Behind the meaning of the classic folk song “On Top of Old Smokey” and the classic children’s song “On Top of Spaghetti”

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Whether you know it from the original lyrics, “On Top of Old Smokey,” or its more kid-friendly version, “On Top of Spaghetti,” the song is as American as apple pie.

Here we will dive into both the stories and the meanings. So let’s just do that, shall we?

Origins

Although it is not known when, where or by which artist the song was originally sung, “On Top of Old Smokey” was recorded by The Weavers. This rendition hit the pop charts in 1951. Previously, folk songs were oral traditions, passed down from generation to generation. So the real origin of “On Top of Old Smokey” remains up in the air, as they say.

One of the earliest versions of the song was written by English folklorist Cecil Sharp, who during World War I made three summer trips to Appalachia in search of folk tunes. He was accompanied by Maud Karpeles.

The two luckily found a plethora of folk material in the area, which was largely isolated and therefore a sort of petri dish of folk music. Great singers mixed with great lyricists, well in the folk tradition. Many songs were sung and later written and even recorded.

Sharp and Karpeles were then surprised to discover that many songs sung by the Appalachians were also versions of songs the two music historians had discovered in England.

“On Top of Old Smokey” known today goes:

Above Old Smoky,
All covered in snow,
I lost my true lover
To woo too slowly.

Sharp and Karpeles first heard the song on July 29, 1916, from Miss Memory Shelton in Alleghany, North Carolina. Shelton was 23 and came from a musical family. His version differs in note, rhythm, and wording from that many are familiar with today, but only subtly. She sang:

Above Old Smoky,
All covered in snow,
I lost my true lover
By sparking too slowly.

(At the time, “sparks” meant “courtship”.) Over the following decades, other variants were discovered and recorded, all closely related to the versions above. In addition to different versions of the lyrics, other songs, such as “The Little Mohee”, which is about a frontier man falling in love with a Native American woman, follow the same melody.

What is Old Smokey?

As the tune suggests, Old Smokey is a high mountain, probably in the southern Appalachians. Historical possibilities include Clingmans Dome, which was named “Smoky Dome” by local Scots-Irish inhabitants. But the exact mountain the song points to, if there is one in particular, has been lost to history.

George Reneau and Pete Seeger

While the song predates the commercialization of music, the first to make a commercial recording of “On Top of Old Smokey” was George Reneau, known as “The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains”. He worked as a busker in Knoxville, Tennessee, west of the mountains. In 1925 Reneau took a trip to New York to record the tune and others.

Later, in the 1940s, during a folk music revival, Pete Seeger sang a modified version of the song he had learned in Appalachia. He wrote new words and played them on the banjo (an instrument that became popular in the United States after making its way to America from Africa). Seeger has been quoted as saying that “some versions [of the song] back to Elizabethan times.

The Weavers, who were a folk group founded by Seeger, recorded a popular rendition of the song, using Seeger’s arrangement. They did so on February 21, 1951. Released on Decca Records, it reached number two on the Billboard chart. Later it was sung by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Gene Autry, Harry Belafonte, and many others.

ABBA

Much later, in 1978, “On Top of Old Smokey” was released by Swedish pop group ABBA. Bruce Springsteen performed a version of the song in Portland, Oregon, months after Mount St. Helens erupted.

Spaghetti and cheese!

In 1963, Tom Glazer recorded a very different version of the song called “On Top of Spaghetti”.

This song begins like this:

Above the spaghetti
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball
When someone sneezed.

Today, this song is perhaps even more famous, especially among children, for its playful lyrics and allusions to delicious food. (Who doesn’t love spaghetti, red sauce, cheese and meatballs??)

There’s also an even sillier version, recorded by Allen Sherman, which says, “Above Old Smokey, all covered in hair / Of course I’m referring to Smokey the Bear.”

Barney

In the popular children’s television show of the 90s, Barneythe big purple dinosaur sings a version of “On Top of Spaghetti”, which goes in full:

Above the spaghetti
All covered with cheese
I lost my poor meatball
When someone sneezed.

He fell off the table
And on the ground.
And then my poor dumpling
Rolled out the door.

He rolled in the garden
And under a bush.
And then my poor dumpling
Was nothing but porridge.

The porridge was also tasty
As tasty as it may be.
And then the following summer,
He has become a tree.

The tree was all covered
With a nice mousse.
And on it grew meatballs.
And tomato sauce

If you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese.
Hold on to your meatball
And never sneeze.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re singing the original Appalachian song about losing love because courting was too slow or singing a mountain of cheese-covered spaghetti with a single elusive meatball, the song remains delicious and fun. It is one of the most enjoyable tunes to sing.

Photo by Gettyimages.com

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