Appalachian Songcatcher: Olive Dame Campbell and the Scotch-Irish Ballad

By Krim, Arthur | Journal of Cultural Geography, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

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.

INTRODUCTION

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.

CHILD BALLADS

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 [1765]; Filene 2000).

HINDMAN SCHOOL

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. …

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