Springfield Mountain: the First American Ballad

 

This song, originally known as "Springfield Mountain," is among the oldest if not the first native American ballad still in folk tradition. It is thought to deal with the death of one Timothy Mirick of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, formerly Springfield Mountain, who expired from a snakebite in Farmington, Connecticut, August 7, 1761.

 

Springfield Mountain (now Wilbraham Mountain)

 

At some point in time the serious ballad became converted into a comic ballad, so today both traditions exist simultaneously. Phillips Barry, who made an extensive study of this song, suggests that each of the two ballad types has several subtypes. He was able to trace the comic ballads back to 1836, with the serious song only dating back to 1849. G. Malcolm Laws feels that Barry is in error on this point and suggests that the original ballad was composed locally and soon after the tragedy it recounts.

 

    

The Pesky Sarpent


Considering its widespread distribution, this ballad has remarkably few titles. By far the most popular is "Springfield Mountain" but "The Shrattledum Snake" and "The Rattlesnake Song" are other traditional titles. Melodically the serious ballad maintains a somber mood while the comic versions have a quicker tempo and lighter mood. Like most of the comic ballads, the one given here contains a nonsense refrain and achieves much of its effect by exaggerating a basically tragic story. In some versions of the ballad the protagonist is referred to merely as "a likely youth" or some similar description. Most texts do supply him with a name, generally John or Johnny but never Timothy; Mirick, however, is found in several versions. Molly, Sally, or Sal are the names generally given the woman, but in some texts she is not named. Barry thought the woman's name came from the comic tradition and was the work of professional songwriters.

 

Timothy Mirick is buried in the Deacon Adams cemetery in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, which ironically has a prominence called "Rattlesnake Peak."  The cemetery is at Mileoak Corner, at Tinkham and Main. 

 


Here lies ye Body of Mr. Timothy Mirick,
Son of Lieut. Thomas & Mrs. Mirick
who died August 7th 1761 in ye 23rd Year of his Age.

"He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down
He fleeeth also as a Shadow and continueth not." (Job XIV,2)


 


There are many different versions of the ballad. Some were wild exaggerations made up by vaudeville performers, in which Merrick's wife-to-be died as a result of trying to suck the poison out with a broken tooth:
 

"Now Molly had a broken tooth, and so the poison killed them both."

 

The following is one of the earliest versions what've been collected that is entirely serious in tone:
 

 

On Springfield mountain there did dwell
A handsome youth, was known full well,
Lieutenant Merrill's only son,
A likely youth, near twenty-one.
 
On Friday morning he did go
Down to the meadows for to mow.
He mowed, he mowed all around the field
With a poisonous serpent at his heel.
 
When he received his deathly wound
He laid his scythe down on the ground
For to return was his intent,
Calling aloud, long as he went.
 
His calls were heard both far and near
But no friend to him did appear.
They thought he did some workman call
Alas, poor man, alone did fall!
 
Day being past, night coming on,
The father went to seek his son,
And there he found his only son
Cold as a stone, dead on the ground.
 
He took him up and he carried him home
And on the way did lament and mourn
Saying, "I heard but did not come,
And now I'm left alone to mourn."
 
In the month of August, the twenty-first
When this sad accident was done.
May this a warning be to all,
To be prepared when God shall call.  
 

 

 

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Copyright 2005 by Daniel V. Boudillion

 

 

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