“Them coats that hang on the mountain…”

“Whatever happened to the good old days when kids was scared to death of their parents?” – Archie Bunker
For the fourth time this week we embark on an exploration of the ballad “Young Emily” – Laws M34 or Roud #182 – and in Appalachia today we’ll finish our trek.  We introduced the ballad with Natalie Merchant singing an Ozark variant in our first post, traced its taproot in England with Jo Freya‘s help in our second, and followed it to Northern Ireland (and Scotland for a jaunt) in our third.  All the while, though not necessarily equipped to thoroughly map the terrain, we’ve pursued the question of what the motif of the ‘cruel father’ might represent to different folk across time and geography, and how that might have helped the ballad survive.

Let’s start today with this discussion, with the understanding of course that you’ll skip down the page to find some awesome music if you’re the impatient type.

And you no tale must tell…

So, what have we found about the cruel father?  Certainly we’ve seen variety, but I think we’ve seen a couple of patterns at least.  Though this is certainly a simplification, we might say that the song ‘works’ along the lines of at least three continua.  

Most simply, there is a range across the variants we’ve considered regarding the father’s motive for murdering Edwin – from pure greed to paternal control of a daughter.  The former is explicit and the latter implicit.  The amount of ‘space’ left in the lyrics that allows the listener to ‘read in’ seems to govern which motive dominates in a particular variant.

As well, there seems to be two slightly more complicated continua regarding the ‘end of the line’ for Emily and her father.  Conclusions for the father range from his confessing out of guilt and being hung, to his suffering no consequence at all.  Emily’s ends range from her turning her father in to hang and her suffering nothing more, to a life of tragic regret and even insanity. 

By moving the slider back and forth along each of these lines we get the variety that’s given us our rich musical content for the week.  We see starkly drawn black and white morality concerning greed and violence in Ireland, but shades of gray in England (both in the oldest versions and particularly in post-modern ones) that allow us to read in more about the father’s control of his daughter.  The one example we considered from Scotland seems wide open to imaginative interpretation regarding the implicit motive.

Now the Ozark version we heard first, like most, mentions the gold – but to my mind it leans more towards the implicit motive of paternal control with its lyrics.  Likewise, it’s no accident I think in that version that the father most clearly ‘gets away with it’ and Emily, though dodging madness, is left with a life devoid of love and hope.  And let’s not forget either that the performers of the American version we’ve heard so far are women, whether in field or professional recordings.

Perhaps the father’s cruelty to a post-modern performer of this ballad speaks on some level to the ‘generation gap’.  Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers grew up with a cultural imperative to rebel – in matters of sex and love as much as any.  A singer today perhaps imagines Emily’s father as an irredeemable example of an Archie Bunker archetype.  

But just because parents stopped spanking within the last generation does not mean fathers ceased to exercise control over their daughters, and in ways more forceful than they often do over their sons.  I don’t propose to make this post a detailed study of gender relationships in the American family, but it would be the height of foolishness to claim that the relationship between fathers and daughters has not been one of the active fault lines in American society since we embarked on our Jeffersonian experiment in liberty.  I’m sure those of you that are good and folked up can think of dozens of songs that bear witness to this.  This is almost certainly one of the ways in which this song works in America.

One of the ways – though not the only way.  We do have another American variant, this one from the Appalachians; popular in fact in a place we’ve come to already in this blog – Madison County, North Carolina.  What do we find there?  As usual, it’s not simple; for one thing, this is both a men’s and women’s song there.  But it makes for good listening and reflection!

He did not know a sword that night would part his neck and head…

We’ve seen in other posts that Madison County, North Carolina was a crucible for turning the British ballad tradition into an Anglo-American tradition.  (You can read more about it in these liner notes.)  It’s something that’s lasted there longer than perhaps any other place in the country.  And very much to the point of all this discussion above, it’s *family* that is the key to that process.  A song about a cruel father’s murder of his daughter’s true love *must* resonate in a place where family is central to almost every aspect of life, and has been since the first Scots-Irish settlers conquered the land from the Cherokee in the late 18th century.

