This strange music of the dulcimore appeals to the heart of the Mountaineer

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 25, 2014

According to Dr. H. G. Shearin, Professor of Anglo Saxon and of English Philology in Transylvania University, Kentucky is the most fertile State in the Union for folklore.

As a special instance he cites the mountains of Kentucky. It is a notable fact that when Professor Child’s great work on British folk-songs was given to the world (1898), the Harvard professor was leaving untouched not only scores of traditional ballads down in the Kentucky mountains, but hundreds. He thus blazed a trail in the world of balladry from which subsequent balladists have been slow to depart; because it became customary to look to Professor Child as the only authority on folk songs.

James Francis Child, from frontispiece of ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’

James Francis Child, from frontispiece of ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’.

For this reason the great mass of traditional British ballads in America, as well as those indigenous to American soil, have been somewhat belated in coming into their own. From the prevalence of these traditional ballads in the mountains, also the hundreds that have sprung up in that section, and are still being composed, it is evident proof that ballad composition is not a lost art, as some balladists contend.

Why does the art still persist in the Kentucky mountains? For the same reason that it did in England and Scotland in the rural and mountainous districts of those countries three or four centuries ago. For instance, some unusual incident takes place, such as murder, public execution or tragic love affair. Now, in a rural or isolated district, such an incident creates a strong impression because the busy existence of the outside world is not there. Soon there is not lacking some improvisatrice, as it, were, to tell the story in ballad form.

For the women often compose the ballads, and most often sing them. One “mountain Sappho,” who lives in Letcher County, composed a lengthy ballad on young Floyd Frazier, who was executed in 1909, for the murder of a woman in 1907. She is perfectly frank and easy about the matter, and informs us:

This song came to me
By day and by night,
Therefore it is right to sing it
In this vain world of delight.

A study of ballads indigenous to Eastern Kentucky throws much light upon the mooted question of ballad origin and authorship. The method of composition in the Kentucky mountains is always individual or private ownership, or authorship — “personal property” — as opposed to the theory of communal or folk composition.

It is strange that no songs appear which bear the distinctive stamp of the clan instinct. Dr. Shearin accounts for this when he says that the Mountaineer is strangely silent on these matters, and that they are to be thought of, but not written down in verse. However, many ballads recount the story of the death of clansmen. There are songs that tell the story of the death of clansmen of the McCoy-Hatfield Feud, the Rowan County War, the Howard-Baker and the French-Eversole Feuds, and the Hargis troubles.

The “jigs” or improvisations are very numerous, and may be arranged, according to Dr. Shearin, into two classes: Those sung to pass off the time, and those of a philosophic nature.

Many of them are similar in structure to the locutions heard on the modern vaudeville stage. For instance, without a thought as to the logical connection between fishing and courting, a sturdy young Mountaineer will sit whittling on a dry-goods box in some country store, or with a banjo across his knee, and suddenly break forth:

Gi’ me the hook and gi’ me the line,
Gi’ me the gal ye call Car’ line.

Or, he sometimes philosophizes, and settles the eternal question of the ages — the summum bonum — by couching it in this wise:

Beefsteak when I’m hungry,
Corn liker when I’m dry —
Pretty little girl when I’m lonesome,
Sweet heaven when I die —
Sweet heaven when I die.

A study of these ballads and jigs is incomplete without mention of the musical instruments used to accompany them. The banjo is the popular instrument for rendering the jigs; however, the violin is used also.

The “dulcimore” (dulcimer) is the traditional piece that drones, in a sad strain, the nasal music of the ballad. To a certain extent all three of these instruments are used for both ballads and jigs.

“Fraley Plywood [Dulcimer], Eastern Kentucky,” Appalachian Dulcimer Archive, accessed November 24, 2014,

“Fraley Plywood [Dulcimer], Eastern Kentucky,” Appalachian Dulcimer Archive, accessed November 24, 2014,

The dulcimore is a unique survival of antique musical instruments, and needs explanation. It is oblong, about thirty-four inches in length, with a width at its greatest of about six inches, becoming smaller at each end. Three strings reach from tip to tip, the first and second ones tuned to the same pitch, and the third one forms the bass string. Two octaves and a quarter are marked out upon the three-quarters of an inch piece of wood that supports, and is just under the strings on the top of the instrument.

