Pretty Saro

This is an online fiddle lesson for the old time tune "Pretty Saro." is your best source for Bluegrass, Old Time, Celtic, Gospel, and Country fiddle lessons!

Genre: Old Time
Skill Level: Intermediate
Key of D

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Video #1: Here is a video of me playing the old time tune "Pretty Saro."

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 8.51.18 PMPretty Saro - Online Fiddle Lessons. Celtic, Bluegrass, Old-Time, Gospel, and Country Fiddle.

Pretty Saro - Online Fiddle Lessons. Celtic, Bluegrass, Old-Time, Gospel, and Country Fiddle.


Variations of "Pretty Saro" were collected by several folksong collectors in the early 1900s in the Appalachian mountains. The earliest publication was in Lomax's North Carolina Booklet (1911). A variation in Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs has the woman named Molly.

In Eighteen-Forty-Nine closely resembles Pretty Saro, several verses being nearly verbatim copies of verses here. However, some verses of In Eighteen-Forty-Nine resemble different folksongs, so that appears to be made up of remnants of several songs.

Dorothy Scarborough (A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains, American Folk Songs of British Ancestry), who collected a version in North Carolina in 1930, notes that her source said the appropriate date might be 1749, as that was a time of significant immigration from Scotland and Ireland, where the tune was probably from. She also says the term "freeholder" would indicate a British origin.*

Pretty Saro is also related to the Irish song Bunclody whose first lines of the first three verses correspond closely to these.* In addition to those songs, according to The Ballad Index, Pretty Saro is related to At the Foot of Yonder Mountain, where the woman is referred to as Mary rather than Saro or Sarah. Some scholars trace the origin of that song to "an ancient hymn to the Virgin Mary."

Pretty Saro/Sara was sung unaccompanied by Cas Wallin, Madison County, North Carolina (see: Version 5). It has been collected in Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, the Ozarks, Indiana, and Iowa amongst other states.
The Frank C Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore suggests that that the odd line "banks of said brow" might be a corruption of the line of the another version which has "the mountain's sad brow."

The use of the word “freeholder” places the song’s origin in England as the term is not used in the United States. It appears that "Pretty Saro" and its doppelgaenger "At the Foot of Yonder Mountain" are mostly derived from "The Streams of Bunclody." The 1749 date looks good too. There is a local tradition that "The Streams of Bunclody" was written from America by an immigrant from County Wicklow and sent back to Ireland.

If this immigrant or a son or daughter or someone who had the song from him was among the early European settlers of the Appalachians, the American versions could easily have been adapted from the immigrant's song. 1749 could be the date of the immigrant's arrival in America, although the stanza with the date did not go back to Ireland or was dropped there. Of course, there are a lot of floating lyrics here, and John Moulden points out the dangers of taking such material as a basis for identifying oral texts as versions of the same song. What one must look for is distinctive stanzas; otherwise there would be just one song of which "Pretty Saro," "On Top of Old Smokey," "It was in the Month of January," "The Wagoner's Lad," and countless others would be examples. But these do have distinctive content and it seems that "Streams of Bunclody" begat "Pretty Saro."

This piece seems to break up into two families, "Pretty Saro" (which appears to be more popular) and "At the Foot of Yonder Mountain." In the latter, the woman is "Mary," not "Saro." Broadwood and Gilchrist argued that all this is based on an ancient hymn to the Virgin Mary. If so, that would argue that the "Yonder Mountain" form is older. But we all know how active some folklorists' imaginations are. (Ballad Index)

Randolph separates "In Eighteen-forty-nine" as a song made up of scraps and fragments, including "Pretty Saro," with echoes from "Jack O'Diamonds," "Farewell, Sweet Mary" and "Rabble Soldier."

252 PRETTY SARO- [The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the folklore of North Carolina, collected by Dr. Frank C. Brown during the years 1912 to 1943, in collaboration with the North Carolina Folklore Society]

A favorite song in the South, and carried thence to the Midwest. It is reported as traditional song from Virginia (SharpK 11 12, SCSM 327-8, FSV 89-90), Kentucky (Shearin 22), North Carolina (SharpK 11 10, 11, SCSM 327, JAFL xiv i 12-13, FSSH 283),
Georgia (SharpK 11 11-12), Mississippi (FSM 164-5), the Ozarks (OFS IV 222-4), Indiana (BSI 362), and Iowa (MAFLS .x.xix 106-7). Mrs. Steely found it in the Ebenezer community in Wake county. The author — if it had one — has not been discovered.


Pretty Saro

When I came to this country, in 1829, 
I saw many lovers, but I didn't see mine.
I looked all around me and saw I was alone, 
And me a poor stranger, a long way from home.

It's not this long journey I'm dreading to go, 
Nor leaving my country, nor the debts that I owe.
There's nothing to pester, nor trouble my mind, 
Like leaving pretty Sarah, my darling, behind.

My love, she won't have me, as I do understand, 
She wants a freeholder, and I have no land.
But I can maintain her with silver and gold, 
And it's many pretty fine things my love's house can hold.

I wish I was a poet, and could write a fine hand, 
I'd write my love a letter that she could understand. 
I'd send it by the waters when the water overflows, 
I think of pretty Sarah wherever she goes.

I wish I was a dove, and had wings and could fly, 
About my love's dwelling this night I'd draw nigh. 
And in her lily white arms all night I would lay, 
And watch some little window for the dawning of day.

As pretty Sarah, pretty Sarah, pretty Sarah, I know, 
How much I love you, I never can show. 
At the foot of old Coey, on the mountain's sad brow, 
I used to love you dearly--and I don't hate you now.

