Will S. Hays composed the song “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” for the minstrel trade in the year 1871. Written in dialect, the song tells of an elderly man. The narrator presumes that he is a former slave who is getting old and feeble. Since he cannot work anymore, in a broken-down old log cabin is where he is passing his later years. The title comes from a refrain that goes, “de little old log cabin in de lane”.
From 1903 to 1940, the Ballad Index by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle lists more than 20 recordings of the song.
In 1918, the Metropolitan Quartet recorded their version. This was a harmonized sentimental minstrel version. Later at Santa Barbara, the song was digitized for the purpose of online listening at the University of California.
Several performers modified the lyrics over the years. They got rid of Hays’ “darky” dialect along with the original reference to slavery. To cite an example, the “old master and mistress” became the narrator’s parents in mid-20th century Bluegrass versions.
The song itself was popular. Because of this, it resulted in several answer songs. However, the artists used the melody even more widely. Some included songs set in the cowboy west: “The Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” and “Little Joe, The Wrangler”. Another is a railroad song: “Little Red Caboose Behind the Train”. Lastly, a hymn: “The Lily of the Valley”.
On June 14, 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”. This was one of the first commercial recordings by a rural white musician. Due to its popularity, it gave its audience the assurance that the industry would continue recording rural folk songs. The only known recording of banjo player Uncle John Scruggs was a newsreel film performance of this song.
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