“Dark Hollow” feels like a traditional song, although the version most of us know today has only been around since 1958.
The reason it seems much older is because it borrows heavily from songs that came before.
Wilmer “Bill” Browning gets the official songwriting credit. He put it on the B-side of a rockabilly recording he made in 1958, and it was then re-recorded Hank Williams-style over the next couple of years by country singers Luke Gordon and Jimmie Skinner.
Bill Browning’s innovation seems to be the “Blow your whistle, freight train” chorus.
His version and the ones that came shortly after also include lines plucked straight from a 1927 Buell Kazee song called “East Virginia” that was popularized by Joan Baez in the 1960s and is sometimes known as “East Virginia Blues.” To complicate matters further, Doc Watson’s old buddy Clarence “Tom” Ashley recorded that song in 1929 as “Dark Holler Blues,” singing it to a melody that sounds an awful lot like “Little Maggie.”
Ashley’s version includes the verse:
I’d rather be in some dark holler,
Where the sun don’t never shine.
(Than) for you to be some other man’s darling,
When you ain’t no longer mine.
So “Dark Hollow” has deep, tangled roots. I guess that’s why they call it roots music.
But how did this song make its way into the bluegrass canon? I figure The Kentucky Colonels caught wind of those late ’50s versions, because they were playing it live by the early ’60s. You can hear one such rendition on their Livin’ in the Past live album, all of which was recorded between 1961 and 1965.
The Grateful Dead were bluegrass-adjacent throughout the 1960s, and performed “Dark Hollow” live more than 30 times beginning in the early 1970s. Those bootleg recordings live on, so the Dead probably deserve as much credit as anyone for making the song as well known as it is today.
Bluegrass supergroup Muleskinner recorded the song for their self-titled lone studio album in 1973, cementing it forever as a bluegrass standard. Clarence White (formerly of The Kentucky Colonels), David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene and Bill Keith all played on that recording.
“Dark Hollow” Lyrics and Chords
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