A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

Writing the Ballad Novels: Sharyn McCrumb In Her Own Words

Author Sharyn McCrumb is best known for her Ballad novels, set in Appalachia. She is pictured here holding Tom Dula’s fiddle. Photo courtesy of Sharyn McCrumb

My father’s family settled the North Carolina mountains in the 1790s, and I grew up in a swirl of tales: mountain legends, ballads and scraps of Appalachian history. My first ancestor to settle in these mountains was Malcolm McCourry, chronicled in my novel The Songcatcher. As a child in 1751 he was kidnapped from a Scottish island. He later practiced law in New Jersey and ended his days homesteading on the Carolina frontier. Perhaps from him I inherited my regard for books, the gift of storytelling and my love of the mountain land, its music and its history.

I decided to become a writer in the second grade, when the rest of the class was evenly divided between cowboys and stewardesses, and, after publishing a few early comic novels written in graduate school, I settled in to explore mountain culture in my work.

My “Ballad” novels, set in the Southern mountains, weave together the legends, natural wonders and contemporary issues of Appalachia. Each story is built around a theme, intended to express an overall idea.

In The Songcatcher, a modern descendant of a mountain family looks for a ballad brought to this country by her ancestor, a Scotsman who fought in the American Revolution and homesteaded the frontier. The song passes from singer to singer through the family, giving readers glimpses of America’s past. The song is the constant, and to each succeeding generation the song resonates with a slightly different meaning.

The concept of “losing the land” is the key theme of The Rosewood Casket, as the land passes from Ice Age animals to the first people who settled here, then to the Native Americans, the settlers, and lately to the developers and urban professionals. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter explores the issue of industrial pollution, from the chestnut blight to the poisoning of rivers by paper manufacturers.

The Civil War figures into my work in Ghost Riders, and again in The Ballad of Tom Dooley when I researched the legend to discover the real story behind America’s most famous folk song.

In She Walks These Hills, everything and everyone is on a journey, beginning with the geological fact that the first journey was made by the mountains themselves and exploring how people forced to leave a land they loved came to America. Hating the crowded, flat eastern seaboard, they followed the valleys south-southwest down through Pennsylvania, until they came to a place where the ridges rise high above the valleys, where it looks and feels right. Like home. Like the place they left on the other side of the ocean. And they never knew that they were right back in the same mountains they left behind in Britain.

Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, including the New York Times best sellers, The Ballad of Frankie Silver and She Walks These Hills.