Pretty Saro

 Sometimes a song is more than a song.  

Sometimes you hear a song for the first time when your heart is breaking. When you are left and lost and sure no one has ever felt this alone. Then you hear this song and it is everything you feel sung exactly how you feel it. It is the soundtrack to your sad montage, a collective wail that only you can hear, dragging you forward as each scene unfolds.

Pretty Saro is that song for me.

When I first come to this country in Eighteen and Forty-nine
I saw many fair lovers but I never saw mine
I viewed it all around me, saw I was quite alone
and me a poor stranger and a long way from home

 It is a song typical of the genre I love but unique in my emotional discography. Pretty Saro dates back to the early 1700’s. The story suggests it originated in England where Saro was probably Sarah. The song can be traced only so far in the old country and then it vanishes, showing up a hundred years later in North Carolina. The lyrical dating of 1849 could have been 1749, aligning the song with an influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants to America. Saro, as she is now called, must have resonated with these new balladeers and the song moved across Appalachia, beloved in nearly every state and holler.

The story is simple. The singer loves Saro and wants to marry her. Saro wants a “freeholder” or a man who owns and cultivates a small estate. It is interesting that a “freeholder” was neither a gentleman nor a laborer, but an emerging class somewhere in between. The singer, however, has no land. Saro, or more likely her family, has ambition and wants all the “silver and gold that a fine house can hold.” She rejects the proposal and our protagonist leaves home. But Saro haunts him. He imagines all the ways to tell her how much he loves her, pleading with her to change her mind, but in the end, he knows she is out of reach.  

Pretty Saro was first recorded in the early 20th century when a few academic heroes travelled through the mountains capturing songs that had been handed down through oral tradition. Although there are multiple lyric variations, there are two primary musical versions. One is sweeter and usually played with a mandolin or guitar. The other is more plaintive and sung with minimal or no accompaniment.  As with all music of this genre, the gender of the singer is irrelevant which gives the song a universal power, transcending a boy-girl love story. Pretty Saro carries the weight of all wandering strangers pining for another life, a happy ending that seems to elude them.  

This is one of my favorite songs. The appeal has spanned years and if I have any say, it will be part of how I am remembered. I collect recordings and compare the subtle differences in how the words and verses are ordered, how the intonations of the singer denote the regional origins of that version, how the singer interprets the content. For me the song evokes a longing that is so deep, so essential, when I listen to it I feel more human. I feel kindness and affection for those who share a similar ache. And mostly I think of my own Pretty Saro, wherever I go.

Here are three of the many renditions of Pretty Saro available on YouTube (more on iTunes!). The first is by Elizabeth LaPrelle. Elizabeth looks ageless but she is very young, in her early twenties. She is part singer, part historian, in that she sings in a very authentic style. Her version probably sounds the closest to how the song might have been sung way back when. Her five minute version also includes every known lyric. Iris Dement is stunning, her performance was recorded for a movie. Sam Amidon sings a truly lovely Saro for a modern audience. He has a music video of the song as well, but I could not resist a cute guy playing a guitar.

Sometimes a song is more than a song. Sometimes it calls back a specific moment in time, a mood, a person. The voice in Pretty Saro also searches beyond memory toward a new identity. One that accepts desire, loss and the inevitable “dawning of day.”  

Elizabeth LaPrelle

Iris Dement

Sam Amidon 


8 responses to “Pretty Saro”

  1. F. P. Smearcase says:

    What ever happened to Iris Dement? She seemed poised to be a big deal of some kind (maybe among niche listeners, maybe not…I think they played “Our Town” over the last scene of Northern Exposure which makes me think she had some mainstream popularity) and then more or less vanished? Anyway she’s great.

    Going to listen to the linked clips now. I had this kind of relationship with “Wildwood Flower” for a year or two this one time.

  2. PB says:

    Wildwood flower is so beautiful, and considering the story, how right that is would be a brief affair.

    Iris came out a few years ago with an album of “old timey” religious music that got some NRP recognition. I have it and like it better than her original stuff. Very Carter Family. She never did hit it big though. My boys call her Iris Demented and run from the room, so “niche” is right.

  3. lane says:


  4. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I kind of love this track. There is a peculiar vocal gesture right at 3:30 that always makes me laugh.

  5. Tim says:

    PB, I remember your mentioning your interest and investment in this song in a comment on one of BW’s posts about Sam Amidon a few years ago. Thanks for following up with a beautifully written post about it.

    Generally, I get obsessed with particular artists, rather than songs, but I very much appreciate the strength of traditional songs that can stand up to repeated reinterpretation. Jazz standards have the same strength, I think, and “Stardust” is likely the song of which I own the most versions, though I’ve never made an effort to collect them.

  6. PB says:

    As far as collecting, I have been waiting for years for a version by Hedy West to be rereleased. Her version has been out of print and impossible to find in this country. Recently she suddenly appeared on iTunes and for the first time I heard one of my idols singing my favorite song. It was like Christmas. Unfortunately I forgot how to link songs so I can’t share. Bummer.

  7. PB says:

    F.P.S. – I do love the warbling growl.

    And Tim, I think the Jazz Standard comparison is very apt.

  8. Dave says:

    I loved this post, PB. I’d listened to the Sam Amidon version many times, but I’m not really much of a lyrics listener, so I hadn’t really followed the whole story of the song. Now I like it even more.

    The 1849/1749 thing is interesting. 1849 seems pretty recent, and the background of “freeholders” and stuff makes more sense with the earlier date. Although I guess people are always migrating and leaving other people behind.