More than 50 years ago, in Southern Calfornia, a young Steve Gillette was just learning how to write songs when his little sister Darcy had a brush with a feisty horse, inspiring a now-familiar ballad.
"Darcy Farrow" has become part of the folk music lexicon, performed and recorded hundreds of times.
Gillette, who now lives in North Bennington, says the melody for the song came from a guitar part he’d been working on which was inspired by a Pete Seeger composition.
Gillette was a young folk singer just getting his start when, in 1964, his 12-year-old sister Darcy was kicked by a horse.
She wasn’t hurt badly, but the incident became the idea for the song which Gillette wrote with his friend Tom Campbell.
The lyrics tell the story of a young women who dies in a fall from a horse, and a young man named Vandermeer who was so despondent he took his own life.
The opening lines set the story in the wide open country along the California-Nevada border:
“Where the Walker runs down to the Carson Valley plain/ There lived a maiden Darcy Farrow was her name…”
With the feel of an old cowboy ballad, and a dark vein of tragedy, many people who hear "Darcy Farrow" think it’s a traditional song.
Gillette says he and Campbell sought to capture the language and style of songs that are part of the Scottish-Irish tradition.
“We had a great affection for a lot of the old story and ballad songs,” he says.
The first time the world heard "Darcy Farrow" was in 1965, when it was recorded by the popular Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson. Gillette met them when they played in southern California.
“I got to be the opening act for their concert and that’s where we got to show them the song,” he says. “Ian and Sylvia’s [recording] was such an exciting thing, such a wonderful break for us.”
Where the Walker runs down to the Carson Valley plain,
There lived a maiden, Darcy Farrow was her name
The daughter of old Dundee and fair was she
And the sweetest flower that bloomed o'er the range.
Her voice was sweet as the sugar candy
Her touch was as soft as a bed of goose down.
Her eyes shone bright like the pretty lights
That shine in the night out of Yerington town.
She was courted by young Vandermeer
And quite handsome was he I am to hear
He brought her silver rings and lacy things
And she promised to wed before the snows fell that year.
But her pony did stumble and she did fall.
Her dyin' touched on the heart of us all.
Young Vandy in his pain put a bullet to his brain
And we buried them together as the snows began to fall.
They sing of Darcy Farrow where the Truckee runs through
They sing of her beauty in Virginia City too.
At dusty Sundown to her name they drink a round
And to young Vandy whose love was true.
(c) 1965, Compass Rose Music, BMI | Rumpole Dumple Music, BMI Administered by The Wixen Group
A few years later, millions of people discovered the song through John Denver who recorded and performed "Darcy Farrow" when he was at the height of his popularity.
In 1972, Denver included the song on his Top 10 album Rocky Mountain High.
“I believe he actually heard it from me first, because we were friends. I met him when he first came to California,” says Gillette. At the time Denver was fresh out of college and looking for work.
Denver and Gillette were among those hustling for gigs at southern California clubs like the Golden Bear and the Troubadour.
Gillette recalls trading songs with other musicians in the basement of the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach.
“That was a place where you could trade guitar licks and talk about things and share songs and play songs for each other," Gillette says. "Steve Stills showed us a lot of guitar stuff that he was into. I’ve thought many times about what a magic time that was to be in that environment.”
Denver’s version of "Darcy Farrow" was so popular some people named their daughters Darcy.
John Denver performing "Darcy Farrow" for his 1995 live album, "The Wildlife Concert."
Gillette feels that in the beginning, the folk audiences of the 1960s were drawn to the song’s story of youth and mortality. It was the era of the Vietnam War.
“For the longest time I’ve felt the song initially connected with people of my generation because it was the first time that most of us had confronted mortality. The Vietnam War loomed very large in our lives,” he says.
The remembrance of young lives lost is also one of the song’s messages:
“They sing of Darcy Farrow where the Truckee runs through/They sing of her beauty in Virginia City, too.”
The popular recordings have inspired dozens of homemade videos uploaded to YouTube.
The song’s popularity with folk and bluegrass players is the biggest reason for the its endurance.
“I know a lot of traditional, bluegrass, folk, fingerpicking kinds of communities have always played it, and then there’s the John Denver legacy and the Ian and Sylvia legacy. It’s hard to account for it all,” says Gillette.
There’s a bit of a folk mythology surrounding the song that stems from a story that Ian Tyson spun years ago. He claimed Gillette and Campbell wrote "Darcy Farrow" to fool a college professor into thinking they’d discovered a previously unknown traditional song.
Looking back on the composition now, with the eye of an experienced songwriter, Gillette finds it has a few shortcomings.
“To this day I’m a little disturbed by a short-cut way of telling the end of the story: 'Young Vandy in his pain put a bullet through his brain,'” he says. “It’s just a younger, more inexperienced person’s way of bringing the story to a close. We didn’t really have any expectations of the song becoming a multi-platinum big deal!”
Gillette’s career doesn’t begin and end with one song. Through the years he’s continued to write and record. Like "Darcy Farrow," some of his songs have been covered by other artists.
“My main focus is to grow and write,” he says. “My belief is the greatest songs of our generation may have yet to be written. I just think you have to proceed as if the next five words could change everything.”
Since the late 1980s, Gillette has lived in Vermont with his wife, singer and musician Cindy Mangsen.
Together they keep up a touring schedule that takes them around the country. And "Darcy Farrow" is a regular part of their repertoire.
Correction 3:45 p.m. 6/28/2016 An earlier version of this story misidentified the source of the John Denver video included in this feature. The version of "Darcy Farrow" included above is from Denver's 1995 live album, not his 1975 live album.