The Forbidden Song

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Yogi Berra, speaking of a popular New York nightspot, once said, “Nobody ever goes there anymore – it’s too crowded!” Well, in bluegrass, there is a song that is allegedly so overplayed, it is practically forbidden from jam sessions everywhere by some solemn oath. The song? Rocky Top.

Now, I admit I’m a relative newcomer to the bluegrass scene, having only been involved since 1994, but almost as soon as I joined this wonderful secret society, I heard that Rocky Top was overplayed. I was glad the message was passed onto me, so I could avoid the abject embarrassment of calling the Forbidden Tune at a jam session.

As the years went by, I noticed that the banishment of Rocky Top was very effective. “What a relief”, I thought. “We don’t have to hear that overplayed song!” But eventually it dawned on me, maybe 10 years later – if Rocky Top was overplayed, wouldn’t I hear it once in a while? The only time I even heard it mentioned was accompanied by snorts of derision as the Overplayed Forbidden Song. I did a very dangerous thing. I listened to the song…and LIKED it!

Hmmmm…interesting chord changes, nice chorus…I especially like that verse about “two strangers” who climbed on Rocky Top, looking for a still. The song says the strangers “ain’t come down from Rocky Top”, and says further “reckon they never will”. Wow! What happened? Did they find the still, and then drink themselves into a coma? Or were they found out by the locals, and then came to some harm? I prefer to believe the latter. A chilling thought, delivered in a cheerful melody! Fun stuff.

Since the “overplaying” , and subsequent shunning of Rocky Top predates my involvement in the bluegrass genre, allow me to present a theory, which you “lifers” can debunk with your greater knowledge if you wish: Rocky Top wasn’t just overplayed, it was played too often, poorly. The Osborne’s version is so fast, a lot of attempts to faithfully cover it came out, well, half-fast (say it out loud).

I’m not sure any good song should be abandoned, whether because it’s overplayed, or so difficult to recreate the definitive original version. Songs can always be reinterpreted, with sometimes wonderful results. I picked on Rocky Top this column, because it’s kind of the gold standard for shunned songs, but there’s others.

In my opinion the only song that should be abandoned is “It’s a Small World”.

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