"Silver Dagger" is a traditional song with extremely shadowy origins, most commonly identified as Appalachian but with roots in various traditions from over the pond. For example, the music is the same as the tune to "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens", an Irish song recorded by the Clancy Brothers, and similar lyrics are found in an English song called "Drowsy Sleeper" dating back to the 1830's, and in a Scottish tune known as "I Will Set my Ship in Order". Silver Dagger is also related to at least four other traditional songs that contain the elements of illicit love, a protective mother and philandering father, a silver dagger and a double suicide in the style of Romeo and Juliet. It is notable that Silver Dagger is the only one of the newer songs in which there is no suicide.

Silver Dagger has been collected by folk historians in the US, Canada, and Scotland. In the US it was collected in the early 1900s, but at least one verse was known as far back as 1855 - the first verse was printed in "The Social Harp" in that year.

"Silver Dagger (the Baez version)"
The version most familiar to modern audiences is the one recorded by Joan Baez as the first track on her debut album with the Vanguard label, and since recorded by many other singers. This was definitely not written by Baez, but is most commonly identified with her, and many people mistakenly attribute the lyrics to her. Recently, Dolly Parton recorded Silver Dagger with the same lyrics on her bluegrass album "The Grass Is Blue", and the track is often called the best song on an altogether outstanding album. A very similar version, with more of a trad-rock arrangement, is found on the album "Waiting for Bonaparte" by The Men They Couldn't Hang. There are only a few changes to the lyrics, such as the substitution of "loathsome lies" for "loving lies" in the second verse.

Don't sing lovesongs, you'll wake my mother
She's sleeping here, right by my side
And in her right hand, a silver dagger
She says that I can't be your bride

All men are false, says my mother
They tell you wicked, loving lies
The very next evening, they'll court another
Leave you alone to pine and sigh

My daddy is a handsome devil
He's got a chain five miles long
From every link a heart does dangle
Of some fair maid he's loved and wronged

Go court another tender maiden
And hope that she will be your wife
For I've been warned and I've decided
To sleep alone all of my life"

(Repeat first verse)

"Drowsy Sleeper"
(A very similar duet from Dorset, England, first set down in the 1830's)
Arise, arise, you drowsy sleeper,
Awake, awake, it's almost day.
O come into your bedroom window
And hear what your true love do say.

Begone, begone, you'll wake my mother,
My father, too, will quickly hear.
Go tell your tales unto some other,
And whisper softly in her ear.

O then, O then, go ask your father
If he'll consent you my bride to be.
If he denies you, come and tell me
For it's the last time I'll visit thee.

My father's in his chamber, writing,
And setting down his merchandise,
And in his hand he holds a letter
And it speaks much to your dispraise.

To my dispraise, love, to my dispraise,
To my dispraise, love, how could it be?
I never slighted, nor yet denied you.
Until this night you've denied me.

It's then, O then, go ask your mother
If she'll consent you my bride to be.
If she denies you, come and tell me
For it's the last time I'll visit thee.

My mother's in her chamber, sleeping,
And words of love she will not hear,
So you may go and court another
And whisper softly in her ear.

The similarities are obvious, and become even more so in another version, collected in North Carolina, in which the father holds not an incriminating letter, but "a weapon, to kill the one that I love best". Apparently Drowsy Sleeper was the original source of Silver Dagger, and this line is a re-incorporation of the homicidal motif. It is also possible that this is the first sign of the song developing into its second distinct version, "Katy Dear".

"Katy Dear"
Another version, with the Silver Dagger music but different lyrics, showing the permutations of this plot as seen in different traditions (the suicide is still in this one, and this would seem to hint that it is newer than "Drowsy Sleeper", but older than "Silver Dagger"). I have also found a version that combines the first two verses of "Katy Dear" with the whole of "Silver Dagger", and a Canadian version called "Who is At My Window Weeping?", which is very similar but with slightly more archaic language and a shining sword in place of a silver dagger.

"Oh Katy dear go ask your mother
If you can be a bride of mine
If she says yes come back and tell me
If she says no we'll run away

Oh Willie dear I cannot ask her
She's in her room up taking a rest
And by her side is a silver dagger
To slay the man that I love best

Oh Katy dear go ask your brother
If you can be a bride of mine
If he says yes come back and tell me
If he says no we'll run away

Oh Willie dear I cannot ask him
For he's there to up taking a rest
And by his side that silver dagger
To slay the one that I love best

Then he picked up that silver dagger
And stove it through his weary heart
Saying goodbye Katy, goodbye darling
At last the time has come to part

Then she picked up that bloody dagger
And stove it through her lilly white breast
Saying goodbye Willie, goodbye mother
I'll die with the one that I love best"

Want to play it?
Silver Dagger, Katy Dear and a few other derivatives use the same music. I think Drowsy Sleeper and the Scottish version both have different music, although the rhythm is the same. Here are the chords, as noted by a devotee on rec.music.folk (I have no musical training, so I can't really vouch for their accuracy, but thought it was worth including anyway):

Don't sing love songs - you'll wake my mother.
She's lying here, right by my side.
And in her right hand, a silver dagger.
She swears that I won't be your bride.

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