A Metalhead’s Guide to Appalachian Folk Music
Appalachian folk culture is frequently a grim place, replete with tales of murder, love gone bad and the supernatural. Appalachian folk music is no exception: when settlers from the British Isles came to the Appalachian Mountains, they brought with them the “murder ballad,” a song specifically relating to an infamous crime, either real or fictional. In the hardscrabble reality of the mountains, these ballads grew and twisted like the roots of an oak tree, and were frequently accompanied by new songs relating contemporary crimes, murders, and superstitions. The music also evolved, with cross-tunings, church keens and shape-note singing creating a dark sonic foundation for these grim folk tales.
It is with this in mind that I’ve compiled a list of what I feel are the Appalachian folk songs that a metal listener might appreciate best. Most of them are murder ballads, all of them deal with death, sorrow and the unknown, and many of them are very, very old. This is by no means a comprehensive list and I am by no means a Lomaxian ethnomusicologist, but perhaps with this list I can provide some dark, classic Appalachian folk music for the discerning metal listener. So put some logs on the fire, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, and take a long hard listen to that High Lonesome Sound.
In 1963, John Cohen filmed a short documentary about Roscoe Holcomb titled ‘The High Lonesome Sound’ Holcomb is, and always will be, the living embodiment of that sound: a coal miner for most of his life, he took the high pitched vocal stylings of Old Regular Baptist tradition and set it to some of the darkest ballads of his time. “Omie Wise” is an embellished version of the true story of Naomi Wise, an orphaned girl in 19th century North Carolina who was impregnated by her abusive lover, John Lewis. When Lewis discovered Wise’s pregnancy, he took her to the banks of the Deep River, where he savagely beat her before strangling her and throwing her into the river to drown. In Holcomb’s hands, the song is a harrowing, haunting experience, with his flat keen soaring above his singular, fluid banjo playing. If ever there was a song that exemplified the Appalachian murder ballad, Holcomb’s “Omie Wise” is it.
While Roscoe Holcomb came from the Baptist tradition, fellow Kentucky coal miner Moran Lee “Dock” Boggs took a different approach. Boggs was a disciple of the early Kentucky blues guitarist Go Lightning, and shook musical convention by adopting the picked banjo of African-American string band music over the traditional clawhammer of white banjo players of his time. Listen to his low, almost bluesy voice: Boggs was blending white and black traditions at a time when it was in many ways dangerous to do so. However, he never lost sight of his roots, and his version of the murder ballad “Pretty Polly” brings this to the forefront. An Appalachian version of the English song “The Gosport Tragedy” about a young woman murdered in a forest and buried in a shallow grave, Boggs’ version blends the bleakest elements of the blues and Appalachian folk to craft a brutal but compelling song that holds up ninety years after its 1927 recording.
Most of the old-timers of Appalachian folk music were poor men, usually coal miners and laborers of one kind or another. Buell Kazee was different: coming from a poor family, he learned banjo at age five before earning a degree from Georgetown College where he learned Latin and Greek. He moved to New York in 1927 where he recorded 51 songs in two years before retiring to Morehead, Kentucky to become a pastor. Unlike Holcomb or Boggs, who led hard lives and whose music is rough and blunt, Kazee imbued his sound with an elegance that was hitherto rare in Appalachian folk music, with an almost operatic voice that brought out the influence of his education in oratory and language. However, Kazee was still a Kentucky boy from Burton Fork, and in spite of his education he knew and had an abiding respect for all the old ballads, including those about murder. Kazee recorded two versions of “John Hardy,” a ballad about an alcohol fueled murder in 1894: his 1958 Smithsonian recording is the standout, a peppy banjo tune and Kazee’s iconic tenor belying the rough origins of the subject matter.
The Blue Sky Boys
It is interesting to note not only differences between artists but also regional differences within the greater umbrella of Appalachian folk music, as exemplified by Hickory, North Carolina’s Blue Sky Boys. Holcomb, Boggs, and Kazee were Kentuckians, and thus their cultural background was in the hard labor of the coal mines. But Western North Carolina was not coal country, and thus the music that came out of that region was often softer and more tuneful than the hardscrabble passion of Kentucky and West Virginia artists. The English ballads persisted, however, and “Katie Dear”, the Appalachian version of “The Silver Dagger”, though beautifully arranged and breathily sung by brothers Earl and Bill Bolick, remains a grim, heartbreaking tale of star-crossed love and mutual suicide.
