Recorded during Buell Kazee's first recording sessions in the spring of 1927, "East Virginia" tells more of a story than Clarence Ashley's "The Coo Coo Bird" which precedes it on this set. As with the preceding song, there is evidence that "East Virginia" might have evolved from a ballad.
Oh, when I left old East Virginia, North Carolina I did roam. There I courted a fair young lady. What was her name I did not know.
Her hair it was all a-dark brown curly. Her cheeks they were a rosie red. Upon on her breast she wore a ribbon. Oh, don't I wish that I was dead.
Her poppa said that we might marry. Her momma said it would not do. Oh, come here dear and I will tell you. I will tell you what I'll do. Some dark night we'll take a ramble. I will run away with you.
For I'd rather be in some dark holler, Where the sun refused to shine, As for you to be some other man's woman. Never on earth to call you mine.
It is clear right from the first note that Smith chose to place this in sequence with "The Coo Coo Bird" because both songs are played in a similar minor mode, using a similar banjo picking style. Like "The Coo Coo Bird," "East Virginia" has an uncanny sound, making for an unsettling atmosphere. Just by listening to the first (entirely instrumental) verse, the listener can tell that something disturbing is in the offing. Similarly, Kazee's mournful vocals indicate that something tragic is afoot.
The lyric, by contrast, is (as with the preceding song) fairly innocuous. The speaker begins by declaring that "when [he] left old East Virginia," he traveled in North Carolina. That's striking right there. The song is titled "East Virginia" (or "East Virginia Blues" in some variants), yet the first thing the speaker tells us is that he has left East Virgina. The action of the song takes place in North Carolina.
The speaker then states that he "courted a fair young lady" who's name he doesn't know. More specifically, the speaker declares that he "did not know" the young lady's name, implying that he learned her name at a later time. This is never explicitly said, however.
So a young man from East Virginia (which really means that he comes from the state of Virginia. West Virginia was established as a state only after the start of the Civil War), visiting North Carolina, sees a young woman whose beauty so overwhelms him that he "court[s]" her without bothering to learn her name.
We then get a physical description of the girl ("dark brown curly" hair and "rosie red" cheeks). We are also told that she wears a ribbon upon her breast. It is at this point that the speaker declares his wish that he "[was] dead."
Why does he wish that he was dead? Is it because he lost the girl? Because the ribbon on her breast indicated that she was taken? Or simply because she was so beautiful?
We learn that her father has given his consent to a possible marriage, but that her mother opposes it. We are not told why the mother opposes the match (at least in "The Wagoner's Lad" we learn that the parents disdain the speaker because he is poor).
In the last two verses, the speaker proposes to the girl that they run off together, declaring that he would "rather be in some dark holler, where the sun refused to shine" than to see her with another man. We never hear the girl's answer, but we can infer from the way the story is told (and the fact that the speaker never learns the girl's name) that it does not end well. This seems to confirm the listener's initial impression, based upon the eerie music, that this isn't a happy story.
Once again, not enough information is conveyed by this song in order for it to count as a ballad. It tells only half of a story, if that. As we hear more songs on the "Songs" volume, we will hear material that approaches the "story-song," but that is cut short before the story can be completed.
As with "The Coo Coo Bird," we should also be wary of trying to force a narrative on these songs. We should try to accept these songs for what they are. Some make more sense than others.
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Here is another video of singer and guitar player Raymond Crooke, this time performing a version of "East Virginia."