The Mountaineer “follers pickin’ ” it by means of a quill, with which he strikes the three strings at the same time with his right hand, over the gap at the larger end, at the same time using in his left hand a small reed with which he produces the air, or his “single string variations.” The music of the dulcimore resembles that of the Scottish bagpipe, in that it is weird and strange. Under its spell one finds himself mysteriously holding communion with the gossamer-like manes of the long-departed souls of the palace of Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine.

The dulcimore is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, because the Mountaineers are becoming ashamed of the musical instrument that stands, with many other things, on the dividing line between two civilizations. Only a few of them are extant. Within a few more years and this strange old relic of by-gone days will pass, to keep company with

The harp that once thro Tara’s Halls
The soul of music shed,
Hangs now as mute on Tara’s Walls,
As if that soul were fled.

Virgil Alfrey. Vintage Fiddlers Oral History Project, Special Collections and Archives, Morehead State University, Morehead, KY.

Virgil Alfrey. Vintage Fiddlers Oral History Project, Special Collections and Archives, Morehead State University, Morehead, KY.

This strange music of the dulcimore appeals to the heart of the Mountaineer, as does the music of the “Sourwood Mountain” fiddler. It is foreign to our introspective age. Like the blind old minstrel of ‘Scio’s rocky isle,’ the troubadour, the minnesinger, and the scop, the “Sourwood Mountain” fiddler takes pride in saying

“I’ll tune up my fiddle, I’ll rosin my bow, I’ll make myself welcome wherever I go.”

But his prerogative is shifting. Just as there is a vast gap between the poetry of art and the poetry of the folk, so is there a vast difference between the music of the Sourwood Mountain fiddler and the music of art.

This antique musician knows little about Wagner and the musical drama and the Italian melodists, and cares less. His music causes a feeling of ennui to steal over one, but he is giving his hearers something they can understand. His strains are the outbursts from the depths of a being that is sincere, and he fiddles and sings because he feels.

In the words of Svenstrupp, the great Danish authority on folksongs, the words of these canticles of love and woe “talk like a mother crooning to her babe, and have scarcely a kenning.” It is related that when the maidservant used to sing “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty” to little Oliver Goldsmith, he would shed tears; that the recital of “Chevy Chace” moved Sir Philip Sidney as nothing else could move him.

But the transition to a new and enlightened age is inevitable. The “damsel with the dulcimer,” after a few more years, will cease to look up at

Ballads pasted on the wall
Of Chevy Chace and English Moll.


Source: Combs, Josiah Henry. “Folk Ballads.” The Kentucky Highlanders from a Native Mountaineer’s Viewpoint. Lexington, KY: J.L. Richardson, 1913. 31-36. Print.


Special thanks to Paul Mays, Heidrick, KY, who shared this volume from his library of Kentucky history.

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Hard work, fresh air, and plenty of food

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 24, 2014

Shortly after taking office in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt announced plans for creation of a “conservation army.” FDR at first saw the Civilian Conservation Corps primarily as a forestry organization — fighting fires, planting trees, thinning timber stands, stopping soil erosion and floods — but the field personnel of the State and Federal agencies involved soon realized that CCC labor might also be directed toward the construction of forest improvements–particularly roads, trails, buildings, and recreation sites. The CCC men literally built the foundations on which the national forests now stand.

Camp Ellison D. Smith F-l, located near the Whetstone Road in Oconee County, was the first CCC camp to be located in South Carolina. This and two others soon to follow employed approximately 800 men at their peaks, and remained operational for nearly 10 years.

