Estimated reading time: 3 minute(s)

For part three of The Quarantine Sessions series, Mark Caserta and I perform The Railroad Boy. To learn more about the project, please see my introductory article. To listen to and learn about other songs we have performed, please see the series tag.

Song: The Railroad Boy.
Performed by: Victor V. Gurbo (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Mark Caserta (lead guitar).
Video: Mark Caserta.

Introduction

I first discovered “The Railroad Boywhile watching old footage of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez from the 1975 leg of Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour.  I connected with the performance the first time I heard it.  The frantic, almost manic, performance by Dylan and Baez meshed seamlessly with the subject-matter of the ballad.  The Railroad Boy tells the tale of a woman, who having been rejected by her lover, takes her own life.

General Overview of The Railroad Boy/The Butcher’s Boy

I researched The Railroad Boy to learn about its backstory.  I first learned was that Baez had actually recorded the song earlier in her career, in 1961.  Then, much to my surprise, I found that the song was part of the “Anthology of American Folk Music: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,” which I not only own, but also frequently listen to while working.The Anthology version was recorded by Buell Kazee, a country and folk musician from Kentucky, in 1928.  Part of why I did not immediately connect the Anthology version with the Dylan-Baez version was because Kazee recorded it under the title “The Butcher’s Boy.”  The Railroad Boy, like many other folk songs, has gone under different names.

George Malcolm Laws catalogued “Railroad Boy” or “The Butcher’s Boy” as “Laws P24”  in his 1957 collection of traditional ballads.  It is also known as “Roud 409,” in the Round Folk Song Index, which is a collection of approximately 250,000 folk songs catalogued by Steve Roud. Roud built on the earlier work of Francis James Child, examined in my recent piece on Love HenryThe Roud Folk Song Index is available for free online at the Vaughn Williams Memorial Library website.

Roud briefly described The Butcher’s Boy in the song notes to “My Bonnie Lies Over The ocean: British Songs in the USA”: “[The Butcher’s Boy is] [o]ne of the most widely-known ‘forsaken girl’ songs in the American tradition, which is often particularly moving in its stark telling of an age-old story.”

1890s song sheet for "The Butcher Boy."   Other versions of the same song are called "The Railroad Boy."
Song sheet for The Butcher Boy from the 1890s. Retrieved from the American Song Sheets Collection at the Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Story and Themes in The Railroad Boy

The story in The Railroad Boy differs slightly from rendition to rendition.  In some versions, such as in The Clancy Brothers’ track from the 1994 “Irish Folk Songs & Airs,” the protagonist of the song is pregnant with the child of her lover.  This theme is common to folk music. Dink’s Song is one of my favorite examples.

Other versions of The Railroad Boy explore themes involving love and wealth.  The man in the song leaves his jilted lover for a woman who has far more money.  In Love Henry, which I covered previously, the woman is left in spite of her wealth. Thus, while both songs play with the idea of a woman’s wealth, they do so in different ways.

Of Doves and Briar Knots

Many versions of The Railroad Boy include the girl requesting that a “snow white dove” or “turtle dove” be laid on her breast.  I omitted this from my rendition of the song because I did not initially fully understand the reference or find it relevant.  However, upon researching the song further, I discovered that the dove is an old world symbol, synonymous with a rose and briar knot.

The song “Barbara Allen,” which appears in Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” is perhaps the best-known example of a folk song featuring the briar knot.  In Barbara Allen, the woman rejects the man and the man dies, representing a role-reversal from The Railroad Boy. There, the woman ultimately dies as a result of the man’s death. The song ends with a briar knot forming on their graves, allowing them to intermingle posthumously. 

Perhaps in The Railroad Boy, the woman’s request for a dove to be laid on her breast represents is her desire to  prolong the intimacy that she shared with her lover.  At a minimum, the dove symbolizes her innocence – all the more interesting in that she affirmatively requested it. The dove is also symbolic of motherhood, which may feature in versions of the song where the woman is pregnant.  Had I known more about the significance of the dove, I would have included it in my recording.