In these versions “Edwin” never gets a name, and he’s not a sailor but a ‘driver boy’, that is, a coach driver.  We find in our first example not only a lovely performance by Sheila Kay Adams of “Young Emily”, but also some interesting spontaneous introduction that is revealing of the role of family in the folk process.

The lyrics are available here at Elizabeth LaPrelle’s site, with only minor variation – LaPrelle performs it most compellingly, though her recording is not available on Spotify.

Note Sheila’s loving skepticism of Dellie Norton‘s ability to transmit reliable lyrics, though she does use Dellie’s tune.  (We’ll hear Dellie below.)  Sheila says her lyrics instead are derived from Cas Wallin, and the interviewer states he got his version from Doug Wallin, Cas’s nephew.  Adams notes that the lyrics then should be similar to what she’s about to sing, implying of course that a ballad is passed down most faithfully through family.  We shouldn’t miss the point that, even in a small mountain community like Sodom, ballads could vary significantly between families.

As it turns out, Sheila’s version is actually different in some ways than Doug’s version, which we’re lucky as well to have available.  I’ll let you do an in depth comparison for yourself if you wish, but I only want here to point to one small, interesting variation after you hear it.  

Sheila sings, near the end, “see the coach on yonder mountain, moving to and fro…” whereas Doug sings “them coats that hang on the mountains, they look so blue and true…”  Both images remind Emily in each version of her driver boy – the ‘coach’ for obvious reasons and the ‘coats’ presumably because of his uniform jacket.  Doug, in the liner notes to the album linked above, states “I would say you’re looking at fog and snow that freezes on the trees.  It looks, you know, blue looking.”

Here we see folks filling in the blanks again – it just fascinates me!  Did Sheila change ‘coats’ to ‘coach’ to make the lyric more sensible?  I don’t know, but it’s just so telling that Doug chooses to make that word ‘coats’ make sense for himself in his version of the song.  If such is their way with the small details, how much more so with the deeper meaning of the song?  Jo Freya‘s point in our second post this week about the ‘missing story’ is just spot on.

Let’s hear another version from the area, this being Dillard Chandler‘s.  His lyrics are quite close to Wallin’s, and he sings of ‘coats’ as well.

But of all of the recordings we have of this ballad from Madison County, Dellie Norton’s is certainly the most compelling.  There’s something about both the age and the energy in her voice that puts this one over the top for me.  It was my introduction to the ballad, and it still gives me chills.

“Young Emily” – Dellie Norton (Spotify)   Dellie Norton’s Lyrics (as performed by Cary Fridley, some minor errors in transcription)


I’ve hesitated to draw any grand conclusions about the survival of this ballad in a specific place and time.  I’m not particularly qualified to speak about life in Ireland or England, whether it be two centuries ago or within my lifetime.  But as the son of a mother from Appalachia who did listen (in between acts of rebellion) to her lessons, I do have just a little bit of insight to offer today.

The performances we’ve heard in this post are about more than greed, and more than control of a daughter.  They’re about what happens when families don’t do what they need to do to survive in a place like the Appalachians.  The cruel father is a recipe for disaster in a mountain community.  

I heard Sheila Kay Adams once tell that one of her relatives (Berzilla maybe?) described these ballads as a great way to learn life’s hard lessons without having to live them.  I also remember my mother telling me that in her small West Virginia hollow, despite the hard life they all lived as subsistence farmers, she as a child always felt like she could depend on every adult around her.  Everybody looked out for everyone else and as a child she felt completely safe around every member of her community.  Every adult could correct any child whether his or her parents were present or not, because every member of that community knew one another and shared the same core values and the same understanding of what a child needed from an adult.

I’m not saying that the way adults raised children when and where my mother grew up is in line with my values, or at least with my ideas of discipline.  But it seems to me that the cruel father in the Appalachian version of this ballad is exactly what everyone in the mountain communities like my mother’s *didn’t* need – an elder motivated by greed and power.  A person like that would be a threat to everything at the core of such a community.  The lesson it seems to me is much deeper than what we see in the old English broadsides – much more meaningful.

And what better way to pass that lesson on to each generation than through music?

Thanks for reading this week folks!

Comments are closed.