Cumberland Gap (folk song)

Cumberland Gap (folk song)
"Cumberland Gap"
Recorded June 1924 (first recording)
Genre Folk, country, skiffle, bluegrass
Length appx. 1.5 to 5 minutes, depending on version
Writer Traditional

"Cumberland Gap" is an Appalachian folk song that likely dates to the latter half of the 19th century and was first recorded in 1924. The song is typically played on banjo or fiddle, and well-known versions of the song include instrumental versions as well as versions with lyrics. A version of the song appeared in the 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs, by folk song collector John Lomax. Woody Guthrie recorded a version of the song at his Folkways sessions in the mid-1940s, and the song saw a resurgence in popularity with the rise of bluegrass and the American folk music revival in the 1950s.[1] In 1957, British musician Lonnie Donegan had a Top 10 hit with a skiffle version of "Cumberland Gap".

The song's title refers to the Cumberland Gap, a mountain pass in the Appalachian Mountains at the juncture of the states of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. The gap was used in the latter half of the 18th century by westward-bound migrants travelling from the original 13 American colonies to the Trans-Appalachian frontier. During the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), Union and Confederate armies engaged in a year-long back-and-forth struggle for control of the gap.[2]


Song history

Origins and early references

North Carolina songster Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882–1973), recording his "memory collection" for the Archive of American Folk Song in March 1949, suggested that "Cumberland Gap" may be a "sped up" version of the tune that once accompanied the ballad Bonnie George Campbell. Lunsford recorded both songs on fiddle to show the similarities - although many folk tunes from the British Isles are very similar.[3]

One of the earliest references to "Cumberland Gap" (the song) was published by author Horace Kephart (1862–1931) in his 1913 book, Our Southern Highlanders. Kephart recalled taking part in a bear hunt that took place circa 1904–1906 in the Great Smoky Mountains. While waiting for weather conditions to improve, members of the hunting party sang "ballets" to pass the time.[4] Kephart transcribed the opening stanzas to several of these songs, including a version of "Cumberland Gap" sung by Hazel Creek bear hunter "Little John" Cable:

"L-a-a-ay down boys,
Le's take a nap:
Thar's goin' to be trouble
In the Cumberland Gap"[4]

Kephart simply wrote that the song was of "modern and local origin."[4] Kentucky ballad collector H. H. Fuson published a lengthy version of "Cumberland Gap" in 1931, with the first three lines in the opening stanza reading "Lay down, boys, an' take a little nap" and the last line reading "They're all raisin' Hell in the Cumberland Gap," somewhat echoing the lyrics transcribed by Kephart a quarter-century earlier. Fuson's version also mentions key historical events in the Cumberland Gap's pioneer period and the battle for control of the gap during the Civil War. His last stanza ends with the line "Fourteen miles to the Cumberland Gap."[5] This last line would appear again in a 1933 field recording of the song by an obscure Harlan, Kentucky fiddler known as "Blind" James Howard, and published by John Lomax (who conducted the recording) in his 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs.[5][6]

Early recordings and performances

The earliest known recording of "Cumberland Gap" was a 1924 instrumental version by Tennessee fiddler Ambrose G. "Uncle Am" Stuart (1853–1926). Fiddle-and-guitar duo Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett recorded the song a few months after Stuart's recording, and would re-record the song again in 1926 with their band, the Skillet Lickers.[1] Tanner's lyrics bear little resemblance to Fuson's, although Tanner's chorus uses the line "Me and my wife and my wife's pap," which resembles a line in one of Fuson's stanzas.

In the mid-1940s, Woody Guthrie recorded a version of "Cumberland Gap" for Moe Asch's Folkways label, containing the chorus, "Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap/Seventeen miles to the Cumberland Gap" and a stanza referring to the gap's distance from Middlesboro, Kentucky.[7] Folk musician and folk music scholar Pete Seeger released a version somewhat similar to Guthrie's in 1954.[8] Donegan's 1957 skiffle version, which reached No. 1 on the charts in the United Kingdom, also resembled Guthrie's Folkways version, although his chorus uses "fifteen miles" rather than "seventeen miles."

