Thousands of adventurous souls in the mid- to late-1700s came to the wild Western frontier that was Kentucky—or “Can-tuck-ee”—in search of land and opportunity ...
In addition to their possessions, they carried with them their oral traditions, passed along through countless previous generations. Their folk tales, songs and remedies served as the umbilical cord to a life many had left across the sea, and many more would experience them through the fireside recollections of parents and grandparents.
The first white settlers of Kentucky were mostly of Scots-Irish stock. These were the descendants of the Lowland Scots whom King James I had relocated to Northern Ireland in 1607 in an attempt to dilute—and, hopefully, replace—the “unruly” indigenous Irish population. By the early 1700s, harsh business conditions began to drive these transplanted Scots from Ulster to a new land that promised a less fettered existence—America. Here, they built their cabins and grew, gathered, made and hunted all they needed to survive. By the beginning of the American Revolution, they comprised nearly 20 percent of the population of the original 13 Colonies.
The songs they sang often smacked of a life long left behind and as removed from their hardscrabble existence as only time and distance could accomplish. Some of the oldest were songs of chivalry that told of high-born lords and their ladies, and of armored knights, wielding swords in mortal combat. One ancient song, known in the British Isles as “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard”—and in the hills and hollers of Kentucky as “Matty Groves”—tells the tragic tale of a handsome young man who is seduced into spending a night with the wife of the powerful Lord Arnold. Arnold is away from his castle, but the lady’s page runs to him and breathlessly informs on the amorous couple. The lord stealthily returns home, and what follows is one of the most dramatic confrontations in all traditional music:
“Little Matty Groves, he laid him down,
And straightway fell asleep,
And when he woke, Lord Arnold was
A-standin’ at his feet!”
It all ends badly for Matty, Lord Arnold and his lady.
Not all the “old-timey” ballads were tragic. A number of ancient “Robin Hood” songs made the trip across the sea and assumed distinctly American characteristics. They usually featured some form of trickery, with Robin sometimes the trickster and sometimes the foil. When collecting one ballad in Hazard more than 100 years ago, folklorist John Jacob Niles noted that singers Albert and Magilee Key had changed the hero’s name from Robin Hood to “Robber” Hood. When asked the reason, they replied, “He were a robber, were he not?”
Some ballads, such as “Queen Eleanor’s Confession” and “The Death of Queen Jane,” told of historical events hundreds of years in the past but were adapted and sung here as if they had occurred only the day before. “The Death of Queen Jane” chronicles the lady’s demise during the cesarean delivery that saves her child. The last verse paints a graphic picture of King Henry VIII’s grief:
“Oh, he weeped and he mourned untwil he was sore,
Said, ‘The flower of England will flourish no more.’
And he sat by the river with his head in his hand,
Said, ‘My merry England is a sorrowful land.’ ”
A few transplants from Ireland originally had Gaelic titles that were bastardized after arriving here. One such ballad tells the poignant tale of a girl who is accidentally slain by her betrothed. In Ireland, the song’s Gaelic title was “An Cailin Ban” (pronounced “Colleen Bawn”), which roughly means “The Fair-Haired Girl”; here, it became known by a number of phonetically similar names, including “Polly Vaughn” and “Molly Bond.” Regardless of what title it goes by, the story bodes ill for the heroine:
“Then home ran young Jimmie, with his dog and his gun,
Crying, ‘Father, o’ father, have you heard what I’ve done?
I spied my own true love, and mistook her for a swan,
Now I’ve shot her and killed her by the setting of the sun!’ ”
Some of the love songs that made their way here are among the most beautiful in the English language. It does not get better than this wistful verse from “Fair and Tender Ladies”:
“If I had known before I’d courted,
My love would prove untrue to me,
I’d have locked my heart in a box of golden,
And sealed it up with a silver key.”
One of the commonest of the old-time love songs, and one that survives in countless versions, is “Barbara Allen.” Despite its sad tale of unrequited love, with both characters dying of a broken heart, it offers an uncharacteristically upbeat ending:
“Barb’ry Allen was buried in the old church yard;
Sweet William’s grave was nigh her.
And from his grave grew a red, red rose,
From hers, a cruel briar.
“They grew and grew in the old church yard,
Till they could grow no higher;
And there they twined in a true lover’s knot,
And the rose grew ’round the briar.”
