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’.
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, http://dulcimerarchive.omeka.net/items/show/76.
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.
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.