Linda J. Holland-Toll

Bridges Over and Bedrock Beneath:

The Role of Ballads in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Novels

In an earlier life, McCrumb must have been a balladeer,

singing of restless spirits, star-crossed lovers . . .”1

The idea for this article came to me as I sat one day, sipping Irish Breakfast tea brewed with my grandmother’s teapot, battered tea-ball, and recipe, “strong enough to float a dead rat and dark enough so you don’t see the rat,” and re-reading Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Novels. I found myself meditating on the homely items, the common goods, in that “storehouse of cultural assumptions “that forge a link to who we were, and who we are, and who we yet may be (Tompkins, xvi). The epigraph from the Washington Post caught my attention and I wondered how and why McCrumb uses so many ballads. Certainly ballads, both folk and contemporary, play an important role, but while it is easy to come to that conclusion, it is harder than I expected to find an explanation that transcends trite. McCrumb’s most recent series is always referred to as “the ballad novels,” but this phrase is little more than a handy cultural shorthand, which labels without illuminating2. Certainly, for her audience, it is a handy signifier, one I use myself, as in, “I wish McCrumb’s latest ballad novel would hit the shelves,” but in and of itself, it has no more significance than a general desire to read another book by a favored author.

What I found myself contemplating is the often elusive connection between McCrumb’s storytelling and the ballads. While McCrumb often speaks about her interest in ballads and how they work in her novels, the connection is by no means a straightforward one. In the Author’s Note to Pretty Peggy-O, she notes, “Generally the songs I use to focus my thinking do not appear in the novel itself” (xii). The title of If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, for example, is from the refrain of the traditional ballad “Fennario,” but the novel does not reflect the events of that ballad except in the most peripheral manner.3 “She walks these hills [ . . ] ” is not only the title but also a central and recurring motif in the novel of the same name; nowhere, however, does the “Long Black Veil” appear in the novel, nor does the ballad narrative directly reflect the novel’s plot.4 And yet, however elusive and indirect, the ballads have a strong and constant presence.

McCrumb’s Ballad Series is deliberately set in Appalachia, the repository of American folk tradition, in which traditional ballads are still embedded in memory, a place where her ancestors have lived for centuries, she chooses to live, and storytelling flourishes. In the novels themselves, and her interviews, forewords and introductions, McCrumb makes her mission perfectly clear: she is a mountain Celt and fiercely proud of her heritage, which includes a strong musical tradition. One of the reasons her popularity pleases her is that her work combats the stereotypical views of Appalachia as a backwoods, one in which the Dukes of Hazzard is reality TV, with a counterbalance of “the real character of the region, and particularly about the history and origins of Appalachia and its people [ . . . ] I am passing along the songs [and] the stories [. . .] to people who do not have a chance to acquire such things from heritage or residence (Pretty Peggy-O, xiv.) Indeed, one of the motifs embedded in The Songcatcher concerns the transmission of ballads --who, if indeed, anyone-- “owns” these ballads and why it is important to carry on the ballad tradition. In The Songcatcher, Nora Bonesteel tells Bonnie Wolfe, the revenant who claims “The Rowan on the Grave” as her family’s property, “A song like that belongs to everybody. Not just to you or your family. That song was left to all of us, and I reckon it’s up to the living to keep it going” (McCrumb, Songcatcher 248). Here the linkage between Past and Present is clear and centered on a ballad. Nora Bonesteel, in many ways the embodiment of the Appalachians, a mountain Celt to her bones, makes the connection apparent. Ballads are a part of both the Past and the Present, and, like many other old traditions Nora preserves, important to her identity as an Appalachian. McCrumb herself uses Joan Baez’s song “Carry It On,” as a motif delineating the importance of carrying traditions through each generation (Pretty Peggy-O xiv). While the ballads are obviously important to McCrumb, an importance reflected in her characters and her comments on her mission, are they any more than quaint cultural artifacts to her readers? What do ballads really add, aside from a kind of familiar window dressing similar to that provided by sweeping trains and heaving bosoms in historical novels?

