Appalachia Music

Little Bessie

Little bessie

Little Bessie is a traditional song, no one knows for sure who wrote it. As with many old songs-the words and verses in Little Bessie change depending on who’s performing it. There’s an interesting thread of comments about the song on Mudcat Cafe-you can go here to read them.

In a nut shell-the thread discusses the possibility of Little Bessie being as old as 1860 but a few entries later a commenter claims the song was written by a lady who lost her 4 year old daughter, Bessie to a fire in the 1920s.

One of the more interesting comment entries quotes the liner notes from one of Ricky Skaggs albums, Ancient Tones:

Here is another song that I first heard from the Stanley Brothers. I loved their version very much. Then, one day, I found an old songbook that had many more verses to it than what they had recorded. I asked my dad if he knew anyone who could sing the old mountain style version of ‘Little Bessie’. He said he thought he did. So we went down the road to a neighbour’s house. Their names were Alvie and Vernie Fyffe. Vernie knew the old way of singing that song. So I learned it from her. One of the blessings of having my own record label is that I can have the freedom to make the music that I want to make, even if it is ten minutes long.


Hug me closer, mother, closer
Put your arms around me tight
For I am cold and tired, dear mother
And I feel so strange tonight

Something hurts me here, dear mother
Like a stone upon my breast
Oh, I wonder, mother, wonder
Why it is I cannot rest

All the day while you were working
As I lay upon my bed
I was trying to be patient
And to think of what you said

How the king, dear blessed Jesus
Loves his lambs to watch and keep
Oh, I wish he would come and take me
In his arms that I might sleep

Just before the lamps were lighted
Just before the children came
While the room was very quiet
I heard someone call my name

All at once a window opened
On a field of lambs and sheep
Some far out in a brook were drinking
Some were lying fast asleep

In a moment I was looking
On a world so bright and fair
Which was filled with little children
And they seemed so happy there

They were singing oh so sweetly
Sweetest songs I ever heard
They were singing sweet, mother,
Than our darling little birds

But I could not see the Saviour
Though I strained my eyes to see
And I wondered if He saw me
Would He speak to such as me

All at once a window opened
One so bright upon me smiled
And I knew it must be Jesus
When he said, Come here my child

Come here, my little Bessie,
Come up here and live with me
Where little children never suffer
Suffer through eternity

Then I thought of all you told me
Of that bright and happy land
I was going when you called me
When you came and kissed my hand

And at first I felt so sorry
You had called and I would go
Oh, to sleep and never suffer
Mother, don’t be crying so

Hug me closer, mother, closer
Put your arms around me tight
Oh, how much I love you mother
And how strong I feel tonight

And the mother pressed her closer
To her own dear burdened breast
On the heart so near its breaking
Lay the heart so near its rest

At the solemn hour of midnight
In the darkness calm and deep
Lying on her mother’s bosom
Little Bessie fell asleep

Source: Ricky Skaggs ‘Ancient Tones’ Skaggs Family Records SKFR-CD 1001

Little Bessie fits into the music genre of ballads. Appalachia is commonly associated with ballads. Not everyone likes the songs-I do like them-more than that-I love them.

I’ve talked about my love for ballads before here on the Blind Pig-tried to reason out exactly why I love those sad, often violent songs. Perhaps my attraction comes from a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I”, a morbid fascination with death, or the satisfaction of knowing someones life is worse than mine. Then again maybe it’s because while I’m listening-I can vicariously live out a range of emotions-fear, outrage, despair, -then when the song is over, I get to go back to the sunshine.

Ron Pen, from the University of KY, has this to say about Ballads:

The ballad form originated in Europe during the Middle Ages and was firmly established in the British Isles by the fifteenth century. By the early eighteenth century, the composition of new ballads in Great Britain had tapered off, but the British ballad tradition was transported to the New World by emigrants. Formal collection and study of the British ballad repertoire dates to the late nineteenth century, when Harvard scholar Francis James Child collected and categorized 305 ballads in a series of books, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98).

Child ballads generally utilize a single opening stanza to introduce the setting and the principal characters. The story then unfolds rapidly to a point of confrontation, followed by a resolution presented through third-person narrative or dialogue.

In Appalachia, Child ballads were traditionally performed by a solo singer without instrumental accompaniment, though in later years a fretted dulcimer, guitar, fiddle, or banjo was sometimes used to accompany the singing. Although the language of ballads is dramatic, the singing style in Appalachia tended to be objective and detached, allowing the story to tell itself without the influence of an emotional delivery.

