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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 09/10/10 Pennyrile Tea

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vrteach - Posted - 09/10/2010:  11:08:28

Warning, this is a long post!

I dithered a good bit about what to do for this episode of TOTW. But, a while back when Marc Nerenberg had put up one of his great songs (Little Sadie) I had commented that I wished we had a few more songs in the TOTW. So I figured that if I was going to complain about the lack of songs, I should post a song. So the next choice was well-known or obscure. Both are fun; posting a well-known tune invites a range of versions in response and those tend to be the most popular. But I also enjoy being exposed to a new piece of music.

Anyway, I've opted for obscure, so this week I'm introducing “Pennyrile Tea.” I only know of one previous recording of this, so here is my version:

Pennyrile Tea

I learned of this song from the Dear Old Illinois book, but it came to my attention through Cathy Moore. Cathy had been at the Indiana Fiddlers Gathering in a rainy year (my first year of attendance) and during one of the rainy periods she had hunkered down in her tent with her brand-new copy of DOI and her laptop computer. She paged through the song portion, and typed in phrases from the lyrics that caught her fancy. Later she posted them on her web site in a kind of slide show. I don't think that this is still available, so I can't provide a link. I came across that slide show and had a fun time watching the odd phrases she had chosen—and then the following came up:

Wrap a little ginseng, pink root, poke root. Little oak a dill dock, pennyrile tea.

Wow, Cool! What is that? Well first, it's a tongue-twister. But it's also a big list of plants. As a bit of background, my wife is an archaeobotanist, meaning that she identifies and interprets plant remains from archaeological sites both prehistoric and more recent. As such she, and myself through osmosis, are familiar with folk uses of wild plants for food or medicinal purposes, and we recognized several at once: ginseng, poke, oak, dill, dock, and pennyrile (pennyroyal). But I could not remember any instance of that many references to non-cultivated plants, and since I knew that ginseng is a well-known medicinal plant I wondered about the others. So, to Google I went and learned the following (note: although somewhat familiar with the subject, I am not an expert. Some of these plants have quite potent properties. Don't go out grazing):

Ginseng: Panax quinquefolius. Ginseng is the granddaddy of medicinal plants and has been identified as a help & cure for just about every human ailment. There is much information available, and here is one quote on the history of the plant:


Ginseng has been used as a medicinal herb in the Orient for centuries, but is fairly new as a medicinal herb to those of us in the western hemisphere.  It is prized for its root, which sometimes takes on the shape of a human, thus giving rise to its 2,000 year history in China as basically a cure-all for mankind.  There are only two true Ginsengs - Korean and American, which in itself is interesting, as these two very close relatives are only found on absolute opposite sides of the globe.  In the 1700's, the frenzied and lucrative export of American Ginseng to China began, and by the end of the 19th Century, the plant was nearly extinct in America due to habitat destruction and over-harvesting. Today, the plant is still on the endangered list in most areas, and much of the wild harvesting has given way to controlled and deliberate cultivation.

Pink Root: Spigelia marilandica. The Indian Pink is a pretty flower which has a long list of medicinal uses, including as a vermifuge and anthelmintic. Eclectics have been used for the heart in homeopathic doses, especially rheumatic endocarditis. I'll let you look those up, you didn't know there would be homework, did you?

Poke: Phytolacca americana. When very young the shoots can be eaten (as in “Poke Salad”) but as the plant matures all parts, leaves, berries, and root, become very toxic. In the 19th century tinctures were widely used for rheumatism, and it is also an ingredient in salves for sores, both for external use only.

Oak: Quercus sp. Yes, oak has a number of medicinal uses. It was used as an astringent, and was considered good for ague, chronic diarrhoea and dysentery.

Dill: Anethum graveolens. I don't think it is native to North America, but the leaves & seeds were said to dispel flatulence and relieve colic in babies. Tastes good with cucumbers, too.

Dock: Rumex spp. This common weed was used as a purgative, the roots are laxative, and the leaves were sometimes used as a treatment for ringworm. I think there are both native and invasive species in the US.

