Traditional from Britain
This folk song is most likely of British origin. It is not known when the tune or the various versions of its lyrics were introduced into the United States; but, by the early 1900s, this song had become widely circulated throughout the eastern and southern portions of this country.
In 1907, mention of “Silver Dagger” was made in The Journal of American Folklore. The tune was thereafter included in musical collections in Arkansas, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Indiana.
Several differing melodies exist, one of which, “The Drowsy Sleeper”, is often confused with “Silver Dagger”. The rendition presented herein is but a mere fragment of the full ballad that tells a dark and bloody story of poverty of spirit, soul, morality, and material means.
An historical music source entitled Ozark Folksongs (Vance Randolph, 4 vols., 1946-1980) includes five versions of “Silver Dagger”. All ballads offer the woe-filled tale of a lover who wants to wed, but cannot do so because his parents deem his beloved to be too poor. She subsequently kills herself with a silver dagger. When her lover finds her dead body, he picks up the dagger and he, too, kills himself.
It’s a country take on Romeo and Juliet, albeit without Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. The driving rhythm of this melody, and its lyrics, nonetheless present a forceful tragedy with succinct story-telling.
Don't sing love songs; you'll wake my mother
She's sleeping here, right by my side
And in her right hand, a silver dagger
She says that I can't be your bride.
All men are false, says my mother
They'll tell you wicked, lovin' lies
The very next evening, they'll court another
Leave you alone to pine and sigh.
My daddy is a handsome devil
He's got a chain five miles long
And on every link a heart does dangle
Of another maid he's loved and wronged.
Go court another tender maiden
And hope that she will be your wife
For I have been warned and I've decided
To sleep alone all of my life.