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Head and shoulders portrait of a woman.
Lillian Short as photographed by Vance Randolph for his book Ozark Folksongs. AFC Vance Randolph Collection.

Lillian Short: More Than Just Robin Hood

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It’s become a tradition toward the beginning of May for me to write something about the traditional May carol known variously as “Hal an Tow” or “The Cornish May Song.” Our archive at the American Folklife Center has one particularly interesting version of this song, sung in Missouri in 1941 by Mrs. Lillian Short. Like most traditional versions of this song, Mrs. Short’s version begins with the words “Robin Hood and Little John.”  Because of this, the collector, Vance Randolph, gave it the title “Robin Hood.” Let’s hear it in the player below!

Since I’ve written so much about the song already (see all those posts at this link) I thought this time I’d present a bit of information about the singer, especially since she has an unusual connection to Robin Hood. We’ll get to that connection shortly, but first I’ll introduce her.

As you may have guessed, Lillian Short was one of the very best singers documented by the famed Ozark folklorist and song collector Vance Randolph. As a singer, Lillian had a varied repertoire; she sang centuries-old ballads alongside recent country songs, and murder ballads alongside a few spirituals. She sang sentimental standards, play-party songs, and a few songs with adult humor in them as well. I’ll present a selection of her recordings in this blog; the rest can be heard in the Folklife Reading Room, and even more of her songs can be found in Vance Randolph’s 4-volume set of books, Ozark Folksongs. I’ll intersperse the songs with Lillian’s story, and if you want to know more about them I’ll include a section of song notes at the end.

In 2004, the American Folklife Center heard from Short’s great-nephew’s widow, Barbara Scott, who was kind enough to send a few photos and two obituaries. The latter texts form some of the basis of my narrative in this blog. In honor of Barbara, let’s hear Lillian’s version of the classic ballad “Barbara Allen” in the player below.

In many ways Lillian Short defied the stereotypes some people associate with both traditional singing and Ozark mountaineers. She was born Lillian Scott in Galena, Missouri, on May 26, 1902, to Florence and Rufe Scott. Rufe was a county prosecutor and a judge, and Lillian took after him; she was highly educated and had several successful careers, including as a schoolteacher, a bank clerk, a real estate professional, and the manager of her own title and abstract office In Galena, Missouri.

Lillian also had some musical training. We know this because her father was a fine fiddler who also recorded for Randolph, and on some of his recordings, Rufe is accompanied by Lillian playing chords on the piano.

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman in an oval frame
Lillian Scott’s high school graduation photo from Springfield High School, 1920.

Lillian graduated from Springfield High School in 1920, and went on to Southwest Missouri State College and Washington University in St. Louis, before returning to Galena to teach high school. She married George Leonard Short in 1926. Her husband generally went by “Leonard,” and most newspapers and other sources mentioning him use that name, but his nickname was “Shock” Short. I’ll say more about Shock in part 2 of this blog post, but in honor of their marriage, let’s hear some courtship songs, or really two versions of one song, “The Keys of Heaven” and “Paper of Pins.” Hear them in the players below.

The writer and folklorist Vance Randolph was good friends with Leonard. In the Introduction to his book The Devil’s Pretty Daughter, Randolph thanks Leonard’s father, calling him “Uncle Jack Short, in whose home I lived for more than a year.” Personal notes in a file Vance Randolph kept on Leonard (which is in Box 11 of AFC’s Vance Randolph Collection) indicate that Randolph felt Leonard was “the best man in the family,” and that Uncle Jack thought so too. Considering that Shock’s brother was 12-term U.S. Congressman Dewey Short, this was high praise.

Leonard Short died in 1935, and Vance Randolph attended the funeral. Lillian remained close to her late husband’s family, especially his sister, Bess Short Allman, who was also widowed. At about this time, Lillian also met Vance Randolph, who was himself widowed in 1937. At one point Randolph, already a noted author, gave Lillian an autographed photo with a humorous inscription; in it, he calls her simply “Lillian” and signs himself “Vance,” a clear indication of friendship.

A man sits on a wagon being drawn by a horse.
Vance Randolph autographed this photo for Lillian Short, calling her simply “Lillian” and signing himself “Vance.” The humorous inscription, “The one on the left is me,” suggests he might be hard to tell apart from the horse’s hindquarters on the right. A copy of the photo was supplied to AFC by Lillian’s niece, Barbara Scott, and is in the Lillian Short subject file.

In fact, Vance Randolph’s feelings for Lillian went deeper than friendship. In Randolph’s Leonard Short folder, he preserved an undated note about Lillian in his own handwriting:

Leonard had a wife too, but I never met her until several years later. […] I loved her very much. My idea was that we should get married immediately, but she said that marriage didn’t fit into her plans. I argued with her about it for two years., and then—she was wild and sweet and witty; let’s not say dull things about her. 

