The Truth to You I’ll Tell – “Little Glass of Wine”

University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1961 - crop from original event poster listing featured artists including The Stanley Brothers and Roscoe Holcomb - Image from U of C Folklore Society

University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1961 – crop from original event poster listing featured artists including The Stanley Brothers and Roscoe Holcomb – Image from U of C Folklore Society

Introduction – “Come little girl…”

A couple of years back, I blogged over two weeks about what I called my “Essential Eleven Traditional Murder Ballads” and my “Essential Eleven Non-Traditional Murder Ballads.”  I cataloged a variety of tunes and performances that I found particularly moving, only some of which we’d already covered here by that point.  We’ve gotten to most for a deeper dive by now.  But in the second post, I included a hard-hitter that we’ve let be until today.  It’s time.

Maybe The Stanley Brothers’ “Little Glass of Wine” won’t hit you hard; I don’t know for sure.  Maybe ‘petulant boy kills innocent girl and himself with poison in the name of love’ is not your preferred narrative, but please give it a listen if you’ve got the time.  And check out those lyrics.  If you’re not already folked up, you will be.

YouTube version (live)                        Lyrics for The Stanley Brothers’ version

The Stanley Brothers pretty much always do it for me, but there’s obviously more going on here.  You read the lyrics, right?  This one is just crushing, a vision of devastating reality – it is unabashedly a song about a murder-suicide.  It cannot be ignored.  Indeed, but for Dylan’s “Hollis Brown,” it was singular in my listening experience up to just a few years ago.

Of course, I’m no psychologist.  Neither am I a ‘true-crime’ buff.  I just happen to love listening to and writing about about music that makes me acutely aware of mortality.   Given the uniqueness of the song, the history of bluegrass, and my limited media-based knowledge of the horrible phenomenon of murder-suicide, I called “Little Glass of Wine” a modern murder ballad: probably, I figured, written in the early 20th century and based loosely on some true mountain-romance gone wrong.  I knew the first track above, my introduction to the song, dated to the late 1940’s.

Ah, but you know what they say about making assumptions!  Luckily, the wonderfully talented Elizabeth LaPrelle commented on that post, and politely pointed out there might be a connection between “Little Glass of Wine” and “True Love” as performed by the inimitable Roscoe Holcomb.  Check that one out for yourself as well.

YouTube version  

Ms. LaPrelle knew that lyrically they are obviously the same song, but musically they are different enough to suggest the possibility of an older common ancestor.  So I set about doing the kind of homework I don’t usually do for one of our ‘listicle’ posts.  As it turns out, I was totally wrong about the origins of “Little Glass of Wine!”  It truly belonged in my first post on traditional murder ballads.  If you’ll bear with me, I’m finally ready to lay down in detail what I’ve found about this chilling and compelling song.  I promise to keep the music flowing, of course.

Continue to page 2>>>

Comments are closed.