Certainly, the obvious should not be discounted: ballads and stories are closely akin. Both ballads and novels are composed of stories, tragic, commonplace, comedic, etc. The heart of a ballad, whether it is an old folk song or a protest song, a country-western song, or a literary ballad, is narrative. And McCrumb “come[s] from a race of storytellers. [ . . .], saying that “Storytelling was an art form that I learned early on.[ . . .] I grew up in a swirl of tales: the classics retold; ballads or country songs, each having a melody, but above all a plot [ . . .]” (McCrumb, “Keepers”). McCrumb’s stories, however, are much more complex and multi-layered than the relatively simple linear narrative of most ballads. And while the connection between ballads and novels is readily apparent, and while McCrumb’s stories function on many levels, the presence of story is still not sufficient to explain how ballads function in McCrumb’s work. They are there, yes, but why?

McCrumb’s commentary provides at least the beginnings of an answer to why ballads are important. In the dedication of If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, (the first book in the Ballad Series), McCrumb identifies herself as a bricoleur, a term used by anthropologist Levi-Strauss to describe someone who cobbles together odds and ends of old things, retaining their forms and their special characteristics while creating something strikingly new, something unique and different” (McCrumb qtd. in Albert, “Art”) This is, on many levels, exactly what McCrumb does in her work. The scraps and fragments comprise many people’s stories, skillfully woven together to form a cohesive work. Clearly, she is first and foremost a storyteller, a weaver of tales, a quilter of narratives. In fact, in a metaphor closely related to her idea of herself as a bricoleur, she says that

my books are like Appalachian quilts. I take brightly colored scraps of legends, ballads, fragments of rural life, and local tragedy, and I piece them together into a complex whole that tells not only a story, but also a deeper truth about the culture of the mountain South. It is from the family stories, the traditional music, and from my own careful research of the history, folklore, and geography of the region that I gather the squares for these literary quilts. (McCrumb, “Land”)

Another anthropological term provides yet more insight into the prominence of ballads. In An Introduc­tion to Aes­thetic Archæol­ogy, Jacques Maque­t notes that no society

"maintains an equally intense æsthetic interest in all things within its borders. There are certain privileged fields where awareness and performance are higher, where expectations and aware­ness con­verge. The class or classes of objects that are localized in these areas of height­ened æsthetic con­sciousness constitute the æsthetic locus of a culture" (Maquet qtd. in Pomeroy 2-3) ­­­

Ballads serve as the æsthetic locus that stimulates our "aware­ness" of McCrumb’s world. Like the outcroppings of serpentine or the Appalachian folkways McCrumb integrates at frequent intervals, the ballads call attention to and heighten not only the reader’s awareness of the intricacies and conflicts in the novels but also the Appalachian landscape. Anyone familiar with the old ballads and their descendants can recognize what I call “the ballad quartet,” the interbraided narratives of Love, Death, Betrayal and Vengeance that echo and re-echo, resonating through both ballads and McCrumb’s novels. As Peggy Muryan, the folksinger/protagonist of If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O says, “Every song I ever heard [in Appalachia] is about some feud or a hanging. Or a girl getting murdered by her lover” (Pretty Peggy-O 128). Every ballad, in other words, is about love, death, betrayal, and vengeance, and this certainly heightens our awareness of the ballad presence as McCrumb’s novels closely mirror the same themes (Pretty Peggy-O 128).

But my question remains: What, if any one thing, makes the constant allusions to ballads integral to these novels? Are they any more than a handy organizing device or a catchy title identification device? Or the window dressing alluded to earlier? The allusions themselves do not necessarily postulate an important connection; after all, many murder mysteries use a tag from Shakespeare without assessing any particular importance to the words other than the fact that they reflect a murder. While it is clear that ballads provide a catchy title, any number of popular allusions could do that.

