ry heart, and the crowd I will sway,
I'll live yet to see him, regret the dark hour
When he won, then neglected, the frail wildwood flower.

He told me he loved me, and promis'd to love,
Trough ill and misfortune, all others above,
Another has won him, ah, misery to tell;
He left me in silence no word of farewell.

He taught me to love him, he call'd me his flower
That blossom'd for him all the brighter each hour
But I woke from my dreaming, my idol was clay
My visions of love have all faded away.

I'll think of him never I'll be wildly gay,
I'll charm ev'ry heart, and the crowd I will sway,
I'll live yet to see him, regret the dark hour
When he won, then neglected, the frail wildwood flower.

1860 - Words by Maud Irving, Music by Joseph Philbrick Webster

This song was written in 1860 and recorded by The Carter Family in 1928. Sara Carter sang the vocal and some of the lyrics were changed.

I love music and have studied composition, music theory and music appreciation, which gave me a love music history. This wonderful song remains a music mystery.

There are two questions that remain unanswered.

1. Who is Maud Irving?
2. What is Aronatus?

Maud Irving is listed as the writer of the lyrics. The original title of her poem was I Will Twine 'mid The Ringlets. There is only one other work that I could find attributed to Maud Irving. It is a poem called Mildred.  I cannot find the text of this poem.

J.P. Webster was a very famous songwriter, teacher and musician of his day and has over 1,000 songs credited to his authorship. He traveled around the eastern and midwestern United States performing and eventually settling in Indiana. His composition Lorena was used in Gone With The Wind. In The Sweet Bye And Bye is still a well known hymn as is Softly And Tenderly.

In 1859, the year prior to our song in question, Mr. Webster set to music a text written by Thomas Aldrich called Little Maud. J.P Webster did not have any children named Maud (although strangely enough he named his only son, Beethoven.)

There is mention of Maud Irving in a diary that was written in 1874-75 by a fourteen year old girl named Fanny White. On May 15, 1874 she makes a notation of a popular cantata being performed at her school. The name of the cantata is "Maud Irving" and it is about a young beggar girl.

I would be curious to know who wrote this cantata and when.

Miss Irving seems to have only has two known works that can be attributed to her.

I have found a link on "find a grave" of a woman from this era named Maud Irving Cane Cassidy. However no proof of this lady as author of the music.

This causes me to wonder if Maud Irving existed or was this a nom de plume of a man writing poetry from a woman's perspective?

Moving on to our next query. What is aronatus? I have searched for clues regarding this subject. Most discussions on the web believe the poet is referring to a flower called Aronatus. Through all of these texts none have found any botanical sources that bear this name. I am of the opinion those folks are fishing in the wrong stream. This is a song about a brokenhearted girl that has been jilted by a young man that told her he loved her. My take on "the pale aronatus with eyes of bright blue" is this is a reference to her man.

The stanza before speaks of myrtle, which was a foliage that bedecked Roman champions. Education being what it was back in the day demanded an emphasis on knowledge of Latin in school that has since been abandon. Aro is the Latin word for plow. Natu is Latin for by birth. Could Aro-natu(s) mean destined to plow by birth or simply put, a plow boy or a farm boy, a pale farm boy with eyes of bright blue? I don't know but that makes more sense to me than other theories about flowers.

I learned to play this song on guitar as a 13 year old boy and I have played it countless times, usually as fast as possible. It was not until I heard it sung by Linda Williams who performs with her husband Robin, that I realized it was such a lovely song with intense heartfelt lyrics.

It should be savored and played moderately so the listener can appreciate it's meaning. When you come across lyrics such as these it makes you appreciate the similarities that have never changed low these past 150 years.


jess said...

Thank you =D
This is the song my grandmother would always ask me to play when I was learning the guitar xD
Apparently it's the "Freebird" of that her time.
I love this song so much and just learned how to play it.

Nicole said...

This song is simply beautiful. I'm a pianist singer/songwriter, but this song makes me want to learn guitar. This song is mysteriously wonderful.

don said...

I was fortunate enough to hear my uncle Junior Martin play this song in the mountains of Tennessee, 1969ish, I asked him how he learn to play such a beautiful song and he said that he played by it seemed, he could listen to song on the radio and then within a few minutes be playing a rather impressive likeness of what he had just listen to. I was envious yet I knew he was truly gifted with the guitar. I am in agreement with you regarding the "aronatus" definition. You have obviously spent some time, as have I wondering and yet never quite getting the full meaning of, what I consider my favorite song ...I will keep looking just the same and post if I find anything. Much thanks and keep pickin' from the heart.
Don Casto
Semper Fi

T. Gray said...

A favorite of mine since I learned to play guitar in 1963.

