Appalachian Songcatcher: Olive Dame Campbell and the Scotch-Irish Ballad
Krim, Arthur, Journal of Cultural Geography
ABSTRACT. The discovery of old English song ballads in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky at the turn of the twentieth century has been the subject of fascination by geographers, folklorists and historians for the past century. The recent release of two dramatic films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Touchstone Pictures) and Songcatcher (Rigas Entertainment) in 2001 has used the Appalachian ballad as a basis for the film narrative and revived interest in American folk music and the roots of the English ballad tradition in the Kentucky mountains.
While O Brother, Where Art Thou? has received national attention with Grammy awards (Gallo 2002), Songcatcher is the more authentic film for students of cultural geography. The film follows "Lillie Panleric," a New England schoolteacher in the Appalachians where she becomes fascinated with old English love ballads sung by mountain women (Holden 2001). The film is based loosely on the life of Olive Dame Campbell (1882-1954), a pioneering collector of old English ballads in the Appalachian Mountains between 1907 and 1915. Her life paralleled that of geographer Ellen Churchill Semple who was also in the Kentucky mountains during the same period with similar survey experience. It was Campbell who provided the original field notes to Cecil Sharp, the famed British folklorist, for their landmark English Folk Songs from Southern Appalachia (1917; Rehder 2004). Such direct field survey of Appalachian ballads can thus be documented from the Campbell collection as a case study in music geography of the old English ballad in America. As George Carney has proposed, the central questions of music geography are the origin, evolution and delimitation of regional musical styles, and their effect in the cultural landscape (Carney 2003, 3-4). In the case of the Appalachian ballad, the questions of how the old English folk ballads reached the mountains of eastern Kentucky and the source origins in the Scotch-Irish migrations of the Colonial period will be the focus of this case study. The Campbell ballad survey provides a working data base of some thirty-nine songs located by the place of origin and singer to map a music geography of the Appalachian ballad in the early twentieth century.
The discovery of old English ballads in the Appalachians was based on the work of Francis J. Child at Harvard College during the mid-nineteenth century. His fascination with preliterate medieval folk ballads stemmed from the popular interest in picturesque poetry of the Romantic movement (Alarik 2003, Bell 1995). Child's first work, English and Scottish Ballads was published in 1857-1860 where he cites examples as "Bonny Barbara Allen" from sources in Pepys' Diary of 1666 (Child 1860). Child compiled a more substantial edition during 1882-1898 for the five volume English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Child 1882-1898). This work codified the individual songs such as "Barbara Allen" (No. 84) and became the standard reference work of British ballad origins to the present (Child 2003). The Child collection was actually based on secondary sources, rather than direct fieldwork in Britain. Child assembled the ballads from sources forwarded to him at Harvard, such as Rev. Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, an Edinburgh collection published in 1765, where variants of the same ballad as "Barbara Allen" were noted by verse (Percy 1877 ; Filene 2000).
By 1900, the Child Ballads had become the accepted reference source for collectors in Britain and America. In the United States, ballad collecting was spurred by the creation of the American Folklore Society in 1888, with further compilation by Katherine Lee Bates at Wellesley College (Bates 1890), and direct fieldwork from living singers in New England, notably Phillips Barry in Maine as early as 1902 (Barry 1929). In the Southern Appalachians early ballad collecting was undertaken in the mountains of eastern Kentucky from the educated centers in Lexington and Louisville. A pioneering field survey had been made in 1899 by Ellen Churchill Semple, then a Vasser College graduate teaching geography in her native Louisville (Bushong 1984). Semple's field report was published in 1901 as "The Anglo-Saxon's of the Kentucky Mountains" where she observed that the area was the "mountain home where the ballad of 'Barbara Allen' was preserved by tradition." (Semple 1901, 599). Similarly in 1900, Katherine Pettit, likewise a Kentucky schoolteacher from Lexington, ventured into the eastern mountains to establish a settlement school modeled on Hull House in Chicago (Stoddart 2002). Pettit and her co-founder, May Stone of Louisville, created a summer camp for the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Knott County at the county seat of Hindman. Their efforts were realized in 1902 with the founding of the Hindman Settlement School, given fictional account by their colleague Lucy Furman in The Quare Women (1923). It was at this time that Pettit began collecting old-style love ballads she heard among the mountain women (Stoddart 2002). At the urging of George L. Kitteredge, of the American Folklore Society, Pettit submitted several Child ballads collected at the Hindman School from Josiah Combs, which were later published in the Journal of American Folklore (Kitteredge 1907; Wilgus 1967). Combs would himself become a major ballad collector, with A Syllabus of Kentucky Folk-Songs published at Transylvania University in Lexington (Shearin and Combs 1911; McLain 1958).
OLIVE DAME CAMPBELL
With the work of Katherine Pettit and Josiah Combs, the Hindman School became the primary center for early folklore collectors, attracting visitors to the rugged mountains of eastern Kentucky. Among these was Olive Dame Campbell who visited the school in December 1907, where she first heard a local student, Miss Ada B. Smith, sing "Barbara Allen" on the banjo (Campbell and Sharp 1917; Stoddart 2002). Although Campbell had known the song from her own childhood in Boston, the high model tone of the mountain singing style struck her unforgettably: "How far from that gentle tune was this-so-strange, so remote, so thrilling." (Yates 1999, 3). It was a seminal experience that took her back to a "dim distant past," which became the immediate inspiration for her folk song collecting (Stoddart 2002, 87).
Olive Ashford Dame was born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1882 and married John Campbell, a student at the local Andover Theological Seminary, in 1906 (Fig. 1). The young couple first moved to Demorest, Georgia in Habersham County in the foothills of the Appalachians in 1907, where John Campbell was appointed President of Piedmont College (Cantebury 1954). It was from here that the Campbells visited the Hindman School as a model for their own social service for the Russell Sage Foundation (Cantebury 1954; McLain 1958). The ballad singing experience from the Hindman School convinced Olive …
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Publication information: Article title: Appalachian Songcatcher: Olive Dame Campbell and the Scotch-Irish Ballad. Contributors: Krim, Arthur - Author. Journal title: Journal of Cultural Geography. Volume: 24. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall-Winter 2006. Page number: 91+. © 2008 JCG Press. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.