Encore: True Stories Behind Folk Heroes, Runaway Trains And Murder Ballads

This week on Inside Appalachia, we’re talking about traditional ballads — how they tell stories and connect us to the past. These old tunes can mean so much. They can tap into difficult emotions and give feelings space to be heard. Some songs may even be too uncomfortable to sing.

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Real-Life Outlaw Otto Wood Went Viral In The Thirties

In the early 1930s, the way for a story to go “viral” was by being sung about in a ballad. That’s what happened to Otto Wood, a real-life outlaw who grew up around Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He spent time with the Hatfields of southern West Virginia, became a famous moonshiner, and died in a shootout with police in 1930. Less than one year later, his story was told in the ballad “Otto Wood The Bandit,” recorded by Walker Kid and the Carolina Buddies.

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Traditional Murder Ballads Reveal A Dark Truth About 'True Crime' Media

There are many murder ballads from Appalachia — and most of them are about men killing women. Folkways reporter Zack Harrold is a musician himself. In fact, you can hear him playing guitar and banjo on a song called “Little Sadie” that appeared in the May 20, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia. “Little Sadie” is a ballad about a man killing his sweetheart — exactly the kind of song Zack sought to understand in his reporting about murder ballads. What can they tell us about history? And is “true crime” the modern-day equivalent?

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Appalachian Ballad Singer Says Some Songs Are Just Too Painful To Sing

Suzannah Park is a ballad singer and teacher who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She grew up singing all kinds of folk songs, but there are some ballads she just can’t bring herself to sing.

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