-Image of Sarah Workman provided to John Cuthbert by the Workman family in 1981. Used with permission of John Cuthbert.
On 16 August 1940 West Virginia University English professor
Louis Chappell recorded Christopher Columbus “Lum” Pack’s beautifully poignant singing
in a grocery store/tavern in Atenville at Harts in Lincoln County. In August 2019, seventy-nine years later, Mr.
Pack’s great granddaughter, Jewell Pack Frye, recalled that he had informed Chappell
that he often sang with his niece Sarah Elizabeth Pack Workman, and he urged
Chappell to record them together. So on
22 August the professor returned to Harts, Lum Pack took him to fetch Sarah,
Chappell recorded more of Pack’s songs, and Sarah does indeed sing along with
him, rather quietly, on some of them.
And then Chappell turned his attention to Sarah’s unaccompanied singing and
recorded a treasure trove of twenty-two of her beautifully rendered songs.
Among the first songs she sang that day was Sally Wells, derived from eighteenth century English broadside ballads usually called The Sailor from Dover or Sally and Billy. The old broadsides and Sarah’s version narrate the story of “a fair damsel from London” who spurns the advances of a suitor but later, in Sarah’s words, becomes “tangled in love” and bids him return, whereupon he rebuffs her and will not forgive and forget. And she replies by saying “I’m going to the grave where it’s colder than clay/For my red rosy cheeks will soon moulder away.”
After that Sarah sang Locks and Bolts, a song dating back to 1690 in England, about parents who lock up their daughter because she loves a poor man. And she sang George Collins (Child ballad 85), an old British ballad about a woman mourning the death of her lover, though her mother blithely tells her “Daughter oh daughter don’t take it so hard, there’s more young men than one.” She sang John Brumfield, an early twentieth century local West Virginia ballad about the murder in Logan of “a boy we all know well.” And there was Drowsy Sleeper, an eighteenth-century English and Scottish song in which a woman and her lover come to grief when her parents oppose their union.
Chappell must have been thrilled when she sang a striking
version of Lord Randal (Child 12) that she called Willie My Son. It’s a Scottish border ballad that dates back
at least to 1709 but is likely to be much older. The professor recorded sixteen more equally
lovely ballads and songs that day, most in quite full versions, and they were
sung in a clear and ringing and confident and tuneful voice that rivals the
best in any Appalachian unaccompanied ballad field recordings. And we can often hear the whistles of coal
trains passing through Atenville on that August day, as she sang some of those
Sarah Elizabeth Pack Workman was born at Harts in Logan
County on 8 January 1884, to William Pack, a farmer, and Rhoda Browning Pack,
originally from Wayne County. In 1901
she married William Frederick Workman, who at the time of his death in 1950 was
a retired coal miner. They were
sometimes living in the Grant district in Wayne County, where Mr. Workman was
employed by a lumber company in 1917 and where he was working as a farmer in 1920
and 1930. But by 1935 they were at Harts
Creek in Lincoln County and in 1940 he was a laborer with the Works Progress
Administration there, as were many of his neighbors. Sarah Workman died at the age of seventy-one
at Harts Creek on 17 March 1957 and is buried in the Henry and Nancy Dalton Workman Family Cemetery on Kiahs Creek
in Wayne County.
—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, February 2021, with the assistance of Brandon Kirk in identifying which of the several Sarah Pack Workman women in Lincoln and Wayne counties was the singer Chappell recorded that day. Professor Kirk’s extensive knowledge of the local history of southwestern West Virginia informed much of my genealogical research on this singer.
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 at West Virginia University Library’s West Virginia and Regional History Center, and an interview conducted by Brandon Kirk (with Raheja and Chris Haddox assisting) with Jewell Pack Frye.
A visit to Sarah's grave at the Workman Cemetery on Kiah's Creek in Wayne County
-Photographs of Workman Cemetery and Sarah Workman stone by Chris Haddox, 2021. Thanks to Brandon Ray Kirk for leading me to this cemetery.
Watch a video of a little banjo tune by Sarah's grave
Listen to Sarah Workman sing for Louis Watson Chappell of West Virginia University in 1940 at Harts Creek, Lincoln County, WV. All songs used with permission of the West Virginia and Regional History Center
Sarah Workman singing The Hatfield Song
Sarah Workman singing Locks and Bolts
Sarah Workman singing Stay at Home Dear Billy
Sarah Workman singing Sally Wells