A Survivor’s Reckoning: The Triplett Tragedy

Gustave Doré: "Death of Abel" (Bible engraving, 1886)

Gustave Doré: “Death of Abel” (Bible engraving, 1886) (Wikipedia)

Blood on the mountain

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?
— Genesis 4:9

Truly old Watauga is making for herself a dark and bloody record.
Watauga Democrat, Jan. 6, 1910

Winter in Watauga (Ken Ketchie; HCPress.com)

Winter in Watauga (Ken Ketchie; HCPress.com)

On Christmas Day, 1909, violence ripped a family apart in North Carolina’s remote High Country. A drunken altercation between brothers – both middle-aged family men – was quelled but re-erupted, causing death by exsanguination when one brother stabbed the other. Blood seeped into ancestral soil and, like the Bible story of the first murder, left one man dead and another doomed. The slayer, apprehended by a deputy-sheriff who also happened to be the dead man’s son, was beaten so severely by his captor that days later he succumbed to his injuries and died in jail. Brother killed brother, nephew killed uncle, and as with all such traumas those left behind nursed psychic wounds as best they could, then carried on. Poor farmers in early 20th century Appalachia lacked the luxury of prolonged introspection – life was hard and grief and rage, like violence, had to be quickly contained lest they threaten survival.

One of those left behind, a young woman in 1909, bestowed a singular gift on the world late in life – a song, spare but stirring, that related the grim events of that long ago winter, half a century after they occurred.

A horrible sight I’ll now relate
On Yadkin Elk it did take place
On Christmas morning at nine o’clock
The people met an awful shock

“The Triplett Tragedy” is a broadside-style ballad. Credited to an obscure North Carolina postman named Ed Miller, it documents with minimal poetic license how Columbus “Lum” Triplett killed his brother Marshall Triplett in a booze-fueled brawl, only to in turn be mortally wounded by Marshall’s son, Granville Triplett. This occurred in rural Elk Township in Watauga County, near the source of the Yadkin River. While a fact-based account, “Tragedy” leaves myriad questions unanswered including the cause of the lethal quarrel. The song was virtually unknown until an a cappella rendition, sung by an elderly Elk native named Sophronie Miller Greer, appeared on a Smithsonian/Folkways LP in 1963. The singer’s link to the tragedy transcended geography: 26 years old when Lum Triplett died in jail, Sophronie was his widow.

Watauga County, North Carolina (Wikipedia)

Watauga County, North Carolina (Wikipedia)

She was also kin to one of the “first families” of American folk music. Her daughter by a second husband, Hazel Mae Greer, was married to the brother of iconic old-time musician (and fellow Watauga native), Arthel “Doc” Watson. Sophronie’s plaintive recitation of “Tragedy” was included on a collection of musical performances by Watson and various relatives, compiled from field recordings by archivist Ralph Rinzler, and released at the height of the early ‘60s folk revival as The Watson Family. If Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music was that movement’s bible, Rinzler’s set – recorded in North Carolina from 1960-1963 – was a worthy adjunct to the canon. Rarely has such rich and varied traditional music been captured for posterity in situ – novelty tunes, instrumentals, ballads, and spirituals, performed by Watson and his family with skill and striking unselfconsciousness.

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