‘Maple Sugar’, Sweetheart!

maple_leaf_hoedown_vol_1_frontLast Saturday (5May) on a whim I played an instrumental version of the fiddle tune ‘Maple Sugar’ (sans fiddle) from White Mountain Bluegrass, and mentioned that the first version I recalled was from Doc Williams, “with words.” As it turns out, in one breath I managed not only to get the facts wrong, but garbled my own memory. Fortunately I was set right by a friendly note from veteran Boston broadcaster and folk-music specialist Dave Palmater. Writes Dave,

Doc & Chickie were friends of my late father. He had driven their bus on tours of New York and New England in the thirties. Just the thought of them makes reminds me of Chickie’s version of “Little Joe the Wrangler.” Even the thought of it brings a tear to my eye.

You mentioned Doc in conjunction with “Maple Sugar.” To set the record straight, it was a fiddle tune written by the great Canadian Fiddler and Composer Ward Allen. The song, Maple Sugar Sweetheart, to the tune was written, and first recorded by, Hank LaRiviere who also performed as Hank Rivers. If you’re interested I can provide a copy.

I am interested!  I remember now that I did hear ‘Maple Sugar’ first as a fiddle tune, in 1963 in the Cree Indian village of Rupert House, on James Bay. Although they learned country music tunes by listening to clear-channel WWVA in Wheeling, bouncing off the ionosphere, and might have heard Doc Williams sing ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’, Ward Allen’s fiddle tune was first released as the B side of a single in 1956,* and became a radio hit; in a few short years it was practically a national anthem in Canada.

What is it about this melody that conjures up an emotional effect in listeners? It is ostensibly an up-tempo, cheerful number, but I can’t hear it without the pang of sadness, of remembering lives come and gone, like wind in old leaves. It can’t be just me, given the popular appeal. But see for yourself; here’s Ward Allen:

Tom Towle, a fiddler who posted Ward Allen’s recording on YouTube, writes:

. . . a young Ottawa valley couple got married this summer and asked me to play this song for about a hour. Just after they exchanged vows they wanted me to play as they walked down the aisle. A happy newly married couple. The groom said he could listen to that song all day and night.

As Dave Palmater notes, Hank LaRiviere, who was a good friend of Ward Allen and toured with him, wrote lyrics within a year or so after the tune became popular (so he says in a live YouTube performance  from much later, unfortunately truncated); Hank called the vocal ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’.

Doc Williams’s version is on YouTube:

* An excellent biographical note on Ward Allen is on a website called ‘Lonesome Lefty’s Scratchy Attic’, accompanied by downloads of three long out-of-print albums of his fiddle tunes on the Sparton label. I don’t know what the legal status of those downloads is, but finding the physical records elsewhere would be a challenge, to be sure. /CL

UPDATE: Someone with the handle ‘HillbillyBoogie1’ has posted Hank LaRiviere’s original recording of ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’ on Youtube. See HERE:

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11 Responses to ‘Maple Sugar’, Sweetheart!

  1. Peter Kinder says:

    Well, that takes me back, and listening to some vintage Doc Williams on YouTube brought tears. Sometimes you forget how much you learnt from people who were a part of the constant background of childhood and youth. I grew up three miles from WWVA’s transmitter and eleven from the Virginia Theatre where I first saw the Jamboree. Doc’s reminiscences, ‘Looking Back’, is worth having. Told as you’d expect, to my ear many of his stories reminded me what a dangerous profession his was — boarding house fires, light-plane crashes, cheating spouses, etc. But, it’s his generosity and decency that come across most strongly. When in their shows on WWVA artists listed their appearances, it seemed to a small boy that there wasn’t a gym in the northeast and eastern Canada they’d missed. ‘Looking Back’ suggests I wasn’t wrong. Quite a man. Quite a family. Quite a contribution to so many lives.

  2. Steve Bartlett says:

    I remember the tune, or the sound of it, from years ago and it does bring an association with Doc Williams, one of my favorites in the 1950’s and later. I played three youtube versions yesterday and woke up this morning with it running through my mind. Then in my head it morphed into My Little Home In West Virginia and I could not get the original back until you played it this morning. I think that part of its appeal is that it skips along, not in the sense of missing something but as in “hop, skip, and jump.”

    This has been a great memory.

  3. Hank LaRiviere says:

    I am Hank LaRiviere AKA Hank Rivers son.
    It is good to see that my dad is still remembered. You can see his songs on You Tube.
    His brother Rudy Rivers had a hit with Pushed in a Corner which was recorder by Ernest Ashworth.
    Ward Allen’s wife Anne is still alive and living in Ottawa, ON Canada.

    • Howdy Hank! I’m glad to see this little post found its way to you after a year. It reminds me that I need to find a copy of your dad’s “Maple Sugar Sweetheart.” Don’t remember “Pushed in a Corner,” but I’ll look for that, too. /CL

  4. Hank LaRiviere says:

    Hi all!
    You can visit my late father’s website at http://www.hankrivers.com or Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame at http://www.ottawacountrymusichof.org
    Yours truly,
    Hank LaRiviere/Rivers Jr.

  5. Hank LaRiviere says:

    I hope all stay safe and healthy during this time of Corona virus turmoil.
    Hank LaRiviere Jr.

  6. Steve Bartlett says:

    I said earlier it made me think of Ellis and Bill’s recording of My Little Home In West Virginia. I had their record when in high school I never knew who they were. I just found that same recording on youtube, Ellis Hall and Bill Addis. Not the same tune as Maple Sugar but one reminded me of the other.

    • Thanks Steve. I can hear why this reminds you of ‘Maple Sugar’; the melody is similar, and for me it evokes the same sense of wistful longing for things gone by. And it’s not just the surface noise on the old 78-rpm record!

      If you go to YouTube, there are several other versions, though none more lyrical than Ellis Hall’s original. One commenter says Lee Moore, the ‘Coffee-Drinkin’ Nighthawk’ of WWVA radio used it as his theme song. Great find, Steve. /CL

  7. Steve Bartlett says:

    I prefer the Ellis and Bill version, too. There are some high notes in there that I did not hear in the others, although I admit I did not listen carefully to them all the way through.

    I used to listen to Lee Moore on WWVA, always hoping he would play his Dobro. Dobros were scarce in those days.

    Check out Jim Greer and the Mac-O-Chee Valley Folks, another WWVA act I liked. “When It’s Time For The Whippoorwill To Sing”


  8. Pingback: UPDATE: ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’ | Hillbilly at Harvard

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