I’ll hang my heart on a weeping willow tree, and there it will weep for you.
I learned that line from my grandfather when I was young. (The same grandfather who gave me the silver owl bank.) Grandpa had a head full of poetry and rhymes, which he evidently altered and rearranged at his pleasure. He was always quoting bits and pieces, or teaching us silly poems. For instance, he taught me:
Barefoot boy, barefoot boy
Walking down the street
With his pants full of pockets,
And his shoes full of feet.
It appears to be a mixed-up version of an already zany 1930s song called “Barefoot Boy with Boots On,” which includes other lyrics like, “He was born when he was a baby/His grandma’s pride and joy/His only sister was a girl/And his brother was a boy.”
The boy stood on the burning deck
Parching peanuts by the peck;
His mother called, but he would not go,
For he loved them peanuts so.
Turns out this was a parody version of Felicia Heman’s 1826 poem “Casabianca,” which was about a boy on a French ship during a battle:
The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
(While searching for this original poem, I found several other parodies, most of which are off-color. That would have suited Grandpa just fine. He knew lots of dirty poetry, just like he could swear like the Coast Guard sailor he was; but he was a man of his era, and we girls rarely heard anything unsavory like that from him.)
Anyway, back to the willow tree. He quoted the above line to me once. I liked it well enough to remember it. I’ve had it in my head for years… for decades. I never knew if the right word was “heart” or “harp” (a reference to Psalm 137), and as I’ve discovered, Grandpa’s recitations were not exactly meticulous.
Yesterday while driving with Bookgirl and Sparkler, I saw a willow tree, and quoted the line. And it occurred to me that now I could look up that line and find out where Grandpa got it.
Bookgirl googled the phrase and came up with a song from 1891. That sounded just right. It was called There Is a Tavern in the Town or “The Drunkard’s Song,” and we listened to a pretty bad recording of it. It’s a song about lost love, and friends, and bidding adieu. It’s an overly sentimental drunken farewell to friends.
And there it was, in the chorus:
I’ll hang my harp on the weeping willow tree,
And may the world go well with thee.
The tune was incredibly familiar, but we just couldn’t place it. It wasn’t until later in the day when I played it for DJ that I figured it out, and felt a bit foolish. The tune is “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” The willow tree lines match up with “Eyes and ears and mouth and nose/Head, shoulders, knees, and toes!”
Once again, Grandpa’s version is not quite the original. But I like it better. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of my grandparents, my uncle, or their homeplace with a spreading beech tree, a chicken yard, a scuppernong arbor and small garden, and a short walk to the creek. They are dead and that’s all gone — a highway now runs through where it once was.
So I’ll hang my heart on the weeping willow tree, and there it will always quietly weep for what is past.
(But I prefer boiled peanuts to parched ones, and if Grandpa could change lines to suit himself, then so can I.)
P.S. My family all shares these memories of Grandpa. My brothers actually recalled the poems better than I did. He’s been gone for over 25 years but is still very much present in our lives.