It is also clear that ballads provide an obvious and ongoing connection in these novels. McCrumb’s work is, after all, slippery in terms of genre: Are these crime novels? Yes. Ghost stories? Yes. Realistic novels? Yes. Are they apologias for Appalachia? Yes. Are they social melodrama? Yes. Are they historical? Yes. Are they structured around conflict--conflict between the Past and the present, the old ways and the new ways, old traditions and contemporary American society, the haves and the have-nots, mountain people and flatlanders? Yes, indeed they are. If this were a multiple choice quiz, the correct answer would obviously be all of the above. All these descriptions would be true. And all these descriptions would be somewhat lacking . . . . So, superb storyteller though she is, McCrumb needs something to connect the varied sub-plots and genres and tie the many conflicts in these novels into one coherent unity. This is the primary function of the ballads. Ballads serve as connections, as bridges, to link the “dead” Past to the living Present. Many ballads still sung today, for example, were composed centuries ago but speak clearly of the human experience; anyone who listens to ballads can tell you that the themes that people McCrumb’s work are integral to ballads -- and that those themes haven’t changed over the centuries. To have any sort of organic unity, to avoid the effect of discontinuity, she needs something solid underlying her novels, some device to provide a solid continuum. To understand the “bedrock” role of ballads, consider that one of her most significant metaphors is geologic: she talks of the presence of a vein of serpentine rock which runs from the Appalachians up through the Caldonides in Ireland, Scotland and Wales to end in the Arctic Circle. Although these mountains are widely separated today, at one time they were one long chain, proving that the home of the ancient Celts, the mountains of Western Europe and Great Britain, were at one time linked to today’s Appalachians. She uses this idea of serpentine rock to forge another link – the connection between Appalachian and Celtic culture, again a connection that bridges past and present. And again, many of the traditional ballads extant today are of Irish or Scots origin. Like the underlayment of serpentine, which sometimes forms highly visible outcroppings that everyone can see and sometimes isn’t evident at all, buried deeply as it is under the present day topography, the ballads are the bedrock, an intrinsic underlying element of her novels. Stack the layers high, let Time and Man change the surface as they will, the themes and motifs of the ballads sit as permanent as the mountains.5

I have argued that the ballad provides the thematic bedrock that links the Present to the Past in all the Ballad Novels. The novels fall into two main but overlapping categories: in one group, a line or motif forges the connections between the novels and ballads; in the second group, ballads provide the plot sequence, even though the ballad plots are not, by any means, exact replicas. In She Walks These Hills, the bedrock lies primarily in the themes and related motifs. It is, for example, a single line from a ballad which ties this very complex novel together. The Rosewood Casket blends motif and plot almost equally. In If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, however, in addition to themes and motifs, ballads also take an additional and active role in providing plot and structure.

