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 lovelier melody.

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

Listen to Mrs. Nelson sing for Louis Watson Chappell in August, 1940

Mrs. Rhoda Nelson Music Collection

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

See and hear a musical offering for Mrs. Nelson

On May 6, 2021, I visited the grave of Mrs. Nelson at the Nelson-Prince Cemetery in Kirk, Mingo County, WV, and offered up a small musical tribute.  One of the selections she sang for Louis Watson Chappell was the song, One Morning in May.  This song is also a popular fiddle tune in West Virginia.  

Fiddling a tune for Mrs. George Nelson