Old-Timey Women Musicians in Appalachia: 1860’s to 1942


This pathfinder provides a compilation of resources available on women musicians performing “folk music” in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains from the time of early European American settlement in the region through the era preceding WWII. The focus of this research is on the musicians and music of what many contemporary music enthusiasts and folklorists refer to as “old-time” music. It is difficult to delineate between various related genres of music, as we continue to learn about divergent styles of music that were played in the mountains and the influence of radio. For my purposes, “old time music” and “folk music” can be used interchangeably with an emphasis on non-commercial music. Recording commercial artists are included in so much as they represent the introduction of traditional “mountain music,” to mass media and the nation, where it became publicized and referred to as “hillbilly music.” These early commercial artists were by-and-large influenced by the oral tradition and often learned directly from family members.

Inevitably, this topic is closely linked to the study and history of folklore, since a dialogue between folklorists and “folk” has occurred for over a century in the United States. While this pathfinder includes documentation and song collections of folklorists as well as early commercial recordings, the intention is to gather materials that will enable us to better understand the songs and voices of women who chose to carry on and help shape the “old-time” musical tradition. This study focuses on the central region of Southern Appalachia including West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. This study reflects what John Williams delineates as the “core” of Appalachia in his survey of the region with the exclusion of Georgia (2002: 13-14). The following materials provide an overview of the topic and the majority items are located in the W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection at Appalachian State University.

Introductory Text: 

Patterson, Daniel W. and Charles G. Zug III, eds. Arts in Earnest North Carolina Folklife. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990. GR110 .N8 A78

See Intro. (1-24) and Notes (270-282).

Smith, Betty N. Jane Hicks Gentry, A Singer Among Singers. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998. ML420 .G34 S65

Preface provides tremendous overview to topic; also see Notes on “Balladry” and “The Songs She Sang” (207-209).

Library of Congress Subject Headings: 

Highly Relevant:

  • Oral history Women -- Appalachian Region
  • Women folklorists -- Appalachian Region -- Biography
  • Women storytellers -- Appalachian Region -- Biography
  • Women -- Blue Ridge Mountains -- Interviews

Also Relevant:

  • Adams, Sheila Kay
  • Ballads, English -- North Carolina
  • Ballads, English – Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Baker, Etta
  • Carter Family
  • Cohen, John
  • Country Music -- to 1951
  • Eldreth, Bessie Mae
  • Folklore -- Appalachian Region
  • Folk Music -- Appalachian Region
  • Folk music -- Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Folk singers -- Appalachian Region -- Biography
  • Folk Singers -- Appalachian Region, Southern -- Biography
  • Folk songs, English -- Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Gentry, Jane Hicks
  • Jack tales -- Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Jarrell family
  • Jackson, Molly
  • Hicks Family
  • Lomax, Alan
  • Lyons, Julie Jarrell
  • O’Day Molly, known earlier as “Dixie Lee”
  • Old-time Music – Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Old-time Music – Appalachian Region
  • Reed, Ola Belle
  • Ritchie, Jean
  • Queen Family

More General:

  • Appalachian Region -- Drama
  • Appalachians (People) -- Songs and music
  • Appalachian Region -- Social life and customs
  • Appalachians (People)
  • Country music -- History and criticism
  • Country musicians -- United States
  • Country musicians --United States -- Biography
  • Fiddlers -- Southern States – Biography
  • Fiddling – History and Criticism
  • Folk Art – Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Folk Poetry, American – Kentucky
  • Folklore – Periodicals
  • Folklore -- Southern States
  • Folklore and history -- Southern States
  • Folklorists – NC – Biography
  • Folk music -- North Carolina
  • Folk Musicians -- West Virginia – Interviews
  • Mountain Life – Appalachian Region, Southern
  • Old-time Music, History and Criticism
  • Southern States -- Social life and Customs
  • West Virginia -- Social Life and Customs
  • Women -- Songs and Music


  • Blues (Music) -- 1931-1940
  • Broadsides – history and criticism
  • Broadside – bibliography
Clipping Files Subject Headings – W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection: 

Ballads – Folk Music

Black Musicians

Folk Music

Music – Appalachia

Musicians – Appalachia

Library of Congress Call Numbers: 






































Belden, Henry M. and Arthur Palmer Hudson, eds. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Vol. 2, Folk Ballads from North Carolina; vol. 3, Folk Songs from North Carolina. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1952 (reprint 1959). GR110 .N8 D8 v.2, v.3

Bufwack, Mary A. and Robert K. Oermann. Finding her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000. Nashville, TN: Country Music Foundation Press, Vanderbilt University Press, 2003. ASU MUSIC ML3524 .B83

See esp. Ch. 1 “The Spirit of the Mountains: Women in American Folk Music” (3-19); Ch. 3 “Single Girl, Married Girl: The Carter Family …” (43-61), and Ch. 4 “The National Barn Dance” (62-91).

