Mrs. Mary Jane Dyson

On 28 August 1940 Professor Louis Chappell of West Virginia University visited Mary Jane Dyson at Lundale in Logan County, set up his aluminum disk recording equipment, and recorded fifteen of her unaccompanied songs.  Chappell reported that she was eighty-six years old at that time.  Although it does seem that by then the quality of her singing voice had diminished somewhat, her memory of the old songs was mostly intact; she sang full versions of most of her ballads, which is a bit unusual even for many much younger singers.  When I began listening to those recordings, all I knew was that Chappell had found her in that coal camp on Buffalo Creek but by the time I finished I felt certain that she had come there from North Carolina; her repertoire included a number of songs that, although they eventually came to be more widely known later on, dealt with events in North Carolina.  And she also sang much older English/Irish/Scottish songs that came to Appalachia in the early eighteenth century with emigrants from the Old World, including some ancient lines that went into the making of Pretty Saro, a ballad found in America most often in North Carolina.

She began by singing Lady Gay for Chappell, the title given to her version of The Wife of Usher’s Well, a ballad about which Peggy Seeger said this: “This British ballad (Child No. 79) has been found much more in America than in the British Isles. It is one of the great favourites among mountain women, who feel deeply the cruelty of the mother who ‘sent her babes way off yonder over the mountains to study their grammer.’”  The boys die after being sent away to school and return as ghosts to bid their mother farewell; they take leave of her, though she begs them to stay.  Almost all of Mary Jane Dyson’s songs center on such tragedies and losses—abandonment, inequality, and men’s cruelty to women—and one would not be wrong to surmise that she had had a difficult life. 

Mary Jane Wainscott Dyson was indeed born in North Carolina, on 2 May 1855 in Wilkes County, to a single mother in difficult circumstances. For some years her mother Rebecca Wainscott supported herself and Mary Jane by working as a seamstress.  In 1874 Mary Jane married Andrew Jefferson Dyson to whom she a number children before being divorced from him sometime before 1910.  In the 1910 and 1920 censuses she stated that she was the head of household and working on a farm with her daughter and grand daughters. By 1930 she had moved to Lundale in West Virginia with her son Rumless Dyson, where he was employed as a teamster in a coal mine and in 1940 when Chappell found her, she was still in Lundale and although the census information is somewhat confusing, it appears that she was at that time living with her grandson Ray Pete Dyson, son of Rumless, who was working at the mine tipple.

Mary Jane Wainscott Dyson died on 9 May 1943 in Mountain City, Tennessee and was buried there in the Donnelly Cemetery. 

—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, February 2021.

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 the West Virginia University Library’s West Virginia and Regional History Center.


Listen to Mrs. Dyson sing for Louis Watson Chappell in 1940

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