Deathly Lyrics: Songs of Virginia Tragedies

    Ye daughters and sons of Virginia incline
    your ears to a story of woe....
    --"The Battle Song of the Great Kanawha"

For centuries real-life tragedies--especially deaths by accident or at the hands of another--have been memorialized in song. Creative Virginians have enriched that tradition with numerous ballads and poems about local events. The western portion of Virginia has been particularly fertile ground for both singers and composers of "story" songs.

Songs documenting actual history were more popular years ago, though they are still being sung and written today. Some, such as the eighteenth-century "Battle Song of the Great Kanawha," have survived only as texts in folksong collections. Others, such as "The Wreck of the Old 97," not only remain in oral tradition but also have been commercially recorded by professional musicians. A good song of murder or hardship grabs the heart; when the events are real, the grip is all the stronger.


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Songs noted with a have audio clips availible. To hear the song and view the lyrics, click on the " songs and audio" link. You will need the Real Player plug-in to listening to audio clips; to install now, click here to get the Real Player plug-in. If you are viewing this site through America Online, click here to get the Real Player plug in. Approximate download time for the plug-in using a 28.8K modem is five minutes.

Deathly Lyrics:
Songs of Virginia Tragedies


Audio Credits


Breeding Mill

Caty Sage


Dewey Lee


Freeda Bolt

Great Kanawha

Kent Steffie

Mollie Tynes

Old 97

Poor Goins

Roanoke Riot

Rye Cove

Talt Hall

Vance Song

Wreck of the 1256



Ballads and Broadsides
A ballad is a story told in song. In their older forms ballad lyrics contain a minimum of emotion and do not moralize or present a point of view. Historically ballads were sung a capella to a repetitive tune.

Most of the old classic ballads sung in Virginia have a British heritage. They were composed anonymously hundreds of years ago, and although different versions of these ballads are found in oral tradition, the stories they contain have remained relatively unchanged.


Most ballads about Virginia events are closer in form to ballads called broadsides. Originally broadsides were sheets of printed paper--advertisements, song lyrics, notices, etc.--sold or distributed by street vendors. The broadside ballad tells a story, but unlike the classic ballads, it is most often emotionally charged and opinionated. Many times the broadside ballad composer was known to the community. Today we might consider the commercial recording as a high-tech replacement of the old printed broadside.