What is a folk ballad? Part of Appalachian history, they are broadly categorized as murder stories and romances, tales of love lost, love rev

If you’ve ever traveled through the southern Appalachian Mountains, you will immediately understand, even from the window of your car, that it would have been mighty hard to establish a homestead there.  The hills are steep with a tall tree every couple feet, and in between, rocks, brush, brambles, and pine needles.  But people did homestead there (See “Homesteading in Appalachia”, by Karyn Sweet).  These people had their reasons.  And being the kind of people they were, they wanted no outside influences creeping in.  So they brought what they needed with them, left the outside world as far behind as possible, and asked for little from it.

One thing they brought—from Ireland, Scotland, and England—was their music.

Two hundred or more years before the invention of television, when “common” people were not encouraged, or, in some cases, even allowed to read what few newspapers existed, the oral tradition of singing and storytelling comprised a major part of a family’s entertainment and information.  In transmitting songs, particularly the ballads (basically, story-songs) from the old country, they were making an innate statement of their heritage, their homelands, their morals and their aspirations.  And if memory failed at a certain verse, new words and ideas could fill the gap.  So the ballads changed and grew with their carriers.

What is a folk ballad?  Broadly categorized as murder stories and romances, they were tales of love lost, lost love revenged, and death as retribution or simply, as a sorrowful end to the story.  No ballad probably has more purchase, more claim to the name, than the doleful tale of Barbry (or Barbara) Allen (or Ellen):

Twas in the merry month of May

When the greenbuds they were swellin’

Sweet William on his deathbed lay

For love of Barbry Allen.


He sent his servant to the town,

To place where she was dwellin’

Oh miss, oh miss, oh come you quick

If your name be Barbry Allen.


Oh slowly slowly she got up

And slowly she came nigh him

But all she said as she passed his bed,

Young man I think you’re dyin’.


Oh I am sick and very sick

And death is on me dwellin’

No better no better shall I ever be

If I can’t have Barbry Allen.


Oh sir you’re sick and very sick

And death is on you dwellin’

No better no better shall you ever be

For you can’t have Barbry Allen.


As she was on her highway home

She heard the death bells knellin’

With every knell they seemed to say

Hard hearted Barbry Allen.


Oh mother mother, make my bed,

Make it both soft and narrow

Sweet William died for love of me

And I must die of sorrow.


Oh father father dig my grave

Dig it both deep and narrow

Sweet William died for me today

I’ll die for him tomorrow.


They buried Barbry in the old church yard

They buried William nigh her

And out of his grave grew a red red rose

And out of hers a briar.


They grew and grew in the old church yard

Til they could not grow any higher

And then they twined in a true love knot

The rose wrapped round the briar. 


Oh, sad sad, the story of thwarted love and death.  Like many a good short story, we aren’t told precisely what happened before the events, only what happened afterwards.  There are, it should be said, many other verses that could have been included and sometimes are, if the singer to a modern audience is not afraid of putting them all to sleep.  There was that incident in the tavern when Sweet William drank a toast to “the ladies all” but excluded Barbry.  Hmph… reason enough to make a man die, right?

If you were listening to this story, or any other ballad, by firelight, sung (most likely) by your mother or grandmother (since women were the primary carriers of songs before the twentieth century), with no instrument to accompany her voice, you would be swept up in your own imagination of the story.  You would have your own idea of what the characters looked like, of the graveyard, of the rose and the briar.

It is because of the intense motivation of the songs and the song carriers who brought them here, packed in their minds, all the way across the ocean and into the deep, green hills, that other forms of music—purely American—would later arise: old time, bluegrass, country, and (in combination with the plaints of African Americans with their own life burdens) the blues.

Pretty Polly was a girl who was foolish enough to go along with someone who promised to marry her—maybe she was pregnant, maybe just naïve.  What she found when she followed her lover into the dark wood was a “new dug grave and a spade lying by.”  Not a hopeful scenario.  The great Ralph Stanley (among others) made Pretty Polly famous by recording her story for a generation of southern music fans who listened on the newfangled radio for strains of “their” music.  Artists like Stanley added the African American invention, the banjo, to the musical mix, along with guitars for rhythm, and fiddles whose note-i-ness was reminiscent of Irish music (though someone said that some notes fell off the ship never to be recovered), so American old-time music is simpler, starker, than its ancestors.  Bill Monroe made the mandolin a required part of the ensemble and invented bluegrass.

