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.
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.