The Singing Never Stopped: The Transformation of Scottish and American Supernatural Balladry

Olivia M. Wikle


The violence that occurred on the Scottish and English border before the 16th century fostered the supernatural belief of fairies, witches, and ghosts, a belief that manifested itself in the folk ballads of the region. These supernatural ballads were passionate; they expressed the hopes and fears of the Scottish people in the form of striking stories and heart-breaking laments. Perhaps more importantly, they were a way to explain the unknown. The ballads were so embedded in the lives of the people that when many of the Ulster Scots immigrated to the Appalachians in the early 1700s, the ballad tradition continued in America, but not without significant change. A side-by-side comparison of American and Scottish versions of these ballads shows the drastic alterations that have taken place in the subject matter of the supernatural ballad. The additions or omissions in the American ballads reflect differences in religious practice found between Scotland and America. The ballads’ survival suggests that the function of the ballad in society, while seemingly simple, has remained supremely important. Above all, the ballads have always served as a form of catharsis; they contain such raw human emotion that they have a great effect on those who hear and perform them, even today.


Scottish-American; Border Ballads; Supernatural

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