Top of page

Sidney Robertson Cowell (L) and Maud Karpeles, posing in front of Sidney’s car.

Song Hunting in the Appalachians with Karpeles and Cowell: In the Footsteps of Cecil Sharp Part 1

Share this post:

The following is a guest post from Brian Peters with Catherine Hiebert Kerst. Cathy was a folklorist here at the American Folklife Center, and our resident expert on Sidney Robertson Cowell, until her retirement a few years ago. Brian is a prominent English folk musician and scholar, as well as our visiting expert on Cecil Sharp back in 2015. It is part of a series about the Maud Karpeles and Sidney Robertson Cowell Recording Project collection, AFC 1951/003. Their research is being published as:

Catherine Hiebert Kerst and Brian Peters. “Return to the Appalachian Mountains: Maud Karpeles and Sidney Robertson Cowell’s Song Collecting Expedition, 1950” in Folk Music Journal Volume 12, No. 4 (2024), 6–40.

On September 8th, 1950, two women set out from Washington D.C. for the Appalachian Mountains on a hunt for folk songs. The veteran English folklorist Maud Karpeles, 65 years old and intent on revisiting some of the singers she had encountered with Cecil Sharp more than thirty years before, was accompanied by the American folksong collector Sidney Robertson Cowell, 18 years her junior, who had worked in many areas including the Appalachians. Their 27-day expedition in Cowell’s car, bearing an Eicor tape recorder loaned by the Library of Congress, took them from Virginia to North Carolina, and yielded 91 recordings, plus a number of photographs. In this series of blog posts we will be exploring their adventures along the trail, meeting some of the wonderful singers they encountered, and comparing the versions of the songs they recorded.

Maud and Sidney headed first for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, which had been a productive hunting ground for Sharp back in 1918. On the way they paid a call on Arthur Kyle Davis, professor of English at the University of Charlottesville, to listen to his collection of field recordings, which excited them greatly and provided further ideas for their search. They then drove thirty miles to Nellysford and, after making local enquiries, contacted 81-year-old Adolphus “Dol” Small, with whose family Sharp and Karpeles had enjoyed a happy evening many years before: “They sang to us,” Sharp had written in his diary, “and then adjourned to the next house where there was a new and quite good piano upon which I operated greatly to the delight of the family who smiled more than ever!”

A man sitting in a chair with his hat in his lap
Adolphus “Dol” Small, photographed on his front porch, 1950. Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection, Library of Congress Music Division.

Maud wrote in her own diary that Dol, “a delightful old man with a lovely twinkle in his eye,” had greeted her warmly — “When I saw you it was clean beyond my expectations” — and was enthusiastic about recording. Sidney, the more thorough ethnographer of the two, devoted a full page of closely-typed text to him. He was, she wrote, “a beautiful strong old man, still busy with his chores at 81; and his voice is still fine and smooth at its best, though he gets breathless and tires easily.”  Her account dwells on his wonderment at the changes he had seen during his lifetime: the “miracle” of television and radio, his deep religious beliefs, and his fears of the end of time “with these wars an’ all” (the Korean War had begun three months earlier). He also expressed his frustration with the aging process: “How can a man know the world and yet not be good for a single thing he wants to do in it, any more?” Sidney believed that his habit whilst singing of “rocking to and fro gently, his straw hat covering his stomach and his hands folded over it,” was integral to his performances.

The women recorded from Dol six ballads, nearly all from Child’s collection: “Pretty Sally” (Roud 180), which Maud, following Sharp, incorrectly identified it as “The Brown Girl;” “The House Carpenter” (Roud 47; Child 68); “Sir Hugh” (Roud 73; Child 155); “The Suffolk Miracle” (Roud 246; Child 272); and “Young Hunting” (Roud 47; Child 68). His offer to sing “The Little Mohee” (Roud 275), a more modern song, was turned down by Maud.

