Explore and learn about the world of sound and music found in the Smithsonian Folkways collection from the comfort of your little device. A Field Guide to... Appalachia was curated by Smithsonian Folkways head curator Jeff Place.
The Lone Pilgrim
By The Doc Watson Family
From The Watson Family
This comes from Ralph Rinzler’s 1960 trip to record the Watson Family, which was their first recording. The “Lone Pilgrim” is an old shape note hymn. The song is attributed to William Walker. It tells of the White Pilgrim, evangelist Joseph Thomas who dressed in white and preached around the country in the early 1800s
My Old Home in Whitetop Mountain
By The Whitetop Mountain Band
From Bull Plus 10%
The Whitetop Mountain Band has had a long history. It was started by Albert Hash on Mt. Rogers in southern Virginia. They have hosted the Whitetop Mountain Festival for decades and also are home to the Mt. Rogers Combined School in Whitetop which is a music school for local children. A family band, this song was composed by Emily Spencer.
Little Omie Wise
By Dock Boggs
From His Folkways Years, 1963-1968
Dock Boggs first recorded in the 1920s then left the business to work in the mines. Mike Seeger went looking for him and found him in Norton, Virginia. “Omie Wise” is 19th century ballad from a story written by Braxton Craven about Jonathan Lewis’s murder of Omie, his pregnant lover in 1808.
I Hate the Company Bosses
By Sarah Ogan Gunning
From His Folkways Years, 1963-1968
Sarah Ogan Gunning came from a songwriting singing family in Eastern Kentucky. Along with siblings, Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland, they wrote some of the best known coal mining songs to come from the region. It was recorded by Archie Green in 1965. Written by Gunning, it is best known as “I Hate the Capitalist System” but she often chooses to play this version for certain audiences.
By Dillard Chandler
From Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song
There is a well-known singing family in the area around Madison County, North Carolina that are steeped in the ballad tradition. When Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp went looking for old British ballads in 1916 in the Appalachian, the family is among those they recorded. Family members have kept the family tradition, many being recorded. The family includes cousins the Wallins, Chandlers and Nortons. Currently Sheila Kay Adams and Donna Ray Norton are carrying it on. John Cohen recorded this in 1967. This is a song associated with the family, a ballad known as “Young Edwin in the Lowlands Low” origination in Britain.
On the Sea of Galilee
By The Carter Family
From On Border Radio, Vol. 1
One of the most legendary musical groups to emerge from the mountains was the Carter Family of Maces Springs, Virginia (now Hyltons). The family ventured to Bristol for a record label audition in 1927 and ended up recording for Victor. Along with Jimmie Rodgers they are considered the two most important artists in the early country music industry. A. P., Sara, and Maybelle made up the original group. A.P. travelled regionally collecting songs, recording 127. They were a combination of old popular tunes, ballads and hymns. The next generation successfully carried on the group with Maybelle Carter with her daughters June, Helen, and Anita. The current generation is also active. The family run a delightful music venue called The Carter Fold in Hyltons, on the property where the original Carter’s lived.
An Old Man Came Courting Me
By Enda Ritchie
From Edna Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky
When Jean Ritchie became well-known singers in the folk music world, she introduced the rest of us to her family. They are a large singing family in the holler of Viper, Kentucky. Sandy Paton recorded Edna Ritchie there in 1962. They were a storehouse of old mountain songs. This song is an old ballad that had been collected in the British Isles and Ireland.
Hook and Line
By Bill Cornett
From Mountain Music of Kentucky
“Hook and Line” is a popular square dance known in Eastern Kentucky. John Cohen recorded Banjo Bill Cornett in Knott County, Kentucky in 1959. He took a tape deck down there and was looking for old musicians and singers. Cornett was a one-time state representative in Kentucky. Cornett passed away a year later after recording this.
By Members of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, led by Merle Caudill
From Songs of the Old Regular Baptists, Vol. 2: Lined-Out Hymnody from Southeastern Kentucky
There is a long tradition of old Baptist churches and singing congregations in Eastern Kentucky. The oldest English-language religious music in oral tradition in North America, the lined-out, congregational hymnody of the Old Regular Baptists, is heard in the heart of the coal-mining country of the Southern Appalachian Mountain. The song leader sings out lines that the congregation follows. Jeff Todd Titon made a number of trips to record these singers. This comes from a trip to Linefork, Kentucky in 1992. “Precious Memories” is a frequently performed hymn composed by J.B.F. Wright and Lonnie B. Combs in 1925 and has been covered by many artists.