Oconee State ParkThe men of these camps built Oconee State Park, Long Mountain Fire Tower, and Walhalla Fish Hatchery, and rebuilt Highway 107. There were many other less obvious projects. Millions of trees were planted; girdling to kill undesirable rotten trees was done on thousands of acres; growth plots for long-term forest inventory were established. Erosion control work was done on eroding fields which were on farms purchased by the Forest Service; property boundaries were surveyed, painted, and posted, in addition to wildlife being stocked.

Hard work, fresh air, and plenty of food were considered essential for CCC employees to accomplish one of the goals established by the office of education, “to develop an appreciation of nature and of country life.” And to that third end, here is the 1938 Thanksgiving menu for Camp 1:


Oconee State Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 16, 2004.


related post: “He is now in the C.C. Camp”

CCC Oconee+State+Park Oconee+County+SC appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+culture

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Old Order Amish

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 21, 2014

When you’re in Oakland or Grantsville, MD, you’re in Old Order Amish territory. If you’re not Amish yourself, you may be wondering just how that group got its name. You’d have to go back to the Zurich, Switzerland of the 1690s and make the acquaintance of one Jakob Amman. Amman’s roots were in the Anabaptists, a movement that had sprung up in 1525, in direct conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholics practiced infant baptism; the Anabaptists believed solely in adult baptism.

Originally known as Swiss Brethren, the Zurich group soon became referred to as Mennonites—a like-minded group led by one Menno Simmons had formed about the same time in the Netherlands, and the tag stuck with the Swiss Brethren as well.

By Jakob Amman’s time, a serious dogmatic dispute had arisen amidst the Mennonites over the practice of Meidung, or shunning of excommunicated members. This practice had been more important in former times, but had lapsed.

Amman, determined that the Meidung should be observed strictly, traveled extensively throughout Switzerland and Alsace between 1693 and 1697 preaching exactly that, and was so insistent that his followers formed a separate camp, excommunicating all other Mennonites who did not practice shunning.

Amman’s conservative Anabaptist followers became known as “ammanasch,” a name which was corrupted eventually to the present “Amish.”

Hounded constantly by the Catholic Church, the Amish immigrated to Pennsylvania, where other religious groups had fled, seeking religious freedom. Many Amish settled first in Lancaster County, PA, and subsequently migrated westward to other parts of Pennsylvania and down into western Maryland. Later Amish immigration from Germany in the 1800’s had more to do with avoiding military conscription than with physical persecution.

There is a difference of opinion as to whether the Amish are a church or an ethnic group, as they do not actively evangelize, and conversions to the group are not common.

The Amish prefer to let their strong and silent lifestyle serve as an example of Christian living. The most important institution within the Amish community is the church. The Bible is interpreted literally and directly. The Mennonite hymn book, the “Ausbund,” is believed to have appeared in 1564 and is still used today by the Old Order Amish.

The worship service includes the singing of four hymns in High German. The German dialect used in everyday discourse, and the more formal German or High German used in worship services, tend to make the group exclusive, although everyone is welcome to attend church or convert to the faith.

Title page of the Ausbund Hymn Book, 1564Title page of the Ausbund Hymn Book, 1564

Garrett County, MD has two communities of Old Order Amish. German immigrant Peter Gortner purchased property four miles south of Oakland in 1850 and established a farm in an area that is today known as Pleasant Valley.

The Old Amish congregation was probably organized in 1855. Church services were held in Gortner’s house in the 1850’s-1860’s, and Peter Gortner is identified as the first minister of the church located there. Peter Gortner Jr. later enhanced the original farm by constructing grist and saw mills, a store, and a post office that was officially designated Gortner.

Joseph Slaughbaugh had a significant influence on the town when he purchased 723 acres in approximately 1857, referred to as Ashby’s Discovery Tract at a tax sale in Cumberland, MD. Slaughbaugh’s siblings moved to the area and developed farms on the expanse of land.

Joseph Slaughbaugh’s house served as the worship center during the 1860s. The Slaughbaugh family donated land for construction of Union Church in Gortner, aptly named as it combined Mennonite and Old Order Amish congregations. Through the preaching of John Holdeman several families left, including two preachers. Daniel Beachey was the first bishop in the congregation. After his death in 1897, bishops from the Somerset churches served the congregation until 1908, when Bishop Lewis M. Beachey was ordained.

