Jack gets there on time for a change!
My good friend Randy Shell runs a used bookstore here in Wytheville called Oracle Books. About six months ago he began a section of records – LPs and CDs (even some 78s). It’s amazing some of the things I’ve found there.
The latest is one of a series called ‘Ballads from British Tradition’ in Virginia and this particular one focuses on this south west corner of the state. Included, of course, are Texas Gladden and The Stanley Brothers, but what really startled me was the field recordings of obscure (to me) singers and musicians. The recordings were made in towns around here including Norton, Wise, Galax and the wonderfully named Meadows of Dan.
Although ‘British Ballads’ is technically correct most of them originated in Scotland. The great Francis James Child of Harvard University published his definitive ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ in the late 19th century and most of them were Scottish. Then a few years later Cecil Sharp traveled through Appalachia and produced his ‘English Ballads of the Southern Appalachians’. They were also mostly Scottish, although I suspect he meant English language rather than originating in England.
Our old friend Tom Burton who is Emeritus Professor of folklore at East Tennessee State University carried out research some years ago resulting in a paper called ‘The Lion’s Share’. In it he constructed a kind of ‘top twenty’ of British ballads found in Appalachia based on how many variants had been collected. The majority were originally from Scotland and the top five were all from there. He had to discount Barbara Allan as there were so many versions it completely skewed his calculations!
Another friend – the great English singer Brian Peters, has pointed out to me that although the majority of the Appalachian ballads may have originated in Scotland, many got there via England and there are quite a few distinctly English ballads that came over as well. Another piece of research by Tom Burton bears this out. He was able to trace the route by which the Scottish ‘Gypsy Laddies’ ended up in Appalachia as ‘Black Jack Davy’ and it wasn’t (as he’d assumed) via Ulster in Ireland, but actually by way of south west England.
In the end it’s just fascinating that these ballads continued to be used as either moral signposts or just as pure entertainment by the folks who came over and settled here.