Kelly Harrell and the Virginia String Band
Appalachian folk music is most interesting when it serves as a historic chronicle: consider Will Stepp’s “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, a fiddle tune based on an early 19th century fife tune. Likewise, “Charles Guiteau”, which dates to the 1880s and tells the story of the notorious assassin of President James Garfield, is interesting in that it tells the story through Guiteau’s first-person perspective. That such songs were preserved almost perfectly from the 19th until the 20th century speaks volumes of how isolated many places in Appalachia were until relatively recently, and how central the folk music of the region was to its people’s understanding of history and national politics. Kelly Harrell’s 1927 recording of “Guiteau” is my favorite version of this song, mainly on the strength of Harrell’s deep, unique vocal stylings.
Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton
“Am I Born To Die?” is not technically a murder ballad, but it is a lament, and in this way as dark and foreboding as any chronicle of murder or death. For poor people living largely by their own resourcefulness and often at the mercy of mining or timber companies. “Am I Born To Die?” asks that fundamental question at the heart of human existence: is the sum of human existence simply to be and then die, with naught left over and a yawning void at the end? You may have heard the excellent Tim Eriksen version of this song on the soundtrack to Cold Mountain but I’m going to go with the Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton version here due to the legendary status of Watson and Carlton in the realm of Appalachian ballad singers and because of Carlton’s beautiful cross-tuned fiddling, unique to the mountain tradition and singularly arresting.
G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter
One of the most famous of the Appalachian murder ballads is “Tom Dooley”, but most listeners are probably unaware that, as with many such ballads, it is based on a true story. In 1866, former Confederate soldier Tom Dula of Wilkes County, NC stabbed Laura Foster in the heart and buried her in a shallow grave, allegedly out of revenge for giving him syphilis. The subsequent trial and execution was a sensation throughout Western North Carolina, and to this day residents of Wilkesboro can tell you the true story of Foster’s murder (I actually learned this true story from a friend of mine who was born and raised in Wilkesboro). G.B. Grayson’s uncle had led the posse that arrested Dula in 1866, and it was this connection to the song that led him and Henry Whitter to record “Dooley” for the first time in 1929. Whitter’s expressive fiddling, Grayson’s powerful but melodic singing voice, and their personal history with the material make it vital listening, nearly ninety years later.
Another Wilkes County musician, Dock Walsh (his first name was actually “Doctor”) was one of the first to record the three-finger style of banjo playing, giving his music a bouncy, spirited feel. He also occasionally played slide guitar with a knife, which is pretty damn rad. “In The Pines” is an Appalachian classic that has been recorded by Roscoe Holcomb and Bill Monroe, but Walsh’s 1926 recording was the first and certainly one of the most unique. It’s short, but you won’t forget it, especially when you figure out that this spritely song is about a jilted man throwing his cheating lover onto the train tracks to be decapitated, thereafter hiding “in the pines” to evade the law.
The unaccompanied ballad is a distinctly Appalachian phenomenon, and one of the most haunting subsets of Appalachian folk music. “I Wish My Baby Was Born” is another lament, but this one is harsher than “Am I Born To Die”, telling of a man who wishes his premature child were still alive in place of his wife and fearing the call of the owl. In Appalachian folklore, owls are birds of ill-omen, often referred to as “carrion birds” and it is said that they bring sickness and death with them. They are, as s,ome sources would put it, not as they seem, and it’s this sense of dread and unease that is evoked in “I Wish My Baby Was Born”. Dillard Chandler’s plaintive, unassuming singing makes his version the darkest, and therefore the most metal.
Clarence Ashley was a native of Bristol, Tennessee, and was known as a “one-eyed fiddler, hell-raiser and big talker.” He brought this hard-living attitude to his music, which had an aggression not often found in the folk music of his day. This aggression comes out in “Little Sadie”, a song that breaks with other murder ballads in describing a completely unrepentant murderer who asks for a paper to see if his murder of the titular Sadie has become news. The minor-key melody and swift tempo makes for a song that is equal parts dark and defiant. It’s worth noting that Johnny Cash references this song in “Cocaine Blues,” which is a nice way of noting the great influence that Appalachian folk music had on early country artists.
