Saturday, December 16, 2023

Fennario: Scottish Folk Song Becomes Americanized

By Robert A. Waters

Fennario, a town mentioned in an old folk song, does not exist in Scotland...or America. The fictionalized city was actually a small town near Aberdeen called Fyvie. The original title of the tune may have been "Peggy-O" or "The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie." Although the author is unknown, the song is thought to have been written around 1640. (That seems amazing to me--this tune of the common folk is nearly 400 years old and still being sung in various forms.)

The story is about the captain of an invading army who falls in love with a beautiful girl in the town he has conquered. In many versions, the girl rejects him and the captain "dies for love." The ballad is often sung in the third person, by one of the captain's soldiers.

In an earlier iteration, the song starts with the following lines: "There once was a troop of Irish dragoons/Cam marching doon through Fyvie-O." In an Americanized version, lyrics to the song begin: "As we marched down to Fennario/We marched down to Fennario/Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove/And they called her Pretty Peggy-O."

In America, numerous versions are extant. While the Grateful Dead never recorded the song, they played it often in their concerts. Bob Dylan called the song "Peggy-O" and recorded it on his first album. Joan Baez recorded the tune during the folk revival of the 1960s. Many others have put it on tape, vinyl, or CDs.

How did a song sail across three thousand miles of ocean and land in America?

In the 1700s, many immigrants from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland settled in the southern Appalachians. These states include North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. Life on the frontier was often brutal, but settlers brought their music with them. Initially, they would sing the old songs with the same lyrics they had learned back in the old world. But eventually, lyrics changed to reflect life in the new world. 

For instance, the popular country song, "Knoxville Girl," began its life in the English town of Wittam. The song had numerous versions as it wandered through the English countryside. At some point, someone decided to transport the murder of an innocent girl from England to Knoxville, Tennessee. In the early 1900s, as technology evolved so voices and musical instruments could be recorded, "Knoxville Girl" became a standard in the repertoire of many folk and country crooners.

Life in the Appalachians was hard. For more than a century, the average lifespan of those who settled there was about 35 years. Accidental death, violent death, and early death from natural causes, including childbirth, was prevalent. (Check out the photo below to see the home of an Appalachian family.) 

While the original song allegedly took place in a war between Ireland and Scotland, the lyrics in America morphed into a different conflict: the Civil War.

The Journeymen, a 1960s folk group, recorded this version of the tune:

Fennario (Click link to hear the song)

As we marched down to Fennario,

We marched down to Fennario,

Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove

And they called her Pretty Peggy-O.

Come trippin' down the stairs, Pretty Peggy-O,

Trippin' down the stairs, Pretty Peggy-O,

Come trippin' down the stairs combin' back your yellow hair

And waitin' for you there is sweet William-O.

"Oh, would you marry me, Pretty Peggy-O?

Would you marry me, Pretty Peggy-O?

If you'll marry me then the city will go free

And it's this I promise thee, Pretty Peggy-O."

"I would marry you, Sweet William-O,

I would marry you, Sweet William-O.

I would marry you, but you wear that coat of blue,

I'm afraid my ma would be angry-o."

"If ever I return, Pretty Peggy-O,

If ever I return, Pretty Peggy-O,

If ever I return then the city I will burn,

And destroy all the ladies in the are-o."

"Sweet William, he is dead, Pretty Peggy-O,

William, he is dead, Pretty Peggy-O,

Sweet William, he is dead, and he died for a maid,

And he's laying in the Louisiana country-o."

If this story interested you, here are a few more folk songs I've written about.

Knoxville Girl - Louvin Brothers

The Hills of Roane County - Tony Rice

The Titanic - Graveyard Johnny Fast

Delia's Gone - Johnny Cash

NOTE: The photo shown in the article is of an Appalachian home in Andersonville, Tennessee and was copyrighted in 1910 by M. H. Gass.