In She Walks These Hills, the third novel of the series, the line “She walks these hills” from “The Long Black Veil” provides not only the title but one of the central motifs of the novel.1 Writing specifically about McCrumb’s use of ballads, Susan Wittig Albert points out that “The ballad structure of She Walks These Hills is evident [ . . .] in the interwoven, replicative plots based on the motif of the homeward journey [. . .]” (McCrumb Art). The recurring motif refers primarily to Katie Wyler, a young woman kidnapped by the Shawnee in 1779, who escapes and makes her journey homeward, only to be murdered at journey’s end. Nora Bonesteel has seen her every autumn since her childhood, always running, turning to look back, never getting home or responding to Nora’s warnings. But Katie is not the only figure who walks these hills. Nora Bonesteel, Hiram Sorley, Jeremy Cobb, Sabrina Harkryder, Rita and Chalarty (Charlotte) Pentland, and Martha Ayres all “walk these hills.” All of these characters are linked together by a present line from an absent ballad, the mountains themselves, and their journeys. And all are using the hills as a way to link the Past and Present. As Rita Sorley Pentland says, trying to explain to her daughter why she wants to return to her old home, “Chalarty, sometimes you just have to go look at the past before you can figure out where you’re going” (196). Nora Bonesteel is a living ballad, the connection incarnate between the Past and the present and the repository of old and secret knowledge. Nora Bonesteel has walked the hills of Appalachia for more than 70 years; along with the line from “The Long Black Veil,” she serves as the connection between the travelers. Seeing the ghost of Katie Wyler for the first time when she is six, she soon realizes that Katie is stuck in an endless loop, caught between the Past and the Present like so many of the characters in She Walks These Hills. Nora walks the hills as both a way to get from point A to point B and also in a metaphysical sense. The hills of the 1700's are as real in her memory as the hills of her girlhood and maturity. Hiram Sorley, an aging outlaw and victim of Korsakoff’s Syndrome, which has permanently deprived him of short term memory, is permanently lost in the Past. Imprisoned for thirty years, he escapes from prison and walks the hills looking for his wife and child and the life he had before jail. Somewhat like the ghost of Katie Wyler, he is caught between Past and Present. Jeremy Cobb, a graduate student in history, decides to walk the hills to escape modern civilization and actually experience the Past, to connect with Katie Wyler and somehow make her more than a dissertation subject, part of the dead Past. He thinks that trying to recreate at least a part of her journey as closely as he can will in some way allow him to transcend the limits of time and space and make her “live” for him. Sabrina Harkryder, a new mother trapped in an abusive and emotionally sterile marriage, also walks these hills. She kills her child and flees to the hills, trying to escape to the Past, a happier and unmarried time. She meets up with Jeremy, who by this time, is in rather sad shape, having discovered that wilderness hiking does not involve carrying “home comforts” such as solar showers. While walking the hills is infinitely more challenging than he thought, it is a transcendent experience for him as he does indeed experience the actual Past. Not only does he return briefly to the Past, but Nora Bonesteel explains why Katie appears to Sabrina, thus again linking Past and Present. Rita and Chalarty (Charlotte) Pentland also walk these hills. Rita was married to Hiram Sorley and has since remarried Euell Pentland, a humorless, status seeking, class bound bully, who constantly reminds Rita of what an awful life she escaped as white trash and how fortunate it that he condescended to marry her. Chalarty, Rita’s daughter by Hiram, is a geologist, and it is she who first expounds McCrumb’s geologic metaphor, talking at length to her mother about the serpentine underlayment of the Appalachians. Rita, who loved Hiram and only divorced him because he was sentenced to serve a sixty-six year minimum sentence, returns to the hills to remember her happy life. Upon hearing that Hiram has escaped, she returns to their dilapidated trailer, leaving him a letter. Again, a connection to a common ballad motif surfaces – her present husband follows her and murders her upon discovering she wants to leave her comfortable middle class life and return to Hiram. Chalarty returns to the hills by avocation and because she is uncomfortable pretending to be a middle class American who despises hillbillies. She also wishes to find her father, a man she barely remembers. When she does find her father, yet another tragic theme surfaces. Hiram does not recognize Chalarty when he meets her; he thinks it is 1968 and mistakes her for her mother. Chalarty has set the trailer on fire to prevent rubber-neckers from gawking at her family’s tragedy and Hiram dies in the trailer, trying to rescue his daughter. And as though there are insufficient balladic connections, when Hank the Yank, the local radio personality, decides to make Hiram Sorley a cause célèbre, he uses one of the more famous ballad types – that of the outlaw on the run.6 Once again, the use of ballads provides the continuity so important to McCrumb as well as a thematic foundation. Even Martha Ayres, dispatcher turned deputy, walks these hills, desperate to prove herself as a deputy. On the Home Front, she is trying to deal with her lover Joe Le Donne’s infidelity, hardly, I need add, a uncommon ballad theme.

Finally, the hills themselves are an integral part of the story. Unlike the hills the woman in “The Long Black Veil” walks, these hills are more important than a device, a place marker. In She Walks These Hills, the hills are fully described and fully realized landscape, from road route numbers and the type of flowers and trees which grow off the Appalachian Trail to wryly humorous descriptions of the typical “trail bunnies,” as the residents call the day trippers of the Appalachian Trail. The hills are where the residents of Hamelin live and go about their daily lives. McCrumb’s characters, Hiram Sorley and Nora Bonesteel in particular, are more than day trippers; they have been formed by contact with these hills and the way of life they represent. Again, McCrumb’s geologic metaphor comes strongly into play –like the serpentine rock that connects the Appalachians to its British and European kin, and connects the Appalachian culture to the older Celtic culture, and the Past to the present, the ballad motif connects all the stories and themes in the novel.

