WPA Guide: Virginia’s Folklore and Music

Folklore and music placed almanacs; and stragglers from the mills brought visions of judgment Day to God-fearing hill men and women. But new ways did not entirely destroy the old-as the mountaineer went to the city, he carried deep-rooted convictions and beliefs, a code of morals and a way of living that defied both the machine and Old Scratch. Midwives and yard doctors took up their abode in the shacks of factory towns. Doorways were hung with open-end horseshoes to ward off bad luck. Men and women entered mill and factory gates with the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit in their pocket or hung asafetida about their necks as protection against sickness. It was bad luck to have to return to the house when something was forgotten or to go in one door and out another. Many a lovesick youth sat on the porch and recited:

Starlight, starbright, First star I've seen tonight, Wish I may-wish I might, Dream of my true love tonight.

Children repeated the verses their parents and grandparents sang. Lord Darnell, one of the oldest ballads in the State, tells of a young farmer lad who met his death when led astray by Lord Damell's wife:

She placed her eyes on little Matthew Groves, And these words to him did say: 'You must go home with me this night; This live-long night to stay.'

'I can't go home with you this night, I cannot for my life, For by the ring on your finger You are Lord Darnell's wife.'

Ring games, of both local and Old Country origin, are built around rhymes. 'Lady Fair,' a choosing game, is gay and fast moving:

In this ring is a lady fair, Dark brown eyes and curly hair, Rosy cheeks and dimpled chin, Take someone and choose them in. (Ckoose a boy) Now you've married and married for life, La, la, la, what a pretty little wife. Pretty little wife and husband too, Kiss him twice if once won't do.

'Cumberland Gap,' a banjo piece and ditty song of the days of the War between the States, passed out of the hills and into nearly every State:

I've got a gal In Cumberland Gap. She's got a baby That calls me pap.

Another version derided the haughty mien of local damsels, asserting that:

Cumberland gals, Are getting so gran' Won't go to meeting With an hones' man.

A more serious story-ballad, composed about 1864, tells of 'The GladeVille Skirmish,' beginning:

The Yankees from Sandy Upon us did run, They captured our boys And broke up our guns.

Primitive religious sects (Pentecostal), with a membership drawn largely from lower-income groups, frequently compose their own songs, as stark as the economic life of the congregation. One song creates a realistic and gruesome picture of Death:

Oh, Death, please let me see, If Christ has turned his back on me. When you were called and asked to bow, You would not heed, 'You're too late now.'

I'll fix your feet so you can't walk; I'll lock your jaws so you can't talk, I'll dose your eyes so you can't see, This very hour come and go with me.

As civilization closed in and changes took place in the speech, dress, and behavior of hill folk, the old ballads found their counterparts in more modem songs, such as 'The Lick Branch Explosion," Wreck of Old 97,'vanations of 'Birmingham jail,' and the Tin Pan Alley 'feudin'-piece,' 'The Maxtins and McCoys.' Facing a losing fight, the hills still protected their own. Scientific predictions for crops and weather fell upon deaf ears. When katydids chirped, it was only 4o days until frost; if a cat turned its back to the fire, there would be bad weather; if hornets built their nest high, it signified a mild winter; if drops of water or ice hung to the timber on St. Valentine's Day, it was a sure sign that there would be plenty of fruit; and even kids in a new brick school 'over yonder to town' knew the verse:

Evening red and morning gray Sets the traveler on his way. Evening gray and morning red Brings down rain upon his head.

In time of sickness some store-bought patent medicine might be resorted to, but with money scarce and stores distant, cures were most commonly taken from the fields and woods. Pipsissewa, of fragrant blossom and ever-green leaf, was used for dropsy; snakeroot for headache; sarsaparilla and sassafras teas were used as spring tonics; smoke-dried Jimson leaves, for asthma; cabbage or poke weed leaves, as a poultice for boils and sores. A mixture of mullein leaves, ratsbane, wild-cherry bark and molasses made a cough syrup; a liberal dose of whiskey or brandy was a cure for snake bite; peppermint tea was an aid for indigestion. A posthumous child is believed to be able to cure digestive disorders of children by blowing down their throats, and the seventh child of a seventh child is said to possess extraordinary healing powers.