The proposal Randolph refers to must have occurred soon after his wife Marie’s death in 1937, and although Lillian wouldn’t marry him, he continued to visit her as well as Bess Allman. Some of his 1941 recording sessions, which I suspect were held at Bess’s house in Galena, feature both Lillian and Bess, swapping songs and singing some duets. Bess and Lillian seem totally at ease with each other and with Randolph as well, joking and laughing (sometimes uproariously) between songs. In the player below, hear the two sing the spiritual “We Shall Rise” and the relatively new train-wreck ballad “Wreck of the Number Nine.” Note that they sing “Number Nine” a little high for Lillian, and she sometimes lets Bess solo on the second strain of the tune! After the duets, Lillian sings a brief verse of the children’s game “In and Out the Window.”

In an undated, handwritten note in his Leonard Short file, Vance Randolph says Lillian had “one of the sharpest minds I have ever known.” So it’s not surprising that Lillian returned to professional life after her husband’s death, first as a bank clerk in Galena, then in a more responsible position as Assistant Cashier of the Cabool State Bank, for which she moved about a hundred miles away. (Vance Randolph gives her address as Cabool, but her recordings were made in Galena, presumably at her father’s house or Bess Allman’s.) Lillian moved back to Galena in 1942 after her mother died, to operate the Galena Abstract Co., a real estate title and abstract firm, and to look after her father. In addition to work and family commitments, she was active in the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic organization open to women, and served as matron and deputy grand matron within the organization.

A woman, a man, a teenager, and a child.
Barbara Scott captioned this photo: Christmas 1949 or 1950. Lillian Scott Short. Nephews “Jerry” at back, George in front. Rufe Scott (Lillian’s father)

In 1948 Lillian married a second time, to Deba Cline, and was thereafter known mainly as “Lillian Scott Cline.” Her name in AFC’s card catalog, which was made before she remarried, is “Lillian Short,” and her materials here are therefore filed under “Lillian Short.” Her songs in Randolph’s books are also published under the name “Lillian Short.” Nevertheless, Lillian and Deba Cline were by all accounts devoted to one another and she was happy to be known as Mrs. Cline. In honor of their happy marriage, let’s hear the love song “Pretty Fair Maid” in the player below.

Sadly, the Clines’ married life lasted only a decade; Lillian Scott Cline, the former Lillian Short, died quietly but suddenly in 1958. The obituaries allude to a period of illness without revealing anything specific about her condition, but by all accounts her death was unexpected. On December 9, a friend came to her house for lunch and found her dead, with no signs of struggle or strife.

According to Vance Randolph’s biography, long after Lillian died, and after Randolph gave the rest of his papers to the Library of Congress, the folklorist kept mementos of Lillian: two photos, as well as news clippings about her marriage and her health. Four years after Lillian’s death, he finally remarried, to the Arkansas-based folklorist Mary Celestia Parler.

One man plays fiddle, one plays guitar, one operates a disc recorder.
Vance Randolph records Deacon Hembree and an unknown guitarist. AFC does not seem to have recordings of these performers.

Quite apart from Randolph’s feelings for her, Lillian was clearly one of his favorite singers, and from these recordings it’s easy to see why. Her repertoire included a wide range of song types, her versions were for the most part complete, and her voice was relaxed and engaging. We’re lucky to have 34 songs sung by such a fine singer among the archive’s recordings, and even more in Vance Randolph’s books.

As promised, I’ll save the discussion of Lillian’s connection to Robin Hood for next time. For now, in recognition of her untimely death, Let’s hear one last song from Lillian, “New River Train,” in which she sings:

I’m Leaving on that New River Train
I’m Leaving on that New River Train
That same old train that brought me here
Well, it’s going to carry me away

Hear it in the player below…and see the song notes after that!

Song Notes

All of Lillian Short’s recordings are in AFC’s Vance Randolph Collection, which has the collection number AFC 1941/001. In 1941 and 1942, the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive at the Library of Congress) commissioned Vance Randolph to make field recordings in the Ozarks region. He took photos of many of the performers, which are also in the Library of Congress. In 1972 Randolph’s papers were added to the collection. The entire collection can be consulted in the Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress.

For each song below, I’ll note a Child number and a Roud number if the song has one. The Child number refers to Francis James Child’s collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads; it’s standard in folklore scholarship to identify these ballads by the numbers Child gave them. The Roud number refers to the Roud Index, online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Using the link on each Roud number, you can find index entries for all published versions of each song known to Roud and his team.  Now on to the songs!

Lillian Short’s recording of “Robin Hood” (Roud 1520) has the catalog number AFS 05263 B02. I’ve written about the history of the song in three blog posts at this link. Its early history is discussed in this post and its comments. To summarize, the words and tune of the song were first documented in 1802, and Lillian Short’s fragment is quite close to the beginning of the song as published then. A few of the words are known to go back as far as 1748 as a Mayday song, when Dr. William Borlase commented that the phrase “Haile an Taw, and Golly Rumbelaw” was used to raise a maypole in Newlyn.

Illustration by H.M. Brock for “Barbara Allen.” This appeared as a color plate in the book A Book of Old Ballads, edited by Beverley Nichols. The book has entered the public domain. See it online here!

