I first sang this song as part of UMaine's women's chorus. I sung in the group while teaching at the University. It was a great pleasure. I remember wondering what the words meant. Nobody seemed to know. Since then I've tried to research the song, but its origins are very nebulous.
The song is very "sticky". It has flown through history picking up elements through the centuries, stopping the accumulation sometime around the American Civil War.
This rendition from the late 40s/early 1950s is a popular rendition of the ballad.
Here are elements of the song that are from various centuries.
16th-17th centuries and before
He's gone away for to stay a little while,
but he's comin' back if he goes 10,000 miles
O who will tie my shoes?
And who will glove my hand?
And who will kiss my ruby lips when he is gone?
Look away, look away over yandro.
The term 10,000 miles stands for an impossibly spanned distance in thousands of folk songs from the British Isles. Here is Mary Chapin Carpenter singing "10,000 Miles," a ballad strikingly similar to "Shenendoah" (another ballad about an impossible love.) One gets the impression that the woman's young man is off at war, never to return. I love how Ms Carpenter does a little Irish ornament on some of the high notes. A nice homage to that island of fantastic ballads.
The term "10,000 miles" can refer to any number of things: a sailor away at sea, a husband off working far away on the railroad, a soldier at war, a man in prison, a loved one in heaven.
Some versions of "He's Gone Away" feature a second verse that answers the questions of the first, naming: the tier of shoes, glover of the hand, and kisser of the ruby lips. This question and answer form is also very common in ballads of Britain.
Here's the version in 150 American Folksongs.
Here's one every Kodaly teacher knows.
The blue notes are the signature for contributions by American slaves. Listen for the word "glove" and "kiss". In many versions, this note is flatted (blue). The blue note makes the lyric weep with longing. It's just gorgeous!
This woman does a lovely job with the song. Her rendition makes me wish that Billie Holiday or Ella had sung it. I'd have loved to hear a classic jazz singer or maybe Johnny Cash get hold of this song.
The content about shoes and gloves is a great hook. I respond strongly to the tying shoes, an obvious reference to a small child. The reference is moving. If you put it back in slave days, only free people had shoes, so if this were sung by a field slave it would be particularly wrenching. Then there's the bit about the glove. I can only suppose this refers to an adolescent coming of age. Women wore gloves up through the 1960s in America, but back in the 1800s, men wore gloves too. Tying and untying horses, dealing with the general filth of the streets, it was necessary for gentlemen to wear gloves. The "ruby lips" is an erotic reference to the mate of the beloved and voice of the ballad.
The result of these references evokes the entire family: the spouse, the young children and the older children.
Syncopated rhythms were very popular from the time of the American Civil War to the birth of the jazz age. Ragtime was all about syncopated rhythm. Adding syncopations was called "ragging the rhythm." Syncopations that mimic the speach of English were standard melodic fare during the American Civil War. The sountrack to "The Civil War" includes classic songs from that era and newly composed songs that mimic that syncopated feel.
The underscore for the recitation of Sullivan Baloo's letter is written in this way. But it is believable because the music takes on the musical language of the mid 1800s.
The ending lyric, "Look away, look away," reminds one strongly of the southern anthem, "Dixie," a big Confederate hit.
When I first read "Ovalscreams," I thought it was a singing blog. "What a wonderful title for an opera singer's blog," thought I. But no, it's a blog about NASCAR! Who knew? This post on Ovalscreams is about the author's love of "He's Gone Away" and how music and loss have touched him, especially in light of the death of his brother. If there's one thing that makes this song powerful above all others, it is the beautiful ambiguity of the lyrics, ambiguity that makes the poem personal to a wide range of people in a variety of situations.
The Comparative Video 101 blog offers a wide variety of videos on over 100 folksongs (and counting). It's a lovely blog. Check it out. Here's the post on "He's Gone Away".