Ralph Lee Smith,
with Madeline MacNeil,
Folk Songs of Old Kentucky
(Mel Bay, 2003)

Folk Songs of Old Kentucky is much more than a songbook. In the spirit of the movie Songcatcher, it recounts the adventures of two women, Josephine McGill and Loraine Wyman, journeying through the Southern Appalachian region of Kentucky in search of old English and Scottish ballads. Loaded with photos and anecdotes, it is like a trip back in time to the rugged mountains and a simpler life.

The book begins with several short sections about the women, their journeys, the region, the lifestyle, and how music fits into the lifestyle. There are some parts reproduced from the original book published by Josephine McGill in 1917, Folk Songs of the Kentucky Mountains. There is a lovely section about the dulcimer. It introduces the reader to this folk instrument and a piece about the primary dulcimer maker of the region.

The vivid accounts of the adventures of these two women will touch your heart while providing amusement and intrigue. You must laugh at the description of the elderly woman who entered the fiddling contest, despite all prejudice against women fiddlers, and then shocked the audience with her "scandalous" dancing while she played.

I tested the accuracy of the sheet music by asking a friend to play many of the pieces. It was intriguing. We are both familiar with most of the songs, but found that the versions in this book are far removed from the modern versions in the more southern region of the Appalachians.

A fine example of the different versions is "Frog Went A-Courting." The version in this book is in the mixolydian mode and the intervals are radically different from the other versions. The mixolydian and dorian scales fall between the modern major and minor scales and few folks are trained in them now. But the mountain folk, usually being self-taught and often not reading sheet music, have passed down the versions of their ancestors and these old scales have survived.

I especially liked the two versions of "The Cuckoo" and was pleased that the authors included both of them. This provides the reader with a feel for the way the ballads have been modified over time.

Folk Songs of Old Kentucky is a real treasure gem for the serious music collector or follower of folk music. Anyone with an interest in the Appalachian lifestyle will be thrilled with this book.

- Rambles
written by Alicia Karen Elkins
published 21 August 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.