Kate Toney

It is not an overstatement to say that Kate Toney of southwestern West Virginia was one of the greatest of American traditional singers.  Not only did she have an exceptionally fine voice for the singing of unaccompanied ballads and songs, but she also holds something of a record, we believe, for the breadth and depth of her repertoire.

It is hard to imagine how University of West Virginia professor Louis Chappell, an experienced collector of folk music, must have felt when at the end of one day in Kitchen, Logan County, on 9 August 1940 he had recorded seventy-nine of her songs. Mrs. Jane Hicks Gentry of Hot Springs, North Carolina, an area renowned for the quality and breadth of its balladry, gave the visiting English song collectors Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles seventy songs in the course of several visits between August 1916 and July 1917; and she is now famous for being able to sing that many songs and ballads. There are no audio recordings of Mrs. Gentry but she was said to have had a lovely voice. As of now few people have had the opportunity to hear Kate Toney but when they do we think scholars and expert singers alike will agree that Kate’s voice and her repertoire easily put her in a class with Mrs. Gentry.

On that day in 1940 Kate Toney sang a broad array of Child ballads and other songs brought to Appalachia from English, Irish, and Scottish emigrants (including a late seventeenth century one that has only been found in an 1854 Irish publication and in just one other field recording), many quite old American folk songs, nineteenth century composed songs she apparently learned from schoolbooks kept in her family, and several local historical ballads. We are fortunate indeed that Mr. Chappell didn’t run out of aluminum recording disks that day.

And on those disks we can often hear the sound of the whistles of coal trains passing through the Kitchen coal camp as Kate Toney sang.

Kate came from a singing family. In 1916 when he was only twenty years old and living at Queens Ridge in Wayne County, Decker Toney who was the son of her sister and himself a farmer and rural school teacher, contributed texts of seven songs and ballads to John Harrington Cox during one of his collecting trips, and these appear in Cox’s 1925 book Folk-Songs of the South. All but one of these are ones that Kate sang as well and Decker credits his mother and his aunt for teaching all of them to him and he says they went back several generations in the family.

Kate Toney, the daughter of Thomas Patterson Moore and his wife Hannah Ross Moore, was born to a farming family on 10 February 1875 in the Grant district of Wayne County. On 23 March 1889 she married Samuel Morrison of Harts Creek in Lincoln County but the marriage was short-lived and in 1892 she married Isaac “Ike” Griffith Toney, also of Harts Creek. They lived there for some years with Mr. Toney working as a farmer but by 1917 they were eight miles away in Kitchen, Logan County, where he worked as a blacksmith for the Guyandotte Coal Company; he continued on with that work at Kitchen at least until 1930. 

Ike Toney died on 28 April 1940, four months before Kate sang for Louis Chappell. He was buried near Harts at Manns Knob Cemetery and when Kate died on 15 May 1944 she was interred there near him. 

—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, 21 February 2021.

Sources:  Gloria Goodwin 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 the West Virginia University Library’s West Virginia and Regional History Center.

The Hunt for Kate's Grave

My first introduction to Kate’s singing came in 1991. I had recently learned the fiddle tune ‘Young Edward,’ and recalled seeing in John Cuthbert’s book on the Chappell Collection at West Virginia University that Kate Toney had sung a selection of the same name. I made my way to Colson Hall on the WVU campus where the collection was housed, requested the appropriate reel of tape and eventually landed on Young Edward. As it turned out, the melody Kate sang was not the same as the fiddle tune I played, but it mattered not—I was mesmerized by Kate’s singing and I was determined right then and there to learn more about Kate.

Having grown up in Logan, I was very familiar with the community of Kitchen near the Logan and Lincoln County line. I knew a few folks from that general area and started putting out some feelers for information on Kate, specifically looking for anyone who may have known her, pictures of her, or other home recordings of her singing. My efforts yielded nothing.  Over the years I would ask around again, would search the internet, in hopes that something would turn up.  

The week of June 24, 2019, I was in southern West Virginia teaching a songwriting class at the Wyoming County 4-H camp. As my class was in the morning and I had no other obligations for the day, I had plenty of time to explore and reacquaint myself with places I had not visited in years. As local history expert, Brandon Ray Kirk, had directed me to the final resting place of Peter Henry Hill, I thought I’d reach out to see if he knew where Kate Toney might be buried.  

