For this blog post I’d like to talk about one of my favorite bluegrass songs—Shady Grove. Shady Grove was one of the first bluegrass songs I heard and fell in love with. It was the song that made me realize I loved bluegrass music. In this post I’ll talk about the song’s history, its musical make-up, and some popular versions of it.
Shady Grove is a traditional song, meaning it was written by no single person. It has been passed down through generations via the folk tradition. Its exact origins are unknown, but musicologists seem to agree that Shady Grove spawned out of another traditional song, Matty Grove 1. Shady Grove’s geographical origins are also unknown, though most people believe it was originally an Irish or Scottish song that came to the US in the 1700s2. Because of its traditional nature, Shady Grove is not a song with fixed form or even fixed lyrics. Back in the day, people would have learned the song from hearing someone else play it. As a result, there are multitudes of variations, both musically and lyrically. Some versions of the song are said to have upwards of 300 verses3.
Musically, Shady Grove is usually a pretty simple song. Most versions only have two or three basic major and minor chords. The melody of the song is a classic folk melody. It has a sort of lonesome longing feeling that just about everyone can connect with. It’s also a very catchy melody—the kind of melody that will be stuck in your head for days. Though there are a lot of musical variations of the song, most of them stick to the same basic chords and melody. Now, I’d like to look at some versions of the song.
This version is the oldest recording of the song I could find on YouTube. When listening to this version, it’s easy to imagine a bunch of people in a bar or sitting on a porch in Appalachia playing it, just having a good time. This arrangement of the song is more old-time than bluegrass, and interestingly, it has more of a major key tonality. Most modern versions have a decidedly minor tonality. Also, take note of the lyrics in this version and compare them to subsequent versions; nearly every version has a variation in the lyrics.
The next version I’d like to talk about is Doc Watson’s. I’ve talked about Doc on this blog before, and it’s hard to overstate Doc’s massive influence in folk/bluegrass. His version of Shady Grove has become the de facto standard in the modern folk/bluegrass scene. Doc’s voice compliments the song perfectly, and the guitar and banjo on this recording have a very old sound (in a good way).
The last version I want to talk about is the first version I heard, the one that made me fall in love with bluegrass. Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice recorded a jam session in 1993 that yielded an album called The Pizza Tapes. One of the songs they jammed was Shady Grove. Though not heard on this video, they opened the song with a lengthy jam that would make Deadheads smile. Their version of the song itself is incredibly tight and lively. Garcia’s road-worn voice works perfectly with the song. It shouldn’t be hard to see why this version made me fall in love with bluegrass.
1 Bledsoe, A. (2015). Shady Grove and the Tradition of Living Songs. https://alexbledsoe.com/2010/02/08/shady-grove-and-the-tradition-of-living-songs/
2 Griffith, S. (2013). Shady Grove. http://www.stephengriffith.com/folksongindex/shady-grove/
3 Coleman, S. (2020). Shady Grove. http://folkslingers.com/shady-grove/