My thanks to McSwys for this valuable service, and to you for taking it on.
1) Is it possible to talk about bluegrass in any sort of academic way without sounding terminally pedantic? I find this to be a problem with most of what I’ve read about it.
2) Could you briefly summarize the plot of “Molly and Tenbrooks”? I’ve never quite been able to figure it out, and I’m too embarrassed to ask anyone in person.
Thanks in advance, Richard,
“Molly and Tenbrooks” is one of those strange, beautiful musical aggregates we rejoice to find in bluegrass, the history of which is complex and at turns uncertain, with roots reaching back to the primordia of America and beyond. It has long since been one of the most studied songs in bluegrass. I do agree with you that, in many ways, making an academic endeavor of bluegrass is ludicrous. But I think I might have a solution.
To my mind, the study of literature is the least pedantic corner of Academia. Making literature anthology-style annotations for the lyrics of your favorite bluegrass songs can be a fun and illuminating enterprise. So far, this is what I’ve got for “Molly and Tenbrooks.” I hope you dig.
“Molly and Tenbrooks (The Racehorse Song)”1
1 Lyrics taken from the 1947 Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys recording (so good). Although Monroe takes songwriting creds, by most accounts, a banjo-playing Afro-American minstrel originally composed the ballad to commemorate a $10,000 horserace that took place on July 4, 1878 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. (Compare with the broadside ballads of 18th-century Great Britain, several of which relate similar tales of racehorses named “Skewball” or “Old Kimball”).
2 Née Miss Mollie McCarthy, a California mare brought to Louisville for the race.
3 The local favorite, a Kentucky thoroughbred named Ten Broeck.
4 In these lyrics, Tenbrooks gets all of the credit for the victory. Some might ask, “What about the jockey?” or “Who was the jockey?” The answer is that he was William “Uncle Billy” Walker, one of the best jockeys in American history. He rode in a total of four Kentucky Derbies, winning with his horse Baden-Baden in 1877. Like so many of our best jockeys, Walker was forced to terminate his riding career due to weight problems. He went on to become a celebrated trainer and expert of the thoroughbred pedigree until his death in 1933.
5 Most likely pure legend, as this claim remains unsubstantiated.
Tenbrooks said to Molly what makes your head so red?6
Runnin’ in the hot sun puts fever in my head
Fever in my head O Lord fever in my head
6 Translated from the horse-speak, probably drawn from the idiomatic “in the red,” that is, working from a debt (vs. “in the black,” working from a lead). A brilliant tactical move of psychological intimidation on Tenbrooks’ part.
Molly said to Tenbrooks you’re lookin’ mighty squirrel7
Tenbrooks said to Molly I’m a-leavin’ this old world
Leavin’ this old world O Lord leavin’ this old world
7 Pejorative in horse-speak, meaning scurrying willy-nilly like a squirrel — Molly’s attempt at a comeback.
Out in California where Molly done as she pleased8
Come back to old Kentucky got beat with all ease
Beat with all ease O Lord beat with all ease
8 Throughout her professional racing career in California, Molly was undefeated.
The women all a-laughin’ the chillun all a-cryin’
The men all a-hollerin’ old Tenbrooks a-flyin’
Old Tenbrooks a-flyin’ O Lord old Tenbrooks a-flyin’
Kyper, Kyper, you’re not a-ridin’ right9
Molly’s beatin’ old Tenbrooks clear out sight
Clear out of sight O Lord clear out of sight
9 The “Kyper” figure here remains largely a mystery. Although there is no instance of “kyper,” “kuyper,” “kiper,” et al in the OED, the word is purportedly a Dutch ethnic slur aimed at Molly’s jockey. However, this is confused in the following stanza, where the speaker seems to refer to Tenbrooks’ jockey as “Kyper.”
Kyper, Kyper, Kyper my son
Give old Tenbrooks the bridle let old Tenbrooks run
Let old Tenbrooks run O Lord let old Tenbrooks run
Go and catch old Tenbrooks and hitch him in the shade
We’re gonna bury old Molly in a coffin ready-made
Coffin ready-made O Lord coffin ready-made10
10 That the coffin is “ready-made” gives credence to theories that the race had been fixed in Tenbrooks’ favor, although there is not much literature on this subject. But I say “Why not?” Seems to me that they like playing cricket in Kentucky almost as much as they like riding horses. I suppose that, like so many of our questions about bluegrass, stubborn, intractable, this one might be better left unanswered.