Dol Small’s performance of “The Suffolk Miracle,” introduced on the tape by Maud in her best cut-glass English accent, shows off his strongly rhythmic style, a characteristic of all his ballads, and a contrast with many Appalachian singers who sang in a much freer manner, dwelling at length on certain notes, as we will hear later. He adds no discernible decorations, and drifts slightly flat over the course of 11 verses, the same number that Maud (whose job it had been to take down the lyrics while Sharp transcribed the tunes) had copied out in 1918. Dol seems to have remembered this song without prompting, whereas many of the singers encountered later in the trip had to be reminded of their former repertoires from a copy of Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians that Maud had brought along for the purpose. A comparison of this performance with Sharp’s musical transcription shows a close congruence.

A page of handwritten musical notation
Cecil Sharp’s 1918 transcription of Dol Small’s rendition of “The Suffolk Miracle.” Transcription courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Dol Small’s recording of “Young Hunting,” which he called “Lady Margaret,” was marred by a number of pauses as he tried to remember the words, but it’s worth listening to, since he used a melody often associated with US variants of Child 68, including Maggie Hammons Parker’s “Young Henerly” and Kate Toney’s “Henry Lee.”

This ballad is found regularly in North American collections (Bertrand Bronson’s Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads lists 43 examples), but seems to have disappeared from Britain by the end of the 19th century, although Child listed 11 earlier texts from Scotland. Curiously, several of these include a sequence in which the murderer is unmasked by magical means, stanzas never found in Appalachian versions, all of which end on a conversation with a talking bird. Were those additional supernatural elements dispensed with in North America, or does the Appalachian tradition of the song represent the original ballad, and the magic of the Scots versions a later interpolation? Unlike the many ballads popular in Appalachia that can be traced to 17th-century broadsides, “Young Hunting” left no traces in print that might give us a clue.

One of the most popular of the old ballads found in the Appalachians is “The House Carpenter,” sometimes known as “The Demon Lover” in Britain, though again the demonic elements found in Child’s early 19th century Scottish texts don’t appear in North America. The ballad is believed to have originated in a blackletter broadside printed in 17th-century London; this is very long and wordy, but the kernel of the action was clearly extracted to form the basis of a much shorter song, “The Ship Carpenter’s Wife,” which appeared in print in 18th-century England, and is much closer to the Appalachian ballad texts. Note in this excerpt that Dol Small uses the same melody as he did for Child 68, instead of the tune commonly used by other mountain singers (see our next post).

After saying farewell to the Small family, Sidney and Maud travelled a dozen miles to Afton to meet Florence Puckett, formerly Fitzgerald, who had sung to Sharp in 1918. Back then Maud and her mentor had happened upon her mother Mrs. MacDonald, who had sung several songs and told them of other singers in the neighborhood. She also mentioned that dances were held locally, which made Sharp prick up his ears since he was interested in researching them. The two collectors then visited Florence at her home near “Royal Orchard”, a castle built by the wealthy Scott family in 1913, Sharp reporting that she “sang two or three tunes very well.” She told them that it might be possible to arrange a dance, with her husband Clinton providing music on the fiddle. The Royal Orchard estate, which owned all the local properties, was initially opposed to the idea (Sharp compared their attitude with “feudal England”), but finally an event was held in a private house with just eight dancers, including Sharp, Karpeles, and Florence Fitzgerald herself, who “danced with great vigour and agility.”

Over the following weeks, Sharp and Karpeles had met several other members of the Fitzgerald family, including Florence’s father-in-law Philander, an old Confederate soldier who Sharp thought “a delightful old man,” remarking that his wife, who was blind, had made her own clothes and was able to thread a needle with her tongue. Philander sang “several first raters,” including several songs on military themes, such as the unique “Soldier’s Life” (Roud 16590) from the Mexican-American War, and “The Battle of Shiloh” (Roud 2199), which presented a bizarrely triumphalist account of what was in fact a major defeat for the South. Sharp had taken both down in full, defying the usual narrative that he was only interested in British ballads. Philander’s brother Napoleon proved a less accomplished singer and, according to the field notes, sang untunefully over a drone on his fiddle in one of the very few instances of Sharp hearing ballads with accompaniment; Sharp later asked him to sing unaccompanied in order to note the melodies more accurately. Further songs were taken down from Philander’s sons Lloyd and Clinton, Florence’s then husband.