The salt marshes, bays, and riverland of Tidewater Virginia supported a social life entirely different from that of the rugged wilderness farther westward. Large plantations, the method of appointment to office, and the use of indentured or slave labor developed a landed aristocracy retaining the domestic, social, and religious customs of Britain. Except in the gentle art of political oratory and the craft activities of the skilled artisans and tradesmen employed by the estates, their social pattern was not conducive to an indigenous artistic expression. As freed servants became landholders and, after Bacon's Rebellion, factors in government, the folkways and beliefs of peasants and prisoners captured in the Scotch and Irish wars were partly absorbed into middle-class society. The general use of Negro slaves about the middle of the eighteenth century created an impoverished class of poor whites and was responsible for the migration or escape of thousands of white indentured servants to join the Scotch-Irish and Germans in mountain pockets of the back country. As a consequence, such folklore as remained was confined to isolated groups along the coast and on islands a few miles off the mainland.

Masters of large estates held constant open house, where hard drinking was the order of the day, with persimmon beer, apple cider, cherry bounce, brandies, com whiskey, wines, and juleps made of rum, water, and sugar. Gambling was common, and young people indulged in such games as 'cross and pile," putt," buttons, to get pawns for redemption," grind the bottle,' 'fox in the warner,' and 'break the Pope's neck.' Negroes and whites attended the races, cock fights, and boxing matches, and talented servants supplied music for the dances. Life was not entirely devoted to entertaining, however, for there was work to be done, and the forces of nature were rough in a region swept by winds and tide and storm.

In an area swept by winds and tides and constantly threatened, not only by the forces of nature, but also by pirates who infested the coast, it is not strange that people gave credence to stories of haunts, dints, and witches. Lynnhaven Bay was a hiding place of Blackbeard, the Pirate. When conditions are right, his gun is still heard on certain nights. Blackbeard's skull, tradition says, was made into a cup and still remains in Tidewater. Taylor's Bridge was guarded for some years by a headless man, who exacted a toll of fourpence-half-penny of all who passed, and dealt harshly with those who refused to pay. The method of determining murder by the 'ordeal of touch,' practiced in Tidewater during the seventeenth century, was based on an old English and Scotch superstition that a murderer brought into the presence of his victim would cause the victim's wounds to bleed anew. Harder to get rid of is the bogy of Craddock's Creek, who leaves peculiar foot-marks and eludes capture with a weird cry of 'Yahoo! Yahoo!'

Pecatone, an estate between the Yeocomico River and Machodoc Creek, dates from 1650 and is responsible for the legend of a mistress who was a petty tyrant among her overseers and Negroes. In her last days she, her coach, and her coachman 'were borne aloft in a terrible hurricane and lost to sight.' From that time until destruction in 1888, the home was haunted by lights, groans, and shrieks at night. In Princess Anne County, during the early days, Grace Sherwood was accused of being a witch and of having blighted Jane Gisburne's crop of cotton. According to Elizabeth Barnes, she assumed the appearance of a black cat, visited the Barries's home, jumped over the accuser's bed, drove and whipped her, and left by a keyhole or crack in the door. Hailed into court as a witch, Grace Sherwood was found guilty and condemned to a ducking from what has since been known as Witch Duck Point. The Cape Henry area supplies several Grace Sherwood legends, and in Gloucester County two witches are said to have practiced their dark profession.

Portobago on the Rappahannock was the home of Sir Thomas Lunsford, a professional soldier who fled to Virginia from the British Roundheads. Known as the 'childeater,' he was ridiculed in verse by Royalist "leveland:

The Post that came from Banbury, Riding on a red rocket, Did tidings tell how Lunsford fell, A child's hand in his pocket.

At the eastern point of Gloucester County live a people, known as 3 ruineamen, whose backgrounds are lost to history. These fisherfolk and ruckers speak with a Middle English accent, but there is nothing in dress mannerism to indicate their origin. The women wear sunbonnets and shoes on only when they attend the Church of God, a Holy Roller sect. lie men are usually clad in blue denim and either go barefooted or use hip boots to reach boats anchored in the shallows. Typical of their attitude and manner of living is the story about a Guineaman who shipped a load of potatoes to Baltimore. The merchantman sold them, subtracted the freight charges and his commission, and sent the farmer a bill for 500. The Guineaman remarked: 'O I don't mind feeding dem poor hungry people in Baltimore, but Oi'll be damned if Oi'll pay em to eat my victuals.'

