Appalachia Ghosts - Haints - Spooky Music

Knoxville Girl

Knoxville girl - the tradition of music in appalachia

When I hear someone talking about the many murder ballads of Appalachia, Knoxville Girl is always the one that comes to my mind. I can’t really remember who I heard sing the song first. It might have been The Louvin Brothers or it might have been Pap.

The song has a long history and may have originated as far back as the 1600s. Over the years it has morphed this way and that changing the name of the town to fit the place and time period to fit its new abode.

I was going to share details about the song’s history, but I found someone had already written it better than I could. Go here to read the history of Knoxville Girl and then come back to hear Pap and Paul sing it.


Definetely not a song for the faint of heart. But as I told you a few weeks ago, the sheer number of murder ballads and the longevity of them, show I’m not alone in my love of the songs.

I’m not sure if I like the songs because of a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I”, morbid fascination with death, or the satisfaction of knowing the troubles I have in my life seem minor compared to the story told in the song. Maybe it’s because while I’m listening I can vicariously live out a range of emotions-fear, outrage, despair, and then when the song is over I get to go back to the sunshine.

I’ve had several folks tell me their mother sang Knoxville Girl to them when they were just a child. Seems like a strange song for a lullaby, but I’d guess the song had been sung to the mother when she was a child and she was just passing along the tradition of the song-never giving a thought to the subject matter it contained.

A boy I grew up with would always ask for Knoxville Girl to be played if a group of folks were sitting around jamming. If he got the group to do the song he’d sit and cry like a baby. He said he loved the song because his grandparents sung it to him when he was little.


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  • Reply
    Dona DiBernardo Silver
    February 15, 2021 at 8:00 am

    A confession
    In song.
    As I read this post I thought to myself I have never heard a murder song. And than Tom Jones song came to mind. The green green grass of home. He was a prisoner who was put to death for his crime in that song as well. Tom is from Wales and I am sure there are a lot of people who immigrated from that part of the world to The southern states of America.
    This was very enjoyable indeed and I will be sure to keep my grand daughter away from those Willies out there as David suggested in a post above.
    Loved this Tipper

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    October 30, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    I’d recommend to any girl that she stay away from boys named Willie. They just keep turning up killing their sweethearts for no good reason. Ask Pretty Polly. They’d hold their head under water, or they’d keep on stabbing them. Girl pleading. Didn’t matter to Willie. Mean!!

  • Reply
    Dee Parks
    October 30, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    My goodness, Tipper. It has been a long time since I heard that song. My mother could recite songs or poems that she grew up with and I remember when she recited this song. The parts I remembered was him picking up a stick and knocking the young girl to the ground and when he went home his mother saying “my dear son, what have you done?” I thought that had to be the worst song ever. Mother said it was a song but I guess I was just mortified by the murder of the young girl. If Mother was alive she would be 101 and I am sure she could still recite that song perfectly. Pap and Paul do a beautiful job singing it.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 30, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Funny we are talking about murder ballads today when there is a whole lot of ” shakin’ going on in Cherokee county!” Did you see any strange lights before the earthquakes, during or after?
    I suppose if there were any murderers hiding out in the mountains they would be pleading for mercy if they felt the ground a’movin’!
    Humm, that might make a good murder ballad…Let’s see now, how about the first line begging…
    “I was running free, when something’ caught up with me.
    I am surrounded and moving along, it’s carrying me where I am not supposed to be.
    Please Sheriff come get me now, my legs won’t stand.
    And the picture in my mind of that dead gal is a’sdrivin’ me mad!
    Chorus; I tremble and shake and even a quake can’t hide the signs from me!
    Repeat chorus three times…. (after all he is cracking up as well as the ground!) ha
    Oh well, guess I’ll leave murder ballads to the song writers, but I was just sayin’!
    Thanks Tipper,
    Hold on tight over there in Cherokee county! ha

  • Reply
    anita griffith
    October 30, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    I guess I have heard most of the murder ballads,but the only one I ever played was, down in the willow garden.

  • Reply
    October 30, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    I love that song too, by Paul and Pap and the Gang, by Jim and Jesse, or by the Louvin Brothers. I didn’t know the song was made back in the 1600’s, maybe that’s why for some reason it has lasted thru the years…Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 30, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    I am one of the several. That song is one of the very first memories of my childhood. I remember my mother holding me in her lap and singing me to sleep to Knoxville Girl. I was born in 1950 so I would have been about six when the Louvin Brothers came out with their version of the song. I don’t think I was still being rocked to sleep at six years old. The Blue Sky Boys recorded the song in 1937 so I’m guessing she learned it from them.

  • Reply
    October 30, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    We used to sing this song in our home Tipper. Sad song, but when you think back to criminals and their penalties many were hung. There was always quite a large turnout of people to view the hangings, which in my opinion, would be quite morbid too. It would seem some people have a fascination with death or dying. Perhaps they just wanted to know the prisoner was actually put to death.
    I do like the tune of this song Knoxville Girl, as well as Mary of the Wild Moor. Great video of Paps and Paul singing it.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    October 30, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Mama used to sing it, too. Also one about the devil marrying a human woman & the little devils begging him to take her back before she murdered them all. They do seem like odd choices but we loved them.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    October 30, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Pap & Paul have a new fan – her name is Jessie and she has big, brown eyes. Oh, yes, she is 5 1/2 months old. She was a bit fussy and as I was reading today’s post and the music started she got very quiet. I turned the phone so she could see and she was enrapt – not a peep.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 30, 2016 at 8:35 am

    I have to tell you, Tip, that I have never liked the murder songs, The violence in then always distresses me so I just avoid them. Having said that, Knoxville Girl has such a nice flow between the words and the music and it is not possible not to admire it.
    You, Paul, and the girls did a very nice job singing at the benefit last night. I hope they raised a lot of money. It seems that more and more these days I see Pap when I watch Paul sing and play the guitar. Especially there in the Community Center!

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