In Search of Parse Nelson

At the Friends of the Jacksonville [Florida] Library resale bookstore recently, I bought for $2 Tennessee Traditional Singers: Tom Ashley, Sam McGee and Bukka White (University of Tennessee Press, 1981, edited by Thomas G. Burton).  It’s a very good book, undoubtedly hard to find now. But Amazon, which has five million more popular books, will sell it to you for $9.45.  

The story of three legends.

All three profiles are worth reading, but I was struck by a passage in Sam McGee’s story. He was born around 1894 in Williamson County, Tennessee, on a farm near the town of Franklin. It was a rural upbringing in the days before recorded music, but there was still plenty of it around. I.

n later years, McGee—half of the McGee brothers, composer of “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and a noted guitar accompanist of the great comic banjo player Uncle Dave Macon—knew hundreds of songs, but one he half remembered dogged at him.

McGee’s early teacher, maybe around 1905 or earlier, was a local man. “Tom Hood taught me a lot, taught me songs, too,” McGee said. “One of his numbers was an old song called ‘Parse Nelson,’ which started out:

Parse Nelson was a bully;

He bullied all his life.

He bullied all over the wide world

With a ten-cent Barlow knife.

I don’t remember any more of it. I can’t even find anyone that knows anything about that song, and I ask everyone about it. It must be about 150 years old.”

OK, so a song that’s now more than 200 years old the (the book was published in 1981, and McGee died in a freak tractor accident in 1975) is hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads. I tried Googling the song “Parse Nelson” and got only the Burton book.

But another U of Tennessee book, Folk Songs of Middle Tennessee by the late Charles K. Wolfe (who also wrote the McGee section of the other volume), opines that “Parse Nelson” could be a version of a song called “Leslie the Gambler” that “may have been reasonably well known in Middle Tennessee around the turn of the century.” If so, the song doesn’t have much of a paper trail now.

But we do have lyrics to “Leslie the Gambler”:

Leslie was a gambler,

And dead up to the times,

‘Twas him that killed Parson Nelson,

And didn’t have to pay no fine.


Told you once, told you twice,

Told you if I told you the third time,

I’d be bound to take your life.

Oh my baby,

Why don’t you come home?

Hmmm, now Parse (obviously short for Parson) Nelson is a murder victim, and no one was too sad about it. Leslie the gambler did him in. Goes with the bullying, don’t you think? It’s impossible to tell where or when this murder occurred, or even if it did. Ample research shows us that many murder ballads, such as “Knoxville Girl,” originated in England and then changed locations once they made it across the Atlantic.

This appears to be about as far as I can go, because I can’t find a record of a long-ago murder of a Parson Nelson. But at least now if you Google “Parse Nelson,” more things will come up! And maybe Sam McGee is resting a little easier in his grave. Here’s Sam and Kirk McGee playing “Buck Dancer’s Choice”: