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BAKER: Cumberland Gap in song… again

By William Baker
Contributing columnist

Through the years, the Appalachian folk song “Cumberland Gap” has been an important part of the legend of this famous gap.

More than once, I’ve written about the song, its origin, and its occasional popularity.  Today, a few notes are added that refer to some newer versions of the song that appeal to newer generations.

The first time I heard ‘Lay down boys and take a nap, they’re raising hell in Cumberland Gap,’ it was when my grandfather would sing bits of the song and others that he had learned in earlier days.

The first time I heard the song discussed by a historian, I remember him saying that at least parts of the song were written during the Civil War in the 1860s at a time when the gap was of strategic importance to both armies in that war.  Citing this factor was Dr. Robert L. Kincaid, whose book The Wilderness Road has been cited as a classic study of the pathway of the pioneers who struggled on that road.

Later information from the music world indicated that what some called “The Ballad of Cumberland Gap” was first recorded in 1924, not quite a hundred years ago.

Two or three years ago, I mentioned Lonnie Donegan’s recording which made it to the top of British hit parade in the late 1950s and stayed there for weeks.  That was about the same time that Donegan and his skiffle group had a major hit in our country with “The Rock Island Line.”

Among other singers and musicians who have recorded the original version, or parts of it, are Woody Guthrie, Lester Flatt, Gillian Welch, and Bobby Horton.

Recently, two new recordings have had an impact, both with the same title of Cumberland Gap.

Bobby Isbell is one of the artists.  He has been quoted as saying his song was written “…as a tribute to the children of the coal mining regions … it’s about the working class.”  It’s among a number of songs in the album The Nashville Sound.

The second artist is David Rawlings.  His album is entitled Poor David’s Almanack.  He’s a singer and songwriter and has collaborated with many of today’s entertainers including Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, and Old Crow Medicine Show.

Rawlings’ version is a love story that ends in tragic loss.  It’s different from other songs with the title.  But the importance of the Cumberland Gap to our past, present,  and our future will bring more songs about the gap in the years ahead.

Listen up, or maybe you will write your own lines to mesh with “Lay down boys and nap a little nap …”

Dr. William H. Baker is a Claiborne County native and former Middlesboro resident. Email: wbaker@limestone.edu

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