Like pretty much everybody, I got this from Jean Ritchie. I never actually had any Jean Ritchie albums — I don’t know why, since I liked her singing, but that’s how it was — but this was on a four-LP anthology called The Folk Box. I must have got that set fairly early, because I can’t remember not having it, and I have very clear memories of working my way through the accompanying booklet, which had photographs of all the musicians and lyrics to all the songs. It had Dave Van Ronk singing “Don’t You Leave Me Here,” which I knew at one point, and when I look through the titles most of them are familiar, but this is the only song I remember well enough to perform.
Given the eerie lyric, I was charmed when I began investigating and the first evidence I could find of this song was from a book published in 1911 by the Transylvania Printing Company — but, sadly, that turned out to just be the press of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Further investigation — with thanks to the Mudcat discussion group — turned up a broadside titled “The Old Gray Mare” in the Library of Congress, which has a very similar lyric performed by a comedian named W.B. Cavanagh at Barnum’s Museum. Slightly more investigation revealed that Cavanagh was a professional stage Irishman and minstrel, author of plays and folios including Jennie Angel’s Shamrock Songster (1867) and “the laughable farce…entitled Jim Crowe, Alive Again” (1869). And that’s as far back as I’ve been able to trace it.
I find numerous sources that suggest one could trace “Nottamun Town” much further and farther, to the British Isles, some giving regions and dates for its possible origin, and many suggesting it is a survival of old mummers’ rituals. But none seem to include any solid evidence of its existence there before it was reintroduced by Ritchie (or, for the more scholarly, by Cecil Sharp’s Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians — which at first glance seems an earlier source, since he published in 1932, but he collected the song from Jean’s sister and cousin, so the Ritchie women still seem to have a good claim), and all the British versions I’ve seen are clearly descended from hers. If someone out there finds a pre-Ritchie British version of a substantially similar song — not just a nonsense song with a few overlapping lines, but something at least as close as “The Old Gray Mare” — please let me know.