In May 1925, at the now-legendary Fiddlers' Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, fiddler G. B. Grayson won first prize (although accounts vary) with his rendering of "Cumberland Gap", ousting rivals Stuart, Charlie Bowman, and Fiddlin' John Carson.[9] Bluegrass banjoist Earl Scruggs delivered a memorable performance of "Cumberland Gap" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959.[10] The song has since been recorded and performed by dozens of bluegrass, country, and folk musicians, including the 2nd South Carolina String Band's rendition of the Civil War lyrics.

Notable versions

Artist Year Label Genre Notes
Uncle Am Stuart 1924 Vocalion Old-time fiddle Instrumental
Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett 1924, 1926 Columbia Old-time Recorded as duo in 1924, with the Skillet Lickers in 1926
The Hill Billies 1926 Vocalion Old-time
Frank Hutchison 1929 OKeh Old-time
Blind James Howard 1933 Library of Congress Old-time fiddle Recorded for LOC by John Lomax
Luther Strong 1937 Library of Congress Old-time fiddle Recorded for LOC by Alan Lomax
Woody Guthrie 1944–1945 Folkways Folk
Bascom Lamar Lunsford 1949 Library of Congress Old-time fiddle Plays "Bonnie George Campbell" and "Cumberland Gap"
Pete Seeger 1954 Folkways Folk
Don Reno and Red Smiley 1956 King Bluegrass
Lonnie Donegan 1957 Pye Skiffle
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs 1961 Columbia Bluegrass
Dock Boggs 1963 Folkways Old-time banjo
Hobart Smith 1963 Folkways Old-time banjo Fleming Brown sessions; virtuosic banjo instrumental
P.J. Proby with The Vernons Girls 1964 N/A Pop-Rock Performed during the internationally broadcast TV special Around The Beatles
Kyle Creed 1977 Heritage Old-time banjo Album: Liberty
The Wedding Present 1992 New Musical Express Indie Rock Ruby Trax
Frank Fairfield 2009 Tompkins Square Old-time
Xiu Xiu 2010 Kill Rock Stars Indie Rock


"Cumberland Gap" is most commonly played on fiddle, guitar, or banjo. The banjo tuning f#BEAD, used by Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith, and Kyle Creed, is sometimes called the "Cumberland Gap tuning."[11]


  1. ^ a b Robert Waltz and David Engle, Cumberland Gap. The Ballad Index. Retrieved: 8 June 2009.
  2. ^ Rebecca Vial, Cumberland Gap and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002. Retrieved: 9 June 2009.
  3. ^ Song notes in Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina [CD liner notes]. Smithsonian Folkways, 1996.
  4. ^ a b c Horace Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), pp. 82.
  5. ^ a b John Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York: MacMillan, 1968), pp. 274-276. Lomax cites Fuson's Ballads of the Kentucky Highlands.
  6. ^ U.S. Library of Congress – Catalog entry for "Cumberland Gap/Blind James Howard (sound recording)." Retrieved: 8 July 2009.
  7. ^ Cumberland Gap - Lyrics. Retrieved: 9 June 2009.
  8. ^ Pete Seeger, Notes in Frontier Ballads [CD liner notes]. Smithsonian Folkways, 2009.
  9. ^ Mark Freed, "The Johnson County Fiddlers' Convention at Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee." The Old-Time Herald, Vol. 10, no. 10 (c. 2006). Retrieved: 9 June 2009.
  10. ^ Bob Mitchell, The Essential Earl Scruggs (album review). Louisville Music News, 2004. Retrieved: 9 June 2009.
  11. ^ Stephen Wade, Notes in Hobart Smith: In Sacred Trust — The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes [CD liner notes], 2004. p. 45.

External links

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