Two photos, one showing a couple and their child and the other an older couple without children.
Left: Florence Fitzgerald with her husband Clinton and their child, photographed by Cecil Sharp at Royal Orchard, Virginia, 1918. Right: Philander Fitzgerald and his wife, photographed by Cecil Sharp at Nash, Virginia, 1918. Photos courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

When Sidney and Maud arrived at Afton, they found that Clinton had died, and that Florence was remarried to a man named Puckett. Despite telling them that she had forgotten her songs, Florence managed to remember four — “Molly Varn” (Roud 166), “The Cuckoo” (Roud 413), “Two Brothers” (Child 49; Roud 38) and “Pretty Fair Maid All in Her Garden” (Roud 264) — the first three having been among the eleven she had performed for Sharp. Her voice on the recordings is soft but confident, her pitching doesn’t waver, and “Two Brothers” in particular displays some interesting melodic variations that she had not demonstrated when singing the song for Sharp.

She sang “Molly Varn” to a distinctive melody with the 7th note of the scale flattened, lending a sense of mystery to the tale; her version is similar to Sharp’s version C, collected in Kentucky.

Despite Sharp’s earlier praise, Maud apparently had a low opinion of Florence as a singer. Sidney thought that her companion’s constant expressions of disappointment with what she was hearing reflected unrealistic expectations: “time has cast a sweet haze over the singing in her mind so she keeps looking for sweet and pretty singing that does not exist.”

Two women with arms around each other's shoulders
Florence Puckett with her daughter Rossie Fitzgerald, photographed in 1950. Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection, Library of Congress Music Division.

Maud did at least enjoy the “delightful friendly afternoon” they spent with the family, and both women were very taken by the daughter Rossie (“a darling person,” declared Sidney), who had learned “Molly Varn” from her mother, and sang it in strikingly similar style. She also sang duets with her sister, accompanied on their guitars, but Maud declined to record their rendition of “Nobody’s Darlin'” and other current hits because they were in books, and she didn’t regard them as true folk songs.

A few days later, Sidney and Maud tracked down Florence’s brother-in-law Lloyd (Philander Fitzgerald’s son) in Waynesboro. We’ll look at that and other visits in another post very soon!


Comments (4)

  1. Thank you, Brian and Cathy, for presenting the work of two ground-breaking song collectors. I’m especially happy that you’ve included so many examples of the singers and songs they found their way to. I, for one, love Florence’s singing!

    As to whether there’s a supernatural element or in Dol Small’s “Lady Margaret” (“Young Hunting”)–or any other American version of the ballad–I have always assumed that the bird represented the transmigrated soul of the murderess’s dead lover, getting his own back. L.C. Wimberly, among others, agrees.

    I look forward eagerly to the next installment.

    Julie Henigan

  2. Julie, I really like Florence’s singing, too. I don’t know why Maud was so mean-spirited about it, especially given that Sharp rated her!

    I’m sure you’re right about the symbolism of the talking bird in Child 68. Having studied some Scottish ballads in detail for my recent lecture in Edinburgh, I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that many of them were elaborated upon in late 18th / early 19th century Scotland, and that many of the gothic and supernatural elements – like the corpse candles, the bleeding cadaver and the non-flammability of the innocent in #68 (or the overtly demonic presence in Child 243), were interpolations made during this period.

  3. Thank you Cathy and Brian for your presentation of this little-known folk song expedition by two legends following the tracks of yet another one! Not only is it interesting as a documentation of the evolution of singing styles and repertoires over time but it is also fascintating as a relatively (I think) rare example of collaboration between two women folk song collectors of a different generation, country, background and views about what is worth recording or not. It’s a bit frustrating that Rossie and her sister’s duet we’re not recorded! I can’t wait to read the next épisodes! Also thank you for setting the record straight about Cecil Sharp’s work and objectives. His and other collectors’ works are sometimes too easily dismissed, misunderstood or even condemn by anachronical standards.

  4. Camille, I just caught up with your comment, and thank you! Yes, the contrast in so many aspects of those women’s lives is fascinating. I agree entirely about Sharp, and will be presenting a conference paper this summer that will attempt to bust some of the myths around him, and view his work with some kind of historical context.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *