Date of Award

2012

Advisor(s)

Julie Kim

Second Advisor

Oneka LaBennett

Abstract

My thesis presents a literary and historical examination of the genre of songs known as “Murdered Girl ballads” in the canon of 19th century Southern Appalachian folk music. The Murdered Girl ballad, which tells the story of a young woman murdered by her male lover, became an archetypal narrative in Appalachian folklore in the 1800’s. In my research I examine some of the many Appalachian Murdered Girl ballads and the mountain society they sprang from, drawing connections between the lyrics of the ballads and three specific aspects of Appalachian mountain life: violence, gender roles, and religion. I argue that at the core of the ballads is the tension between male culture and evangelical Protestantism, both of which played extremely important roles in governing social behavior at the time. Male culture, which was heavily influenced by what many historians have called a “culture of violence,” held up gendered ideals of honor, freedom, reckless individualism, and aggression. This set of attitudes and behaviors was hotly opposed by evangelical Protestantism and revival culture, which dominated Appalachian religious attitudes and condemned the rough behavior around which male culture revolved. These “upright” religious values found psychological embodiment in the woman, who was seen as pure, demure and eternally self-sacrificing and who was traditionally associated with religion, home and family. I argue that the traditional Appalachian Murdered Girl ballad embodies the conflict between the dominant culture of male violence and evangelical Protestantism in the 19th century Appalachian South, an interplay that is reflected in the lyrics through the archetypal murder of the Woman, who represents home, family and piety, by the Man, who represents the culture of violence and Southern masculinity.