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Doug Moe: The real story behind 'Darcy Farrow'
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Doug Moe: The real story behind 'Darcy Farrow'

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Somebody is going to sing "Darcy Farrow" Friday night at the Brink Lounge on East Washington Avenue. It has to happen.

The song begins:

"Where the Walker runs down to the Carson Valley plain/There lived a maiden, Darcy Farrow was her name/The daughter of old Dundee and fair was she/The sweetest flower that bloomed o'er the range."

It may be sung by the duo of Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette. Gillette, after all, co-wrote "Darcy Farrow."

Or it may be the duo's good friends, Madison folk legends Lou and Peter Berryman, who sing it. By now Peter and Lou have been playing "Darcy Farrow" for 47 years.

The two duos are sharing the bill Friday at 8 p.m. at the Brink, a circumstance for which the phrase "rollicking good time" might have been invented.

But back to "Darcy Farrow," which has been recorded by more than 300 artists, most famously John Denver, who included it on his mega-selling "Rocky Mountain High" album.

What would really be interesting — historic, even — would be for Peter to admit from the stage that for the longest time, he thought "Darcy Farrow" was written by a couple of college students trying to fool their folklore professor.

Peter wasn't alone. The circumstances of the composition of "Darcy Farrow" are an enduring urban legend. Which also makes Friday night a good time for Steve Gillette to again set the record straight on how he came to write it.

The song's first burst of popularity came in 1965 when the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia (Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker) put it on their album "Early Morning Rain."

That year, in Appleton, Peter and Lou, high school mates having graduated but not yet married, wore out the vinyl playing "Early Morning Rain." Peter loved Ian Tyson's guitar work, and Lou was taken with Sylvia's melodies.

The song that really grabbed them was one Peter called "a small treasure of a Western ballad."

The song, "Darcy Farrow," takes a dark turn after its sunny opening, with young Darcy taking a fatal fall from her pony, leading her distraught boyfriend to take his own life: "And we buried them together as the snows began to fall."

Peter perused the album's liner notes and found that the song was written not by Ian and Sylvia, who were gifted songwriters, but by Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell.

The liner notes indicated Gillette and Campbell wrote the song after getting an assignment in folklore class to find an undiscovered Western song. Failing that, they wrote their own. The unsuspecting professor loved the song.

Ian Tyson loved the back story, and why not — all indications are he made it up. In any case, Tyson repeated the story often.

Peter Berryman, building his own music career, recalled, "Years later, I remember wondering if I could track down those college students."

By then Peter and Lou Berryman had married and divorced, somehow remaining good friends and musical partners in the process. Their witty original songs took them from playing Madison's Club de Wash for a 25 cent cover charge to touring nationally.

It was at a music festival outside Albany, N.Y., around 1990, that Peter and Lou Berryman met Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, themselves recently married singer-songwriter musicians.

The two duos quickly formed a mutual admiration society. Before long Steve and Cindy were playing Peter and Lou's songs. Lou, meanwhile, recalled, "We knew Steve had written 'Darcy Farrow.' We jumped on him and demanded he be our friend." Eventually the two duos were sharing stages together at gigs across the country.

At some point — probably at Peter's prodding — Steve Gillette allowed that Ian Tyson's version of how "Darcy Farrow" came to be written wasn't exactly how it happened. Gillette said the same thing to Ian and Sylvia's biographer. It wasn't to fool a college professor. "But Ian told the story for years."

Gillette explained that the song was actually based on a real event. His younger sister Darcy was once kicked by a horse and broke her cheekbone. He and Campbell wrote the song like any other.

Peter Berryman later recalled meeting the real Darcy when she came to one of Peter and Lou's gigs in California. "She seems to have healed quite nicely."

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

 

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