Conversation with Death
By Berzilla Chandler Wallin
From Old Love Songs & Ballads from the Big Laurel, North Carolina
Berzilla Wallin was one of the older members of the Wallin family. “Conversation with Death” is an old mountain song better known these days as “Oh Death”. It was featured in the film 'O brother Where Art Thou' performed by Ralph Stanley
By Wade Ward
From Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward
Wade Ward was an important banjo player. He was from Independence, Virginia in the Appalachian foothills. He was a frequent winner at the local Galax Fiddle Contest. He first recorded with the Buck Mountain Band in the 1920s. His next band, the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters, was a legendary Galax band. They were recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. In his older years, he appeared at festivals including the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. “Sourwood Mountain” is a frequently performed string band song in Appalachia.
Harlan County Blues
By George Davis
From When Kentucky Had No Union Men
“The Singing Miner of Hazard, Kentucky," George Davis worked as a miner. He wrote dozens of songs and had a long running radio show out of Hazard. He was recorded by John Cohen on one of his Kentucky field-trips.
The Butcher Boy
By Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz
From The Harry Smith Connection: A Live Tribute to the Anthology of American Folk Music
Ginny Hawker is a singer from West Virginia. She has performed for years with her husband Tracy Schwarz, a former member of the New Lost City Ramblers. “Butcher Boy” was recorded at a tribute to Harry Smith and the Anthology of American Follk Music at the Barns of Wolf Trap. “Butcher Boy” is a widespread old ballad spread throughout the British Isles and United States. Baptist minister Buell Kazee recorded it as “Railroad Boy” and it is included on Smith’s Anthology.
Jack and Old Fire Dragon
By Ray Hicks
From Ray Hicks of Beech Mountain North Carolina, Tells Four Authentic "Jack Tales"
There is a long tradition, particular to the North Carolina Mountains, of the “jack tale”. The Hicks Family are strongly associated with their telling. Most people know “Jack and the Beanstalk” but are unaware there is a whole body of work of Jack tales. Ray and Stanley Hicks told them. More recently Orville Hicks and Frank Proffitt, Jr. have carried it on. Folklorist Richard Chase published a book of them in 1943 and recorded LPs of him telling them.
By No Speed Limit
From Sweet Virginia
No Speed Limit were a band of young performers who came from Southwestern Virginia. Joe Wilson, who knew them growing up, was the longtime director of the National Folk Festival. He brought them to the National Folk Festival in Richmond, where Arhoolie Records Chris Strachwitz saw them and wanted to make an album. Wilson recorded them at the Blue Ridge Music Center by the Blue Ridge Parkway near Galax. This song was written by Randall Eller.
At The Foot of Yonders Mountain
By Horton Barker
From Horton Barker - Traditional Singer
Horton Barker was a blind balladeer born near Laurel Bloomery in East Tennessee. He was recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1930s. In 1961, Sandy Paton found him living near Chilhowee, Virginia in the Southern Shenandoah Valley and made a collection of recordings. These were released on Folkways and Folk-Legacy. In his final years Barker could be found at various folk festivals around the country.
By Bascom Lamar Lunsford
From Smoky Mountain Ballads
Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a colorful character from South Turkey Creek, North Carolina. A country lawyer, he was a prolific song collector which he called his memory collection. He founded the Mountain Dance and Song Festival in Asheville in 1928. He recorded 350 songs for the Library of Congress and 300 more for others. “Swannanoa Tunnel” is a song about the building of the tunnel not far from where Lunsford lived in North Carolina. It was finished in 1879.
The Ballad of Fancy Gap
By Jim and Artie Marshall
From Virginia Traditions: Native Virginia Ballads and Songs
Historic events often inspire ballads. Fancy Gap is on Interstate 77 between North Carolina and Virginia. Many a fatal accident happened there. Jim Marshall, a truck driver by trade, wrote this in 1977. He released a self-produced 45 of it which sold regionally at truck stops.
