"Wildwood Flower" is a variant of the song "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets", published in 1860 by composer Joseph Philbrick Webster, who wrote the music, with lyrics attributed to Maud Irving. Other versions of the song have evolved, including "The Pale Amaranthus" (collected in Kentucky and North Carolina, reported in 1911), "Raven Black Hair" and "The Pale Wildwood Flower" (collected 1915–1919), and "The Frail Wildwood Flower".
The original Carter Family first recorded "Wildwood Flower" in 1928 on the Victor label. Maybelle Carter leads a rendition of the song on the 1972 album Will the Circle be Unbroken, and frequently performed the song in concert with Johnny Cash and on his The Johnny Cash Show. The Carter version of the song is considered the premier example of "the Carter Scratch", a form of acoustic guitar playing in which the musician (in the case of the Carters, most notably Maybelle herself) plays both the melody and rhythm lines simultaneously.
The original poem (if any) from which the lyrics derived has been lost. Other poems attributed to the reputed author of the lyrics, Maud Irving, may be found in periodicals of the time, including Godey's Lady's Book and Home Monthly. Several of the poems in the latter periodical carry bylines indicating that the Maud Irving of those poems was a pseudonym for poet and spiritualist J. William Van Namee.
The original lyrics to the 1860 song "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets", taken verbatim from the published sheet music (italics, recognized punctuation, and capitalization as in the original), are as follows.
I'll twine 'mid the ringlets
Of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale
And the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright
With an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus
With eyes of bright blue.
I'll sing, and I'll dance,
My laugh shall be gay,
I'll cease this wild weeping
Drive sorrow away,
Tho' my heart is now breaking,
He never shall know,
That his name made me tremble
And my pale cheek to glow.
I'll think of him never
I'll be wildly gay,
I'll charm ev'ry heart
And the crowd I will sway,
I'll live yet to see him
Regret the dark hour
When he won, then neglected,
The frail wildwood flower.
He told me he loved me,
And promis'd to love,
Through ill and misfortune,
All others above,
Another has won him,
Ah! misery to tell;
He left me in silence
No word of farewell!
He taught me to love him,
He call'd me his flower
That blossom'd for him
All the brighter each hour;
But I woke from my dreaming,
My idol was clay;
My visions of love
Have all faded away.
I'll twine 'mid the ringlets of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale and the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright with an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus with eyes of bright blue.
whereas the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" begins
Oh, I'll twine with my mingles and waving black hair,
With the roses so red and the lilies so fair,
And the myrtle so bright with the emerald dew,
The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.
Several mondegreens and malapropisms are evident between the two songs (for example, "and the crowd I will sway" in "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets" became "in his crown I will sway" in "Wildwood Flower"), and later musicians produced further variants. For example, Iris DeMent sings "...the pale emanita and hyssop so blue". Roger McGuinn sings "...the pale amaryllis and violets so blue".
Gardening author Ed Hume is unaware of a plant known as aronatus, although he does reference Aronia, a genus of bushy plants which are native to the southeastern United States and commonly known as chokeberry.
In 1955, Hank Thompson and Merle Travis recorded an instrumental version of the song that reached number five on the Country charts. In 1960, Joan Baez included the song on her debut album. In 1961, country instrumentalists Gerald Tomlinson and Jerry Kennedy recorded a version called "Golden Wildwood Flower", which reached number 93 in the Music Vendor pop chart.
In 1964, Don Bowman appropriated the tune as a background for "Wildwood Weed", a comic monologue about marijuana. Ten years later, performed by Jim Stafford, it peaked at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1967, Bob Dylan and The Band recorded the song, finally released in 2014 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete.
In the 2005 film Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon, playing June Carter, sings "Wildwood Flower" solo while strumming her autoharp. The film also features an instrumental version performed on guitar by Bill Frisell.
Robin & Linda Williams recorded a version of the song, with the original title and lyrics, for their album Visions of Love. The title of the album is taken from the last line, "My visions of love have all faded away."