Jean Ritchie, who came from a noted singing family in the Cumberland Mountain region, said that it wasn’t until the radio reached their house that they all realized that what they had been singing and playing was “hillbilly” music.  Before that, it was just… music.

Taking off from their roots, people here wrote new songs based on old archetypes.  One of the most famous is probably Tom Dooley, popularized by the Kingston Trio in the 1950s.  It had a similar plot to Pretty Polly, and was based on true events.  It’s conceivable that Pretty Polly was, too, long, long ago.  African Americans, or Dula, was a former Confederate soldier who murdered “poor Laura Foster” somewhere near Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and was hanged from a “white oak tree.”  Since I live near Wilkesboro, I can attest that there are local people who claim to have known someone whose granddaddy knew someone who knew Tom or Laura, and it must be true because Tom has his own Wikipedia page.

Such murder ballads, including confessions made to the crowd at the execution and sold in verse form to support the families of the villains or their victims, were known in England as “broadsides” for the cheap paper they were printed on.  Another such real-murder story hereabouts concerned “Poor Ellen Smith,” who was “shot through the heart, lying cold on the ground.”  Again, this is song as reportage—North Carolina farmers with no access to citified newspapers could hear about poor Ellen from their neighbors, in song.

The story of Rose Connolly is a moralistic horror story of cinematic proportions.  The song in Appalachia was known as “Down in the Willow Garden” and undoubtedly came from the British Isles, whether from England (“Down by the Sally Gardens”) or Ireland (“The Rambling Boys of Pleasure”).  It was well known in the southern mountains by around 1885 and was probably first recorded in 1928 by the country duo Grayson and Whitter.  Its fame was assured in the media era when it was recorded in 1947 by Charlie Monroe, brother of Bill.  Then it was recorded by the Stanley Brothers, Red Allen, and other local artists, and by none other than the Everly Brothers in the 1950s.  One advantage the old songs had over the newly-written ones was, of course, no copyright, so no royalties needed to be paid to the composer.

“Down in the Willow Garden” concerns an apparently innocent female, Rose Connolly (or Conley, Connallee, etc.) who, like Pretty Polly and Ellen Smith, met an especially gruesome end at the hands of the song’s narrator, who gave her poisoned “burgundy” or “burgling” wine, then stabbed her, and to finish it off, threw her body in a rushing river.  The song includes an unusually haunting image worthy of the broadside-ballad genre, in the last verse when the killer states with apparent regret that:

My father sits at his cabin door, wiping his tear-dimmed eyes

For soon his only son shall walk to yonder scaffold high.

My race is run beneath the sun, the scaffold now waits for me

For I did murder that dear little girl by the name of Rose Connolly. 

Not all songs and musical forms were about telling a story.  Some were just plain nonsense, meant to entertain.  There were “play party” songs made up for fun times.  One stimulus for these songs (like “Loop de Loo”, “Skip to My Lou”, “Liza Jane”, and many others) was that dancing was often forbidden in the strict religions of the backwoods.  Musical instruments, especially the fiddle, were considered the Devil’s handiwork.  Singing in church was allowed, without accompaniment, and without those wicked harmonies that might lead, and usually do, to pure simple enjoyment of the tune for its own sake.  Can’t have that.  So folks made up circle dances and other “children’s games” that were thinly disguised courting rituals, and the participants were not just children, but adolescents and even adults.  This gave a chance to hold a few hands of the opposite sex, maybe cast a glance or two, in an entirely innocent atmosphere, overseen by the elders.

The grown-ups and openly courting teens could also, in the right circumstances and given the general lack of preachers and formal churches, simply dance.  Square dancing was known from the old country, especially England.  Accompaniment for a square dance can be an entire instrumental ensemble (fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass fiddle) or sometimes just a single fiddle.  There is a caller who uses, without necessarily knowing why, ancient “instructions” like “allemande” (probably from “a le main”, or “by the hand” but cowboys liked to say “all the men”), and “dosido”, (probably “dos y dos”, or “two by two”).  Again, despite the wild, almost stomping, energy of these dances, sometimes called hoedowns, there was a chance for girls to furl their skirts up high and boys to show off their abilities to jump and kick.  Both important aspects of the mating ritual even now.

Tucked away in the steep isolation of the Appalachians in humble little cabins or larger barns, these rituals and the Appalachian music that went with them might have gone unnoticed, were it not for certain nosy people who were determined to “discover” them.  The first two spies in the backwoods were Cecil Sharp and John Jacob Niles.

