Appalachia Appalachian Dialect

Ballads = Love Songs

love songs from appalachia

One would be hard pressed to find any discussion of traditional Appalachian music that didn’t include the mournful ballads that are still performed here today. Many of the ballads are hundreds of years old and can be traced back to the British Isles.

According to my Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English ballads were once called love songs.

love song noun Usu a traditional ballad; occasionally a song of another type. 1907 Parker Folk-lore of NC 246 I am constrained to think that religion’s austere disapproval of the banjo, the violin, the wicked “love songs,” and all such ungodliness, has practically destroyed minstrelsy, and the memory of most of the old ballads. 1935 Sheppard Cabins in Laurel 277 At this time the modern folk songs, especially those featuring yodelling, are most popular with the young people, but the love songs (the mountain name for ballads), never lose their popularity. 1939 Hall Coll. Emets Cove TN I’ve heard her sing religious songs, [(but)] I never did hear her sing any love songs. (Leona Stinnett) 1995 Adams Come Go Home 81 A little before seven o’clock, every chair would be occupied by an ancient (ancient to me then meant over forty) male or female: and before long the room would swell with the sounds of the old love songs as one after the other of these singers took their turn. I attended many a Round Robin. 1995 Willams Smoky Mts Folklife 39 The category “love songs” covered the whole spectrum of secular song. . . While they included the Child ballads, those antiquated ballads hardly exhausted the category of love songs.

Even though I grew up hearing many of the old ballads-I never heard them called love songs-but then again I never really heard them called ballads either. They were just songs that Pap learned as a boy and liked enough to pass along to us.

I have a fierce love for the old ballads-or love songs-whichever you want to call them. I’m sure part of it is that I grew up hearing them. The deep emotional feeling evoked by the words of the songs are also part of it. As I’ve shared with you before-I even have a fondness for the songs of murder and the child ballads that end in death.

Appalachian love songs


Last summer Chatter and Chitter learned a new old ballad by way of the John C. Campbell Folk School’s Dance Musicians Class. All three of us fell madly in love with the song the instant we heard Naomi Morse (one of their talented instructors) sing it. It took The Pressley Girls a week to learn the song and during that time I tried to research the history of the ballad.

We had been calling the song The Blackest Crow but I soon realized the song was more often called My Dearest Dear. Like many old songs-firm details are hard to find. There are differing variations when it comes to the lyrics-as well as the title. Most of the historical information I found pointed towards the song being common in both the Appalachian Mountains as well as the Ozark Mountains. Much of the historical information connects the song to the Civil War.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the song is the fact that neither I, nor Pap, nor Paul had ever heard it! From the moment the girls began singing the song I felt sort of like I had been missing out on something for all of my life-the words are just that moving. And I was happy to discover Paul and Pap felt the same way I did-to say they were impressed the first time they heard the girls sing it is a true understatement. Like me-they were blown away by the words.

My Dearest Dear is a moving love song-but the words brought to mind a different scenario than war torn lovers for me. Perhaps it was because I was reading the book From Ulster to Carolina by H. Tyler Blethen and Curtis W. Wood Jr. at the time the girls were learning the song.

So often Appalachian Heritage and Culture can be traced back to the first white settlers who claimed a home in these mountains. There’s no denying some of their language, their traditions, their songs, and their character traits still exist here in Appalachia. One of the reasons the bits and pieces have survived is because of two of the very traits often used to describe people who call Appalachia home. The great sense of place and close family ties are traits that have kept generations of families living in the same local area-which has in turn helped ensure the longevity of culture and heritage.

As the words to My Dearest Dear circled around inside my skull, I studied on how those first settlers knew for a certainty they’d never go back to Scotland, Ireland, England or wherever they hailed from across the waters. They knew they’d never see the hills of home again-they’d never spend time with their feeble elders again, they’d never visit the final resting place of beloved family members who had long gone on. From the day they set sail they knew for better or for worse the place they called home would only be a memory.

Come back by in a few days and I’ll share the story the song brought to my mind as well as the video.


