Dolly Parton, “Silver Dagger”


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There really is, as the Bible says, nothing new under the sun, and that definitely applies to the music business. Songs get rearranged and changed, but some live on for decades, even centuries, simply because they tell great universal stories. When they’re delivered by master storytellers like Dolly Parton or Joan Baez, those songs find new audiences generation after generation. That’s the case with the traditional song “Silver Dagger” from Parton’s Grammy-winning album The Grass Is Blue.

The origins of “Silver Dagger” stretch back to the 19th century British Isles, to such songs as “Drowsy Sleeper” and “Who Is At My Bedroom Window?” It came out of various stories of love lost that featured a dagger as either a suicide weapon or an intimidating tool to keep suitors away. The preferred method of distributing lyrics in those days was in the form of “broadsides,” sheets of paper professionally printed to contain the words of an entire song on one side. And melodies were learned from performer to performer until they ended up becoming tradition.

While the lyrics and the melody were changed to suit countless artists over the decades, Parton’s version of what became “Silver Dagger” is the story of a young woman whose mother forbids her to marry, and the girl isn’t necessarily arguing. She’s seen what a scalawag her own father is and how he’s hurt her mother, and in the end she decides to spend her life celibate and alone. Though she’s probably also influenced by the forbidding silver dagger in Mom’s right hand that could be a problem for the man who wants to serenade the young lass.

Long before Parton cut it, though, Joan Baez introduced the song to the baby boomer generation on her eponymous 1960 debut album. It was a folkier and faster rendition than what Parton would later record, and was supported only by Baez’s own underrated guitar playing, where Parton’s recording features an all-star band. Baez’s version would later be used in the River Phoenix movie Dogfight. Before it ever got to the high-fidelity generation, though, one iteration or another of the song was recorded in the 1920s under different titles by such male singers as Kelly Harrell and Wilmer Watts, who revised the lyrics to be sung from a man’s point of view. In more modern times a song called “Katie Dear” (or “Katy Dear”), with male-oriented lyrics and basically the same melody, was sung by the Country Gentlemen and the Louvin Brothers. And Old Crow Medicine Show covers a combination, sort-of, of both songs on their Eutaw CD, with the name “The Silver Dagger” but the male-centric lyrics of “Katie Dear.”

A book could be written about this song, about how it originated, how it evolved through both female and male performances, and how it lives on today. In the end, a great song is a great song, and that’s exactly what “Silver Dagger” became, with excellent versions recorded by Parton and Baez.

Read the lyrics. 

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