Sharp was an Englishman who wanted to revive true English folk music that he felt had been overshadowed by music from other places, especially Germany.  At the time, during World War I, there was a bad feeling about any German influence.  Sharp visited America during the war years with his secretary, Maud Karpeles.   Together they ferreted out and recorded (on paper) the words and music of many ballads thought to have died out in the New World—but not, it seemed, in southern Appalachia.  Sharp was convinced that these songs had come to America entirely through the “oral tradition”—by memory rather than by books or broadsides.

Niles, who lived around the same era as Sharpe, was a Kentuckian who was drawn to folk music at any early age.  In addition to collecting different versions of old songs, notably Barbara Allen and Pretty Polly, Niles wrote songs—the Christmas song “I Wonder as I Wander” may be his most memorable creation.

Both these men were fascinated by mountain culture and believed themselves to be respectful of it, and there were others, like the Lomax and Seeger families, who came later.  All of these city folks wanted, it must be said, to make money off the Appalachian music of the mountains by publishing scholarly books about it, and recording and performing it.  No one really ever asked the Appalachian musicians what they thought about these “art thieves”, as such they were.  Perhaps the interlopers did a service in helping these poor families realize that they possessed a musical treasure.

Jean Ritchie, though, at least could lay claim to the territory, since she was born and raised in the rough Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky.  She had a long life of first singing and simply enjoying her family’s musical heritage, and then studying it and helping others to access it.  With her high, strong, true vocal style, she was a consummate singer of unaccompanied ballads, bringing many obscure sagas like Lord Lovell and Lord Bateman to the ears of an appreciative audience of folk music fans in the 1950s and 60s.  Cecil Sharpe had met the Ritchies on his travels and recorded the singing of Jean’s older sisters.  As a child, Jean won blue ribbons for singing at the county fair.  In adulthood she fell in with the burgeoning folk music crowd and this spurred her to recall and share the songs she’d learned in childhood, and occasionally to pen some folk-based songs of her own.  She played the dulcimer as a simple, unobtrusive accompaniment.  She won a Fulbright scholarship that allowed her fame to spread throughout the English-speaking music world.  She recorded more than 20 albums of songs, including ballads like “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Lovin’ Henry”, play-party and “nonsense” songs like “Jimmy-Taylor-O”, and simple love songs like “Loving Hannah”.

In other parts of America, immigrants brought their music—Scandinavians brought melancholy waltzes and their dances, called polskor, and central Europeans settling in the Midwest brought polkas and ditties so beloved of the noted TV personality, Lawrence Welk.  All these forms of music were cherished by their “original owners” and handed down to their offspring.

For me, as a child of the south, who learned Barbry Allen from my father when I was ten years old, I have a special bias towards hardcore Appalachian music tradition, with its often crooked, often modal, tunes and its lonely lyrics with their archaic feel. It is, for one thing, very “cabin-worthy” music. One can easily picture this music being sung and played on a little front porch of a little log home—it’s no accident that we have so many photos of such events, because they were actual and common.

In carrying on the music, Appalachian denizens were remembering the “good old days” that, as we all realize, are not generally as good as we like to depict them.  The Irish and Scots wound up in Appalachia because the best farmland was taken by people who were happy to employ them as “indentured servants,” treated often less well than African slaves, because they were more expendable.  Many a leafy holler hid the dwelling of an escaped servant. They remained in hiding, pursuing a simple self-sufficient lifestyle, making untaxed beverages (like the “burglin’ wine” that killed Rose Connolly) and not being bothered or dictated to by the law or the church.

It is that “cabin home” image that often comes to me when I sing: the loneliness of the natural surroundings, the plaintive words of a sad, sad song echoing through the trees, the singer’s heart open to the task of telling the same story once again and making it live to her listeners, who are free to wander in their minds and paint their own pictures.

Without TV, tablets, cell phones, earbuds, or monitors.  Just the old words and the old Appalachian music, and the shadows of the trees falling on the old home place.



  1. Hi, I’m looking for a homesteading work song — something that might have been sung while a homesteader was working the land. Does anyone know of anything like that?

  2. Barbara,
    Thank you for sharing such a wonderfully well-written article with readers of this newsletter. You capture the essence of Southern Appalachia beautifully. Such knowledge and appreciation of this heritage have been excellently detailed and preserved by this story. I would enjoy reading more of your work.

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