One of the classic Bill Monroe songs of all time is “Footprints in the Snow.” Despite the fact that Bill claimed authorship under the pseudonym Rupert Jones, the song was much older. According to Neil Rosenberg, Bill learned it in the early 1930s when he was at the National Barn Dance in Chicago. The song was first recorded on June 4, 1931 by Ernest Branch & the West Virginia Ramblers under the title “Little Footprints.” With the help of my old friend Guthrie Meade, I have managed to track down the origin of “Footprints in the Snow.” The author of this English music hall song was one Harry Wright, who composed it in about 1880 under the title “Footmarks in the Snow.” Here are the original lyrics:
Some lovers like the summer time when they can stroll about
Spooning in the meadows may be grand without a doubt
But give me the winter time, for the girl I have made mine
Was captured while the snow was on the ground.
I traced her little footmarks in the snow,
I traced her little footmarks in the snow.
I bless that winter’s day when Nelly lost her way
And I traced her little footmarks in the snow.
I called to see the girl I love one winter’s afternoon,
That she had gone out walking they informed me very soon,
They said she’d strolled away, but where they could not say,
So I started off to find her in the snow.
I saw her little footprint just outside the cottage door,
I traced it down a country lane, I traced it to the moor,
I found she’d lost her way, there she stood in blank dismay,
Not knowing where to steer for in the snow.
I called her, she saw me, and as we were walking home,
She promised me that never more without me would she roam,
I’m happy now for life, for her I’ve made my wife,
Whose footmarks I traced plainly in the snow.
Bill Monroe first recorded “Footprints in the Snow” on February 13, 1945 at the Castle Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Besides Monroe on lead vocal and mandolin, the band included Tex Willis on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, David Akeman (“Stringbean”) on banjo, Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester on accordion, and Bill Westbrook on bass. In 1952, Monroe went back into the studio and recorded “Footprints in the Snow” again. This time his band included Jimmy Martin on guitar, Ernie Newton on bass, fourteen year old Sonny Osborne on banjo and Charlie Cline on fiddle.
Speaking about Charlie Cline reminds me of a hilarious story I just read in Tom A. Adler’s new book entitled Bean Blossom. Apparently, Charlie was fond of pulling pranks. Besides being a brilliant and versatile musician, Charlie excelled at snoring really loud. One time in the early 1950s, members of the Bluegrass Boys were all sleeping in one of the little cabins at Bean Blossom. Charlie’s loud snoring was keeping everyone awake, so they all decided to play a prank on Charlie. As Charlie snored away, Gordon Terry, Red Taylor and possibly Edd Mayfield picked up the cot that Charlie was sleeping on and carried it outside. They then locked the door to keep Charlie from getting back in. It was in the fall, so there was a fire burning in the woodstove in the cabin. Charlie found a burlap sack, climbed on the roof, and stuffed the sack down in the stovepipe. As the cabin filled with smoke, the coughing musicians soon ran outside. When they did, Charlie ran inside the cabin and locked the door!
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really almost fifty years). Originally from California, Wayne has made Asheville, North Carolina his home since the early ‘seventies. He has written thirty songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. Portions of this article appeared in Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.