In The Rosewood Casket, the ballad “Little Rosewood Casket,” provides a point of departure for one of the plots, as well as one of the major motifs of the novel.7 Although both the novel and the ballad do involve a lost love and a rosewood casket buried with the speaker, the novel’s rosewood casket contains not love letters, but bones. Nevertheless, the ballad and the novel are tied together not only by the rosewood casket but also by the common themes of Love, Death, and Betrayal. As in She Walks These Hills, several recurring motifs help quilt the narrative together: the rosewood casket, secret knowledge, and a love that survives even death. McCrumb’s usual multi-layered story line spans the Past and Present, and, to a greater degree than some of the other novels, stresses the motif of loss and the indissoluble links between the Past and the Present.

Randall Stargill, nearly eighty, is coming to the end of his long life. The main plot is concerned with working out the very dysfunctional family dynamics of the sons. Not one of Stargill’s sons has ever earned their father’s love or approval, although they have spent their lives trying. As the old man drifts toward death, his four sons fulfill his request to have an “old-fashioned funeral” and handcraft his coffin from rosewood, while his daughters-in-law ransack the attic to make a burial quilt. These activities give them the time to become, at least briefly, a family, and to try to overcome their sibling rivalries and present indifference. Love and death are inextricably intertwined in this part of the narrative, as the brothers attempt to come to terms with their father’s death, his final requests, and what consequences his passing will have on them.

In this novel, as in the ballad, the loves and betrayals of the Past largely shape the present. Nora Bonesteel has a problem, rooted in the Past as it so often is and having a supernatural element, as her links with the Past so often do. For nearly seventy years, a small, gaunt and bedraggled ghost has come to knock at Nora’s door. When she and Randall were young children, Randal had an illegitimate sister, Fayre. Randall’s grandmother, Mrs. Stargill, a woman, with “dark dead eyes and a mouth like a drawstring purse,”resented another mouth to feed in hard times and also saw Fayre as living evidence of sin (410). One day Fayre disappears, nevermore to be seen. Except by five year old Nora. She and Randall were at one time engaged, and he gave her a small handmade rosewood casket for fancy linens and jewelry. Randall breaks the engagement and marries someone else. Their lives then take separate paths, and the only two connections which exist between them are the small rosewood casket and the knowledge of a child done to death. His approaching death, however, leaves Nora with a problem: she knows that Randall, who loved Fayre, would want to be buried with her, but she cannot explain how she knows where Fayre’s bones are without implicating Randall. When Stargill’s fetch appears to her, she decides she must reveal at least some of the truth. She retrieves Fayre’s bones, places them in the rosewood casket which Randall made for her, and returns it to the Stargills. The bones are buried with Randall, who lies in the rosewood casket his sons made for him, with the little rosewood casket now holding the bones of the sister he loved. Thus the ballad plot of the “Little Rosewood Casket,” concerned with the love that was a closely guarded secret in life that yet outlasts death informs the plot of The Rosewood Casket.

Unlike the novels which use ballad motifs as opposed to plots, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, the first novel in the series, derives its plot sequencing from four ballads. “Little Margaret,” “The Knoxville Girl,” “Fennario,” and “Little Maggie” foreshadow the events of the novel. The themes and the connections between Past and Present, represented by the many allusions to old ballads, are central to the narrative. The ballads are songs that Peggy Muryan and her old lover/partner Travis Perdue used to perform together and thus have more significance than mere plot markers. These ballads have particular meaning to the main character and provide not only a motive for the crime, but a deeper look at folk-singer Peggy Muryan. She got a recording contract and Travis got Vietnam, where he wrote her letters until his death in action. The omniscient narrator makes her self-centered personality, so apposite from her sixties’ persona, clear:

Yes, she had dumped him for a chance at the big time. Yes, she had come to think of him as an emotional nuisance when his letters came from Vietnam: she wrote him patronizing replies, fueled by guilt. But what did all that matter now? Surely that had ended when he died in the war (282).