Additionally, the ballad tradition of telling a story in song continues to be an essential ingredient of country and bluegrass music. Many popular traditional ballads, whether performed within folk revivalist circles (for example, “Darling Cora”) or in popular music circles all over the world (“House of the Rising Sun”), have reentered circulation or gained wider distribution following collection (and publication and/or recording) from Appalachian balladeers.

Now that I’ve told you more than you wanted to know about the song-give our version a listen.

You’ll notice we don’t do even half the verses mentioned in the Ricky Skaggs quote-most people don’t-and we do at least one that he doesn’t even list. I believe Pap and Paul’s version is closest to a recording done by the Country Gentlemen. But even our version changes.

I uploaded the video above several months ago, but last Sunday at our weekly pickin and grinnin sessions-Paul threw in one of the other verses. Once the song was over, we mentioned it-and Paul said “No I always sing that verse.” Pap and I informed him he was wrong-and I told him I had the video to prove it!

Of course I’m prejudice-but I love our version. Pap’s tenor is chilling-Paul’s flat top picking is amazing-and with only one chord for me to play-my bass doesn’t sound half bad either.

So are you a ballad lover too?


Ballads.” (2012) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved May 21, 2012, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia:


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  • Reply
    May 23, 2012 at 10:43 am

    I love the old ballads. I didn’t discover them until I was grown, or didn’t pay attention. Dolly Parton has an album, I think it is her Heart Song one, that she sings some of the old ballads on. I love it. I have the song catcher DVD and love it also. Tipper, you live such a full and wonderful life. You truly are blessed.

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    May 23, 2012 at 3:40 am

    Tipper – I love hearing all about these songs. Thanks so much for sharing all this info. It looks to me like you can’t tell most of us more than we want to know.

  • Reply
    janet pressley
    May 22, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Like the words to “Little Bessie”. The performance was great. Nana

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    May 22, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Tipper–I wonder if Joe Hall made any inquiries about ballads and balladeers back when he was doing all those interviews in the late 1930s and early 1940s (for those of you who figure I’m even more off the rails than usual, Joe Hall was the man whose pioneering work led the the “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English” Tipper mentions so often and which she has used for some of her vocabularly tests). I don’t know the answer but I do know that two fine old mountain musicians, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Felix Alley, were mighty fond of ballads.
    As a teenager I was privilged to sit in on a lot of pickin’ and grinnin’ sessions and know that ballads aplenty were sung. Sadly, I paid less attention than I should have, because I’ll bet that many of them are ones now fast fading from memory.
    A modern ballad I love is the tale of Billy Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchee Bridge. Also, there’s a woman named Karen Pell down in Alabama who has written a bunch of ballads and sings them. One is about the coon dog cemetery but some of the others are, in my opinion, better.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Brian Blake
    May 22, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    One of my favorite backwoods ballads is “The Witch Boy,” said to have been sung by Daniel Boone to his Cherokee Indian captors the night before he was to be burned to death. Boone escaped; don’t know the story, but a friendly squaw may have cut him loose.
    “The Witch Boy” is a version of “Barbara Allan,” a very old English tune, with something of the same wistful sentiment. “If she’ll be faithful fur a year, yore Eagle he will leave you.” The “eagle” is the magic spell cast over the boy, who wishes “to be a human man.” Haunting.

  • Reply
    Darlene LaRoche
    May 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Enjoyed the ballad…I enjoy all the songs done by the Blind Pig gang!!!!!!

  • Reply
    May 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    That was simply beautiful, and if
    I didn’t know already I’d a thought ole Johnny was the base
    in the background. Ballads are
    good for the soul, lets us see
    where we’ve been…Ken

  • Reply
    Barb Johnson
    May 22, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Love Them!!

  • Reply
    Sandy Kalvaitis
    May 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Just when I think you can’t remind me of anything else you do it. Thanks. This post brought me right to when a few years ago I was watching a movie “The Song Catcher” and the power went out. That happens a lot in Michigan. But it was never on TV again that I could find and no video stores had it and everyone I asked just looked at me funny. It is about someone going to the mountains to hear and try to preserve the old songs just like this one. If anyone knows where I can find it I would love to know.

  • Reply
    May 22, 2012 at 11:53 am

    That ballad was a real tear-jerker! Why DO we love such sad stories, I have wondered too. Great video, as always!

