Hemlock Grows by the River

The hemlock grows by the river
The hemlock grows by the river
The hemlock grows by the river
but we’ll keep pushing on

Four little crosses out beside the wood
We promised to behave
Yeah, we promise to be good
But,
Johnny pushed the well just a little too far
It all dried up
so we can’t afford the car

Yeah, the hemlock grows by the river
The hemlock grows by the river
The hemlock grows by the river
but we’ll keep pushing back

Three little crosses
out beside the wood
we promise to behave
well, we promised to be good
but
Sally jumped into the lake too fast
the ambulance was gone
so her breath couldn’t last

Two little crosses
out beside the wood
we promised to behave
yeah, we promised to be good
Henry bit bone just a little too hard
the boy needed fillings
but we didn’t have a card

Oh the hemlock grows by the river
the hemlock grows by the river
the hemlock grows by the river
but we’ll keep pushing back
we’ll keep pushing on

The hemlock grows even sweeter
the color with age
they say it ain’t right
ain’t legal
but neither is our rage

The hemlock grows by the river
the hemlock grows by the river
the hemlock grows by the river

One that little cross
out beside the wood
we promised to behave
yeah we promised be good
Anna sang her songs just a little too sweet
she brought us too much joy
now we’ll never hear her feet

The hemlock grows by the river
the hemlock grows by the river
the hemlock grows by the river
still we’ll keep pushing on

This song has been sitting on my desktop for a while. I haven’t punished the lyrics until now because the melody keeps morphing. Both African American and Scottish American folksongs have similar rhythms and metres. I wrote this with a heavy highland folk tune, but, when I just read it without singing, it sounds a little like a bad high-school choir arrangement of a spiritual.

Too often, those of us who create highland art fail to acknowledge the contributions of Black artists that shaped our culture. Banjo music is, perhaps, the most recognisable contribution (if that’s even an appropriate word). There’s also buck dancing and a good deal of food.

Highland folks often moved in from the lowlands bringing slaves with them hoping to make a fortune off of the cheap land. When the new highlanders learned that the land wasn’t fertile, they feared not being able to feed their slaves. Ozark states made freeing slaves illegal, and many Ozarkers felt forced into partnerships with their slaves or secretly “allowed” their slaves to work on the rivers.

So often, the Ozark story is mistaken as one of kindness, but our ancestors were really bad business people, not kind souls.

Today, as I share this song about the state of abandonment in the village systems, I also want to reflect on the atrocities of our past. I want to look to a future where all voices can be heard, not just by those at the top, but also, by those standing beside.

I cannot speak for the Black people of the Ozarks, and I won’t try. This song is not a spiritual for me, but you can sing it how you like.

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