It’s springtime, and the flowers are in bloom all across Appalachia. It seems like everywhere you go in the mountains you see hikers out looking for wildflowers. Thanks to the crazy weather this year, they haven’t been as in bloom as they usually are, but the ones that are in bloom are just as beautiful as always. It’s enough to put a song in your heart, and fortunately, I’ve got one that just so happens to be about mountain wildflowers.
Wildwood Flower is a song that stretches all the way back to the early days of the Civil War. It was first published as “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets” in 1860 by JP Webster, a popular songwriter in the era who wrote “In the Sweet By and By”, one of the most popular Christian hymns of all time, and “Lorena”, which was the most popular song with soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Webster was a composer, and usually adapted poems written by other people into his lyrics. “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets” is a unique case, though; the lyrics are credited to a Maud Irving, but it’s a bit of a mystery who that is. Maud Irving is a name that was used frequently in the late 19th century; there was a novel and an operetta, both called “Maud Irving”, that were unrelated, various sheet music and songs attributed to the name, and Webster himself even wrote a song called “Little Maud” (which appeared in the operetta). Some research has pointed to a writer, psychic, and “eclectic” named J. William van Namee, who published some similar poetry under the name “Maud Irving”, but even this researcher isn’t completely convinced that van Namee was the author. The identity of Maud Irving is still a mystery to this day.
What’s not a mystery, however, is that although the song was popular and recorded a few times in the early 20th century, it really took off when it was recorded by the Carter Family in 1928. It went on to be an immediate hit. “Mother” Maybelle Carter’s famous guitar picking style, called the “Carter Scratch”, was shown off to full effect on the recording; the style of fingerpicking, which was taught to her by blues musician Lesley Riddle, involves playing the melody of a song on the bass strings while still keeping a rhythm on the treble strings. This style paved the way for the guitar, which was previously considered a rhythm instrument, to become the primary lead instrument in a group in country, rockabilly, and rock and roll bands. To this day, learning to play Wildwood Flower is a rite of passage among bluegrass guitar pickers.
Wildwood Flower is a legendary song, and naming off everyone who’s recorded it is like reading a list of Country Hall of Fame inductees. The Stanley Brothers, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Loretta Lynn… even several of the individual members and offspring of the Carter Family recorded their own versions, as well as one recorded by the women of the group as the Carter Sisters. Legendary jazz guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell each recorded their own versions, as did folk singer Joan Baez. Even Mike Ness of the punk rock band Social Distortion recorded the song in 1999!
In honor of four-time Grammy award winner Randy Scruggs (son of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs), who passed away on April 17th, give a listen to this version from 1998. Emmylou Harris and Iris de Ment’s voices blend beautifully, and Scruggs does a wonderful job showing off the “Carter scratch”:
Guitar pickers: did you start out by learning how to play Wildwood Flower? Got a favorite version you want to share? Post it in the comments!