Sarah Workman

On 16 August 1940 West Virginia University English professor Louis Chappell recorded Christopher Columbus “Lum” Pack’s beautifully poignant singing in a grocery store/tavern in Atenville at Harts in Lincoln County.  In August 2019, seventy-nine years later, Mr. Pack’s great granddaughter, Jewell Pack Frye, recalled that he (Lum) had informed Chappell that he often sang with his niece Sarah Elizabeth Pack Workman, and he urged Chappell to record them together.  So on 22 August, 1940, Chappell returned to Harts to record more of Pack's songs, and to capture Sarah singing with Lum. Sarah does indeed sing along with him, rather quietly, on some of them.  Afterwards, Chappell turned his attention to Sarah’s unaccompanied singing and recorded a treasure trove of twenty-two of her beautifully rendered songs. 

Among the first songs she sang that day was Sally Wells, derived from eighteenth century English broadside ballads usually called The Sailor from Dover or Sally and Billy.  The old broadsides and Sarah’s version narrate the story of “a fair damsel from London” who spurns the advances of a suitor but later, in Sarah’s words, becomes “tangled in love” and bids him return, whereupon he rebuffs her and will not forgive and forget.  And she replies by saying “I’m going to the grave where it’s colder than clay/For my red rosy cheeks will soon moulder away.” 

After that Sarah sang Locks and Bolts, a song dating back to 1690 in England, about parents who lock up their daughter because she loves a poor man.  And she sang George Collins (Child ballad 85), an old British ballad about a woman mourning the death of her lover, though her mother blithely tells her “Daughter oh daughter don’t take it so hard, there’s more young men than one.” She sang John Brumfield, an early twentieth century local West Virginia ballad about the murder in Logan of “a boy we all know well.” And there was Drowsy Sleeper, an eighteenth-century English and Scottish song in which a woman and her lover come to grief when her parents oppose their union. 

Chappell must have been thrilled when she sang a striking version of Lord Randal (Child 12) that she called Willie My Son.  It’s a Scottish border ballad that dates back at least to 1709 but is likely to be much older.  The professor recorded sixteen more equally lovely ballads and songs that day, most in quite full versions, and they were sung in a clear and ringing and confident and tuneful voice that rivals the best in any Appalachian unaccompanied ballad field recordings.  And we can often hear the whistles of coal trains passing through Atenville on that August day, as she sang some of those ancient ballads.

Sarah Elizabeth Pack Workman was born at Harts in Logan County on 8 January 1886, to William Pack, a farmer, and Rhoda Browning Pack, originally from Wayne County.  In 1901 she married William Frederick Workman, who at the time of his death in 1950 was a retired coal miner.  They were sometimes living in the Grant district in Wayne County, where Mr. Workman was employed by a lumber company in 1917 and where he was working as a farmer in 1920 and 1930.  But by 1935 they were at Harts Creek in Lincoln County and in 1940 he was a laborer with the Works Progress Administration there, as were many of his neighbors.  Sarah Workman died at the age of seventy-one at Harts Creek on 17 March 1957 and is buried in the Henry and Nancy Dalton Workman Family Cemetery on Kiahs Creek in Wayne County.

 —Gloria Goodwin Raheja, February 2021, with the assistance of Brandon Kirk in identifying which of the several Sarah Pack Workman women in Lincoln and Wayne counties was the singer Chappell recorded that day.  Professor Kirk’s extensive knowledge of the local history of southwestern West Virginia informed much of my genealogical research on this singer.

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 West Virginia University Library’s West Virginia and Regional History Center, and an interview conducted by Brandon Kirk (with Raheja and Chris Haddox assisting) with Jewell Pack Frye.  

A visit to Sarah's grave at the Workman Cemetery on Kiah's Creek in Wayne County

Watch a video of a little banjo tune by Sarah's grave

Listen to Sarah Workman sing for Louis Watson Chappell of in 1940 at Harts Creek, Lincoln County, WV:

Sarah Workman Music Collection