Awake, Awake, You Drowsy Sleeper
By Betty Smith
From Songs Traditionally Sung in North Carolina
Betty Smith is a well-known ballad singer from Hot Springs, North Carolina. She grew up learning the songs in the tradition. A well-known old ballad, this song is also known as “Silver Dagger “and “Molly Dear". It often ends in a murder and suicide, but this version collected by Cecil Sharp does not.
The Two Sisters (Child 10)
By Lee Monroe Presnell
From The Traditional Music of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, Vol. 1
Beech Mountain is located in Northwest North Carolina near Boone. It was known for its ballad singers. Sandy Paton and Lee Haggerty traveled there and made a set of recordings which led to 2 LPs on Folk-Legacy. A minister, Lee Presnell was born in 1876. He was part of a long tradition of ballads in the area. A 17th century ballad, “Two Sisters” is part of the Child Ballads, a collection of over 300 songs published by Francis James Child comparing versions of these songs over time.
By Roscoe Holcomb
From The High Lonesome Sound
When John Cohen travelled to Kentucky looking for music, his most significant find was up a holler in Daisy, a retired miller Roscoe Holcomb. Holcomb had an unique style, all his own. Bob Dylan once said “he had an untamed sense of control”. Cohen went on to record Holcomb and create a film on his life. Holcomb was brought to many northern festivals in his later years. This song comes from West Virginia guitarist Frank Hutchison.
The Little Mohee
By Joseph Abel Trivette
From Joseph Abel Trivette of Butler, Tennessee
In 1962, in Butler, Tennessee, Sandy Paton recorded Trivette. He asked around for a good ballad singer and was told of “Old Abe”. He made two trips there and recorded 37 songs. It was his second album on his new Folk-Legacy label. The house Trivette was born in was half across the North Carolina border, half Tennessee. “Little Mohee” dates to the days of the whalers and concerns a Polynesian maid. Paton believes that Mohee is a reference to Maui (notes to FL2).
By Hazel Dickens
From Classic Bluegrass from Smithsonian Folkways
Hazel Dickens was an important person in the history of women in country music. Originally from Montcalm, West Virginia, she grew up in a family of miners. Many of the songs she wrote deal with the issues of the miners. She also wrote on feminist themes. Partnering with Alice Gerrard (nee Foster) they created the first ever female fronted and run bluegrass band. Her songs appeared in film including Harlan County U.S.A. In keeping with songs about the unions she performed “Rebel Girl” at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It was written by Industrial Workers of the World songwriter about activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Lee Highway Blues
By Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson
From Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962
After running into Clarence Ashley at the 1960 Union Grove fiddle contest, Ralph Rinzler returned to Shouns, Tennessee to record Ashley. At the session he discovered Ashley’s guitarist, Doc Watson, who he would also record. Ashley had recorded in the 1920s with various combinations such as the Carolina Tar Heels. Rinzler took Ashley and Watson on the road introducing them to folk audiences. The song comes from East Tennessee fiddler G.B. Grayson.
Lord Bateman and the Turkish Lady
By The Ritchie Family
From The Ritchie Family of Kentucky
The large Ritchie family of Viper, Kentucky were all fine singers with a large set of material they learned in their mountain community. Sister Jean went on to fame as a folk singer moving to New York and bringing her real mountain songs to the urban folk singers. Sister Edna also recorded. Lord Bateman is another of the Child Ballads, it appears in various forms throughout Europe.
By Frank Proffitt
From Frank Proffitt of Reese, North Carolina
Frank Proffitt is another important singer from Beech Mountain, North Carolina and is the best known. He was also a luthier. Folklorists Frank and Anne came to him in 1937 looking for a dulcimer builder. They began to collect songs from him. This included the song “Tom Dooley” which attained big popularity twenty years later. In 1961, Sandy Paton recorded Proffitt’s version on what would be Folk-Legacy’s first release.
By Hobart Smith
From Hobart Smith of Saltville, Virginia
Hobart was an interesting musician from Saltville, Virginia. A multi-instrumentalist he was recorded, along with his sister, Texas Gladden, by the Library of Congress in the 1940s. A fine banjo player, he too gained exposure through folk festivals in the 1960s. “Soldier’s Joy” goes back hundreds of years in Scotland. Robert Burns used it as part of one of his pieces. It is one of the most commonly played fiddle tunes.