Customs retaining the flavor of ante-bellum days have survived among the Negroes in rural areas and small towns and even in the Negro districts of cities. Group participation in plantation labor meant social participation in play-party games, dances, molasses boilings, tobacco strippings, and corn huskings. A pseudo-spiritual of slavery days evidently refers to secret religious meetings in a secluded spot. The title, 'Lie Low, Lizzie, Lie Low,' implies, as much as the song, a message between the lines:

Lie low, Lizzie, He low, Cause dey ain't gwine be no meeting here tonight. Meat selling nine pence a pound, And coan five dollars a barrel. So lie low, Lizzie, lie low. Cause dey ain't gwine be no meeting here tonight. Ain't gwine be no meeting here tonight. Don' you know, don' you know? Creek's all muddy, and de pond all dry. Warn't fo' de tadpole, de fish all die. So lie low, Lizzie, lie low. Cause dey ain't gwine be no meeting here tonight.

Another Gloucester Point song was probably used in a festive dance when the beer was ripe and includes the following verse:

Juba boys, Juba, Juba up, Juba down, Juba round Simmon town. Juba dis, en Juba dat, Juba round de simmon vat.

A cakewalk song from the same region reflects an even more abandoned spirit of gayety:

When er fellah come a knocking De holler, 'Oh shoo.' Hop high ladies, Oh, Miss Loo. Oh, swing dat yaller gaI, Do boys, do. Hop light yallers, Oh, Miss Loo.

Stories of the Uncle Remus type were a source of entertainment, especially brief 'hoodle-tales,' such as 'Why the Frog Lives in the Water," In the Bee-tree,' 'The Ugliest Animal,' and 'Buzzard Makes Terrapin His Riding Horse.' Slightly humorous, the tales frequently contained a moral and were directed at both animals and human beings.

More universal are the work-gang or track-lining songs found wherever a railroad lays its track. Like sea chanteys and the ribaldries of urban laborers, many of the gang songs are too rough for the printed page, but two innocuous rhymes are:

Little red rooster ain't got no comb, Just like a rounder ain't got no home. Hey boys! Get right again.

Jack de rabbit, Jack de bear. Shake it back, boys, just a hair!

The natural musical talents of the Negro were noticed by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia: 'In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch.' But general recognition of the artistic value of Negro songs and music and interest in their preservation are comparatively modern, and no successful attempt to collect them was made before 1830. William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison published their collection of Slave Songs of the United States in 1867. Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students was compiled in 1874 by Thomas P. Fenner, and Religious FolkSongs of the Negroes as Sung on the Plantation was arranged from this work by the musical director of Hampton Institute in I 909. In 1918 Hampton Institute published Negro Folk Songs collected and edited by Natalie Curtis Burlin. Songs of the Negroes of some of the counties of Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee were gathered by Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson of the University of North Carolina and compiled in their book The Negro and His Songs, published in 1925. Since many Negroes in these States spring from slaves originally bought in Virginia, their songs partly represent the Old Dominion. Dorothy Scarborough of Columbia University made a collection of songs from several Southern States, including Virginia, for her book, On the Trail of the Negro Folk-Songs, also published in 1925. Negro workers on the Federal Writers' Project have recorded many Negro songs, hymns, and spirituals that otherwise would have died with the last of the ex-slaves.

Negro singing, first made known to the general public by singers from Fisk University in Tennessee, was then popularized by singers from Hampton Institute, and later by those from other Virginia Negro schools. Thomas P. Fenner came from Providence, Rhode Island, to Hampton Institute in 1872 to establish a department of music. The Hampton singers at first numbered 17, and the first concert to raise money for Virginia Hall was given in Lincoln Hall, Washington, D.C., February 15, 1873. Hampton now has a regular choir that tours America. Each year the Virginia State College Choral Society from Petersburg gives a concert in honor of the governor of Virginia. Negro spirituals are strangely haunting. Those current among the Virginia Negroes today differ little from those sung several decades ago. 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' was noted in Fisk jubilee Songs, 1871. The Hampton version is a variant. This theme, or one similar to it, occurs in the first movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony, and the same theme also occurs in John Powell's 'Negro Rhapsody.' 'My Lord Delivered Daniel' was noted in Slave Songs of the United States, Jubilee Songs (1872), and Hampton Plantation Songs. 'The Old Ship of Zion,' a spiritual widely current in Virginia, has many variants. 'Go Down Moses,' a song of slavery, is an interpretation of Hebrew history. 'Deep River' is a spiritual highly prized in Virginia. 'Steal Away to Jesus' was first sung as a notice to the other slaves on the plantation that a secret religious meeting would be held that night.