Pennyrile: Hedeoma pulegiodes (American False Pennyroyal). There is an Old World plant called pennyroyal which has had a long history of medicinal use, but the unrelated North American plant also was used by Native Americans and European settlers. It was used as a tea to sooth the stomach, and to produces sweats (considered good for colds and ague). It was also reported to be good for “female complaints” and as an insect repellent.

So, the chorus is a big pharmaceutical list! What does it all mean? Probably nothing. But it is unusual.

Where did this song come from? Dear Old Illinois lists three sources: Orval Hale of Kirksville, Illinois in 1977, Ruth Lesser of rural Carbondale, Illinois in 1953, and a group of students from Old Union School, Jefferson County, Illinois, 1947.

There is a recording of Orval Hale in the Dear Old Illinois collection. He was born in Tennessee, but his family had moved to Illinois while he was still young. I've attached a little PDF that one of his relatives had put up on a genealogical site.

And finally, the lyrics:

1. Went to the well to get a little water
Get a little water to make a little tea
My foot slipped and I fell over
All that water spilled on me.

Wrap a little ginseng pink root poke root
Little oak a dill dock pennyrile tea

2. Many a time I've been to England
Many a time I've been to France
Many a time my mother spanked me
'round the room she made me dance.

3. Old Mother Logo, she loves whiskey
Old Mother Logo, she loves wine
Old Mother Logo, she got drunk
And oh my lordy, what a happy time.

4. Oh the death of my poor children
Oh the death that they did die
Some got drunk and some got drownded
And some got choked on gooseberry pie

5. Ripest apple soon grows rotten
Hottest love soon grows cold
No little girl will ever be forgotten
No little boy will ever be too bold.

6. In yon valley lives a maiden
Who she is I do not know
I'll go court her for her beauty
Let her answer yes or no.

7. Blue it is a pretty color
'til you get a second dip
So, young man, when you go to courting
Careful you don't get the slip.

This is quite a collection of lyrics! Mr Hale only does the chorus and verses 1 and 5 as I have them listed here. Dear Old Illinois does not identify which verses come from which source. You put them all together and they don't make much sense, but in a way that I kind of like.

That's as much as I'm going to write now. I'm going to be largely out of touch over the weekend, but I think that when I get back I'll post some other research that I did a while back. I was interested in seeing if this plant-list was unusual among “traditional” US music. So while watching TV I cataloged plant references in titles and lyrics from a number of sources. Any guesses on what the most popular plant in fiddle tunes is?

PS: I forgot to add a couple of things. First, the sad news is that Dear Old Illinois is no longer available. They have ceased production of the book and cds. Second, I've forgotten what the second thing was.

Edited by - vrteach on 09/10/2010 11:43:08

Orval Hale


Pink Root





American False Pennyroyal

Pennyrile Tea


Viper - Posted - 09/10/2010:  13:36:32

That's a fun tune. Nice playing and thanks for the plant lesson!

Nuts - Posted - 09/10/2010:  14:30:34

Erich, you are so thorough! Fun song and I really enjoyed the post, I might actually have learned something.

I am surprised to hear that Gary Harrison has pulled the plug on Dear Old Illinois. Christine and I bought a copy from Gary two years ago at the Indiana Fiddler's gathering, I'm glad we did.

ramjo - Posted - 09/10/2010:  14:49:45

Erich--Man, did I have fun reading this, doing the assignments, looking at the fine drawings, thinking back on my one and only trip to Battle Ground and the Fiddler's Gathering (in 1974!--I think my t-shirt said "3rd Annual," but I can't find it in the rag bag), and most especially listening to your excellent rendition. I tried to imagine singing that chorus after a couple of beers, but quickly gave up when I couldn't do it even before a beer. Not only is Tune of the Week entertaining, it's also educational. I'm laying in a barrel of pink root in case my heart ever succumbs to rheumatic endocarditis. Thanks a million!

Now to go look up the old posts on Mother Logo and see how she ended up in a verse in here.

