SONGS of COMFORT, SONGS OF HOME: “Wild Mountain Thyme”

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“Wild Mountain Thyme”—this is an afternoon’s scratch session by The Scribblers (which will be my new band’s name once I have one).

NOTE from DOUGLAS: I’ve launched a new email newsletter for this site that’ll send you updates of new posts. Subscribe for free at: thestoryisthething.substack.com 


By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | thestoryisthething.com | March 5, 2020

You’d think after several decades of singer-songwriting, on stage and in coffeeshops, in West Virginia song circles and even once on the midnight streets of Venice, somewhere along the way I’d have learned “Wild Mountain Thyme.”

But, no.

This sweet, gorgeous Scots-Irish tune (faeries and remarriages are involved, stay with us) didn’t finally etch itself into the soft tissue of my hippocampus until last month. A Quaker living room played a key role.

I was on retreat at a Quaker retreat center in Pennsylvania. Last time there, my retreatant buddy and I camped out in the living room one night to sing songs with a few fellow travelers. Guy comes in. He was thin as a rail with long rockstar hair. “Hey, you guys mind if I play some with you?”

We didn’t. And he did. Upon opening his lips to share his first song, my buddy and I were instant fans.

Simon was name of the fellow. He has the kind of sure, compelling, resonant voice whose DNA strands weave through such disparate voices as James Taylor, Ed Sheeran, Jackson Browne, Art Garfunkel and…

Well. Himself (as the Irish say) needs to be in the studio.

In any case, we had another singalong in that Quakerville living room last month, where Simon taught a group of us “Wild Mountain Thyme.” I flipped my smartphone recorder on. A few days later, I listened. And thought: Now, that is as sweet as a Panera’s cinnamon crunch bagel (which, um, is on my mind as I type this—at a Panera’s. The last half of a cinnamon crunch bagel lathered with cream cheese eyes me across the table.)

My phone only caught an excerpt. But sometime during the jam, a trio of water-quality millennial activists on retreat stopped by and plopped onto sofas and chairs. They were taking a break from keeping the nearby Delaware River from being poisoned by the powers-that-be. (A lot of that is going around.) They contributed sweet female harmonic convergence to the effort. Or they might have been seraphim on retreat. I’m not sure.

I offloaded the smartphone track into my Hindenburg audio program; added a soupçon of reverb; and doubled the final line. Here’s what the singalong sounded like:

Simon teaches us “Wild Mountain Thyme,” the living room version.

MORE SONGS of COMFORT, SONGS of HOME:
1. “Wild Mountain Thyme”
2. “A West Virginia Medley”
4. “Minor Glory (draft ‘a cappela’ version)
3. “Two Guitars, One Heart”


A Fairies’ Playground

The song has a fine history. “Wild Mountain Thyme” (also known as “Purple Heather” and “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?”) is an Irish/Scottish folk tune whose lyrics and melody are a variant of the song “The Braes of Balquhither” by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780–1829). According to the song’s Wikipedia entry, the old tune was adapted by Belfast musician Francis McPeake (1885–1971) into “Wild Mountain Thyme.”

McPeake is said to have dedicated the song to his first wife, but his son wrote an additional verse in order to celebrate his father’s remarriage. I wonder if these are the lines?

If my true love she’ll not come
Then I’ll surely find another
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the bloomin’ heather.

“Wild Mountain Thyme” was first recorded by McPeake’s nephew, also named Francis McPeake, in 1957 for the BBC series As I Roved Out, says Wikipedia. (That being my birth year, now I feel a temporal kinship to the tune.)

Bob Dylan’s recording of the song cited it as traditional, with the arranger unknown, though Dylan’s copyright records indicate that the song is sometimes attributed to McPeake. Wikipedia adds a delightful note about the song’s flora and fauna:

In her book Fragrance and Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche, author Jennifer Peace Rhind describes “Wild Mountain Thyme” as essentially a love song, with the line, “Wild Mountain Thyme grows among the Scottish heather” perhaps being an indirect reference to the old custom of young women wearing a sprig of thyme, mint or lavender to attract a suitor.[13] Rhind also notes that, in British folklore, the thyme plant was the fairies’ playground and often the herb would be left undisturbed for their use.[

Calling All Celts

“Would you go, lassie, go?
And we’ll all go together
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around blooming heather …”

So, I got chatted up to sing as part of the event in West Virginia’s capital city in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, called “Celtic Calling.” (A friend appealed to my singer-songwriter’s hunger to actually be heard in a non-bar space.)

The event celebrates of Celtic arts, culture and traditions. Since “Wild Mountain Thyme” has been playing on rotation on the Spotify playlist of my Muses, in honor of Celtic Calling I worked up a homespun, four-track version of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” This goes out to bonny lassie LRM, as well as Celtic music lovers of all sorts.

I know this video has no ACTUAL mountain thyme or heather in it. I’m open to grants to send me and my bonny lassie to Ireland and Scotland to snap photos and re-do it. (Fingers to ear in the ‘call-me’ gesture.) 

The hills —not of Scotland or Ireland—but of the Scots-Irish filled dells and mountains of West Virginia. |thestoryisthething.com photo

“Wild Mountain Thyme” Lyrics

NOTE: There are many variants of the tune’s lyrics. This is the one I perform.

“Wild Mountain Thyme”

Oh the summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather.

Would you go, lassie, go?
And we’ll all go together
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Would you go, lassie, go?

And I will build my love a bower 
And yon pure crystal fountain
And around it I will place
All the colors of the mountain

Would you go, lassie, go?
And we’ll all go together
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Would you go, lassie, go?

And If my true love’s gone
I will surely find another
And to her I will sing
Things that make her know I want her

Would you go, lassie, go?
And we’ll all go together
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around blooming heather
Would you go, lassie, go?

PS: About the Venice thing

A decade ago, I traveled to Venice with my son and his cousin, armed with my beloved Washburn Rover coral-blue traveling guitar. Determined to walk the midnight streets of Venice, I struck off, guitar slung over my shoulder, singing.

Wait. Were there other voices bounding off the 500-year-old fondamenta and canal waters?! There were! So it was, I had the weird pleasure of singing “Country Roads” at midnight beside a Venetian canal with some Australian tourists—and an Aussie who HIMSELF was walking the midnight streets of Venice with a guitar.

NOTE: For more formally recorded music, check out my first CD, “Saint Stephen’s Dream” by garagecow ensemble. See this link or type in “gararagecow” at spotify.com

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