East Tennessee History: Mountain Ballads

Published 9:48 am Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Part 1

The sound is a mournful sound. It is a sound of lost love and the supernatural, a sound of the past and even the sound of a different place and time. It is the sound of an Appalachian ballad.

Most of the early settlers who came to this area and western North Carolina were of Scot-Irish descent, and they brought with them many of their traditions and songs. Of these the ballad was the most popular.

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A ballad is a mountain story that was meant to be sung. It will usually tell a story based on true events with elements of the supernatural, of love lost, of sadness and even death.

There were several mountain ballads that were very popular in this area, but none were as popular worldwide as the mournful story of “Bonnie Barbara Allan.”

“Bonnie Barbara Allan” was written and rewritten through the centuries, but the basic story stayed the same.

A boy falls in love with a girl named Barbara Allan, but she shuns his affections. He dies of heartache and she sees what she has done and she dies of sorrow. They bury them in a church yard where a rose grows out of his grave and a briar grows out of her grave. The rose and briar climb to the top of the church where they tie a true lover’s knot, and that is how the briar came to be on the rose.

The end of one version of this ballad says:

“They buried her in the lone church yard,

Sweet William lay a nigh her,

And out of his grave grew a red, red rose,

And out of hers grew a briar.

“They climbed the climb to the tall church top,

Till they could go no higher,

And there they tied a true loves knot,

The rose wrapped round the briar”

“Bonnie Barbara Allan” was not the only ballad brought to the mountains. There were many but none as shocking as one called “Knoxville Girl.” This ballad had been sung for hundreds of years under the name “Oxford Girl,” but it had the same story line.

In “Knoxville Girl” you sing about a boy engaged with a young lady. They go for a walk by the river on a Sunday. There he picks up a stick and kills the girl and throws her body into the river.

You are never told why he kills her in this one, but there are hints that she may have broken off the engagement or she may have found herself another boyfriend. Some of the first lines go like this:

“There was a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening, in her home I’d dwell,

We went to take an evening walk, about a mile from town,

I picked a stick up off the ground, and beat that fair girl down.”

In the ballad he throws her body into the river, and eventually he is caught and punished for his crime.

Mountain ballads are a part of our heritage, and we will talk about the most famous balled in this area next time in East Tennessee History.