Songs to raise girls: Down by the Salley Gardens

In 2009 my sister came to visit for spring break and our birthdays. We were born in March, five days and three years apart. I said that her birthday present was arranged: a recording session with me, her and my father, to record some of the family songs that we had been singing since birth.

My family had music parties in the 1960s on the east coast and when they were in college at the University of Tennessee. My mother had quit Cornell and my father had quit Princeton and they got married and went to the U of TN and I was born 9 months later. They were very poor. My mother said that she wanted to buy me a three dollar teddy bear but that they just couldn’t afford it.

They did not have a television. They were beatniks and admired On the Road. My father’s family all played instruments and sang. My mother had a much less trained voice but she had a prodigious memory and knew the fourth, fifth, sixth and all the verses of the folk songs. My father also sang classical music and had already sung at Carnegie Hall in his prep school chorus, Williston Prep School. He hated prep school. He had a full scholarship there and to Princeton because he scored perfectly on the early SAT test.

My parents refused to get a television until I was nine and my sister was six. So we sang.

My sister’s response to the birthday present: “Best Birthday Gift Ever.”

She had cancer and my father had emphysema. My mother had died in 2000. I was trying to capture their voices.

We recorded for two two hour sessions in a local in home studio. We made a list of songs and lost it on the way there. So we just took turns naming songs. Both my sister and my father play guitar. I brought kazoos, which we used on a round. We recorded each song once and in two days we recorded 36 songs.

I bought two more recording sessions at silent auctions, but we did not get to record again. And now they are both gone.

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My mother and father would sing “Down by the Salley Gardens” as a duet. He was a baritone and low bass. She was an alto. My sister and I sang her part in the recording.

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears

by William Butler Yeats in 1889

Listening to it, I miss my mother, my father, my sister. I miss singing with them. It was a love duet for my parents, and full of longing.

The photo is my parents, in about 1960.