Another English tune turned rough and cruel in its journey to the Appalachians, “Bo Lamkin” is the American iteration of the brutal “Long Lankin”. In many ways the quintessential murder ballad, “Lamkin” tells the tale of a mason who builds a castle for his lord but receives no pay, and so takes out his revenge by murdering the lady and her infant child with the aid of the castle’s nurse. Frank Proffitt’s version stands out in its gentle brutality: Proffitt’s voice is deep and soothing, a slow rumble over his delicate banjo picking (played on Proffitt’s homemade banjo — Profitt was a carpenter and luthier who crafted his own instruments). The tonal dissonance with the gruesome story of Lamkin makes this version the creepiest and, in my opinion, most effective version of this timeless ballad.
Like fellow coal miner Dock Boggs, West Virginia’s Dick Justice bucked tradition and trends through being heavily influenced by black musicians. And like Boggs, Justice still maintained a strong enough tie to his heritage to put his blues-inflected guitar to the ballads of his youth, in this case derived from the English “Young Hunting”. This ballad is of particular interest because it describes the murder of a man by a woman and of the cover-up of the murder by the women of the town, a gender reversal that is still a unique subversion to this day. You may have heard Nick Cave’s excellent version of “Henry Lee,” Performed with P.J. Harvey , on his Murder Ballads album, but Justice’s low-key, brooding 1932 version holds its own against Cave’s.
Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks
The female voice in Appalachian folk is in many ways as important as the male voice: women’s lives were as tough and unforgiving as those of their husbands, and frequently more so given their limited rights and opportunities. Nonetheless, women were often seen as keepers of knowledge and traditions, and women singers were often praised for their command of the songs and the beauty in their singing. When women sang murder ballads, it was frequently in defiance of popular attitudes against women dealing with “unbecoming” subject material. Molly O’Day, from Pike County, KY, had a brash, sassy voice that lent itself well to songs about hardship and murder, and with her series of excellent backing bands recorded many superb versions of traditional ballads, including her rendition of “Poor Ellen Smith”, the true story of Smith’s 1894 murder by Peter DeGraff, a mentally-disabled man who could not understand Smith’s rejection of him. The lot of women in Appalachia was harsh and often violent, but where possible strong women like Molly O’Day could shed a little light in the darkness.
Jean Ritchie, from Viper, Kentucky, came from one of the great ballad-singing families of Kentucky, and specialized in unaccompanied renditions of ballads directly derived from the British tradition. In addition to English ballads, many Appalachian ballads came from Scotch-Irish traditions, keeping with the predominantly Scotch-Irish background of Appalachian inhabitants. “Barbara Allen” originated in Scotland and was first attested by Samuel Pepys in 1666, and like many other such ballads it crossed the ocean and ascended the mountains to ultimately be recorded by Ritchie in 1960. “Allen” is, like “Katie Dear,” a tale of two lovers who are destined to meet only in death; Ritchie’s shimmering, high-pitched singing gives it a truly ethereal feel. It sounds like a cold, grey day deep in the forests of the Appalachians, all the presence and cold grace of a bitter wind. Perfect for lonely winter nights in an old cabin somewhere up the holler.
It was hard to choose which version of this song, also known as “Down In The Willow Garden,” to feature on this list; Grayson and Whitter made an excellent original take in 1927. However, for me it is Ralph Stanley’s version, cut in 1996 at the age of 69, that truly defines the spirit of this song. Stanley was, along with Bill Monroe, one of the first artists to bring the “high lonesome sound” down from the mountains and into the modern Bluegrass tradition, and the slow cadence and full instrumentation of his version of “Rose Conley” bear this out. Yet the melody is all old-time, only a few steps removed from the English folk tune from which it derives, and Stanley’s gravel-and-blossom Virginia accent sets this version firmly in the realm of the Appalachian folk tradition. It’s essential listening from one of the greatest American folk artists.