The True Story of Molly and Tenbrooks

Bill Monroe had a big hit in 1949 with the song Molly and Tenbrooks.  It was the B side of a record he cut in 1947 (the A side was I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky) for Columbia Records.  The song is one of that I have always identified with Monroe, but recently I learned that he was not the first to record it nor did he write it.  The song apparently dates back to the late 1800s and was actually first recorded in 1929 under the name “Tim Brook” by a band called the Carver Boys.

The Stanley Brothers recorded a version of the song in 1948.

And then in 1949 Bill Monroe’s version was released.

In addition to the fact that there were at least two recordings of the song before the Monroe one was released is that there was actually a horse race between a Kentucky horse named Ten Broeck and a California horse named Molly McCarthy and the song pretty well tells the story of the race.  Somehow I had never thought that the song was telling a true story.

What happened is that in the 1870s there was a wonder horse in Kentucky.  This horse was a champion and and a record setter and Kentuckians loved him.  They loved him so much that they bragged about him every chance they got.  In the horse racing world, this apparently got a little old because there were a group of Californians who also had a champion race horse that they loved and bragged on.  As will happen, one side got tired of hearing the other side brag and so it was arranged by the owners that the Kentucky horse Ten Broeck would race the California horse Molly McCarthy at Churchill Downs on July 4, 1878.

The owner of Ten Broeck bet the owner of Molly McCarthy $5,000 that his horse would win best two heats out of three in a 4 mile race.  They both agreed though that if one horse beat the other in a very significant way that the other races didn’t need to be run and that one would take the prize.  Both were confident they would win and neither thought there would be three races run that day.

On the day of the race it rained.  Now apparently some horses run well in rain and some don’t.  Ten Broeck liked rain and the Kentuckians were even more sure they were going to win because Molly liked to run in sun.  The race started and for the first mile the two horses were neck and neck.  The second mile flew by and they were still neck and neck.  By the end of the third mile though, Molly had taken a healthy lead.  Ten Broeck’s jockey did what he could but the Kentucky horse just seemed to have no more to give and Molly and her Californian friends seemed to have it all wrapped up.

As the story goes, when Ten Broeck rounded the bend for the homestretch of the third mile, he suddenly turned on the gas as it were.  He overtook Molly and did not look back.  At the end of mile three he was a good ten lengths in front.  All through the fourth mile, Ten Broeck ran like there was no tomorrow.  Molly on the other hand had run out of gas and by the end of the race, Molly could barely stand.  The distance between horses was so great that there was no question who won.  There was no question that Molly could not run another race that day either.  Frank B. Harper, owner of Ten Broeck got his $5,000 and bragging rights and that is the end of the story.

Here are the lyrics for Monroe’s version of the song.  The Stanley version is a little different but not much.  The Carver Boy’s version is different as well but generally, they are all the same story.

Run O Molly run, run O Molly run
Tenbrooks gonna beat you to the bright shinin’ sun.
To the bright shinin’ sun O Lord to the bright shinin’ sun

Tenbrooks was a big bay horse he wore that shaggy mane
He run all around Memphis he beat the Memphis train
Beat the Memphis train O Lord beat the Memphis train

See that train a-comin’ it’s comin’ round the curve
See old Tenbrooks runnin’ he’s strainin’ every nerve
Strainin’ every nerve O Lord strainin’ every nerve

Tenbrooks said to Molly what makes your head so red?
Runnin’ in the hot sun puts fever in my head
Fever in my head O Lord fever in my head

Molly said to Tenbrooks you’re lookin’ mighty squirrel
Tenbrooks said to Molly I’m a-leavin’ this old world
Leavin’ this old world O Lord leavin’ this old world

Out in California where Molly done as she pleased
Come back to old Kentucky got beat with all ease
Beat with all ease O Lord beat with all ease

The women all a-laughin’ the child’n all a cryin’
The men all a-hollerin’ old Tenbrooks a-flyin’
Old Tenbrooks a-flyin’ O Lord old Tenbrooks a-flyin’

Kyper Kyper you’re not A-ridin’ right
Molly’s beatin’ old Tenbrooks clear out sight
Clear out of sight O Lord clear out of sight

Kyper Kyper Kyper my son
Give old Tenbrooks the bridle let old Tenbrooks run
Let old Tenbrooks run O Lord let old Tenbrooks run

Go and catch old Tenbrooks and hitch him in the shade
We’re gonna bury old Molly in a coffin ready made
Coffin ready made O Lord coffin ready made

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4 Responses to The True Story of Molly and Tenbrooks

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Luv the song..bill monroe dedicated that song to my sister and i at his shows when we were little girls.

  2. Chris says:

    And now I know the rest of the story….a local bluegrass band from state college pa (Mason/Dixon-Whetstone Run used to do this song in the middle 70s and I remembered some of the lyrics but not the tile. Thanks

  3. mike gorrell says:

    I played in Whetsone Run from 1977 til 1987. I am very familiar with the song and knew Mason Dixon and the earliest form of Whetstone Run did it. By the time I joined the band no one could sing it to do it justice and we were playing a LOT of festivals with Bill Monroe and did not want to step on one of his biggest hits.

    Mike Gorrell

  4. Bill says:

    Ian and Sylvia did an excellent version of this in the late sixties. Their lyrics were very close to those above, and their harmony and instrumental work did justice to the song. It’s always been one of my I & S favorites. Now I have to chase down the Stanley and Monroe versions. Thanks for all the information.

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