Other families who settled in Gortner include Pfeil and Miller from Germany, and Yutzy, Slabach, Selder, Beachey, Gnagey, Schrock, and Petersheim from Somerset and Cambria counties, Pennsylvania.

The settlement always considered itself as one church district, even though in the early days of the settlement several families lived about ten miles west of Oakland, near Aurora and Eglon, WV.

The second western Maryland Old Amish community formed as an integral part of the Amish settlement along the border of Somerset County, PA. Grantsville was the Maryland side center of the settlement; it began in a small way about 1770. This area was in the valley of the Casselman River and so has long been called the Casselman Valley district.

The original settlement here was largely built up by German immigrants from Hesse and Waldeck in 1830-1860. Since numerous Grantsville Amish families moved westward to Holmes County, OH, and Johnson County, IA, before 1860, the community never grew large. The Grantsville Amish community ultimately became almost totally Conservative Amish or Beachy Amish.


Sources: Old Order Amish Settlement: Diffusion and Growth, by William K Crowley, Annals of the Assn of American Geographers, Vol. 68, No. 2, June 1978

Amish appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history Garrett+County+MD Mennonites Old+Order+Amish

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"Their bodies were covered with the wreckage of logs"

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 20, 2014

The 1912 Barranshe Run mishap was one of the more dramatic log train wrecks in West Virginia history.

As the Nicholas County story became legendary, Pardee and Curtin Lumber Company‘s runaway train gained additional notoriety as the subject of a local blind poet, who supported himself by selling copies of his works for a nickel on Oakford Avenue in Richwood,WV. The poem brought additional attention to the accident, popularizing it more than recounting of the wreck circulated by word of mouth.

Like so many items from the past, today there are several uncertainties about the poem. In one version of the poem, Charles Lough [one of 3 railroadmen known to have been killed in the accident] is replaced by Luke King, and the identities of the loadermen seem a bit uncertain. Although the poem leads to a degree of confusion, it is invaluable in many respects-including verifying the date of the accident.

As for the story behind the poem, one version is that J. A. Howell of Diana wrote and peddled it with his other poetry. Another recollection is that J. A. Collins was the blind poet from Diana. Jim Comstock, editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly, prefers the story that J. A. Howell originated the rhyme, adding that Howell wrote other poems about mountain railroading.

Log Train Runaway on Barranshe Run 1912, by George Deike, publ. in The Log Train, issue 80, Nov 2004

log train runaway on Cranberry RiverOriginal photo caption reads: Before the clean up: wreckage strewn down the hillside on Barranshe Run. Visible are several tracks from the skeleton log cars, the Barnhart loader, and Shay no. 7’s diamond smokestack.


On Cranberry River,
Up Barren-She Run,
The trainmen seemed jolly,
Were having their fun,

Eight cars they had loaded,
And four empties, it seemed,
The crew got on board and
turned on the steam.

Ivan Green jumped off
As she started down hill;
They had lost all control,
It was running at will,

Dick Green and Luke King
Both jumped off alarmed;
Near eighty rod further the
excitement grew worse,

The further the faster
Those loaded cars flew.
Frazier Adams, engineer,
Jumped off and was killed;

His head struck a tie,
His brains they were spilled,
Joe Taylor, conductor,
And Russell Berry turned brake.

Both stood to their places,
Which was a mistake.
For the cars jumped the track,
And their lives fled as fog

Their bodies were covered
With the wreckage of logs.
The engine still rolling
And left on the road

Pete King, (the log rollerman)
Alone left on board.
The engine turned over
In Barren-She Run

But, Pete, he slipped out
Of the cab as she turned.
So, he took a tie-ticket
For Camp Four, so they say;

And he arrived there quickly,
The very same day.
For he thought himself all
That was left to tell now

The crew, cars and engine
Broke up in a row.
Squire Thomas and Doctor McClung
Got the word and rushed

To the scene – as quick as they could,
Ivan Green and Dick King
Were both badly hurt,
So Doctor McClung was
Soon put to work.

