The Modern Era of Ballad Preservation

Many Americans became aware of the Appalachian ballad tradition through the extensive ballad collecting campaigns of individuals in the early twentieth century.  Scholars and amateur folklorists spent extensive time and energy searching for European musical traditions that had not been upheld in the European homeland.  These ballad ‘experts’ had the authority to judge which ballads or songs were worth collecting, which had the effect of defining certain parts of the region’s musical culture, but not others, as authentic to the region and the American past.  Many early collectors believed Appalachian music represented an unchanged folk tradition that stretched back to the Elizabethan era of the Britain Isles.  Settlement schools  were some of the earliest sites collectors would visit to find songs that they believed fit into this historical pattern.  Students would come from across the region to attend these schools, bringing with them the traditions of their small mountain communities and their rich knowledge of local ballads. 

While ballads and other musical traditions in Appalachia initially survived through the folk process, collectors often relied on new recording technologies and early scholarly documentation techniques.  Ballad collecting was a difficult task and recording technology in this period was very primitive by today’s standards.  Some collectors, like Dorothy Scarborough, visited the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia with a state-of-the-art Dictaphone machine, which was a heavy, hand-held battery powered, crank-operated, phonograph-like recording device.  The audio files for these recordings were stored on wax cylinders.  Wax is obviously not a permanent material, so the main purpose of these recordings was to keep the audio long enough to be transcribed and notated, rather than for permanent storage. During performance recording sessions, one person would operate the recorder while another would use a typewriter to copy the lyrics.  As most roads were designed for foot or horse traffic, collectors like Scarborough were often forced to walk miles on foot in search of singers.
One remote place that attracted collectors was Beech Mountain, NC, which sits on the border of in Avery and Watauga Counties.  Beech Mountain is home to several influential ballad singers, including Lena Harmon, who was born in Watauga County in October of 1911.  Harmon grew up singing ballads with her father, sometimes for several hours into the night.  She had to hold a kerosene lamp for long periods of time so that she and her father could see, which made her quite sleepy.  Even though she became so tired to the point of almost falling over, Harmon did not give up.  One of the songs Harmon remembers from these nighttime sessions was “The Little Guinea Gay Haw”  and“The Wild Boar’s Den.”     

Many people from outside of western North Carolina become fascinated with the music coming off of Beech Mountain.  In 1937, a University of South Carolina music professor named Maurice Matteson bought a dulcimer made by Nathan Hicks.  The professor’s newly acquired dulcimer attracted the interest of Frank and Anne Warner of New York City, who traveled down to Beech Mountain in 1938 and 1940  to meet the Hicks family in person and to record their music, including versions of :“Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” “Moonshine,” “Dan Doo,” “Sweet Willie,” (also known as “Earl Brand”), “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife” (“The Farmer’s Curst Wife”), “George Collins” (“Lady Alice”), and the “Two Sisters that Loved One Man.”  
Nearby Burke County, NC was another important site for ballads in Appalachia.  One such ballad arose from a sensational Burke County murder case which began in 1831.  Francis Silver (called Frankie) and her husband Charles (called Charlie) lived with their infant daughter Nancy in a cabin on the Toe River.  On December 22, 1831, Charlie went missing.  Authorities found blood and human remains while searching in and around the cabin.  A warrant was issued for Frankie’s arrest, and she spent over a year in the Burke County Jail awaiting trials and appeals for mercy by her family.

According to locals, Frankie was suspicious of Charlie, who would often leave home for long periods of time.  Others said that Charlie was abusive and that Frankie acted in self-defense.  Whatever the motive, Frankie was found guilty and was sentenced to execution by hanging.  The execution took place on July 12, 1833.  She is believed to be the first white woman hanged in Burke County.  In 1884, a Morganton newspaper published what was said to be her dying words:

This dreadful, dark and dismal day
Has swept my glories all away,
My sun goes down, my days are past,
And I must leave this world at last!
Oh! Lord, what will become of me?
I am condemned you all now see,
To heaven or hell my soul must fly
All in a moment when I die!
…Great God, how shall I be forgiven?
Not fit for earth, not fit for heaven;
But little time to pray to God,
For now I try that awful road.

This “confession” is now known as the Ballad of Frankie Silver. It is a murder ballad.  The ballad was passed on orally from singer to singer over time after her execution, and so it was likely more a product of public
imagination than it was Frankie’s actual confession at her time of death.