Whether you know it by the original lyric, “On Top of Old Smokey,” or by its more kids-oriented version, “On Top of Spaghetti,” the tune is as American as apple pie.

Here, we will dive into both histories and meanings. So, let’s do just that, shall we?

Origins

Though it remains unclear when, where and by what artist the song was originally sung, “On Top of Old Smokey” was recorded by The Weavers. That rendition hit the pop charts way back in 1951. Prior, folk songs were oral traditions, passed down through the generation. So, the actual origin of “On Top of Old Smokey” remains in the wind, as they say.

One of the earliest versions of the song was written down by the English folklorist Cecil Sharp, who, during World War I, made three summer trips to the Appalachian Mountains in search of folk tunes. He was accompanied by Maud Karpeles.

The two happily found a plethora of folk material in the region, which was largely isolated and therefore something of a petri dish of folk music. Great singers mixed with great lyricists, much in the folk tradition. Many songs were sung and, later, written down and even recorded.

Sharp and Karpeles were surprised then to find out that many of the songs the Appalachian folks sang were versions of songs the two music historians had discovered in England, too.

“On Top of Old Smokey” known today goes:

On top of Old Smoky,
All covered with snow,
I lost my true lover
For courtin’ too slow.

Sharp and Karpeles first heard the song on July 29, 1916, by Miss Memory Shelton in Alleghany, North Carolina. Shelton was 23 years old and part of a musical family. Her version differs in notes, rhythm, and wording from the one many know today, but only subtly. She sang:

On top of Old Smoky,
All covered in snow,
I lost my true lover
By sparking too slow.

(Back then “sparking” meant “courting.) In later decades, other variants were discovered and recorded, all bearing closely to the above versions. Along with different versions of the lyrics, other songs, like “The Little Mohee,” which is about a frontiersman falling in love with a Native American woman, follow the same melody.

What Is Old Smokey?

As the tune suggests, Old Smokey is a high mountain, likely in southern Appalachia. Historical possibilities include Clingmans Dome, which was named “Smoky Dome” by local Scots-Irish inhabitants. But exactly which mountain the song points to, if there’s one specific one, has been lost to history.

George Reneau and Pete Seeger

While the song dates back before commercialized music, the first to make a commercial recording of “On Top of Old Smokey” was George Reneau, who was known as “The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains.” He worked as a busker in Knoxville, Tennessee, west of the mountains. In 1925, Reneau took a trip to New York City to record the tune and others.

Later, in the 1940s, during a folk music renaissance, Pete Seeger sang a modified version of the song that he’d learned in the Appalachian Mountains. He wrote new words and played them on the banjo (an instrument that became popular in the U.S. after it made its way over to America from Africa). Seeger was quoted as saying that “certain versions [of the song] go back to Elizabethan times.”

The Weavers, which was a folk group founded by Seeger, recorded a popular rendition of the song, using Seeger’s arrangement. They did so on February 21, 1951. Released on Decca Records, it hit No. 2 on the Billboard chart. Later it was sung by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Gene Autry, Harry Belafonte, and more.

ABBA

Much later, in 1978, “On Top of Old Smokey” was released by the Swedish pop group ABBA. Bruce Springsteen performed a version of the song in Portland, Oregon, months after the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Spaghetti and Cheese!

In 1963, Tom Glazer recorded a much different version of the song called, “On Top of Spaghetti.”

That tune begins like this:

On top of spaghetti
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball
When somebody sneezed.

Today, this song is perhaps even more widely known, especially amongst children, for its playful lyrics and allusions to delicious food. (Who doesn’t love spaghetti, red sauce, cheese, and meatballs??)

There is also an even sillier version, recorded by Allen Sherman, that goes, “On top of Old Smokey, all covered with hair / Of course, I’m referring to Smokey the Bear.”

Barney

In the popular ’90s kids television program, Barney, the big purple dinosaur sings a version of “On Top of Spaghetti,” which goes in full:

On top of spaghetti
All covered with cheese
I lost my poor meatball
When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table
And on to the floor.
And then my poor meatball
Rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden
And under a bush.
And then my poor meatball
Was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty
As tasty could be.
And then the next summer,
It grew into a tree.

The tree was all covered
With beautiful moss.
And on it grew meatballs.
And tomato sauce

If you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese.
Hold on to your meatball
And don’t ever sneeze.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re singing the original Appalachian song about losing out on love because courtin’ was too slow or singing about a mountain of spaghetti covered in cheese with a single elusive meatball, the song remains delightful and fun. It’s one of the most enjoyable tunes to sing.

Photo by Gettyimages.com

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