How/why written? A few years ago I was remembering listening to banjo-picking on Sunday afternoons- usually all boys & men sitting on a store-porch. No girls in our region played banjo then- it was considered unladylike! (Mom referred to it as a "low" instrument). One of the learnin pieces was a simple ditty-tune that had only one chord change, hardly any melody to it, and the learner would play that little tune over and over and over, finally he or some of the other's would throw in a four-line verse, to keep him going and help set the rhythm:
Alla m'frins fl'out with me
Cause I kep y'r company,
Let'm all say what they will
Love my love with a free goodwill!
I got that fragment on my mind, and thought it was a very good bit of poetry, and kept humming it around, washing dishes, etc., and because it was such a nothing tune, I slowed it down and put my own tune onto it, and the singing of it became so satisfying I put some other verses on the make it longer and sort of tell a story. You're right- I did use lines and images from older songs; they seemed to work best with the tune, but other verses are my own words(at least I think so...sometimes there are things in the subconscious- there, but not really remembered). As far as I know, The "Over the mountians," verse and the, "It's when I'm awake,"one are completely new. Of course, all the other verses are mine also,(with the exception of the first)- just using the older images and forms to string my thoughts together.
Hope this tells what you want to know. It must be passing as an "old" song, for when Caroline Hester recorded it, she said in the credit line that it was "Collected by Jean Ritchie." And thank you, Harpgirl, I would be honored to have you record it.
All the best, Jean