Mrs. George (Rhoda) Nelson
On 28 August 1940, West Virginia University professor of English Louis Chappell visited Mrs. George Nelson with his aluminum disk recording equipment at Kirk (formerly Buttercup, as shown in the 1911 map, below) in Mingo County. She sang unaccompanied in a beautiful tuneful voice, and her repertoire is a fascinating one. She sang a full and stately twenty-three verse version of the seventeenth century Child ballad 81, Matty Groves/Little Musgrave, and then slid seamlessly into a rollicking Don't You Leave Me Here, an American traditional song and fiddle tune, with its "If you do go darling, leave a dime for beer!" And after that came a long string of Child ballads, including the Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight, The Cruel Mother, Henry Lee/Young Hunting, The Wife of Usher’s Well, Cherry Tree Carol, Lord Bateman, Barbara Allen, Soldier from the North (The Trooper and the Maid), The House Carpenter, The Maid Freed From the Gallows, and a fine version of Child 170, The Death of Queen Jane, for a total of twenty-seven songs in all.
One of those twenty-seven was One Morning In May (Roud 140,
Laws P14). This song of dalliance and
desertion dates back at least as far as a London broadside dated to between
1689 and 1709. Many British and American versions of it have been collected but
I found none that are fuller than Rhoda Browning Nelson’s, and none with a
-Mrs. Rhoda Browning Nelson and her son, Wade, prior to his leaving for the service. Picture is likely the train depot in Logan, WV. Photograph courtesy of Lou Marcum Nolan.
Rhoda Browning Nelson was born at Harts Creek in Lincoln
County on 4 April 1885. By 1900 her
family had moved to Mingo County where her father was a freight hand in the
Harvey district. By 1910, she was
married to George Nelson who had been born in Mingo County in 1883 and was in
1910 working as a laborer on the railroad in the Delbarton area of Mingo
County. In 1920 he was a coal loader
there but by 1930 he was working on a truck farm. At the time Rhoda sang for Chappell in 1940,
her husband was working in Mingo for the Works Progress Administration. Rhoda Browning Nelson died at her home in
Dingess, Mingo County in 1966 and is buried in the Nelson Cemetery there.
—Gloria Goodwin Raheja
Sources: Raheja’s research for her book Logan County
Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields, and
the Louis Chappell Collection.
Additional information on Rhoda Browning Nelson surfaced when
Chris Haddox connected with one of Rhoda’s granddaughters, Mrs. Lou Nolan, in
February 2021. Mrs. Nolan reported that
her grandmother sang all her life, and that she took singing lessons from a
travelling preacher, Reverend Wallace Meade, at a small school in the community of Kirk, Mingo
County. The Bailey School, as it was known, was under the
direction of Tilda Meade. Mrs. Nelson and her husband, George Nelson, operated a small store in the community of Kirk.
--Chris Haddox, June 2021