Oh My Darling

The song ‘Oh My Darling Clementine’ is an American western folk ballad in trochaic meter usually credited to Percy Montrose (1884), although it is sometimes credited to Barker Bradford.  The song is believed to have been based on another song called ‘Down by the River Liv’d a Maiden’ by H. S. Thompson (1863).  Who was this girl Clementine?  Did a man love Clementine so much that he composed a song about her, and did this same man miss her so little when she was gone that he starts carrying on with her sister?  What actually happened to her, did she die, where did that happen and why?  This song starts out like a sad ballad where a bereaved lover is lamenting the loss of his darling.  As the verses continue, the events that take place become so ridiculous that it is obvious that this story does not actually mean what the words are saying, so it is a parody of a sad ballad.  Let’s listen to the video and take a look at the lyrics and then try to make sense out of this song.

In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine,
Dwelt a miner, forty-niner
And his daughter – Clementine.

Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.
Thou art lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.
Light she was and like a fairy,
And her shoes were number nine,
Herring boxes without topses
Sandals were for Clementine
Drove she ducklings to the water
Every morning just at nine,
Hit her foot against a splinter
Fell into the foaming brine.

Ruby lips above the water,
Blowing bubbles soft and fine,
But alas, I was no swimmer,
So I lost my Clementine

How I missed her! How I missed her!
How I missed my Clementine,
But I kissed her little sister,
And forgot my Clementine.
(Note the child’s version of this song ends here)

Then the miner, forty-niner,
Soon began to peak and pine,
Thought he oughter join his daughter,
Now he’s with his Clementine.

In a churchyard near the canyon,
Where the myrtle doth entwine,
There grow roses and the posies,
Fertilized by Clementine.
In my dreams she still doth haunt me,
Robed in garments, soaked in brine;
Then she rises from the water
And I kiss my Clementine.

The first thing that we need to consider is that this song is 135 years old and things were different then, especially the way people used to talk.  We will not let that impose a problem for us, as this song is still in English and, we can guess at most of the obscure meanings.  Clementine is the daughter of a miner in the 1849 California Gold Rush.  The story is about an unnamed miner, his daughter Clementine and her unnamed sister.  They lead a simple life and Clementine seems to be responsible for the ducks, so a good guess would be that they live on a farm.  The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, 15 years earlier, which made it easier for people living out on the West coast to get supplies.  Richard Sears would not start his mail order catalog for another 12 years yet, so things were still hard for people to purchase, unless they lived in a big city.

Clementine’s feet are so big that she has to wear boxes instead of shoes (presumably because size 9 shoes are not available). This type of detail would not be mentioned if this song was a serious romantic ballad.  John Lennon was haunted by the number nine and this number nine shoe could mean that Clementine was a big girl, or that she was a fat girl.  Clementine was most likely a good looking girl, because it says, “Light she was and like a fairy”, so she probably floated around the place gracefully.  I guess that the “Herring boxes without topses”, made Clementine’s shoes into some sort of sandal.  Clementine meets her tragic demise when she gets a splinter in her toe, as she was innocently enough taking  the ducks down to the river for a swim.  This causes her to fall into a river and drown, which is clearly a ridiculous accident, the miner can’t swim, so there is no hope of saving her.  This escapade is told in a deadpan style, so no one is laughing and life must go on.  The miner morns Clementine, but he soon forgets her after kissing Clementine’s little sister.  He missed her terribly, but he was consoled by being with her sister.  The remaining lyrics in this song are usually not taught to children.  Darkness and cruelty run deep in this song, and as what I always thought of as being a nice and quaint melody, turns out to be downright depressing.

The miner can’t get over the loss of his daughter Clementine, he thinks about committing suicide, so he can be with his Clementine.  He buried Clementine in a churchyard near the canyon, amongst the myrtle roses and the posies, and they are being fertilized by her corpse.  She still haunts his dreams and he sees her, “Robed in garments, soaked in brine; Then she rises from the water And I kiss my Clementine.”  Just a bit creepy and I am not getting into the whole incest thing or the necrophilia implications.

Bobby Darin did his own take on Clementine and when he sings this song, parts of this song remind me of ‘Mack The Knife’ and other parts make me think of his song ‘Beyond The Sea’.  ‘Clementine’ was written by Woody Harris and it reached #21 on the charts in 1960.  Bobby Darin made fun of Clementine’s weight, joking at the end of the song that whalers might find her.  Bobby Darin turned the song into swank swing, but in so doing he also turned the North Carolina girl Clementine into chubby girl, who works with cows as a replacement for the ducks.  Instead of tripping and falling into the river, in this version she tries to cross it on a footbridge, but the bridge collapses under her weight.  Not a politically correct approach for his folk song, but it is funnier than the original.  Woody Harris was an American songwriter of the 1950s and 1960s.  He is perhaps best known for songs written for and with Bobby Darin.  He also wrote songs for Elvis Presley, Della Reese and other popular singers.