Edited by - ramjo on 09/10/2010 14:59:07

cbcarlisle - Posted - 09/10/2010:  20:02:53

Clearly related to "Johnson Boys" and fodder for those who suggest that each culture only has 3 (or 4, scholars differ) tunes anyway.

panthersquall - Posted - 09/10/2010:  20:55:17

That's one of the most interesting TOTW & accompanying posts I've ever read here on the BHO. Thanks so much for that!

vrteach - Posted - 09/11/2010:  09:24:41

I have a temporary connection courtesy of a fiddle hangout friend who has one of those verizon hotspot things. Cool, I can type while sitting under a lovely weeping willow.

Thanks folks. I had actually done most of this research last winter. Where I work the staff shares a responsibility to do weekly brownbag lectures, and I did one on on "plant names in traditional Midwestern music", largely based on this song. At that point I did not attempt to sing it myself. The version I post here came after about an hour of practising the chorus. It was my first recording take, and I then tried three more takes which all failed. So, if you see me, don't ask me to sing it!

Ramjo reminds me of what my second point that I had forgotten was. Mother Logo; I don't know why she shows up in this song. Do I remember correctly that the tune "Old Mother Logo" comes from Pennsylvania? Orval Hale does not sing that verse, so that means that it comes either from Ruth Lesser (Carbondale) or the students from Jefferson County. Maybe there are notes at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale about this. I feel a road trip coming on.

mojo_monk - Posted - 09/11/2010:  11:14:09

One of my favorites! Thanks for the excellent scholarship and for that great .pdf about Mr. Hale. I should check WJBC in Bloomington if they by chance have any old recordings of him playing!!!

As mentioned above, Ruth Lesar (Carbondale, IL) sang this one for D.S. MacIntosh back in the mid-40's. Here are the lyrics from her unaccompanied, ballad-like performance:

In yon valley is a maiden
Whom she is, I do not know.
I'll go court her for her beauty
Let her answer yes or no,
Let her answer yer or no.

8 to my 12, 6, 4 to my 16
8 to my 12, 6, 4 to my 1.
8 to my 12, 6, 4 to my 16
70 from 11 leaves 3 and 1
70 from 11 leaves 3 and 1

Many a time I've been to England
Many a time I've been to France.
Many a time my mother spanked me
'round the room she made me dance,
'round the room she made me dance.


Ripest apple soon grow rotten
Warmest love soon grows cold.
Prettiest face is soon forgotten
Say, pretty miss don't you be too bold
Say, pretty miss don't you be too bold.


Blue it is a pretty color
'til you get a second dip.
So, young man, when you go courtin'
Beware you do not get the slip
Beware you do not get the slip.



Edited by - mojo_monk on 09/11/2010 11:15:55

vrteach - Posted - 09/12/2010:  15:48:01

Thanks Sean.

Hmm. Leaves me more baffled. So the Ruth Lesar version is titled Pennyrile Tea, but doesn't have any tea-like references? It shares two verses with the Orval Hale version.

Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 09/12/2010:  18:29:39

What a great, great, great Tune of the Week! The scholarship, the song choice, the performance...all top notch...loved it!

RG - Posted - 09/12/2010:  19:35:56

Erich-really awesome TOTW...great playing and singing...really enjoyed this tune...thanks! You really raised the bar for the TOTW, be a hard act to follow!!

mojo_monk - Posted - 09/13/2010:  04:26:40

Originally posted by vrteach

Hmm. Leaves me more baffled. So the Ruth Lesar version is titled Pennyrile Tea, but doesn't have any tea-like references? It shares two verses with the Orval Hale version.

Baffling indeed. The first verse of Ms. Lesar's singing can be found in an older song known as "Oh, No John" or versions of "Tarry Trousers" which has roots as a broadside ballad of the mid-17th century. Here's a MIDI file from the Digital Tradition database:

Verses 3 and 4 can be found in a song called "Rattle on the Stovepipe" or "Ripest Apple". Here's another MIDI file from DigiTrad:

I liken the swapping of song verses to fiddlers unwittingly combining A and B parts from two different tunes: sometimes it just happens! Mr. Hale's version of Pennyrile Tea represents this just as much as Ms. Lesar's singing of...well...whatever the heck she was singing!