Burton, Thomas G. Some Ballad Folks. Boone, NC: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1978, reprint 1981. ML400 .B89

See forward for intro. to topic. Also, profiles, quotes and song excerpts for five women from Beech Mtn., NC: Rena Hicks, Buna Hicks, Hattie Presnell, Lena Harmon and Bertha Baird.

Campbell, Olive D, and Cecil J. Sharp. English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians: Comprising 122 Songs and Ballads, and 323 Tunes. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Pub, 2007. Musical score. M1629.S53 E58 2009

Fussell, Fred C. Blue Ridge Music Trails. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. ML3551. 7 .B58 F8

See profiles of Dorothy Hess (46-47), Etta Baker (114-115), Sheila Kay Adams: It was Singing (189-191). Also, articles on Carter Family (85) and religious folksong traditions (7).

Green, Douglas B. Country Roots: The Origins of Country Music. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1976. ML3561 .C69 G73

See chapter 2: “Old-Time Music ‘Carry Me Back to the Mountains’”(19-48).

Lilly, John, ed. Mountains of Music. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1999. ML394 .M75

Interviews with women musicians in WV include “Sarah Singleton: A Fiddler All Her Life” by Teresa Hamm (43-48); “Sylvia O’Brien: ‘We Lived Good Back Then’” by Ken Sullivan (87-95); “Aunt Jennie Wilson: ‘I Grew Up With Music’” by Robert Spence (103-108); “Patty Looman: Carrying on the Music” by Danny Williams (141-146), and “Lynn Davis & Molly O’ Day: ‘Living the Right Life Now’” by Abby Gail Goodnite and Ivan Tribe (188-192).

Sawin, Patricia. Listening for a Life: a Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth through her Songs and Stories. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2004. GR55. E53 S397

Includes a comprehensive bibliography for resources about early “folk music” as well as oral history methods and feminist theory.

Scarborough, Dorothy. A Songcatcher in the Mountains. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937, reprinted 1966. M1629 .S29 S6 (68-71 and through out).

Sharp, Cecil J. English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. London: Oxford University Press, 1932. M1629 .S53 E6

Warner, Anne. Traditional American Folk Songs from the Anne &
Frank Warner collection.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984. ML1629 .6. A7 T7

See especially section 4 “Beech Mountain, NC,” includes several women balladeers (185-251).

Whisnant, David. All that is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. F217 .865 W47

Hindman Settlement School (54-57); Olive Dame Campbell/ Cecil Sharp (124-127, 154-155,178-179).

Wicker, Ann. Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas. Charlotte, N.C: Novello Festival Press, 2008. Print. ML200.7.C3 M35 2008.

Zwonitzer, Mark and Charles Hirschberg. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family and their Legacy in American Music. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002. ML421 .C33 Z86

Guides, Encyclopedias, and Dictionaries: 

Gouge, Rhonda. The Carter Family: “Always a Song.” Pathfinder, Appalachian State University. Access on-line www.appstate.edu

Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie, eds. New Grove Dictionary of American Folk Music. New York, NY: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1986. ML 101 .U6 N48

See especially Vol. 2 and the entry and bibliography for “folk music” by Bruno Nettl (147-149).

Lax, Roger and Frederick Smith. The Great Song Thesaurus. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1984. ML128 .S3 L4

Review Ch. “The Greatest Songs—America,” which lists popular songs and major cultural events from 1609-1940 (9-73).

Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh. Stars of Country Music, Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Rodriguez. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975. ML385 .S73

An extensive list of further reading and discography concludes each chapter: “The Carter Family, by John Atkins (95-120); “Loretta Lynn” by Dorothy A. Hortsman, makes reference to dozens of women figures of early country, includes discussion of cultural context, gender roles and invisibility of early women in music (309-325).

Moser, Joan. A Source Book for Appalachian Music Studies. Berea, KY: Berea College Appalachian Center. ML 3551 .A57

Includes bibliography, discography, human resources and interview guide.


Burch, John R. The Bibliography of Appalachia: More Than 4,700 Books, Articles, Monographs and Dissertations, Topically Arranged and Indexed. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2009. Print.

Check-list of recorded songs in the English language in the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song to July, 1940L Alphabetical list with geographical index. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1971, c. 1942. ML156 .4 .F6 U5

Wilgus, D.K. Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Press, 1959. ML3553 .W48

Comprehensive Bibliography, esp. of ballad and folk song collections (410-427).

Russell, Tony. Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921- 1942. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. ML156 .4 .C7 R87

References throughout—search for specific musicians.

Solberg, Dr. Ann G.P. and Catherine Morgan. Appalachian Women and Traditional Music: A List of Sources. Berea College, Summer 1999.

