Letter writer provides info on old folk song

Published 10:32 am Tuesday, May 2, 2023

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To the Editor:
I’ve recently come across some details about an old folk song that citizens of upper East Tennessee might be interested in. It’s a traditional ballad that in Scotland is named “The Demon Lover” and in the Appalachian South is called “The House Carpenter.” The late Doc Watson, of Boone, recorded a version. Many other singers, in both Europe and the U.S., have recorded it over the years.
Scholar Alisoun Gardner-Medwin thinks “the ballad came to the Appalachian Mountains before 1775,” an important date she believes relevant to a change made when the ballad was transferred from Scotland by settlers of this region. In the Scottish version the Demon says to a woman, “I will show you how the lilies grow / On the banks of Italy,” but in one Appalachian version he says, “I will show you how the lilies grow / On the banks of old Tennessee.” This remarkable change, Gardner-Medwin says, shows “an attempt to place the song in a geographical context familiar to the hearers,” that is, in the context of the Appalachian Mountains and the Tennessee River.
Before it became clear that the western ocean was a great distance beyond the mountains, this scholar says, “There was a belief among the early settlers that a mysterious western sea lay only as far to the west of the Appalachian watershed as the Atlantic lay to the east,” and she refers to a map made by John Farrer in 1649 which shows it closer than that. This map shows a body of land labeled as “Virginia” extending some 350 miles from the Hudson River south to Cape Fear. But most strangely it shows the distance from the Atlantic Ocean to the “Sea of China and the Indies,” now of course called the Pacific, to be only some 200 miles, and only some 50 miles west of the Appalachian Mountains along which flows the Tennessee River!
If we placed it on the Farrer map, Elizabethton would lie just beyond the mountains, roughly due west of Duck on the Outer Banks.
How full of wonder are song, history, truth.

Marion Hodge

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