But in McCrumb novels, the Past is never past, never safely cordoned off from the Present. Pix-Kyle Weaver, a psychopathic teenager obsessed with Vietnam, buys a box of her memorabilia, including letters from Travis, and sends postcards using lines from the ballads she and Travis once sang together to wreak vengeance on Muryan for her betrayal. Not only do the ballads serve as guideposts to the next crime, the ballad themes are central to the novel. Love, Death, Betrayal and Vengeance are all present, all a part of the present even though the ballads and the actions supposedly causing Pix-Kylie’s behavior are a part of the Past. Travis Perdue has been dead for more than twenty years. The love between Travis and Peggy did not last; as in many a ballad, she leaves him and he dies. One wonders if, along with “Little Margaret,” they also sang “Barbara Allen.” Her betrayal and abandonment of Travis leads, years later, to a desire, on Pix-Kylie’s part, for vicarious revenge. As Pix-Kyle says, “ [ . . .] I could see from the letters that you had been shit-awful to him, so I figured he’d want me to pay you back” (302).

While the main story is that of Peggy Muryan, ballad themes also figure as Martha Ayres plans the twentieth Hamelin High School Reunion, and Spencer Arrowood relives his bitter failed marriage to Jenny (who also attended Hamelin High), a match that ended in violence and betrayal. When he asks Peggy to sing “Whiskey in the Jar,” an Irish ballad that includes the line, “I swear he'd treat me fairer than me darling sporting Jenny,” “Spencer reached for her hand and held it as if to keep himself from falling.” 8 The connection between the ballad line and the reality is ironic: since Spencer’s brother was in the army and was Jenny’s previous lover who had impregnated her, something Spencer had not known, the use of the ballad is doubly ironic. Again, one sees the function of the ballad; however painfully, it bridges the Past and the Present and underlies much of the action.

Certainly the continued use of ballads, an important part of the narrative, do form an aesthetic locus, a heightened consciousness of the central role the ballads play. Although the ballad novels differ markedly in the degree to which ballads are present, ranging, as I have noted, from a single line that resonates through the narrative and ties the stories together to a plot structuring device, their presence is both constant and significant. Ballads provide a foundation for the narrative, furnishing not only repeating themes and motifs and often driving the story line but also providing a sense of connection-- not only among the novels of the series but also providing continuity for these multi-plotted varied genre works. It is not for nothing that McCrumb stresses the serpentine rock underlying the Appalachian. It is not only an illuminating metaphor for her interest in the connections between Appalachian culture and Celtic culture, but it is also the perfect analogy for the function of the ballads. Even when one doesn’t see serpentine, it is present; even when ballads are not used in a direct fashion, they are present. Like the pattern that makes a single entity, a quilt out of scraps of cloth, the ballads make an organic whole out of the many stories McCrumb tells in the course of a single novel as well as the series. Whether the plot of one of the novels draws on a particular ballad, or employs a repeating motif from a ballad, or just refers almost in passing to ballads, the ballads are the bedrock, the connection, the unchanging underpinning of her work. In terms of tradition, thematics, and a connection to Past and Present, McCrumb’s use of ballads provides the bedrock of the series. And a source of satisfaction for lovers of old ballads - like myself and millions of other readers.

End Notes

Bibliography/Works Cited

Albert, Susan Wittig. “The Art of Sharyn McCrumb,”

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1991.

Dann, Kevin T. Traces on the Appalachians: A Natural History of Serpentine in Eastern North

America. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1988

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003,

Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax, comp. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: McMillan, 1934.

. Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. Mineola: Dover P, Inc.

McCrumb, Sharyn, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O. New York: Ballantine, 1991

---. “A Novelist Looks at the Land,”

---. The Rosewood Casket. New York: Signet, 1996.

---. She Walks These Hills . New York: Signet, 1994.

---. The Songcatcher. New York:

Pomeroy, Elizabeth. Reading the Portraits of Queen Elizabeth. Hampden: Archon Books, 1989.

Ritchie, Jean, Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians. 2nd ed. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1997

Tompkins, Jane Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New

York: Oxford U P, 1985.

Warner, Anne. Traditional American Folk Songs, Syracuse U P, 1984

1 As Peter Viney notes about “The Long Black Veil,” “[It] has a classic Americana sound and storyline. It is not an old country song at all, and maybe that was part of its appeal to The Band. The song - like much of their work - is a contemporary deliberate creation of a mythologically American piece. It was written by Nashville songwriters Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin in March 1959. [ . . .] Dill and Wilkin set out to make it sound like an old Appalachian ballad so as to hang onto the coat tails of the then burgeoning folk music revival.” (

In “The Long Black Veil,” a man is hanged for a murder of which he is innocent. Speaking from the grave, he says that he “spoke not a word, though it meant my life, for I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.” The wife walks the hills, still mourning. All the characters in She Walks These Hills do indeed walk the hills, but their motives are very different.