IMO, the context of the song strongly suggests that aronatus is a flower.

Leaving aronatus aside, how was the lyric corrupted to "the pale and the leader" (Carters, 1930?) or "the sweet ameleter and eyes look so blue" (Joan Baez, 1958?). These are not homophonic to "aronatus". I suggest that there was a transitional form.

Zane Grey in his 1929 novel "Rogue River Feud" wrote the phrase "...the madrona, the myrtle, and the manzanita...". The manzanita flower ranges from pink through white to pale blue, and the juxtaposition of myrtle and manzanita in the novel matches that of the song which, while undoubtedly coincidental, is intriguing.

Sing the last line of the verse as "The pale manzanita makes my eyes look so blue" and see if your friends make a mondegreen corruption such as "amanita" (ick, a poisonous mushroom!) or "and the leader".

Eric M. Bram said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
I LOVE YOU said...


Anonymous said...

I believe the aronatus is a corruption of the name for some flower. The song is about wild wood flowers. Also corrupted is the line about a pale something, some kind of flower. I believe the next line should refer to "islips of blue". Islips are a blue flower.

Anonymous said...

Islip isn't a flower; it's a town on Long Island, NY.

Newport On The Levee said...

Great info! This is one of the best post I've ever seen, One thing I just want to say is that your blog is so perfect! :) Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great site! Have you seen this:

One day I went walking away from the town
To a glade in the wildwood, where I sat me down.
But I was awakened from my
A soldier on horseback was smiling at me.

He taught me to love him and called me his flower
That was blooming to cheer him in my leafy bower.
But I was forsaken and, truth to tell,
He left without warning, no word of farewell.

I will immingle my ringlets of raven black hair
With the primrose so bright and the lily so fair,
The myrtle adorned with its berries of blue,
The red aquilegia, the shy violet too.

He told me he loved me and promised to love
And to cherish me over all others above.
But I woke from my dream and my idol was clay.
My notions of loving soon faded away.

I will charm a new love; in his heart I will stay.
We will sing, we will dance and our lives will be gay.
I will sweep from my soul all the sadness and gloom
And the bud of the wildflower will blossom and bloom.

I will immingle my ringlets of raven black hair
With the primrose so bright and the lily so fair,
The myrtle adorned with its berries of blue,
The red aquilegia, the shy violet too.

MarcO said...

I am overwhelmed by the comments. I have updated the pictures, some of which had disappeared.

I am still puzzled by aronatus, whether it be a flower or not.

Many words that are long antiquated have changed meaning.

We may never know, but just enjoy the wonderful song.

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Eric M. Bram said...

I believe the mystery of Maud Irving's identity has been solved. See: The Mystery of Maud Irving.

Incidentally, I totally disclaim my 2006 musings here about the aronatus "certainly" being a real flower, and the possible Latin origins of its name. The person who coined "aronatus" might have done so using similar logic, but I doubt there was such a flower in reality.

Tom said...

Excellent bit of scholarship regarding the "Mystery of Maud Irving". Well done, Eric.
Now, on to resolve the meaning of aronatus....

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post very much. Also enjoyed the alternate lyrics posted by Anonymous, with the soldier on horseback. They make sense!

I grew up on Wildwood Avenue, and my father was a great Carter family fan, so I identify with the song! It's one of my favorites, but I always thought "twine with my mingles" didn't make sense. I always thought, "What does "the pale and the leader mean?"

It's like "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear."

My vote for the aronatus is the long-spurred violet, or violet rostrata of North Carolina. (image at It's pale with a blue eye. Aronatus was probably a local folk name for the flower.


E. Bram said...

Hi Tom,

I think I may have finally located the "Aronatus". That may have been a local name for a wildflower known as "blue-eyed tulip." Botanically a tulip, it would normally bloom only in the spring, consistent with the Latin meaning of "aronatus" (plow-born) indicating a flower that blooms during the time of spring planting. It also looks exactly as described in the song, i.e., "pale with eyes of bright blue." I don't know of another flower, let alone a wildflower, that answers that description.

There's a photograph of the flower, whose scientific name is Humilis Alba Coerulea Oculata (which means "small white blue-eyed"), on the Mystery of Maud Irving page.

- Eric

T. Gray said...

Read the Mystery page -- nicely researched. But still no final answer :{
And still only a surmise about aronatus, though convincing enough for me!