Edited by - mojo_monk on 09/13/2010 04:27:56

LyleK - Posted - 09/13/2010:  04:50:04

Was going to wait on this one in case it needed a "bump" back to the first page, but there seems no risk of it sliding off the page this week. Five stars, er, make that "a thumb up" in the new system. One question: how do you keep all those words in core memory?

vrteach - Posted - 09/13/2010:  07:32:47

Originally posted by LyleK
...One question: how do you keep all those words in core memory?

Good question, and I have a response. Generally I can't and don't. In this case I had the text sitting on the laptop in front of me. So I first had to practice reading & playing, and then I did extra practice on the "wrap a little ginseng..." part to train my mouth and figure out what the banjo should be doing. Sometimes (while more-or-less chanting) I was just doing a drop-thumb arpeggio on an open-G chord, and sometimes I did hammer-ons on the 3rd string 4th fret, and sometimes I did hammer-ons on the 2nd & 3rd string at the 3rd and 4th fret respectively.

I only have perhaps a half-dozen songs that I actually have words in core memory, maybe more. I go through a great deal of effort when I do want to memorize a song. In the past I would listen to the source repeatedly while singing along, and then practice when the house was empty. Nowadays with better technology I'll do a recording with the text in front of me, and make a cd or load an mp3 player and play it repeatedly in the car while singing along. Again, it's best if there is no other human in the car.

I may go through the effort on this song. On the other hand, I am willing and unashamed to bring a music stand with the lyrics. That of course assumes that I plan ahead enough to know what I'm going to play, and I don't enjoy planning ahead.

Edited by - vrteach on 09/13/2010 07:35:18

vrteach - Posted - 09/13/2010:  09:45:14

Originally posted by cbcarlisle

Clearly related to "Johnson Boys" and fodder for those who suggest that each culture only has 3 (or 4, scholars differ) tunes anyway.

Sure enough, the melody is close to "Johnson Boys". I hadn't noticed that.

Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 09/13/2010:  12:27:46

Another song with a very similar melody is "No Sir, No" as played and sung by Pete Seeger on his 1956 Folkways album "Love Songs for Friends and Foes".

When I first listened to this tune of the week, the melody seemed familiar to me, and Pete Seeger fingerpicking was evoked in my memory, but I couldn't place the song. Then I noted that the resemblace to Johnson Boys was remarked upon, and i figured that must be it. But today, a few lines of "No Sir, No" made their way into my consciousness, and the hunt was on for the song.

The lines I remembered were:
"I would not have your gold and silver,
I would not have your house and land,
I would not have your ... ....,
All I want is a handsome man.

"No sir, no", "No sir no",
Every answer to me was "no".
"No sir, no", "No sir no",
Every answer to me was "no".

Armed with that fragment, I looked through all dozen of my digital Seeger albums, but nothing fit the bill. It must have been on something vinyl that I hadn't listened to in years. And indeed it was, on a record my family had acquired when I was 7. In the end, the search led me to purchase digital copies of this record along with another half dozen Seeger records of which I only have the old original vinyls that I can no longer play for lack of a functioning turntable. Plus I bought a few records I never had before.

This has turned out to be an expensive Tune of the Week for me!

vrteach - Posted - 09/13/2010:  12:56:04

I didn't know of that song, and your are right that is the same melody. One of the nice things about Smithsonian Folkways is that they have scanned the original liner notes. You can download them from the page at

No Sir, No shares its first verse with Pennyrile Tea, and the 2nd and 3rd verses were used by Manly Wade Wellman for his song lyrics "Vandy, Vandy"

So, not only did I assign homework, there were also educational materials to purchase! Sorry Marc

Edited by - vrteach on 09/13/2010 13:14:21

Lyrics for No Sir, No


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