1 Qtd. from The Washington Post, back cover of Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

2 The Ballad Novels -- If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O (1990), The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1993), She Walks These Hills (1995), The Rosewood Casket (1997), The Ballad of Frankie Silver (1999),The Songcatcher (2001), and Ghost Riders (2003) -- form an ongoing narrative arc of interlaced conflicts in rural Appalachia. As one would expect in a series, characters recur: Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, Deputies Martha Ayres and Deputy Joe Le Donne, and Nora Bonesteel as well as a myriad of minor characters are usually present. The setting, the invented town of Hamelin, Wake County, Tennessee, “one mountain away from North Carolina” near Mitchell County, NC, informs the series as does McCrumb’s love for and knowledge of the culture of Appalachia. Generally speaking, the novels center on several interbraided plots - a crime, often murder, is committed, and the Wake County Sheriff’s department must solve it; a seemingly irrelevant incident from the Past frequently reveals present day connections to and motives for the crime. Rather than obscuring the Present, in other words, the Past illuminates it.

3 “Fennario,” also known as “Pretty Peggy-O,” “The Streets of Bonnie Fivey-O, and “Maid of Fife.” The version McCrumb refers to is on Joan Baez’s album Joan Baez in Concert Part 2, Vanguard, 1963.

4 One thing I have noticed in my research on ballads is the blurring between an old traditional ballad and a new ballad, composed on traditional lines. It is often difficult to tell what is old and what is new. This liminal effect, this feeling of transcending time, which blurs the Past and the present, collapsing them together, makes yet one more connection in McCrumb’s work, as many of the ballads she uses are more recent than the Child ballads, which were collected in the mid-eighteenth century. Scores of modern songs, particularly country songs, have the same chording, the same keys, the same structure, the same subjects and the same themes as the traditional ballads.

5 This geological metaphor is articulated in She Walks These Hills, pp. 188-92. For further information, see Kevin Dann’s Traces on the Appalachians: A Natural History of Serpentine in Eastern North America.

6 As Peter Viney notes about “The Long Black Veil,” “[It] has a classic Americana sound and storyline. It is not an old country song at all, and maybe that was part of its appeal to The Band. The song - like much of their work - is a contemporary deliberate creation of a mythologically American piece. It was written by Nashville songwriters Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin in March 1959. [ . . .] Dill and Wilkin set out to make it sound like an old Appalachian ballad so as to hang onto the coat tails of the then burgeoning folk music revival.” (

In “The Long Black Veil,” a man is hanged for a murder of which he is innocent. Speaking from the grave, he says that he “spoke not a word, though it meant my life, for I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.” The wife walks the hills, still mourning. All the characters in She Walks These Hills do indeed walk the hills, but their motives are very different.

7 Little Rosewood Casket (traditional)

There's a little rosewood casket/ Resting on a marble stand/ With a packet of old love letters/ Written by my true love's hand/Go and bring them to me sister/Read them o'er for me tonight/ I have often tried but could not/ For the tears that filled my eyes/When I'm dead and in my casket/When I gently fall asleep /Fall asleep to wake in heaven/ Dearest sister do not weep/Take his letters and his locket/ Place them gently on my heart/But this golden ring that he gave me /From my finger never part.”

“The Little Rosewood Casket,” often considered a folk song, was written by White and Goullaud in 1870. By the time of the earliest country recordings in the 1920's (Ernest Thompson on Columbia 216-D as the Little Rosebud Casket)it's [sic] authorship had been forgotten, the song having moved into the folk tradition.

8 “Whiskey in the Jar” tells the story of a highwayman, whose weapons are rendered useless by his wife, who then calls for the police; he is taken, but he escapes. He hopes that his brother in the army will “treat me fairer than me darling sporting Jenny.”

Published in The Journal of American Culture. Vol 29:3, Aug. 2006,. Pp. 337-44.