Brandon and I had communicated in a hit and miss fashion for a year or so. I’d read something on his history blog, then reach out to him, then I’d get onto something else. We had never met in person up to this point, and would not until later in this 2019 summer.  

I reached out to Brandon and he first directed me to a Toney cemetery not far down the river from Kitchen. The area was known as Toney Addition and it made sense to look here. I have to say at this point that I was not well-adept at using online genealogy resources, otherwise some of the wild goose chases on which I embarked could have been avoided!  The Toney Cemetery Brandon referenced seemed easy enough to find. Go to Toney Addition, turn right onto Farmer Road, follow it up the hill and you’ll see it on your right. Indeed, while there was some hesitation at tackling a very steep section of Farmer Road in the small rental car I was driving, I  found the cemetery. I initially drove past it and ended up at a beautiful cemetery farther on up the hillside. After poking around in there and not finding any Toneys, I headed back down the hill and saw the cemetery, now on my left. It was small, tucked in between a small cluster of homes, and not well maintained, but not so overgrown to significantly hinder exploration. While I’m always leery of dogs, the only critters stirring in this setting were some pet rabbits and ducks. Finding several Toneys, but not a grave for Kate, I proceeded back to the car and returned to Wyoming County for the evening.  

On the way I reached out to Gloria Goodwin Raheja, another partner in this project, to see what she had as Kate’s resting place. Gloria and I had been e-introduced on Facebook by a mutual friend only a few days earlier on June 22, 2019 on account that I knew where Dick Justice was buried. Gloria was probably the most knowledgeable person on the planet when it came to Dick and his music, having met with his family years ago in Logan, but she, as they, thought the grave had long since been destroyed by mining activity in the Rum Creek area. 

As I, Gloria was also a fan of Kate’s singing, and had been researching her for years. She wondered, too, about the location of Kate’s grave, and if there was any other information about her. Like a good detective, Gloria had pieced together a profile of Kate from information she had found on Toney family genealogical sites, finding a good deal on Kate’s parents, but when it came to Kate herself, the trail had gone cold. I figured Gloria would at least have a location for Kate’s grave, even though the site many use for such information, Find A Grave, is sometimes fraught with misinformation (as was the case with another project personality, Eldridge Hutchison). Gloria texted me back that she had Kate buried at Manns Knob Cemetery. 

Armed with this information, I called Brandon and as expected, he knew right where Manns Knob Cemetery was located—up Little Harts. He had documented several graves in that cemetery, but was not familiar with Kate’s stone. As I’d be passing by Little Harts in a few days on my way to workshop in Huntington, I decided to head on back to Wyoming County and leave Kate’s grave for the drive to Huntington.    

A few days later I turned up Little Harts and kept an eye out for Manns Knob Road on my left.  As I drove my mind drifted back to the mid-1960s when as a kid I would visit this area to stay with the family of Burl Farley while my parents were out of town. I remember Brownings and Farleys all up and down Big and Little Harts. I remembered swimming holes in the creeks, little country churches, shelvin’ rocks, outhouses, and party lines. I could not place any particular place, but in my mind I could see all of the parts that I knew lay around where I was now driving. 

Before long I saw the turn for Manns Knob and proceeded up the steep dirt and gravel road. It is not unusual to see hand-made signs that just say ‘cemetery’ tacked to a tree, along with an arrow pointing down some side road from an intersection. While I saw one of those in short order, I decided to keep ascending as the Knob moniker suggested.  Before too long I came to a clearing and could see that I had reached a summit of sorts. There before me was proof that I had—a lone fire tower from long ago. For a minute I forgot why I was even up on what I now supposed to be Manns Knob, so taken with the fire tower was I!  

Reaching the fire tower, I exited my car and looked around. The road forked into three at this point and it was unclear which direction to head. The nearest house I could see was about 500’ away. I scanned the area for dogs and made myself visible to anyone who might have been watching from a window, waving at no one I could see, then waited to no avail for some sort of response. 

