“Down in the Willow Garden” is a double murder ballad—only one person is murdered but she’s murdered twice, first with poison wine and then with a saber. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, speaks about hearing an old woman in Ballisodare singing the song “Down in the Sally Gardens,” and he based a poem on that. “Sally” is just another name for “willow.” The only real clue in this American version to its Irish origins is the girl’s name, which is Rose Connelly.
This excerpt of “Down in the Willow Garden” is arranged to be played with a plectrum. When I play the melody, I play it on the low strings and the accompaniment on the high strings. I keep it pretty simple, with a lot of force and a lot of rattle and clang, which helps this song.
The melody is in a pentatonic mode; it’s a scale that leaves out the four and the seven (1, 2, 3, 5, 6) and the sixth note is very strong. When you hear different people accompany themselves, there’s always a difference in what they’re going to do on that note. Some people will play an Em (in the key of G). A lot of the mountain folk who sang this song didn’t know an Em chord. They knew an E major chord so they played that. It does break the mode, but it sounds really good.
Excerpted from Traditional Songs with Jody Stecher.
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