In a cavern down by a canyon
Excavatin’ for a mine
There lived a miner from North Carolina
And his daughter, chubby Clementine

Now every mornin’, just about dawnin’
A’when the sun began to shine
You know she would rouse up, wake all a dem cows up
And walk ‘em down to her Daddy’s mine

A’took the foot bridge, way ‘cross the water
Though she weighed two-ninety nine
The old bridge trembled and disassembled
(Oops!) dumped her into the foamy brine

Hey, crackle like thunder, (ho, ho) you know she went under
(Ho, ho) blowin’ bubbles down the line
Hey, I’m no swimm’a but were she slimm’a
I might’a saved that Clementine

broke the record, way under water
I thought that she was doin’ fine
I wasn’t nervous ya until the service
That they held for Clementine

Hey you sailor (ho, ho) way out in your whaler
With your harpoon, your trusty line
If she shows now, yo, there she blows now
It just may be chunky Clementine

Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’
Oh my darlin’ , oh my darlin’ sweet Clementine,
You may be gone
But you’re not forgotten,
Fare thee well
So long, Clementine
(Bubble sound) Bye

Neil Young gets back closer to the traditional arrangement with his take on Clementine.  Neil Young & Crazy Horse released an album titled Americana in 2012 that features ‘Clementine’.  He goes back to the shoes and the ducks and he makes it clear that there is no necrophilia going on in this tale when he states, “in life I used to hug her In death I draw the line”.  Neil said that he wanted to invoke the original meanings for this generation, so he steered away from the gentler interpretation and went to the dark side.

In a cavern, in a canyon
Excavating for a mine
Dwelt a miner forty niner
And his daughter Clementine
Light she was and like a fairy
And her shoes were number nine
Herring boxes, without topses
Sandals were for Clementine

Clementine! Clementine!
Oh my darling, Clementine!

Drove she ducklings to the water
Every morning just at nine
Hit her foot against a splinter
Fell into the foaming brine
Ruby lips above the water
Blowing bubbles, soft and fine
But, alas, I was no swimmer
So I lost my Clementine

Clementine! Clementine!
Oh my darling, Clementine!

Then the miner forty niner
Soon began to peak and pine
Thought he ought’er join his daughter
Now he’s with his Clementine
In my dreams she still does haunt me
Robed in garments soaked in brine
Though in life I used to hug her
In death I draw the line

Clementine! Clementine!
Oh my darling, Clementine!

How I missed her! How i missed her
How I missed my Clementine
So I kissed her little sister
I forgot my Clementine

Clementine! Clementine!
Oh my darling, Clementine!

15 thoughts on “Oh My Darling

  1. Whoa! Incredible amount of research ~ kudos. The first I knew of this song was when it appeared on my “paint by number” organ. That’s how I know a lot of odd old tunes. I briefly had piano lessons but my parents couldn’t afford a piano and they were dropped. Later I got the organ with numbers and songbooks. My dad liked playing it too. So fun! Anyway, I suspected this tune was a parody and always sang it in a silly voice, but I never investigated further, didn’t know there were multiple versions! 😀

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    1. Thanks Paula and I am happy that you enjoyed my post today. I probably lost a lot of readers with that Led Zeppelin song that I wrote about yesterday, but I think that this post more than makes up for that. I never heard of a paint by numbers organ, but it sure does sound like a lot of fun. Neil Young said that this song should not be taught to Kindergarteners. Basically when I approach a song, I never know exactly what type of story I will get out of it and this one was satisfying for me.

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      1. I call it that because you can play without knowing how to play the piano. The keys have numbers over them as do the music notes on the sheets. If you do know how to play, you can ignore the numbers. It wasn’t a high quality instrument but fun regardless. We also did paint by number pictures, so that’s probably why I came up with the term!

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  2. I had a train track, and train engine, with ties that were like xylophone pieces. The colors were for certain notes (although I didn’t need to know this as a three-year-old), so you would follow a pattern by placing on the pieces for a song. Then the battery-powered train played the music.

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  3. The Neil Young version is better than Bobby Darin’s but the Neil video is downright strange to go with that song. Interesting read on Darin in wiki: “During {1968], he discovered he had been raised by his grandmother, not his mother, and that the girl he thought was his sister was actually his mother. ” No wonder he chose to twist the lyrics towards misogyny (and fat shaming.) May he rest in peace.

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    1. Yes Bobby Darin’s mother was only 15 when she gave birth to him and back in those days that was a shameful act, so her and her mom concocted this story about her being his older sister. This affected him badly when he finally learned the truth.

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