“Shady Grove” is a traditional Appalachian song. It has been performed by many musicians over the years in various genres of music, including Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Skaggs, Jean Ritchie, and the Avett Brothers.
Like many folk songs, the song’s lyrics have changed, depending upon the singer. Musicologists believe the song originated as “Mattie Groves,” a British folk ballad that dates to the early 1600s. “Mattie Groves” told the story of an adulterous relationship that ended in a murder. As the song traveled from Europe to the United States, it became “Shady Grove,” and its lyrics and story changed. It is sometimes called a “courting song” since, in most versions, the singer is expressing love for another but often in a lamenting way, as if the beloved is not attainable. Some versions are lighter in spirit than others, as is demonstrated in this version by Zoe Speaks in which racial difference and community discrimination make it difficult for the lovers to be together.
1. Use this resource as part of study of American and/or Appalachian folk music.
2. Play Jean Ritchie’s version of “Shady Grove” at and compare it to Zoe Speaks’ version. Listen to other arrangements of the song and compare both the lyrics and the music. Is the singer speaking from a male or female perspective? Is Shady Grove a person or a place?
3. Read the lyrics to “Mattie Groves” at and/or listen to a performance of the earlier song. What evidence do students find that “Shady Grove” might have originated from “Mattie Groves”? How is the song told in “Mattie Groves” different than that told in various versions of “Shady Grove”?
4. Have students look for other examples of traditional songs in which lyrics have been rewritten over the years and write their own new lyrics to “Shady Grove” or another traditional song.