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A woman lived in a far country,
And she had children three;
She sent 'em away to a far-off town
For to learn their grammary.

They hadn't been gone but a week or two,
In fact it was not three,
Till death came a-walking o'er the land
And took her babes away.

It being close to old Christmas time
And the nights being long and cold,
She dreampt she saw her three little babes
Come a-running down the hall.

"Lay my table white, lay my table fair
For my three little babes to dine."
"Oh mother, we can eat none of your bread,
Neither can we drink your wine.

"We cannot sleep on your golden sheets.
Neither can eat your bread and wine,
For tomorrow morn at eight o'clock
With our Saviour we must dine.

"On a frozen pillow we must sleep
With the cold clods at our feet.
And the tears that you will shed for us
Will wet our winding sheet"

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Source: Randolph V,1982, Ozark Folksongs, University of Illinois

Vance Randolph wrote:

This is an abbreviated version of "The Wife of Usher's Well" (Child 79). For American references, see Campbell and Sharp, no 19; Kittredge (1917), 305; Pound (1922), 18; Cox (1925), 888 and A.K. Davis (1929), 278-88

Expanding these references, we have:

Campbell and Sharp, English Folk songs from the Appalachians, New York and London: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1917

Kittredge (1917), Ballads and Songs, Journal of American Folklore, 30 (July-Sept, 1917)

Pound (1922), American Ballads and Songs, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922

Cox, John Harrison, Folk Songs of the South, 1925, Rpt. Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associates, 1963

Davis, Arthur Kyle, Jr. Traditional Ballads of Virginia, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929

Resuming Randolph's notes:

"Grammary" (or "gramarye") is an obsolete word meaning either general knowledge or magic. "Old Christmas" is an allusion to the calendric discrepancy that existed before the universal adoption of the Gregorian calendar reform. Pope Gregory suppressed ten days in 1582 in order to bring the calendar years into agreement with the solar year. This reform was accepted in England in 1752, by which time the discrepancy in the Julian calendar was eleven days. Thus Christmas, Old Style (i.e. Julian), would have fallen on January 5 (Gregorian calendar) until 1800, after which it fell on January 6. Communities that refused to accept notion that Man could tamper with the calendar, which was God-given, continued to celebrate (Old) Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which was January 5 (or 6) according to the rest of the world.

{ ... }

Sung by May Kennedy McCord, Springfield, Mo., Oct 21, 1941. Learned about 1900 in Galena, Mo. Mrs McCord says that the singers in Galena always called it "A woman lived in a far country,"

For my part, although I have come across similar comments about "Old Christmas" elsewhere, in this case it seems a great deal of reliance has been placed on the one word 'Old' in this song, as there seems nothing else to support that interpretation: the word could equally well have been introduced simply to make the lyrics scan better! It is worth noting that the lyrics of other versions for the song, such as those shown below, refer to 'Christmastide', and similar, not "Old Christmas".

There are four versions at the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection:

Child No. 79: The Wife of Usher's Well
Hunter #30 The Woman That Lived in the West Countree - As sung by Fred High in High, Arkansas on February 12, 1958
Hunter #270 The Lady From the North Country - As sung by Allie Long Parker, Eureka Springs, Arkansas on November 5, 1958
Hunter #585 Lady Gay - As sung by Almeda Riddle, Heber Springs, Arkansas on October 23, 1965
Hunter #768 Three Little Babes - As sung by Ollie Gilbert, Mountain View, Arkansas on May 26, 1969

One version at the Wolf Folklore Collection:

Sung by: Mrs. Mattie James; Recorded in Miller, AR, 6/25/53
Bronson writes in The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, vol. II (p. 246):
The ballad appears to have all but died out in Scotland and England, and, so far as I know, has not been recorded in Ireland. The one musical record which antedates the opening of the present [i.e., the 20th] century--a Scottish variant printed in 1833 [Sir Walter Scott's version]--has no perceptible relation with later records; nor have the two recorded English variants (themselves representing a distinct line) any resemblance to the Scottish or to the American branches.

H.M. Belden in his Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society (University of Missouri Press, 1940, 1955, pp. 55-56) noted thatAmerican versions generally differ from British ones in the following ways:

1. The revenants are children (most often 'babes') not the 'stalwart sons' of Child A.
2. There is no cursing of the waters; but the mother often prays for the return of her babes.
3. The children decline earthly food and drink because 'yonder stands our Savior dear, to him we must resign.' And commonly, too, the splendor of the golden spread the mother lays upon their bed is rebuked as evidence of worldly pride.
4. The children are sent away at the beginning to 'learn their grammarye', a feature not found in Child A B C.
5. The recall of ghosts by cock-crow is either changed to the crowing of 'chickens' (except in BBM B*, which is Irish)--this looks like a case of American bowdlerizing--or is omitted altogether, the children refusing the fine bed their mother has prepared for them or simply waking one another at the proper time.
6. Use of the folk-belief that tears shed for the dead disturb their rest in the grave by wetting their winding-sheet. This is a not unfailing but a very common feature of the American texts and does not appear in Child A B C.

*Phillips Barry et al., British Ballads from Maine (Yale University Press, 1929), version B (pp. 450-51).

These were also quoted by W.K. McNeil in notes to "Mary Hebrew" in Southern Folk Ballads, vol. II, p. 135

Roud: 196 (Search Roud index at VWML) Take Six
Child: 79

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