More than 145 years after it was written, and almost 30 years since it appeared as a sweet highlight of the Grammy-winning Trio album by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, a brightly polished version of the “Little Rosewood Casket” is among the songs on the beautifully crafted Appalachian tribute LP, On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, set for release August 21st.
In the early Twenties, as recorded music was rapidly gaining popularity and record labels in the South were in search of the next great “hillbilly” performer, Columbia Records signed Ernest Thompson, a blind farmer and musician from Forsyth County, North Carolina. Possessing an unusually high-pitched singing voice, Thompson’s records often found him accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica, instead of the more common fiddle-banjo backing. While few of his recordings were a great success at the time, he has come to be regarded as an influential early figure in country music, having recorded several future standards. Thompson cut one such tune on September 9th, 1924, as “Little Rosebud Casket,” a mournful folk song about a dying man (or woman, depending on the singer), and a casket full of love letters. In spite of the ghostly Appalachian theme, the sentimental tune that became a popular parlor song was actually penned in 1870 by a pair of Tin Pan Alley songwriters from Boston, Louis Goullaud and Charles A. White.
Nearly a century later, “Little Rosewood Casket,” as it has become most commonly known, has been recorded in various versions by country, bluegrass and folk artists, including Bradley Kincaid, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Mac Wiseman and Marty Robbins. The best-known modern version of the tune was among the songs on the 1987 multi-platinum-selling LP, Trio, by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Featuring musical arrangement from Parton’s earliest musical inspiration, her mother, Avie Lee Parton, the Trio recording was led by Dolly’s expressive Smoky Mountain vocals and Harris and Ronstadt’s spectacular harmonies and retains the gentle, sentimental charm of the earliest recordings while updating the experience for the modern listener.
That same spirit (and same angelic singing voice) takes the lead on Parton’s solo version of “Little Rosewood Casket,” one of 23 tracks featured on On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music. Released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA), the LP also includes performances of timeless Appalachian classics by musicians including Norman and Nancy Blake, Bryan Sutton, Alice Gerrard, Tony Trischka, John Lilly, David Holt and Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, among others. (See the full track listing below.)
A tribute to the more than 4,000 people who had to give up their ancestral homes to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the album of traditional American music is the third to be released by the GSMA and one of several National Park Service Centennial-recognition projects produced this year. The songs included represent reinterpretations of field recordings that were collected in the Smokies by folklorist Joseph S. Hall, who documented the musical culture of Smokies residents as they were leaving their homes and farms during the park’s development. In its 60-year history, GSMA has provided more than $34 million to the park.
On Top of Old Smoky track listing:
“On Top of Old Smoky,” Carol Elizabeth Jones
“Come, All You Young Ladies,” Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin
“The Girl I Love Don’t Pay Me No Mind,” David Holt
“Lost Indian,” Travis and Trevor Stuart
“Ground Hog,” Alice Gerrard
“Something’s Always Sure to Tickle Me,” Corbin Hayslett
“Mole in the Ground,” Sheila Kay Adams
“Bonaparte’s Retreat,” Bruce Greene
“I Started Out A-Courting,” Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin
“Don’t Forget Me, Little Darling,” Ed Snodderly
“Man of Constant Sorrow,” John Lilly
“Black-Eyed Susie,” Stephen Wade
“I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home,” Bryan Sutton
“The Ramshackle Shack,” The Brother Boys
“Mule Skinner Blues,” John Lilly
“Black Mountain Rag,” Travis and Trevor Stuart
“Goin’ Down This Road Feelin’ Bad,” Amythyst Kiah with Roy Andrade
“John Hardy,” Martin Simpson with Dom Flemons
“The Dying Cowboy,” Norman and Nancy Blake, with the Rising Fawn String Ensemble
“Chinquapin Hunting,” Tony Trischka and Courtney Hartman
“Conversation With Death,” The Brother Boys
“Little Rosewood Casket,” Dolly Parton
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Dale Jett and Hello StrangerDolly Parton discusses her next TV movie, her upcoming tour and her 50 year marriage to Carl Dean. Watch excerpts from the interview here.