Lillian Short’s recording of “Barbara Allen” (Child 84, Roud 54) has the catalog number AFS 05326 B01. “Barbara Allen” is one of the most widespread of the classic British ballads, telling the story of a young woman who scorns the love of a suitor, then regrets it after he dies of heartbreak. You can find many versions online at the Library of Congress Website, and many more at the Association for Cultural Equity. The Archive once issued an entire LP, Versions and Variants of Barbara Allen, with extensive notes on the music by Charles Seeger, and on the words by Ed Cray; the notes are available as a pdf at this link.  Our first record of the ballad is from a diary entry in 1665/1666 by Samuel Pepys, in which he recounts a party at which he heard his friend, Mrs. Knipp, an actress, sing “her little Scotch song of ‘Barbary Allen;'” you can read the diary entry at this link. The online Diary of Samuel Pepys also has an article on the song’s history and development at this link.

Lillian Short’s version of “The Keys of Heaven” has the catalog number AFS 05281 B02. Her version of “The Paper of Pins” has the catalog number AFS 05326 A02. Both are versions of Roud 573. You can find other versions at the Library of Congress website at this link, and at the Association for Cultural Equity at this link, with one more version at this link. This old courting song, often taught to children as a play-party song, exists in two main variants. In both, a man offers a woman a succession of valuable gifts if she will consent to court him, but she refuses them. Near the end, he offers “the keys to my heart,” pledging love instead of treasure. In one major variant, she agrees and the couple lives happily ever after. In the other, she turns down the keys to his heart, trying to get more money instead; realizing she is a gold-digger, he refuses to marry her. The second variant may have emerged as a parody of the first. Interestingly, Lillian sang both, one as “The Keys of Heaven” and the other as “The Paper of Pins.”

Lillian Short and Bess Allman’s recording of the spiritual “We Shall Rise” (Roud 4309) has the catalog number AFS 05263 A01. You can find a Kentucky version online at the Association for Cultural Equity at this link. Vance Randolph also collected the song from Lillian alone on a different occasion, in writing rather than as an audio recording. His transcription of that earlier performance is in the book Ozark Folksongs. According to the Dictionary of North American Hymnology, the song was written by J. Edmond Thomas in 1904 as “Hallelujah, We Shall Rise” and appeared in many church hymnals. As “We Shall Rise,” it was also recorded by the popular country trio The Carter Family in 1940, the same year in which Lillian Short first sang it for Vance Randolph.

Lillian Short and Bess Allman’s recording of “Wreck of the Number Nine” (Roud 3229)  has the catalog number AFS 05263 A02. Find a Kentucky version from the AFC Archive online at the Association for Cultural Equity at this link. The song is a popular country number in the train-wreck genre written by Carson Robison in 1927 and subsequently recorded by many country artists. You can see a pdf of one of Robison’s manuscripts of the song online at Pittsburg State University.

Lillian Short’s recording of “Go In and Out the Window” (Roud 734) has the catalog number AFS 05263 A03. The song is a common children’s ring-dance or play-party song, popular in Britain and America among children of varied backgrounds. Alan Lomax recorded versions from many singers, including Bessie Jones, Jean Ritchie, children in the Hemphill family of Mississippi, and schoolchildren in Scotland. Find those versions online at this link at the Association for Cultural Equity.

Lillian Short’s recording of “Pretty Fair Maid” (Roud 264) has the catalog number AFS 05293 B01. About 18 months before Lillian Short’s recording, Vance Randolph had already collected the song from her in writing, and he printed that previous version in the book Ozark Folksongs. This song is one of the most widespread in English-language folk tradition. Its main idea, a sailor or soldier returning to his lover in disguise to test her loyalty, is shared with many other songs and stories going back all the way to Homer’s Odyssey. It goes by a wide variety of titles, including “Pretty Maid in the Garden,” “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” “The Young and Single Sailor,” “A Fair Maid Walking,” and “The Broken Token.” You can find versions on the Library of Congress website by Mary Sullivan at this link and by brothers Warde and Pat Ford at this link.  At the Association for Cultural Equity, you can versions collected by Alan Lomax, including those at the following links:

The song is also a favorite in the American folk revival, and was recorded by Pete Seeger, The New Lost City Ramblers, Judy Collins, Bob Gibson, Joan Baez, and Odetta, among many others.

Lillian Short’s recording of “New River Train” (Roud 4568) has the catalog number AFS 05327 A01. Archie Green wrote about the song for the liner notes to our LP AFS L61, Railroad Songs and Ballads. You can download those notes here. According to Archie, the song is “an example of a traditional folksong adopted by the music industry.” Archie points out that Fields Ward claimed his family first learned the song about 1895. (Ward was the leader of the Bogtrotters band of Galax, Virginia, who recorded “New River Train” for John A. Lomax in 1937.) Archie also identifies the first recording of the song as a 1924 commercial recording by Henry Whitter. At this link on the Library of Congress website you can hear another early commercial recording, by Kelly Harrel. Over at the Association for Cultural Equity, you can hear Aunt Molly Jackson’s version of the song.

Thanks for reading and listening! We’ll have more about Lillian Short and her connection to Robin Hood next week!


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