collections

The False Young Man (1937)

Part 1

Part 2

In this recording — made at the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County, Kentucky, by the legendary musicologist Alan Lomax — you can hear Abner Boggs sing a heartrending rendition of a song called “The False Young Man”.

Songs by this name — like the ballad printed on the broadside shown above — have been in circulation since at least the seventeenth century. But the roots of the song Boggs sings are more intimately tangled with the old Scottish ballad “Young Hunting” (AKA “Love Henry”). The ballad tells the story of a woman scorned by her lover who then stabs him in the heart and dumps his body in a river or well. Most versions also include a talking bird that torments the murderess or, in the most supernatural versions, brings her to justice. The song has had a long life, and has been covered in various versions by everyone from Bob Dylan to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Like many ballads, “Young Hunting” fragmented over the years, becoming less and less story-oriented. By the nineteenth century, in both Scotland and Appalachian America (where the British settlers had brought their ballads with them), the long and bloody tale it told had splintered into a series of more impressionistic verses, morphing into, among other things, “The False Young Man”.

There are still plenty of lyrical variations on “The False Young Man” (also sometimes called “The False True Love” and “Bird in a Cage”). Sometimes the song is sung from the perspective of an observer who sees the two lovers meet and talk, and sometimes from the perspective of the jilted lover herself, who is no longer a murderess but simply a suffering soul, crying out against the untrustworthiness of men in general:

I never will believe what another man says,
If his hair be yellow, black or brown,
Unless he’s on some gallows tree
Swearing he would like to come down.

In Boggs’s version, the traditional gender roles are reversed. Here it is a man lamenting the faithlessness of a woman. (The song should really be called “The False Young Woman”.) But all these scholarly quibbles seem beside the point the moment you hear Boggs’s voice. He belts out the tune with a broken-hearted vulnerability that’s both beautiful and poignant.