“Cumberland Gap is a noted place …” is but one line from a many-tiered Appalachian folk song that most sources say was written in the last half of the nineteenth century. It is a line that speaks volumes about Cumberland Gap and its place in history. The brave deeds related to Cumberland Gap in pioneer times and Civil War days were likely in the thoughts of those who wrote and re-wrote this song that has persisted now for parts of three centuries.
In his book, The Wilderness Road, Dr. Robert L. Kincaid identified Sam Lambdin as a left-handed young fiddler who made up the words and matched the music when he and fellow soldiers sat around the campfires in George Morgan’s army. Lambdin had been a Union loyalist living in Tennessee until he joined other volunteers at Barbourville in 1861.
The song was introduced by being played on a fiddle; however, well-known versions of the song include instrumental versions with banjo, guitar, and fiddle as well as those with lyrics. And, the lyrics vary, sometimes incorporating the refrain, “Lay down boys and take a little nap, They’re raisin’ hell in Cumberland Gap,” and perhaps more often including “Lay down boys and take a little nap, Fourteen miles to the Cumberland Gap.”
Most versions of the song over the years have included mention of key historical events in the Gap’s pioneer period and the battle for control of the Gap during the Civil War. For example, Dr. Walker is identified as “the first white man in Cumberland Gap.” The verses also refer to Daniel Boone, to the major leaders of the battles during the Civil War, and to the “yankees” and “rebels” who fought for the advantages the Gap offered them as their battles continued and control changed hands more than once.
The earliest known recording of “Cumberland Gap” was a 1924 instrumental version by a Tennessean, Fiddler Ambrose G. Stuart, also known as “Uncle Am.” In 1933, a field recording of the song was completed by a Harlan, Kentucky, fiddler known as “Blind” James Howard. This recording was conducted by John Lomax who published his findings in his 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs. The Howard version of the song was recorded for the Library of Congress.
Many other artists have recorded the song through the years, some as recent as five years ago. Names that are recognizable to those who enjoy American folk songs, country music, and ballads include Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Don Reno and Red Smiley (with possibly the first blue grass version), Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and Old Crow Medicine Show. At least thirty-three recordings of the song followed that first one in 1924.
In 1957, British singer Lonnie Donegan with his Skiffle Band enjoyed major attention when their version of “Cumberland Gap” ranked number one on British music charts for five consecutive weeks in April and May of that year! A year or two before that, Donegan had a hit record in America with “Rock Island Line.” Skiffle has been called a modern folk-country-blues hybrid that harkens back to the 1920s in the United States. In the New Orleans jazz scene at the time, common household items were used as some of the musical instruments (washboard, musical saws, and paper kazoos, for example). Other than Donegan, few gained fame from the skiffle style although future stars including the Beatles first performed as part of skiffle bands.
The late United States Senator Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, was identified as a Mountain Fiddler when he was persuaded to preserve a number of old-time songs on a long-playing album in 1978. He selected “Cumberland Gap,” “Cripple Creek,” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken” as some of his favorite old-time string music to include on the album. The Senator acquired a love of fiddling at an early age growing up in the mountains of West Virginia. He gained fame by serving in the Senate under eleven Presidents and for eleven years as U.S. Senate Majority Leader.
Maybe today’s generation of musicians will declare anew that “Cumberland Gap is a noted place …” and add lines that pay tribute to the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Last year alone the Park attracted 900,000 visitors who wanted to know more about the significant American history and to enjoy the great natural beauty associated with our part of the country.
William H. Baker, Claiborne County native and former Middlesboro resident, may be contacted at [email protected]