Traditional country music has hid many a cautionary tale within a melody. There is a surprising number of songs about women who should avoid intimate relations with men (Fair and Tender Ladies, The Knoxville Girl, Ode to Billie Joe immediately come to mind). There are also songs that suggest you should make amends with loved ones before it’s too late (Letter Edged in Black, The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea), don’t drink (She’s More to Be Pitied Than Scolded, The Bottom of the Bottle, again, The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea), and thousands of songs suggesting you should get right with God, right now.
The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake is a pretty straightforward tale of girl finds snake, snake bites girl, daddy searches for girl, but it’s more than that, of course. A long and healthy life wasn’t promised to children in early America (or anywhere else, I guess — but I’m thinking of when this song became popular as a country song), and songwriters wrote songs that maximized the tragedy that often befell the young. A.P. Carter even mined current events of lost young lives to sell records, writing “Cyclone of Rye Cove” after a tornado hit a schoolhouse.
Many country artists covered “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake” but it sounds great as a bluegrass song, so I’m thinking of the Bill Monroe version.
The Little Girl And The Dreadful Snake (recorded by Bill Monroe, as well as many others)
written by Albert Rae Price
Our darling wandered far away while she was out at play
Lost in the woods she couldn’t hear a sound
She was our darling girl the sweetest thing in all the world
We searched for her but she couldn’t be found
I heard the screams of our little girl far away
Hurry Daddy, there’s an awful dreadful snake
I ran as fast as I could through the dark and dreary woods
But I reached our darling girl too late
Oh I began to cry, I knew that soon she’d have to die
For the snake was warning me close by
I held her close to my face, she said daddy kill that snake
It’s getting dark, tell mommy goodbye
To all parents I must say, don’t let your children stray away
They need your love to guide them along
Oh God, I pray we’ll see our darling girl some day
It seems we still can hear her voice around our home
Sickness and early death made people feel helpless, and the desperation shows in these lyrics. The genealogy work I’ve done on my family revealed many early deaths: by fire, drownings, consumption and other even sadder fates. I can imagine that this song was very familiar in their homes.