  • Reply
    May 22, 2012 at 10:42 am

    I do love the ballads, especially the ones from old English. I watch, “The Songcatcher” at least once a month to get a taste of the ballads. My Granny knew and sang tons of them.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    May 22, 2012 at 10:17 am

    loved it — and I have always loved the melancholy of story songs. Pap and Paul do this ballad proud (oops, forgot to mention the bass!).

  • Reply
    May 22, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Enjoyed the song. A well sung ballad can be so powerful! I just remembered an old ballad my Momma sang. I think it was called “Go tell aunt Rhodie”.
    Isn’t it amazing how one thought can lead to another?

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    May 22, 2012 at 9:14 am

    I enjoy ballads but sometimes they are too dang sad and I end up asking myself, why did I listen to that? It’s like watching a train wreck, you know it’s going to be bad but you you can’t turn away from it. I stumbled upon a movie a couple of years ago that I found interesting about ballads of Appalachia. It is an independent film and not too bad. Here is the short synopses:
    2000PG-13 109 minutes
    During a visit to her sister in Appalachia, a gifted musicologist stumbles upon a musical treasure trove of dozens of Scots-Irish ballads that have been preserved for generations by the local populace and are unknown to the outside world.
    You can find it on Netflix if you are a subscriber.
    Tipper, I enjoyed the ballad Pap and Paul sang, they have incredible harmony!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    May 22, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Tipper, your just a story kind of girl. The ballads are stories as they relate to people, and you love people and their experiences.
    The song is beautiful. You give Bessie life, again.

  • Reply
    May 22, 2012 at 8:55 am

    I really enjoyed this, thank you for all the information. I love ballads because they bring me back to days long ago…as I listen, if I close my eyes, I am there!

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    May 22, 2012 at 8:41 am

    I enjoyed reading the history of ballads. Interesting how versus probably were used as needed for a particular situation. I think that ballads usually told a story of what was happening in a particular place or someone’s life. Very interesting post!

  • Reply
    May 22, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Thanks for sharing Pap and Paul. I enjoy starting my mornings listening to your harmony. Thanks for putting this on Tipper.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    May 22, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Tipper: This kind of singing was so common in our lives. Your guys do a good job with their version!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    May 22, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Now that’s some fine pickin and singin. Ya’ll are a truly talented family. Better than alot of the ones I hear coming out of Nashville.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    May 22, 2012 at 7:49 am

    My daddy used to sing a little song. I’ve never heard it anywhere else. It’s not a ballad but I wondered if you or Pap had ever heard it.
    My name a Chang A Lang
    I come from China
    In a little sail a ship
    A come a long here
    I’m a gonna marry
    Have a little wifey
    Little piggy tails
    A hang a down her back
    Ima go a Hong Kong
    Meet a man a come along
    Pull a piggy tails
    Til her face turn black.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    May 22, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I grew up hearing ballads sung and reading ballads. My neighbor, poet Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958), wrote several ballads in his four books of poetry. In fact, the first book, Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems published by E. P. Dutton, New York, in 1945 has the title of its major poem: Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems. On June 2 and 3, 2012 we will celebrate the opening of the Reece Farm and Heritage Center in his honor and as a tribute to him and Appalachian Farm Life. It is locaed just off US Hwy 129, about 10 miles south of Blairsville (near Vogel State Park). Some of his ballad poems have been set to music. Some of his other poems in ballad style are “Fox Hunters of Hell,” “Lest the Lonesome Bird,” “Ballad of Coulson’s Wood,” May Margaret,” “Ballad of the Rider, “Balald of the Weaver,” “Ballad of the Bride,” “Bird and Beast”, “The Betrothed from the Grave” “A Song of Joy” and many more! If you haven’t read his ballads, pure lyrical poems, and sonnets, you’ve missed out on a major Appalachian poet and his contribution to the art of lyrical ballads and poetry. You are invied to go to the Reece Center and learn much more about this Georgia poet.

  • Reply
    Mary Shipman
    May 22, 2012 at 7:28 am

    I too love the old ballads. It is nice to hear a story put to music, it makes the sorrows easier to bear.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    May 22, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Anyone who can read through the lyrics of “Little Bessie” without tearing up is stronger than I am…This was especially hard for me this my child (grown son) is back in the hospital…but hopefully gets to come home today…
    What a wonderful post and I usually love ballads myself…It is amazing to me how people connect…but we are all connected in some way or other…
    Now then, lets go back to the sunshine…or Sonshine..for there in Him is the hope!
    Thanks Tipper,

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