Unclear which forks were public roads and which were private drives, I got back in the car and headed down what appeared to be a public road. In a while the road started descending and I returned to the fire tower. Having grown up visiting and climbing the famous Blair Mountain firetower, I decided that this Manns Knob tower needed climbing. The lumber on the stairs seemed in decent enough shape, but I’d stay to the edges just in case. The steel seemed solid and, perhaps my biggest concern, there were not any visible hornet nests hanging from the infrastructure. The weeds were dense around the base of the tower, so I checked carefully for snakes before taking each step, reaching the first stairway without incident. Up, up, and up I went. The cabin was intact and solid.  From up there I could see the entire world. Surely I could spot any nearby cemetery from this vantage point! I was mistaken. 

For anyone who has never been in the hills of southern WV at the height of summer, it can be hard to understand the thickness of the vegetation. I later came to learn that the cemetery lay a short 2,000’ from the tower (red star in the photo below), but on this trip it was hidden by the thick forest cover.   

As I needed to be in Huntington before too long, I had to abandon my search. I’d reach out to Brandon and let him know what I did find, and trust that he would tell me I was almost there!

Once back home in Morgantown, I contacted Gloria to let her know I’d come up short on finding Kate’s grave, but that I did find the grave of Peter Henry Hill (see Pete Hill page). I indicated that if she could get back down this way, I’d gladly return to the area for more hunting. We decided to connect up later in the summer and on August 3, 2019, I picked Gloria up in Charleston, WV and we proceeded to Logan for a few days of exploration.  Shortly after 3:00 p.m. that afternoon we connected with Brandon Ray Kirk…the first any of us had met in person. By 4:00 the Manns Knob Fire Tower was once again in view, and Brandon steered the car down the correct road (the one road I had ruled as a private drive) and to the gates of the Manns Knob Cemetery.  We fanned out and in short order found this simple gravestone of Katie Toney. 

Photograph by Chris Haddox, August 3, 2019.  L-R…Gloria Goodwin Raheja, Chris Haddox, Brandon Ray Kirk

The woman whose singing had captured our hearts and imaginations was still somewhat of a mystery to us.  It would take two more years of sleuthing to find a picture of Kate.  

-Written by Chris Haddox, 5/27/2021

The Hunt for a Picture of Kate Toney

On February 19, 2021, I received an email from my colleague, Gloria Goodwin Raheja. This particular email contained a short biography of Catherine Bell ‘Kate or Katie’ Toney. It was one of many bios Gloria had generously agreed to write for this project. After all, aside from John Cuthbert at the WV and Regional History Center, Gloria had probably researched Kate more than anyone else had over the years in preparation for her book on many of the folk artists who appeared in the Chappell Collection of sound archives at the Center. The biography was crafted from information gleaned from public records, as well as from some family history trees Gloria had followed for years. 

As I read the short bio, I was reminded of that first time I heard Kate sing and recounted some of that in my response to Gloria. I also wrote to her, “what we would both give to find a picture of her!” Gloria responded a few minutes later with these words, “If there were just one remaining thing I could wish for, for my book, it would be a photograph of Kate Toney.” 

Attached to Gloria’s reply were three photographs. In a way that seemed almost an after thought, Gloria had attached three pictures she had taken of Cuthbert’s notes from his 1981 trip to Logan in search of more information on Kate Toney. Gloria mistakenly assumed I had seen those before. The hand written notes contained several names and phone numbers. I immediately emailed Gloria to ask if she had ever called any of those numbers, to which she replied, “No, the numbers were so old that I couldn’t get up the courage to do it.” This surprised me, because I didn’t figure Gloria to be one lacking in courage in any way—this woman who had travelled to Logan years ago and started knocking on doors to learn great details about other musicians in this collection. 

I replied that I would start calling the numbers! First, I made a call to Mr. Jamie Bell—the father of a Morgantown friend and who resided in Big Creek, just near Kitchen—Kate’s place of residence when she was recorded by Chappell in 1940.  Mr. Bell recognized some of the names I read to him from Cuthbert’s notes. There were some Toney names, and Jamie explained to me who they were, as well as who was still alive and who had passed. I read him a number of one of the Toneys he said was alive and well, and sure enough it was the same number Cuthbert had scribbled down 40 years ago. 

