Louis Watson Chappell, a leading authority on West Virginia folk music, died on December 22, 1981, at age 91. The North Carolina native joined West Virginia University’s English Department in 1921. He soon became fascinated with regional folk songs, spurred on by his WVU colleague and pioneering folklorist, John Harrington Cox.
Chappell’s initial studies focused on the ballad ‘‘John Henry.’’ Previous scholars, including Cox, had considered the song a variation of “John Hardy,” which recounted the story of a black man convicted of murder in McDowell County. Chappell spent years uncovering distinctions and origins of the two folk songs and interviewed men who supposedly worked with Henry on the Great Bend Tunnel. He published his research in a seminal 1933 book, which set a new standard for the study of ballads.
In 1937, Chappell purchased one of the few portable disk-recording machines in existence at the time. During the next decade, he recorded more than 2,000 songs and instrumental tunes throughout West Virginia. This collection, which is now preserved in the WVU Libraries, is considered one of the nation’s most significant resources related to regional folk music history.