Superstition was strong in the wilds of early Kentucky. Songs about restless spirits, or “revenants,” were fairly common—and some were designed to put a shudder into the listener. One song, “The Sad Courtin’,” tells of a young man’s ghost that visits his former fiancée and begs from her a kerchief, because “my head, it is all of an ache.” Unaware that she is confronting a ghost rather than her betrothed, she lends him her fine handkerchief and kisses him, only to find “his lips were of clay.” Later, still unwilling to believe her true love to have passed on, she stands by as:
“They opened the grave of her lover long dead:
Her kerchief was wrapped ’round his moldering head.”
I defy Hollywood to come up with a more chilling ending.
Songs of a different kind of spirits were adapted from Ireland and Scotland and recreated afresh in the Kentucky hollers. The illicit manufacture of alcoholic beverages is a Kentucky tradition that goes back more than 200 years, and along with the products of the stills, there arose countless songs about moonshining. One of the most familiar is “Rye Whiskey,” in which the singer intones,
“If the sea was rye whiskey,
And I was a duck,
I’d dive to the bottom,
And never come up!”
Taming a territory in which life was cheap and death could come in any number of guises, these rough-hewn early settlers relied on a strong belief system as an essential part of their lives. They had carried their strong Presbyterian faith with them from Ulster, and both in and out of church, hymns and faith-based songs and ballads played a vital role. One classic song of faith that was born of the American experience, and survives in all its plaintive beauty, is “The Wayfaring Stranger”:
“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger,
A-traveling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
“I’m going there to see my mother,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.”
Life in early Kentucky was not so stoic as to be without humor. Many Old-World survivals—and a large number of indigenous early American songs—were genuinely funny.
Some played upon common stereotypes, such as that of the scolding wife. “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife” tells a tale in which the devil comes and claims a farmer’s nagging spouse—whom the farmer is only too happy to surrender. After carrying her to hell, however, he finds that she is too much even for him to handle, and the devil, much the worse for wear, returns her to the farmer. The last verse delivers the song’s punch line:
“They say that the women are worse than the men—
They can go down to hell, and get chucked out again!”
On occasion, pioneer families would come together for what were called play-parties—events with food and drink, in which singing and dancing were the order of the day. Someone was sure to have a fiddle—provided the community elders didn’t view it as the “devil’s instrument”—and he would play the old jigs and reels, as the hard-working, company-starved settlers stepped and stomped to the rhythm. There were songs created specifically for play-parties, with the participants singing and dancing simultaneously, as the crowd clapped in time. One such play-party song was the ever-popular “Shady Grove”:
“Some come here to fiddle and dance,
Some come here to tarry;
Some come here to fiddle and dance,
I come here to marry!
“Shady Grove, my little love,
Shady Grove my darlin’,
Shady Grove, my little love,
Goin’ back to Harlan.”
Some play-party songs, such as “Skip to My Lou,”* often had a complex, partner-swapping dance choreographed to go with them:
“Cain’t get a red bird, a blue bird’ll do. (Repeat three times)
Skip to my Lou, my darling.
“Gonna find another gal prettier’n you. (Repeat three times)
Skip to my Lou, my darling.”
*“Lou” was originally “loo,” Scottish dialect for “love.” Hence, “Skip to My Love.”
Although parlor music, printed and sold on sheets and sung to the accompaniment of a harpsichord, was popular in the more affluent urban settings, the songs of Kentucky’s rugged hill folk were mainly traditional in nature and usually sung unaccompanied. When asked why he didn’t choose to sing along with a banjo, fiddle or guitar, one old-time mountain balladeer replied, “It just gets in the way of the music!” Even today, listening to the haunting, keening refrains of “The Kentucky Moonshiner”—a ballad of which Carl Sandburg wrote, “[I]t wails; it brandishes sorrow; it publishes grief; it opens the final stop-gaps of lonely fate”—it is not hard to understand what he meant:
“It’s cornbread when I’m hungry, corn likker when I’m dry;
Greenbacks when I’m hard-up, and religion when I die.
The whole world’s a bottle, and life’s but a dram;
When a bottle gets empty, it ain’t worth a damn.”
The compendium of early Kentucky songs is virtually endless. In a 1911 “syllabus” on Kentucky folk music, the author listed as just some of the song types “learned by ear instead of by eye”: “song-ballads, love-songs, number-songs, dance-songs, play-songs, child-songs, counting-out rimes, lullabies, jigs, nonsense-rimes, ditties, etc.”
For the settlers of Kentucky, these songs served as an antidote to loneliness, fear, homesickness and exhaustion, and in those hard and often perilous times, they cut through the surrounding darkness and made the hills and forests ring.