Silver Dagger (song)

Last updated
"Silver Dagger"
Song by Joan Baez
from the album Joan Baez
Language English
Released1960 (1960)
Genre Folk
Label Vanguard
Composer(s) Traditional
Silver Dagger
Midi file of the score above, one of a number of different melodies used for the song.
Problems playing this file? See media help. Silver Dagger melody.png

"Silver Dagger", with variants such as "Katy Dear", "Molly Dear", "The Green Fields and Meadows", "Awake, Awake, Ye Drowsy Sleepers" and others (Laws M4 & G21, Roud 2260 & 2261), is an American folk ballad, whose origins lie possibly in Britain. [2] [3] These songs of different titles are closely related, and two strands in particular became popular in commercial Country music and Folk music recordings of the twentieth century: the "Silver Dagger" version popularised by Joan Baez, and the "Katy Dear" versions popularised by close harmony brother duets such as The Callahan Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys and The Louvin Brothers.


In "Silver Dagger", the female narrator turns away a potential suitor, as her mother has warned her to avoid the advances of men in an attempt to spare her daughter the heartbreak that she herself has endured. The 1960 recording by Joan Baez features only a fragment of the full ballad. [4] "Katy Dear" uses the same melody but different lyrics, telling a similar story from a male perspective. [5]



The song exists in a large number of variations under many different titles, and with lyrics that may show a mixture of different songs. Steve Roud observes on one version of the song titled "O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother":

"A whole book could be written on this song and its connections with other songs which involve young men at their sweethearts' windows at night, disapproving parents and silver daggers. Hugely popular with North American traditional singers, 'Drowsy Sleeper' was also collected regularly in Britain and appeared on broadsides there from at least the 1820s" [6]

Of interest are early versions of two songs, "Silver Dagger" and "Drowsy Sleeper", that are related thematically and may share a common origin in the older theme of night visit in traditional English songs, [7] [8] but they differ in lines, verse rhythm and outcome in their lyrics. [9] The plot of "Silver Dagger" is similar to that of "Drowsy Sleeper" whereby the parents object to a match between a boy and a girl, except that in "Silver Dagger" the dagger is used as a suicide weapon by the young lovers, while in "Drowsy Sleeper" the couple elope. [9] [10] However, at some point in the 19th century, there also appears to have been a fusion of these two different songs whereby the tragic ending of "Silver Dagger" becomes attached to "Drowsy Sleeper", giving rise to some later variations of the song. [9]

The earliest known text of "Drowsy Sleeper" in Britain may be dated to 1817, and the first verse of a variant of the song appears in a songbook of American folk songs first published in 1855, John G. McCurry's The Social Harp. [10] [11] Early publications of "Silver Dagger" in the US may be found in Spirit of the Times and Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule and Odd-fellows' Family Companion in 1849. [12] [13] A version of "Drowsy Sleeper" published in a broadside as "Who's at My Bedroom Window?" by H. J. Wehman in 1890 shows a mixture of "Silver Dagger" and "Drowsy Sleeper". [14] A version collected in Kentucky was printed in The Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1907, and three versions were collected by Henry M. Belden in 1908. [15] [16] Cecil Sharp published an English version from Somerset in 1908 as "Arise! Arise!". [17] Sharp also collected a version of the song in the United States as "Awake, awake", sung by Mary Sands in Madison County, North Carolina on August 1, 1916. [10] [18]

The differences in titles and some lyrics may also be a result of the song being handed down through the unwritten oral tradition, or adapting from different sources, and where each performer may add their own verses and nuances to the song. [19] These songs have been sung using different tunes. Relation to other songs such as "Old Virginny"/"Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies" have also been noted. [7] [10]

Early recordings

The only traditional recording of the song according to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library was a 1939 Herbert Halpert recording of James Taylor Adams and Finley Adams in Dunham, Kentucky, [20] where the song was called "Poor Goins".

The song was recorded commercially as "O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother" by Kelly Harrell in 1926, as "Sleepy Desert" by Wilmer Watts And The Lonely Eagles in 1929, and as "Wake Up You Drowsy Sleeper" by The Oaks family in 1930. As "Katie Dear (Silver Dagger)" it was recorded by the Callahan Brothers in 1934, and as "Katie Dear" by the Blue Sky Boys in 1938. [10] (Country music authority Bill C. Malone states that the Callahan Brothers learned traditional ballads like "Katie Dear" from their mother). In 1956 it was recorded by the Louvin Brothers. [21] The song was part of the repertoire of the Country Gentlemen, who toured both the bluegrass and folk music circuits during the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1960s, "Katie Dear" was recorded by folk revival musicians, including Joan Baez, and Ian & Sylvia. Today it is commonly performed and recorded by bluegrass musicians.


Recordings and performances

The song has also been widely performed and recorded by bluegrass musicians, as many songs thought of as traditionally bluegrass songs actually trace back to what is now known as "old-time" music.

20th century

21st century


See also

Related Research Articles

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