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The Stillwater Hobos

“My Love, She’s in America” Ten Years Hence

June 14, 2024

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Folk music—which gets handed down by writ or by word-of-mouth, preserving and renewing the great and humble legends that comprise the spirit of a nation or a township or a holler—subsists comfortably and graciously in the sacramental élan of Catholicism. Recent generations of Catholic faithful have discovered the rich mutual relationship between the practice of folk music and the practice of a devout Christian life: folk music finds in the Catholic spirit the model vehicle for handing down faithfully and devoutly the substance of its stories and passions, and the wide-eyed Catholic finds in folk music a charming, perennial, and undaunted vessel through which he can live out, with sincerity and ardor, his own religious culture. As John Senior, a trailblazing Catholic educator and an early proponent of the place of folk music in Catholicism, remarks in The Restoration of Christian Culture, “Love only grows; it cannot be manufactured or forced; and it grows on the sweet sounds of music.”

My Love, She’s in America, the premier achievement of a hearty bunch of University of Dallas graduates called the Stillwater Hobos, has blown a constant blustery wind down many hallways of American Catholicism (“hallways of a strange empty home”), a wind that has not abated since its debut in 2014. Though the album never saw a widespread physical release, the music’s digital presence has grown with the years as the songs altogether have garnered nearly one million streams on Spotify and hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

This album has struck a chord in the piety of many Catholics and inspired cultural growth within whole parishes, religious orders, and countless families. The famed “Friday Nights” tradition of Rosaries, hymns to Our Lady, and folk songs that perdures in the bonfires of Catholic college campuses, from Benedictine College to Christendom College to Wyoming Catholic College and so forth, predated and inspired My Love, She’s in America and in turn has witnessed its own renaissance on the album’s account. Former members and spiritual descendants of the Stillwater Hobos have gone on to form new groups (the Hillbilly Thomists, Stilicho, the Breaker Boys, etc.), kicking off a bonafide revival of grassroots Catholic culture, on whose sweet sounds grow the Christian love John Senior praised so dearly.

One thing is happily for certain: folk music in the Catholic world will never be the same.

The record is an encomium of the enduring, a feast of festivity. In the first track, as soon as the first strikes of the fiddle burst through the silence, the song throws the listener into the rush of a police chase, though a pursuit of a much older kind: Irish moonshiners on the run from the excise men, desperate to get by in a time of fierce economic oppression by the authorities. The joyfully mad chase of “Hills of Connemara” gives way to the more refined, romantic, and bouncy tale of “The Night Visiting Song,” a classic through-the-bedroom-window encounter between lovers on a starlit evening. The music shifts from a love kindled to a love lost forever in the six-minute-long title track, an elaborate and woeful meditation of epic prosody sifting through metaphors of antiquity (“golden fleeces could be worse for the wear”) and Gaelic sanctity (“where St. Colman used to ply to his master”). The Hobos then leap from Ireland to western North Carolina in the Southern tune “French Broad River,” reveling in the adventures of two young sweethearts frolicking along the banks of one of the oldest rivers in the world. The next track, “Roarin’ Mary,” a Hobos original with the title taken from a traditional Irish reel, is a feverish and hazy tune punching through silly references to vintage ephemera, all held together with the classic chorus “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-rae-ay,” a nod to the Irish Tin Pan Alley composer James Royce Shannon. The first side of the record concludes with a solemn rendition of the Irish ballad “Carrickfergus,” the nostalgic lament of an endlessly wandering man slowly dying from illness and with nothing to comfort him.

Side B picks up with “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” a blues-tinged retelling of the criminal couple’s legend with as much boisterousness and vagabond spirit as the original story that dominated the newspapers in the early 1930s. From there, the Hobos return across the pond with “The Girls in Old Ireland,” a sublime original that explores the relationship of a fictional mother and son struggling through the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Following that track comes “Saint Therese,” the most popular Catholic folk song of the 2010s and one of the finest lyrical compositions of Catholic piety written in recent years. “Bring me a rose, Saint Therese,” and we all chime in with our petitions for the Little Flower. Join any group of American Catholics gathering around the fire for songs and stories, and you can bet on hearing “Saint Therese” before the night is out. The Hobos follow that with another sampling of Catholic piety in the song “Midnight Moonlight,” first composed by the American bluegrass musician Peter Rowan in the 1970s. As two down-and-out lovers work to make ends meet in San Antonio, one says to the other,

I’ll meet you at Alamo mission,
And we can say our prayers,
And the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mother
Will heal us as we kneel there.

God on Stage
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Another original follows hot on the heels of “Midnight Moonlight,” a Southern ballad called “Love in a Watercan” that manifests all the glory and poetry of romantic Appalachian songs. Day unto day pours forth speech, and night unto night imparts knowledge, and so the Hobos bookend their wondrous album with another ancient song, “The Ballad of St. Anne’s Reel.” It captures a universal encounter: a moment of wonder, of being struck by “the pride of life,” as Robert Louis Stevenson called it, amid the ordinary toils of existence, so much that it stays with you and resides in your heart all the rest of your days.

And so the ever ancient remains the ever new. And so is the great contribution of the Stillwater Hobos. Having inherited a world and faith wounded by iconoclasm and deconstructionism, new Catholics hear something of the old Catholic spirit in these melodies and breaks, a spirit that their own hearts feel akin toward and through which they uncover a concrete experience of the Mystical Body of Christ that lives eternally up and down the ages. The album is ten years old, but it could be as old as two hundred years, or two hundred hours. It is like a finely bound book that sits on your shelf and would normally gather dust like its comrades, were it not for the fact that quite often you have to pick it up and examine it, turn it this way and that, flip through its pages, and delight in the craftsmanship, so alluring and constantly fresh is this work of art.

No matter what kind of life it may have in the next ten years, given the reception of My Love She’s In America in the first ten years, one thing is happily for certain: folk music in the Catholic world will never be the same.