It’s Friday, and ol’ AJ’s knocking off a bit early to enjoy the weather and do a little pickin’. Mountain music is one of the finest, most popular traditions of Appalachia, and there’s so much good music stretching back over hundreds of years of Appalachian history that I could write for years and never run out of tunes!
This week we’re going to be taking a look at “Cumberland Gap”, a song that’s as Appalachian as they come. It’s named for the Cumberland Gap region, which stretches across parts of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. The Cumberland Gap passes through a long ridge in the Cumberland Mountains. It was already an important thoroughfare used by Native Americans for many years before European settlers arrived, but it started to play a key part for the first settlers in Appalachia after the Transylvania Company of Virginia hired a team of explorers, including the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone, to chart a path and make a road through the trail. This became the Wilderness Road, which, along with the competing National Road blazed by George Washington, was the main entrance to Southern Appalachia. This opened up Appalachia to the masses for the first time, and soon thousands of settlers began moving to the area.
“Cumberland Gap” is an old dance song written for the fiddle or banjo. The original writer and year it was written is unknown, but it’s thought to have originated as a sped-up version of the old Scottish ballad “Bonnie George Campbell”. The first mention of the song comes from Our Southern Highlanders, one of the most famous nonfiction books on the Appalachian area; in it, bear hunter “Little John” Cable leads his group of hunters in playing the song while the party waits for the weather to improve. There are many variations on the lyrics, as with many folk songs, but t’s believed that the most common lyrics, which mention “raisin’ Hell in the Cumberland Gap”, refer to the pioneers in the area, as well as the Battle of Cumberland Gap, where the North and South fought for control of the vital region during the Civil War.
The song has been covered many times, including by some famous musicians. Folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger both released their own versions of the songs in the 40s and 50s respectively. Lonnie Donegan, Britain’s most famous musician (up until the 60s, anyway), recorded a version of it in the “Skiffle” style, which is a form of music that takes influences from jazz, blues, and Appalachian folk, that stayed at the top of the British charts for over a month. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs also recorded a rendition of the song in the early 60s. The song is even one of the few that can claim to be recorded by a sitting US Senator; Robert Byrd, Democratic senator from West Virginia and at one time the longest-serving senator in American history, recorded an album showcasing his mountain fiddling skills in 1978 featuring a cover of “Cumberland Gap”. More recently, the song was recorded by old-time string band Old Crow Medicine Show (whose song “Wagon Wheel” might just appear on a future Pickin’ on Fridays!), and experimental indie rock band Xiu Xiu even did their own take on it!
There’s one more musician who covered “Cumberland Gap” worth mentioning: PJ Proby. Who’s that, you ask? He was a moderately popular rockabilly artist who did a live performance of the song on British television in 1964. What’s so notable about that? The television show Proby appeared on was hosted by some good friends of his, who just happened to take the role of “Britain’s most famous musicians” from Lonnie Donegan: none other than John, Paul, George, and Ringo, the Beatles themselves! Their television special “Around the Beatles” featured the group right at the height of Beatlemania and had the group putting some of their favorite performers and songs in the spotlight. Considering the popularity of Lonnie Donegan’s version of “Cumberland Gap” in the 50s, it’s not hard to imagine the Beatles picked the song out for the special themselves!
If you’re looking for a more traditional version of the song, check out this live performance by popular Appalachian music group The Wayfarers:
Got a favorite version of “Cumberland Gap”, or want to share some memories of the area? Post them in the comments!