3 Ozark Music

Justin R. Hunter

The United States of America is home to a variety of regional and culturally significant music forms. From hip hop scenes in Los Angeles, to mariachi in San Antonio, to Cajun music in New Orleans, music represents more than just sounds. Music is also a marker of identity.

The Ozark Region of the United States is home to regional music transplanted from Appalachia and the British Isles. Ozark music, to some, would sound nothing more than “bluegrass” or “Appalachian folk tunes”, but this music is specific to the region and pulls on its ancestry from other traditions. Sonically it may be difficult to hear any difference, but lyrically, there are some important elements that American balladry uses versus Irish/Scottish balladry. Ozark-specific American ballads distinguish themselves even further.

Ozark Mountains Relief Map
Relief map of the Ozarks” by Tosborn is licensed under Public Domain.

The Ozarks stretch from St. Louis, Missouri, south and west to Mountain View, Arkansas, and  Northwest Arkansas. Ozarksmusic includes many musics imported through time, but also has local characteristics demonstrated below. A common element to American folk music and prevalent in the Ozarks are ballads. For popular music produced today, a ballad is typically a slow love song, but traditionally a ballad is narrative song.  Similar to the poetic “ballad form,” balladry is defined by particular rhyming and couplet schemes. Most ballads in the Americas and their Irish/Scottish ancestors, follow a strict ABAB couplet form. Note that the four-line couplets are set with a rhyme on the second and fourth lines. This pattern continues throughout the song.


Couplets in music are similar to couplets used in poetry. These lines of text/lyrics often appear as paired lines that usually rhyme and employ the same meter. These rhyming lines are often arranged as “closed” or “open.” Closed couplets include grammatical pauses between lines indicated by periods or other punctuation. Open couples often carry the idea of line one into line two.



Title: “Barbara Allen”
Artist: Pete Seeger
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9-YK798oU0
Year: 2015
Language: English
Origin: United States / British Isles
Lyrics: In Scarlet town where I was born
There was a fair maid dwellin’
Made many a youth cry well a day
And her name was Barbara Allen
Twas in the merry month of May
When greenbuds they were swellin’
Sweet William came from the west country
And he courted Barabara Allen
He set his servant unto her
To the place she was dwellin’
Said my master’s sick, bids me call for you
If your name be Barbara Allen
Well slowly, slowly got she up
And slowly went she nigh him
But all she said as she passed his bed
Young man I think your dyin’
Then likely tripped she down the stairs
She heard those church bells tolin’
And each bell seemed to say as it told
Hard hearted Barbara Allen
Oh mother mother go make your bed
And make it long and narrow
Sweet William died for me today
I’ll day for him tomorrow
They buried Barabara in the old church yard
They buried sweet William beside her
Out of his grave grew a red red rose
And out of her’s a briar
They grew and grew up the old church wall
Till they could grow no higher
And at the top twined in a lover’s knot
The red rose and the briar

“Barbara Allen” is an example of old-world balladry. Full of vague references but vivid with imagery and poetic understanding. The “Scarlet town” is not a specific place, and for that matter, neither is Barabara Allen a specific person in history. The story is meant to use the imagery of the rose and briar as any couple that may have lovers who may be unrequited or who may be sweet and difficult. This vagary helps the tradition to bring the music anywhere and at any time, the songs become timeless.

New world balladry are songs that came with Irish and Scottish settlers to the Americas and are either newly composed or reinterpretations of old-world ballads. A key difference is the inclusion of specific details on time, place, and people. For example, the song below is a beloved Ozark tune. If you are from Northwest Arkansas, you will know many of the towns described. If you are not from that area, you can trace the towns on a map as the singer describes the story.

Title: “Harrison Town”
Artist: Wayne Cantwell
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vbWZZi2nzA
Year: 2015
Language: English
Origin: United States of America
Lyrics: All you rambling, gambling boys
Wherever you may be
Come listen to my story
Shun bad company
I know I’ve been a curious lad
I know I’ve broke the law
But I’ll stand by to hear them shout
For me in Arkansas
As I rode down to Harrison town
A couple of days ago
I turned my face toward the west
To Eureka I did go
The Harrison crowd that followed me
They knew I’d have no doubt,
I will lye in the Berryville jail
Before the week was out
They captured me on Kings River, boys
I might have killed the crowd
If it had not been for the ball and chain
That rang so clear and loud
My ma, she came and scorned at me
She said to shut my jaw
There’s never been a worser man
In the hills of Arkansas
They took me down to Berryville, boys
Stood before the courts of law
I took my ride by the marshal’s side
Down to Little Rock, Arkansas
Oh you rambling gambling boys
Here what stands over my case
That is a horse, a big bay horse
That I rode in the race
There is one thing that I’ve left out
To you I’m going to tell
And that is the girl, the pretty little girl
That I did love so well
If ever I gain my liberty
Have bread and meat to chaw
I’ll settle down with a blue-eyed girl
from Carroll County, Arkansas


While balladry is very important in American folk music and in Ozark traditions, these musics are more commonly associated with instrumental music. There are three main instruments of Ozark music: the fiddle, banjo, and mountain dulcimer. The fiddle and banjo are often accompanied by guitars, basses, and other incidental instruments while the dulcimer is often a solo instrument, an accompaniment instrument to songs, or used in a dulcimer ensemble.

The fiddle is a transplant from Irish and Scottish culture brought to North America. Fiddles are constructed in the same manner as violins, but the playing style, musical characteristics, and social aspects of the instrument are different. The banjo is also a transplant instrument based on an instrument of West Africa. As African slaves were brought to the Americas, the akonting of the Jola people (now predominantly from Gambia), is likely the ancestor to the American banjo. Finally, the mountain dulcimer is a wholly unique American-made instrument. This zither, played on the lap or a tabletop, developed as a rural instrument in the mountains of Appalachia.

Mountain Dulcimer

Title: “I’ll Fly Away”
Artist: David Durrence
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZWZ7KpB5Zg
Year: 2011
Language: n/a
Origin: United States of America


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Music in World Cultures by Justin R. Hunter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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