Ballad Traditions of Appalachia

The most studied, and arguably respected, musical tradition in the Appalachian region is the ballad. Many ballad melodies began in England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales and then traveled with settlers to the mountains of Appalachia. Ballads were then passed on from generation to generation. Although the tunes or composition would change with each generation of musicians, often following some sort of event, the essence of the ballad would remain. There are two broad categories within the ballad genre, Child Ballads and "Native American Ballads." These ballad styles differ in age, source, and style. Like the range of popular music in America today, ballads tell stories of love and loss, murder and violence, heartbreak and betrayal, or heroes and villains. Some lyrics or tunes would come from church traditions, minstrel performance, or from the cultural influences of African Americans living and working in the Appalachian region. No matter what the foundation, ballads reflected the growing history and culture of Appalachia.

Ballads were typically learned through a folk process, you had to have a good memory if you wanted to be able to recount to your family the ballad you heard sung two towns over by a friend. This is one reason ballads were constructed in such a way as to make them easily memorized. The story-like structure of ballads is part of what contributes to their popularity. People of Appalachia made up these ballads and stories to recount tales of the time, in their own way they were recording their history so it could be passed on and not forgotten.

It was not just a matter of memory: ballads singers also purposely changed or modified songs. No two variants of the same song were or are exactly alike due to this learning style, even when learned from the same source or sung by people in the same community. For example, singers often used local places and names to substitute for originals, or add new words to familiar tunes based on local events and happenings. Many variations of popular ballads would develop over time and in different places. The ballad "Barbra Allen" has almost 200 versions alone! And the case of Tom Dooley, several different ballads have been composed based on the historical events of his life and trial, including "the Ballad of Tom Dula," "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dula," and "Tom Dula's Lament."

Ballads are songs that tell a story in short stanzas. The ballad style of song appealed to the Appalachian people for many reasons. In the earliest days of European settlement in Appalachia, ballads were cultural artifacts that many settlers of the area brought with them from places like England, Ireland, and Scotland. Ballads also typically told a simple story that contained a moral tale or advice for the listener. The themes that many ballads carried were usually universal feelings that people of the time could relate to, and feel validated in their own experiences of lost love, death and other difficult realities of a challenging rural life. The earliest ballads were passed on through an oral tradition and grew out of illiterate or barely-literate communities. These types of ballads changed greatly from one singer to the next because they were rarely written down. Traditional folk ballads were the songs of the common people that often told a dramatic story in a no-nonsense manner. Instead of surviving inside the pages of books, waiting to be read and sung, they were stored in the minds of the people who sang them and taught them to others. In Appalachian ballads, many of the plot lines focused on real problems that real people faced. Unlike English ballads, which often focused on fantastical subjects like magic and fairies, ballads on the Appalachian frontier addressed serious and realistic subjects ruled the song lyrics. For example, songs like "Little Margaret" replaced "Robin Hood" ballads in Appalachia; Robin Hood may be a great story, but it was harder to relate to in the life of the Appalachian singer or listener.

Ballad signing changed with the times of Appalachia and the United States. In the late 1800s, for example, logging and mining companies expanded their operations into the mountains of western North Carolina and Virginia, hiring laborers from across the region to mine coal and log the forests. Camps constructed to house and feed these workers became fertile swapping grounds for tunes. Large-scale mining and logging also required the building of railroads. The employment of African American work crews to lay track and drill tunnels introduced work songs and ballads like 'John Henry.' and 'Swannanoa Tunnel' to the mountain musicians. These cultural groups not only brought new musical influences, they also introduced new ways to play the music of Appalachia.