I must speak of an act
Joe Taylor in Life;
He left some support for his
children and wife.

Sixteen-hundred dollars,
In a check that was good,
His wife she received from their
good brotherhood.

Taylor, Adams and Berry
Were three youngful men,
So prompt in their business,
But sudden their end.

Their bodies were mangled,
In all abscess.
Their spirits departed:
They greatly are missed.

But, those four should be thankful,
To God for their breath,
He, the Great Prophet,
Hath saved them from death,

That they may have time
To prepare for the grave:
God is always able and willing
to save.

I am grateful to Paul Richard Greathouse of Richwood, WV for the generous research assistance and time he offered on this post.

Barranshe+Run Richwood+WV log+train+wrecks blind+poet+of+WV JA+Howell appalachia appalachia+history Appalachian+ballads appalachian+mountains+history

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The Santa Train pulls into town

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 19, 2014

In Appalachia Santa Claus comes the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Since 1943, the Santa Special, more commonly known as the Santa Train, has traveled 110 miles through the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and northeastern Tennessee to distribute loads of candy, toys and other goodies to eager bystanders, most of whom have made it a family tradition. The train typically passes through more than 30 towns delivering Christmas cheer.

"The Santa Train"---Commemorating the 50th Santa Train Special. Print sponsored by the Kingsport Chamber and CSX Transportation, available for purchase at

“The Santa Train”—print commemorating the 50th Santa Train Special. Sponsored by the Kingsport Chamber and CSX Transportation; available for purchase at


This year 6-time Grammy winner Amy Grant is joining CSX as the special guest on the 2014 Santa Train. Celebrities who have ridden the train include Thompson Square, Allison Krauss, Wynonna & Naomi Judd, Patty Loveless, Travis Tritt, Kree Harrison, and Kathy Mattea.

The 72nd annual Santa Train will make 13 stops on November 22. Amy Grant, Santa Claus and volunteers will deliver 15 tons of toys to thousands of Appalachian residents who live along the route. Train staffers throw candy, crackers, popcorn, bubble gum, cookies, stuffed animals, electronic games, hats, handmade gloves, mittens, toboggans, T-shirts, wrapping paper and other treats from the train’s caboose.

The Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce awards a Santa Train Scholarship each year to a graduating senior who attends a high school along the 110-mile Santa Train route between Kingsport, TN and Pikeville, KY. The recipient is chosen based on grade point average, extracurricular activities, financial need, work records and an advisor’s recommendation.

This year’s 2014 recipient is Jacob KernJ. I. Burton High School, Norton, VA. The four-year scholarship is worth $5,000—$625 per semester. To date, the Kingsport Chamber has given 31 scholarships since the first scholarship was awarded in 1989, totaling $155,000.

The Santa Special was the brainchild of Kingsport, TN businessmen who wanted to show their appreciation to the people of the coalfields for their patronage throughout the year.

Santa Train Route
Santa Special officials have said that the first Santa Train pulled just one car and a meager load of gifts. It reached towns and cities that at the time had no other means of transportation. Some believe the train provided many children the only toys they received during World War II.

Joe Higgins played the role of Santa Claus in 1943-44 — the run’s first two years.


4 Responses

  • Marc Bentley says:

    Holy smokes! I remember going to this as a child; we lived near the Shelbiana train depot; we’d drive down and wait with everyone. Fun times, fun times….

  • Vickie Wenter says:

    I sure would love to participate as a volunteer on the santa train. I remember going on the one out of Richmond Va as a child.

  • Judy Norrby says:

    A number of years ago National Public Radio broadcast the story of the Appalachian Train. The narrator did such a splendid job I wonder if this is available to purchase.

  • Joshua Salmans says:

    One of the adventures that I believe I’ve missed out on is riding a train. I never have: what better train could you ask for than the Santa Train!

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