The spiritual or religious songs of the 'fasola' singers are an important aspect of Southern folk music. Singing schools utilizing the rural shapenote method were established in the Shenandoah Valley by Yankee singing masters and spread south, southeast, and west along with the shapenote hymn books of Ananias Davisson and James P. Carrell of Harrisonburg. The former's The Kentucky Harmony, was published about 1817, and The Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony appeared in 1821. The latter's Songs of Zion and The Virginia Harmony appeared in 1820 and 1831, respectively.

In the eighteenth century Joseph Funk and his father settled in Singer's Glen, near Harrisonburg. Here, more than a century ago, Joseph Funk began to teach vocal music and to publish song books. His Choral Music, a collection of German songs, was published in 1816; and he continued in this work until just before the War between the States. The shop fell into disrepair, but was set up later by Funk's grandson, Aldine Kieffer, who founded Musical Millions, a monthly publication devoted to rural music and singing schools. Kieffer's 'Twilight Is Falling,' set to music by B.C. Unseld, is popular throughout the rural South.

John Powell has made numerous settings for ballads, folk-songs, hymns, and dances. Twelve Folk Hymns, from the old shape-note hymnbooks and oral tradition which Mr. Powell edited, and for which he, Annabel Morris Buchanan, and Hilton Rufty wrote musical settings, was published in 1934. A collection of such folk-music was included in Mrs. Buchanan's publication, Folk Hymns of America. Mr. Rufty has done the musical settings for the American Anthology of Old World Ballads, compiled and edited by Dr. Reed Smith of the University of South Carolina and published in 1937.

Although individual collectors and composers have rendered valuable assistance in the appreciation, use, and preservation of old ballads, songs, and stories, unless there is active community interest in the folkways and music of various regions and peoples, the work of academicians is no insurance against the ultimate disappearance of certain examples of American speech, anecdote, rhyme, and handicraft. Arthur Kyle Davis Jr., editor of The Traditional Ballads of Virginia, has completed the work begun by the late Professor C. Alphonso Smith, former archivist of the Virginia Folklore Society. The White Top Festival, first held in 1931 on the summit of White Top Mountain in southwest Virginia, has developed out of increased interest on the part of musicians and laymen alike in the contributions of folk artists in the hinterland. This festival is the meeting place each August for folklorists and music makers of the South and neighboring States. Equally important is the annual summer get-together held at Galax, where the atmosphere is less academic and participants are free of the inhibitions common to most public performances of this nature.

As hard-surface roads reach inward to the hollows and settlements, bringing or following radios, gas stations, movies, and dine-and-dance halls, the old customs undergo a gradual change. Some compromise with urban ways of living is necessary when the last frontier may be only a few hundred yards from an express highway, sandwiched between a billboard and a mountain. On fence lines, telephone poles, and barn sides, from mining towns in southwestern Virginia to farm lanes in the Shenandoah Valley, posters proclaim the union of hinterland and city and advertise the virtues of 'EFFIE, the Hillbilly Striptease Dancer.' This type of artist, born of crossroad and urban music hall, appears at local theaters with a noisy hoe-down band that Probably had its origin in the woods of Manhattan and borrowed its folk-songs from Tin Pan Alley. But it is by such blending that a people will find themselves and create a native art and culture-a culture that ranges from symphonic compositions of the city to Negro spirituals of the lowlands and from story-ballads of the hills to trade rhymes of heavy industries. It is Virginia and America.

Approaching Appalachia: Southern Hillfolk in the American Mind
Another Hypertext Project from AS@UVA