Looking more closely at the notes I saw where Cuthbert had indicated one person as being Kate’s daughter. Mr. Bell recognized the name and told me that she was long passed, but that her daughter, who would be Kate’s granddaughter, was alive and well, in her mid-90s by now, but sharp as a tack. He'd not seen her in several months due to the COVID pandemic. He was sure she’d take a call from me, then proceeded to provide me with her phone number. If I ever had an Oh, My God moment, it was then.   

Though sometimes quiet, I’m not that shy, so I called the number provided, not sure how I’d introduce myself, but trusting that I’d say the right thing at the right moment. A woman’s voice greeted me, and I simply said, “Hi, my name is Chris Haddox and I grew up I Logan. Jamie Bell told me that you might be able to help me out. I’m a musician and am working on an odd music history project that has led me to this phone number. I am trying to find information about a wonderful singer named Kate Toney and I think Mrs. Ernestine Workman is Kate’s granddaughter.” The woman responded that she was Kate Toney--our Kate’s great-granddaughter! We chatted for a bit with me relating more about this project and the infatuation I had with her great-grandmother’s singing, and her relating some knowledge about Kate’s singing, but not knowing the full details. The family had some idea that Kate had been recorded at some point by someone, they thought from Nashville or something, and that she had sung her own songs—not the stellar collection of old world ballads Kate offered up to Louis Watson Chappell on that August day in 1940. I inquired about speaking to her mother, Kate’s granddaughter, who would have been around 14 at the time Kate was recorded by Chappell. She told me I could call back later in the day, that her mother was taking a nap at the moment.   

Call back I did and reached another of her daughters, Sherrie. Sherrie asked her mom some questions I had…any details about Kate or the day of the recording (sadly, Chappell did not provide any notes on the session other than the date and location). Of course, I really wanted a picture and when I asked that, there was some back and forth between Sherrie and her mom, then came the response, “I don’t think we have any pictures of granny Kate.” My heart sunk. After all these years of searching and to be this close, I was going to come up empty handed. We chatted some more and I asked Sherrie if I could send her a few recordings of her great grandmother singing, along with the bio Gloria had penned, just in case some other details might come to light. Sherrie provided an email address and I forwarded the information.

Three weeks later I was preparing to leave work, but decided to send a 'just checking in' email to Sherrie as I had not heard back from her about the bio or the songs. On my way home I stopped a a local music store for some guitar strings. As I was standing at the counter my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number calling, but did recognize it as a Kitchen area number, so answered it. “Chris?  This is Sherrie.  Mom found a picture of granny Kate and I sent it to that email you used to send me the sound file and biography.  Needless to say, I about fell on the floor. Quickly wrapping up my business at the store, I rushed home, opened my email, and was greeted with a picture of Kate—a cell phone camera picture of a framed picture of Kate. I don’t know that I had any particular image of what she may have looked like, and it mattered not—what I was looking at was perfect! In the accompanying email, Sherrie told me that her mom stated that she never heard Granny Kate sing, but that she remembers her always reading from her Bible. She also recalled that Granny Kate had been badly bitten in the face by a dog at some point in her life, and that the recordings had taken place somewhere in Logan, and that the two men who came to get her for the recordings treated her to a very nice lunch."  

Once it had sunk in that I was looking at a picture of Catherine Bell 'Katie' Toney, I reached out to my colleagues Gloria, Brandon, and in this case, Ronald, via Messenger. I asked them if they were ready for a 'are you sitting down?' moment. Once all had chimed in that they were ready, I sent the picture of Kate. There were comparisons of her looks to her mother and father (we had pictures of them). There was talk of celebrating with cheap champagne from the corner drugstore. There was a collective sigh of joy that another piece of the puzzle had been found, and that the beautifully haunting voice of Kate Toney now had a face attached to it.   

I suppose a lesson learned from all of this is to keep turning over stones and don’t overlook the work of those who have come before you. So many times it appeared that the trail had petered out for good, only to reappear when viewed through a different lens.  

-Written by Chris Haddox, 5/27/2021


Listen to Kate Toney sing for Louis Watson Chappell in 1940:

Kate Toney Music Collection

-recordings used with permission from the West Virginia and Regional History Center