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  • Reply
    Susie Swanson
    February 13, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Very interesting post. I love Ballads too.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    February 12, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Tipper-I first heard the girls do this back last summer. After reading your post today and listening to your girls and others do this ballad, the decision I put on their youtube still stands.
    However I did happen upon an interesting group doing the same song that might interest you
    Listen to the harmony between the vocals and the violin. The violin was created to mimic the sound on the human voice and the singers in the video do a great job of harmonizing with it. The two in your upcoming video also do wonderful job but it wouldn’t hurt them to see how others do it.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    That was very intersting research on your part. The facial expressions in the photo made me chuckle, knowing some things about your family. It is a fun photo- a real keeper for the scrapbook. I look forward to the rest of your story.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    Lumiere (a Celtic duo) has a new CD titled “My Dearest Dear” and that song is the first track. It is lovely.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Well done, Tipper; well done indeed! It would be difficult for me to consider ballads such as “Knoxville Girl” and “Banks of the Ohio” as love songs even though there was a love interest in them; I’ve always tagged them as ‘murder ballads’.
    A note or two here: Seldom have Pap and Paul and the girls played or sung a song that I am not familiar with, but I admit that I have never heard “The Blackest Crow” before this day. It sounds Irish…
    Note the Second: One of your respondents has said that the song that he learned as “The Eighth of January” was later called “The Battle of New Orleans” The same thing happened to me; Dad taught me the fiddle Tune “Eighth of January sometime in the 40s or early 50s, I guess, and then Johnny Horton came out with the popular tune. The reason for the confusion is very simple: The Battle of New Orleans was fought on the Eighth of January 1815, actually after the war was over but that news had not yet reached Louisiana due to the lack of fast transportation to that part of the country.
    And there you have it, writ in the Queens English. Great Post, tipper.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Wow Tipper, you do have a way with words! Really enjoyed this post and am so looking forward to the story, and of course hearing the Pressley Girls sing.

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    February 12, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Wonderful post, Tipper. The Blackest Crow is a favorite, but I never knew it was also called My Dearest Dear. I will certainly be doing some research about it.
    My favorite version is by Atwater-Donnely, they play it on mountain dulcimers and then she sings – beautiful voice. Here’s a link if anyone would like to hear their version:

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    February 12, 2014 at 10:28 am

    wonderful post today! My goodness the words did flow! I loved it!
    Ballads, love songs and stories of all. I remember something of a person saying to another…”Let me sing you a love song,” LOL
    Although I never heard them say let me sing you a ballad, a story of Tom Dooly or John Henry, etc…
    The revival of the folk singers during the hippie era brought back a lot of old ballads. The group “Peter, Paul and Mary” was one of my favorites.
    Dad would say, “Those kids are getting rich singing what my grandparents sang when they come to this country!” LOL
    Waiting for the Blind Pig rendition of “My Dearest Dear.”
    How deep is the snow Mamma?
    Ours hasn’t started yet. Due to begin (after a change in the forecast) around noon!
    Thanks Tipper, Great post!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    February 12, 2014 at 10:04 am

    As always, an interesting Post today.
    I love the old ballads or love songs,
    they are a part of me, come to life
    Just yesterday I was listening to
    Peter, Paul and Mary and really liked
    the soft ballads they did. Mary Travers died in 2009 after a long fight with Leukemia.
    But my all time favorite singers are
    still “The Seekers”. They are an
    Australian group but Judith Durham
    has the most beautiful voice I ever

  • Reply
    josé Luis
    February 12, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Hi Tipper
    Simply beautiful your comment today .
    Every time I read your stories of your land , I see tremendous similarities that exist in countries like ours ,consisting almost entirely of immigrants.
    Also departed from the coast of Ireland, Scotland , England to North America as Spain , Italy , Portugal , mostly to South America with their hearts cut in half , to leave their beloved homelands , even if they did to eat every day in many cases.
    Are also similar religious attitudes of yesteryear, fundamentalists and overly stringent .
    (In some cases pseudo religions that exist today are actually fundamentalist sects , many of them using Christianity as a shield for your convenience) .
    If in your land banjo, violin and love songs were sinful , oddly enough considered in Argentina the Tango, music incited to sin.
    Well, Tipper, again beautiful and profound your comment today, a very cordial greeting to you and your readers, José Luis from Argentina .

