"Lily of the West" is a traditional Irish folk song, best known today as an American folk song. The American version is about a man who travels to Louisville and falls in love with a woman named Mary, Flora or Molly, the eponymous Lily of the West. He catches Mary being unfaithful to him, and, in a fit of rage, stabs the man she is with, and is subsequently imprisoned. In spite of this, he finds himself still in love with her. In the original version, the Lily testifies in his defense and he is freed, though they do not resume their relationship.
The lyrics to the first verse are as follows:When first I came to Louisville, some pleasure there to find
A damsel there from Lexington was pleasing to my mind
Her rosy cheeks, her ruby lips, like arrows pierced my breast
And the name she bore was Flora, the lily of the West
- and every verse ends with a repetition of the phrase, Flora, the lily of the West.
Lily of the West Wikipedia
The song is often interpreted as a metaphor for the English, Scots-Irish and general British and Irish experience in western early and colonial America, with nods to their earlier experiences on the margins of Ireland, Scotland, and the Borders.
The first Chieftains recording of the song, from their earlier album The Long Black Veil and sung by Mark Knopfler, is set in Ireland. A later recording by The Chieftains and Rosanne Cash from The Chieftains' album Further Down the Old Plank Road, ends with the man's being released and traveling across the Atlantic to "ramble through old Ireland/And travel Scotland o'er". Despite leaving America, he finds that he is still in love and mentally fixated on the woman, known in this version as Flora.
Joan Baez recorded the song in 1961, including it on her second album; her live concerts have frequently included performances of the song well into the 2010s. Bob Dylan, The Chieftains, Bert Jansch - Live At The 12 Bar, Josh Andrews, The Flash Girls, Caroline Groussain, Sheri Kling, Show of Hands, Peter, Paul and Mary (as "Flora"), Mark Knopfler, Crooked Still, Dirty Linen, Branimir Štulić (in Croatian, titled "Usne Vrele Višnje") and Pat Gubler (PG Six) on the album Slightly Sorry (Amish Records 2010) among others. The "Green Mountain Bluegrass Band" does a version of this song as well.
In "The Collected Reprints from Sing Out! the Folk Song Magazine Volumes 7-12, 1964-1973" (on page 6, preceding the song's notation and lyrics), it is stated that:
“This old ballad has been kept alive over the centuries by both print and oral tradition. Originally an English street ballad (or broadside), the song became particularly popular in the United States by parlor singers and ballad-printers. During the 19th century it was known throughout the country and, in time, became part of the folk heritage. Its popularity was such that in Kansas, local versifiers used the song for a parody:"Come all you folks of enterprise who feel inclined to roam
Beyond the Mississippi to seek a pleasant home;
Pray take a pioneer's advice, I'll point you out the best -
I mean the state of Kansas, the lily of the West
Holly Near recorded a parody of the song about the lesbian scene in which the singer, a woman, was obsessed with Lily, the flora of the West.
The traditional Irish tune is a variant of that also commonly used for the folk song The Lakes of Pontchartrain and it belongs to the same Irish melody-family as a song variously known as On the Trail of the Buffalo / Buffalo Skinners / The Hills of Mexico / The State of Arkansas / Boggus Creek.