Online Fiddle Lessons Forums Pretty Saro

Viewing 20 posts - 1 through 20 (of 25 total)
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  • #35934
    AvatarHakan Lindholm

    I just found an entry for Pretty Saro – A  in the TABs section (have been looking for this for some time after I have seen the songcatcher video on YT), but the link does not seem to work. I wonder if this tab is available.

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Hi Hakan, please try again, I fixed the link. Lesson for this coming shortly. The fiddle music you hear in the movie was played by my friend Roger Howell, a legit old time fiddler from the Madison County. Here is his bio:

    I was interviewed for a documentary that just came out about Roger called “A Mighty Fine Memory.” Here is some news about that:

    The music I tabbed is his fiddle part, which is as authentic as any I have heard. Hope you enjoy it!

    AvatarHakan Lindholm

    Thanks John, this was a very good music tab, I really like it, very authentic. (I have earlier tried some other versions found on the web but they all seem so very different from the version played in the film).


    AvatarHakan Lindholm

    Great lesson and song, many thanks.


    Nice tune, has that “haunting” sound to it  Reminds me a lot of Anna Lee. Seems to have a “crooked” aspect to it. I never do well with crooked tunes and always find myself trying to straighten them out. 🙂

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    It sounds a LOT like Anna Lee! And yes, it’s crooked, and kind of weird to tab out. This one would be hard to play with a band without straightening out some of those kinks. 🙂


    I scrolled down to comment on how much is it reminded me of Anna Lee, John beat me to the punch. Very nice old song.  I love learning the real old Appalachian songs and I will surely learn this one as my late mom was named Sarah.  I’ll have to get to work to learn it before Sunday.

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    I have an aunt named Sarah. I’m not sure when this was changed to Saro, but it does make the title more unique.


    Here’s another nice version from one of my favorite female fiddle players Tatiana Hargreaves when she was just a kid.


    There’s also a long thread over on mudcat cafe discussing this song and it’s many versions. Jean Ritchie’s reflections are especially interesting. She went by “kytrad” over there.


    Ohhhh! I’m so excited to see a lesson for this song!!!!!! I’ve been wanting to learn it for a very long time, and I just couldn’t pick it out on my own. Yay! I’m so glad about this lesson!

    I was really impressed with your ability to sing along with the fiddle! That gives the song such a genuine, lonely sound.

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Thanks Kaeleigh!

    Mike, thanks for posting the Hargreaves version. It is my favorite. She also has a version of “Blackest Crow” that makes me cry every time I hear it.

    Plus, how cool is it that Jean Ritchie contributed at Mudcat? That is very awesome.

    The song was already well-spread by the time it was collected. I like the John Lomax lyrics because they were collected first, >1911 right here in Madison County. Plus, the fiddle break is a learned break by a Madison County old-timer, so I hope what I have recorded is a fairly authentic Western NC version of the song.


    Great job John. Never heard it before. Love that song and will have to add it to my to do list.


    I love it too.  Kids…why can’t they be like we were…ha ha…how do they gets SO GOOD so young??? Really inspiring! I’m thinking I won’t ever grow up to be like some of these kids that get it down so great before they can even think about learning to drive!!!

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    You know, watching these kids, it can either get you down or get you going, lol. While it’s sad that I could fiddle my whole life and never be as good as some of these 12 year olds, it really makes me excited for the future of bluegrass and old time music.


    [quote=36106]She also has a version of “Blackest Crow” that makes me cry every time I hear it. [/quote]

    John I HATE to ask this because I know you’ve been getting swamped with request here lately but when you get caught up I would love to learn this tune. It seems so simple but for the life of me I can’t seem to figure it out. I’ve got some of it but there’s a few parts that still mystify me. I can’t even come to a concensous of what tuning it’s in. I’ve been working on it in standard but now I’m thinking it might be gdgd. The Hargreaves version is awesome but I think my favorite is the one with Bruce Molsky and Julie Fowlis.

    John I know you’re a very busy man so please put my request at the end of the line. Between raising a family, teaching school, your volunteer work, playing music, producing lessons and tending to this forum, I swear I don’t see how you do it all. You have one heck of a work ethic my friend and I really appreciate the personal attention you give everyone.




    Oh yeah, that is a great tune.  I think I hear lots of people playing it with their G string tuned up to an A, if my ears are hearing it right.  Might be easier to play that way, in D.  I tend to play everything a million or so times slower than everybody else, and here these guys play The Blackest Crow at a snail’s pace, which to me sounds really beautiful.  I believe she might have her G string tuned up one, but she has the entire fiddle tuned up, apparently, in that same tuning to be able to produce it in E, instead of D.  The guy on guitar has his capo on and low string dropped to sound E, from a dropped D position because of he capo…if I’m seeing and hearing it right…I guess she tuned it for singing purposes and he tuned it because the minor chords would be out of the fun realm on guitar playing out of E…the dropped D tuning lets him get an E sound.


    Yes that a very nice version too! I had tried learning from that awhile back but it confused me even more than the Molsky version because of the strange tuning. This topic came up on the fiddlehangout and there was much confusion there too. One of the members said that she received a response from “Red Tail Ring” and that the tuning was E,B,F#,C#….tuned down a step and a half and played out of the G position. No wonder I couldn’t figure it out. 🙂


    Really nice, John.  I gotta learn this one…not sure I can sing and play at the same time, although I’ve about mastered walking and chewing gum!  This sounds really beautiful…I love the singing and fiddling together!

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Somehow my reply to this got lost — I thought I had beat Mike to the punch in saying she was tuned standard, just three semitones below. These are all great versions!

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