  • Reply
    Ken Ryan
    February 12, 2014 at 9:42 am

    I have listened to “The Blackest Crow” for years now, and it is one of my favorite ballads. Can’t wait to hear the girls do it. Great post.

  • Reply
    Lisa Snuggs
    February 12, 2014 at 9:30 am

    As a ballad lover myself, I can’t wait to hear this song. Your post reminded me of a good movie called “Song Catcher” about a lady teacher who was passed over for tenure at a college (early 1900s) and then set out to record the history of music in Appalachia. People had never seen a Victrola, much less one that would record their voices! There’s one scene that might make some folks blush, but overall it’s a very good movie. I’d be curious to know if you think it hits the mark.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 9:12 am

    I’m looking forward to hearing this song and seeing the girls perform it.
    Your take on the old ballads echoes mine – the longing, the history, the memories become so much a part of the culture. They also become the ties that bind a community in the here and now and families across distances.
    Thank you for researching, reflecting, and sharing.

  • Reply
    Scott Durborow
    February 12, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Tipper, Very nice post. Just remember that it depends where you grew up at. The song I learn as the vacant chair as a civil war Ballard the music is from lifes a highways same goes for 8th of January is the same music to the battle of New Oleans I lean them one way from my grandfather and years later found then sang a different way. That would be a good blog for you maybe list songs with different words same music. One more that is very poplar now Big Rock Candy Mountain. I was taught it with 1 set of words and the O brother came out to a different set of words. When the movie came out I took my kids to see it. When BRCM start both kids said. Dad you play that but the words are different. And that went on though moat of the movie. Kids knew the music but not the words. Keep up the good work. I have some history of the dulcimers for you also.

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    February 12, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Tipper, Mother would sing me to sleep years ago with old ballads. Growing up in the forties and fifties then graduated in sixty/married they brought back ballads like Barbara Allen. Then Tom T. Hall wrote a lot of ballads and Jimmy Dickens sang ballads.Mother sang , Row Us Over the Tide. went something like this” Two little children went strolling one day down by the fair river side, one went up to the boatman and said, Row us over the tide. Papa and Mama and Charlie are done row us over the tide.The two little children were seem no more down by the fair river side, God had rowed them over the tide.

  • Reply
    Vernon Kimsey
    February 12, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Have you heard the version by Tim O’Brien on his “Songs from the Mountain” album? It is one of my favorites.

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Sheryl-you didnt miss the song-come back in a few days to hear it : ) Thank you for all the great comments!!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Eva Nell-please share away : ) I’m glad you liked the post!!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia
    On Wednesday, February 12, 2014 8:00

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    February 12, 2014 at 8:00 am

    Tipper: Your post this morning covers a wide range of our history and our music. It is a fantastic POST!
    May I please share your post or your ‘conversation’ with a friend over in the far reaches of a small village (EDALE) in the heart of Derbyshire County – in the Middle of England? I think she would enjoy and appreciate your thoughts and especially the music.
    Kindest regards,
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 12, 2014 at 7:56 am

    Tipper, I have at times wondered where the sad ballads came from but I never did the research on it. I believe every song written comes from someone’s experience even though we usually cannot see the whole story in a short song. I also think that there is no such thing as fiction literature. Every book has something of the author in it as every song has something of it’s author in it.
    There was a resurgent of ballads in the 60’s. I think those young folks were looking for an expression for the discontentment they were feeling.
    I look forward to the story and the song!

  • Reply
    February 12, 2014 at 7:34 am

    After reading your description I want to hear it NOW!!!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    February 12, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Did I miss the link to the song? It sounds like something I would like to hear

  • Reply
    Judy Mincey
    February 12, 2014 at 7:17 am

    I just heard this song few months ago for the first time myself. Tim Erickson includes a version on his album, Josh Billings Voyage. Can hardly wait to hear the girls sing it.

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