Access on-line at http://community.berea.edu/awtm/

Abstracts and Indices: 

America: History and Life.http://serials.abc-clio.com

International Index to Music Periodicals (IIMP). http://chadwyck.com/

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. http://newsfirstsearch.oclc.org

Search for:

Appalachia “and” Music

Ballad “and” Women “or” Appalachia

Search for Specific Musicians:

(See “Also Relevant” under LC headings)

Bumgarner, Samantha

Caldiron, Blanche

Carson, Martha

Carver, Cynthia May “Cousin Emmy”

Coon Creek Girls

Cooper, Wilma Lee

Fraley, Annadeene

Gentry, Jane

Hess, Dorothy

Jackson, Aunt Molly

Lange, Evelyn “Daisy”

Ledford, Lily May

Ledford, Rosie

Powers Family (“Fiddlin Powers”)

Queen, Mary Jane

Smith, Betty

Sumner, Marion

Vermillion, Myrtle

Watson, Ora

Wilson, Virginia Myrtle “Great Aunt Jennie”

Wiseman, Lulu Belle


Bluegrass Unlimited. Monthly. Vol. 2, 1967- present. ML1 .B68

Ethnomusicology. Annual. Vol. 1, 1953-2010. ASU Music Bound Journals.

JEMF Quarterly. (The John Edwards Memorial Foundation). Vol. 8, 1972- V. 18, 1982. ASU APP COLL ML1 .J55

Journal of American Folklore. ASU Periodicals.

North Carolina Folklore Journal. Semiannual. Vol. 1, 1948- Vol. 20, 1972. GR110 .N8 N6

Old-Time Herald. Monthly. 1987- present. ML1 .035

Old Time Music. Quarterly. No.1, Summer 1971- No.44 Winter 1987/88 London, England. See esp. Index 1987-1997. ML1 .053

Sing Out!: The Folk Song Magazine. Monthly. Vol. 1, 1959- present. M1629 .S595.

Western Folklore. ASU Periodicals.


Berea College Sound Archives. www.berea.edu/hutchinslibrary/specialcollections/specialsound.asp

Digital Library of Appalachia. www.aca-dla.org

Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol, a virtual exhibit space of the Southern Foklife Collection at the University of North Carolina At Chapel Hill. www.lib.unc.edu/mss/sfc1/hillbilly/HTML/Home/Home.htm

Southern Songbirds: The Women of Early County and Old Time Music. http://www.well.com/user/rachel/songbirds/

Audio and Video Sources: 

Anderson, Colleen, Karen Vuranch, and Julie Adams. Potluck: A Delicious Feast of Stories & Songs Celebrating Women, Wisdom, and Home Cooking! Fayetteville, W.Va.: Delectable Records, 2007. Sound recording. CDisc #1493.

Anglo-American Ballads Vol. 1 and Vol 2. One sound disc and booklet. Cambridge, MA: Rounder, 1999. Original released as Recording Laboratory, Library of Congress AFS L1, 1942 (78 rpm) and 1956 (LP). CD #305, #306

Cohen, John, ed. High Atmosphere. One sound disc and booklet. Sommerville, MA: Rounder Records, 1974. ML3545 .A317 Rec. #287

Ballads and banjo tunes from VI and NC collected in Nov. 1965

----------. That High Lonesome Sound. 67 min. film. Newton, NJ: Shanachie, 1996. VC 154

Conway, Cecelia and Les Bland, and Maureen Gosling. Julie: Old time tales of the Blue Ridge, 11 min. color film. El Cerrito, CA: Flower Films, 1991. VC161

Hutcheson, Neal. The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition & Back Porch Music. Alexandria, Va.: PBS Home Video, 2006. DVDisc 289.

Hutcheson, Neal, and Walt Wolfram. The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition & Back Porch Music. Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina State University Humanities Extension, 2005. DVD Disc 56.

Pepper, Susan G. “a Whistling Girl and a Crowing Hen Always Come to Some Bad End”: The Singing Traditions of Three Western North Carolina Women : Hazel Rhymer, Pearl Hicks and Zora Walker : a Thesis., 2008. Print. LD175 .A40k Th 238 and ML3551.7.N85 P47 2008 DVD

Rhymer, Hazel, Zora Walker, Pearl Hicks, Rosa Hicks, and Susan Pepper. On the Threshold of a Dream: Unaccompanied Singing from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Boone, N.C: Ballad Records, 2010. Sound recording.

Other Sources: 


Eacker, Susan A. and Geoff Eacker. “A Banjo on Her Knee—Part 1: Appalachian Women and America’s First Instrument.” Old-Time Herald. 8 (2). http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-8/8-2/full-banjo-on-her-knee.html

Traces influence and invisibility of early women musicians in Appalachia. Also, includes discussion of women figures in early commercial music.

Compiled by: 

Susan Pepper


Updated by: 

Jared W. Gallamore