In 1917, the song collector Cecil Sharp visited Kentucky, where he persuaded two women named Wilson and Townley to sing a song which they called The Oxford Tragedy. What emerged was a “missing link” between the British and American versions of the song, taking its title from England but setting its tale in America. Once again, the protagonist is a miller, but this time he tells us:
“I fell in love with a Knoxville girl,
Her name was Flora Dean”. (10)
When Flora's body is later found, it's:
“A-floating down by her father's house,
Who lives in Knoxville town.”
Eight years later, with Tanner's record, Knoxville became the accepted setting for this tale, and all the other locations sank to footnote status. Once a song's been committed to disc and widely heard on the radio, that rapidly becomes the official version, and any deviations from its line are seen not merely as variations, but mistakes.
Tanner's record might never have reached the market at all if it hadn't been for an earlier 1925 hit by Vernon Dalhart called The Death of Floyd Collins. This told the tale of a young man who got himself trapped in Kentucky's Sand Cave in February 1925, and whose plight was avidly followed by newspaper readers and radio listeners throughout America. Collins eventually died of starvation and exposure, and Columbia scored a bit hit with the Dalhart record that followed in May. (11)
Henry Sapoznik, writing in the sleeve notes for Tompkins Square's People Take Warning compilation, say's Dalhart's record “set in motion a rage for country-tinged exploitation event songs which made 78s and sheet music the broadside ballads of the post-industrial age”. Looking for more of the same, Columbia had Tanner re-record the same version of Knoxville Girl which they'd scrapped from his earlier session, and that was when the song took off. (11, 12)
By the time The Louvin Brothers started their radio career around 1941, Charlie recently recalled, Knoxville Girl was the most popular song in their repertoire. “Knoxville Girl was the most requested song that Ira and I would ever sing,” he told Smoke Music Archive's Nathan Salsburg. “We found out that people liked the song, and if we didn't do it, somebody in the audience would get mad, so we started including it always.” (13)
Charlie uses the same interview to set out his view of why the song's victim had to die. For him, it's her “dark and roving eye” that provides the explanation. “There's still these idiots out there that will say ‘If I can't have you, then nobody can’,” he says. “That causes a bunch of murders in this country, simply because this guy's in love with her, and she's not in love with him. She likes him as a friend, but not to marry, so he comes up with this great plan.”
As we've seen here, the song's history produces a different conclusion. But if you consider the lyrics to Knoxville Girl alone, then Charlie's explanation makes perfect sense. Besides, who am I to argue with the song's finest living interpreter?
For all its debt to the old English ballads, there's no doubt that Knoxville Girl is a better song than any of its predecessors. It's much sharper and more concise than the English originals, for example, and gains all the more punch from that. The 12 verses of Knoxville Girl in its classic form are far easier for a singer to memorise than the 44 verses he'd have to contend with in The Berkshire Tragedy's original text, and present far less a challenge to the modern audience's patience.
Where the flavour of the English songs is one of cheerful tabloid vulgarity, Knoxville Girl replaces this with a stoic fatalism that quietly acknowledges the Devil lurks inside us all. The line describing Knoxville as “a town we all know well”, suggests the song is an intimate confession to the singer's close neighbours, and that's a feeling missing from the earlier versions too. If he prefers not to spell out his tale's sexual content in graphic detail, then that just hints at a thwarted small-town decency which makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Death was an everyday reality for the subsistence farmers who first brought Knoxville Girl to America's southern states, and their harsh Calvinist religion offered no illusions about the rewards sin would bring. The few pleasures they could hope for – rutting, moonshine and fiddle tunes – seemed only to promise eternal damnation.
“The people of the South were ‘God-fearing’ in the strictest sense of the word,” says Ben Austin in his Introduction to the Folk Background. “The dangers of immoral behaviour inherant in religious fundamentalism, coupled with the harsh realities of frontier life, produced an ambivalence towards sexuality, alcohol and music. [...] Confronted with the hardships of the frontier, these people dealt with their lonliness and frequent defeat and despair through an other-worldly religion and through the folk songs, ballads and hymns which they brought from Britain.” (14)
The folk tradition has written these qualities into every note of Knoxville Girl and it's that which accounts for its extraordinary power.
For testimony of that power, let's return to Ruth Gerson. The New York Times recently called her “as galvanic as Bruce Springsteen”, she's sung on American network TV's Conan O'Brien Show, and includes Knoxville Girl on her 2009 album Deceived. I e-mailed Gerson via her website to ask what the song meant to her.
“Deceived is a collection of songs about the bad things that happen to ‘bad girls’,” she replied. “Knoxville Girl was one of the first songs that inspired the album. The first time I heard it was a Nick Cave version, then I listened to The Louvin Brothers – and threw up from being so disturbed.
“We think the murder of those weaker and unable to defend themselves is wrong, but we do not scream out against it: we sing and dance to it. Knoxville Girl is an incredible song, but it shakes me down every time I sing it.”
(1) Knoxville Girl, by The Louvin Brothers (Capitol 1956).
(2) Diaries & Letters of Philip Henry 1631-1696, by Philip Henry (Trench & Co, 1882).
(3) The Pepys Ballads Vol III, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Harvard University Press, 1930).
(4) American Balladry from British Broadsides, by GM Laws (University of Texas Press, 1957).
(5) J Pitts Collection of Ballads & Songsheets, University of Minnesota Libraries (http://mh.cla.umn.edu/pitts.html).
(6) A Dictionary of Superstitions, ed. Iona Opie & Moira Tatum (Oxford University Press, 1989).
(7) The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore, ed. David Pickering (Cassell, 1999).
(8) History of McDonald County, Missouri, by Judge JA Sturges, published 1897.(http://www.archive.org/details/illustratedhisto00stur)
(9) Ozark Folksongs Vol IV, ed. Vance Randolph (University of Missouri Press, 1980).
(10) English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, ed. Cecil Sharp & Maud Karpeles (Oxford University Press, 1960).
(11) Root Hog Or Die (http://roothogordie.wordpress.com/2008/09/09/on-murder-ballads/).
(12) People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938, by Various Artists (Tompkins Square Records, 2007).
(13) Smoke Music Archive (http://www.smokemusic.tv/content/sing-murder).
(14) Introduction to the Folk Background, by Ben S. Austin (http://frank.mtsu.edu/~baustin/britfolk.html).