The Silver Dagger is one of the oldest ballads found in the Appalachian Mountains.
Here are two close-ups of my painting. (See full painting in last blog). First is a close-up of the lyrics. Second is a close-up of Willie after he knocks at her window while above an angel tries to warn them of the upcoming tragedy.
Perhaps the earliest text appears as Drowsy Sleeper- in the Bodelian Library in 1817 and in The Social Harp 1855 (first verse only); Earliest complete version in the US is “Awake Awake!” sung by Mary Sands at Allanstand, NC Aug 1, 1916.
The song and its close variants have many names: "The Drowsy Sleeper " [Laws M4]; “Oh Molly Dear (Go Ask Your Mother)” “Silver Dagger;” “I Will Put My Ship in Order” “Awake, Awake” “Who's That Knocking?;” “Peggy Dear;” “Kentucky Mountain;” “Julianne;” “Willie Darling;” “Little Willie;” "Bessie and Charlie."
It's related to: “Greenback Dollar,” “Old Virginny/East Virginia Blues/Dark Holler Blues,” “Darling Think of What You've Done;” "Greenback Dollar" (plot); "Go From My Window;" "One Night As I Lay on My Bed."
The chronology of the “Drowsy Sleeper” Songs can be seen below. Traced from a broadside from Chrome, Sheffield, 1817 entitled the “Drowsy Fleeper” in the Bodelian Library, England, to “Katie Dear” in the 1930’s in the US.
1) “The Drowsy Sleeper " [Laws M4];” 1817 Bodelian Library- England
2) “Arise! Arise!” Late 1800’s early 1900’s England
3) “Awake! Awake! (Sharp No. 57 see: Version 4)” US versions- 1916
4) “Silver Dagger” 1918 Sharp- US version
5) “Oh Molly Dear (Go Ask Your Mother)” 1926 Kelly Harrell
6) “Katie Dear” 1934 Callahan Brothers
The first recording, under the title 'Katie Dear', was by the Callahan Brothers in 1934. Joe and Bill, from North Carolina, were born in 1910 and 1912 respectively. Bill Malone ['Country Music USA' p110] and the unidentified writer of the notes to 'Callahan Brothers' CD [Old Homestead 4031] indicate that there was plenty of singing around the Callahan household and that they learned the folk component of their repertoire [before being swept away with Jimmy Rodgers music in the late 20s], songs like 'Katie Dear' and 'Banks of the Ohio, from their mother. This would probably bring the date back to the late 19th century at least.
The name “Katie Dear” and “Oh Mollie Dear” are interchangeable: The gal came back to life and changed her name often- May, Molly, Nancy, Mary, Madam and nameless in “Drowsy Sleeper” variants in Randolph; Julia (Julie) and nameless in Silver Dagger; Mary in Cox' Silver Dagger. A number of bluegrass singers used the Katy Dear/Oh Mollie Dear variant. These are the earliest recordings:
1) Oh Molly Dear (BVE 35667-3)- Kelly Harrell- 6-09-1926
2) Oh Molly Dear (BVE 39725-2 B. F. Shelton- 7-27-1927
3) Sleepy Desert (Paramount 3282, 1931; on TimesAint03)- Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles- 1929
4) Wake Up You Drowsy Sleeper (BE 62575-2)- Oaks Family- 6-04- 1930
5) Katie Dear (14524-2) - Callahan Brothers (vcl duet w.gtrs) - 01/03/1934. NYC.
6) Katie Dear (BS 018680-1) - Blue Sky Boys (vcl duet w/mdln & gtr) - 01/25/1938. Charlotte, N.C. (Bill and Earl Bolick) Within The Circle/Who Wouldn't Be Lonely, BSR CD 1003/4. Rounder set 'The Blue Sky Boys' Rounder CD 0052. The booklet has a short essay by Bill Malone. As Bill says: 'The Blue Sky Boys' sound - mandolin, guitar and 2 voices - may suggest an earlier phase of American existence, but the sentiments they express are timeless. They speak directly to our hearts, if we will but listen, as few entertainers in country music history have done'.
7) Katy Dear (64077-) - Tiny Dodson's Circle-B Boys (vcl w/vln & gtrs) - 06/07/1938.
The Carter Family recorded their version of “Drowsy Sleeper” entitled “Who’s That Knocking On My Window” (64102-A) in 1938 while in NY. Today the song has been recently recorded by such diverse artists as Dave Van Ronk, Old Crowe Medicine Show and Dolly Parton.
That's enough bloodshed for now,