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Wednesday, 23 April 2014 14:19

Behind the ballad of Kidder Cole

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backthenJudge Felix E. Alley (1873-1957) was a native of Whiteside Cove, near Cashiers and Highlands. During most of his legal career as an attorney and superior court judge, he resided in Waynesville and served, on occasion, as the attorney for Swain and other counties. He was the author of Random Thoughts and the Musings of a Mountaineer (1941). 

 

An accomplished banjo player, Alley was 16 years old when he started composing a ballad about a young lady named Kidder Cole. The ballad became immensely popular. A recording by the renowned Western North Carolina musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford still turns up on traditional radio playlists across the country. 

The story behind the song was uncovered by John Parris, who interviewed Alley in 1955 for one of his columns that appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. The column was subsequently reprinted in Parris’s first book, Mountain Bred (1967), and in the chapter on mountain folklore that he contributed to The History of Jackson County (1987).  

Kidder Cole’s father was a merchant in the Cashiers area and later the high sheriff of Jackson County. The dance that sparked the contest for Kidder’s attention was held at the home of Charles Grimshawe, a physician from England, who had settled in Cashiers. 

“Young Felix was late in arriving at the dance,” Parris recorded. “And through the doorway he saw, to his bitter disappointment, that Kidder Cole had been claimed by his cousin, Charley Wright. Charley was bigger than Felix, and he let it be known right away that Kidder had promised him all the dances that night.

“’Before the night was over,’ Judge Alley recalled, ‘I had commenced composing the ballad. While Charley danced away the night with Kidder I reeled off stanza after stanza of the ballad.’”

In reality, Alley composed the ballad over a period of several months. But did he actually win “the belle of the mountains?” 

When quizzed on that point by Parris, he replied: “‘Why, no, neither Charley Wright nor I won the heart and hand of Kidder Cole, although the ballad indicates I was the lucky one.’”

Of peripheral interest, to some, will be the fact that, when he was serving as county judge for Swain County, Alley stayed in the Cooper House in Bryson City and thereby became a friend (and early critic) of Horace Kephart.

From 1910 until 1931, Kephart resided at the Cooper House just off the town square. During court weeks, it provided a congenial setting for room and board as well as after-hours gossip and fellowship. Alley considered “Our Southern Highlanders, by the late Horace Kephart, and the Carolina Mountains, by Miss Margaret Morley [to be] far and away the best books that have been written about the mountains of Western North Carolina.” 

“For what they have said,” Alley continued in his Random Thoughts and the Musings of a Mountaineer, “about the mountains themselves, their forests, their minerals, their countless varieties of shrubs and flowers, as well as their magnificent scenery and incomparable climate, we are deeply indebted to them …   

“Mr. Kephart resided here about eighteen years [actually, about twenty-five], the last fifteen [twenty-one] of which he lived in the Cooper House in Bryson City. During that period I spent at least six weeks of every year at Bryson City, attending the courts, and I, too, lived at the Cooper House. I knew Mr. Kephart intimately. He was my friend and I was his friend. 

“As a friend I loved him; but I did not love him as well as I love my native mountaineers, whose constant and unfaltering friendship has meant so much to me. If Mr. Kephart and Miss Morley had closed their books when they finished what they had to say about the mountains and the mountain region, and had said nothing about the people who dwell therein, their books would have been acclaimed masterpieces, and we should have owed them a debt of gratitude so great that it never could be repaid.”

  Thenceforth, the Judge’s criticisms are numerous and varied. There was very little that he liked about the cultural descriptions in either book. You can read them for yourself at https://archive.org/details/randomthoughtsmu00alle.

 

“Kidder Cole” 

My name is Felix Eugene Alley

My best girl lives in Cashiers Valley;

She’s the joy of my soul

And her name is Kidder Cole.

(refrain: to be repeated after each stanza

or at selected intervals)

Oh, my sweet little Kidder girl!

You cause my head to spin and whirl,

I am yours, and you are mine

Long as the sun and stars still shine.

I don’t know - it must have been by chance,

‘Way last fall when I went to a dance,

I was to dance with Kidder the livelong night

But got my time beat by Charley Wright.

If I ever have to have a fight

I hope it will be with Charley Wright;

For he was the ruin of my soul

When he beat my time with Kidder Cole

When the dance was over I went away

To bide my time till another day,

When I could cause trouble and pain and blight

To sadden the soul of Charley Wright.

(missing stanza about Kidder going to South Carolina)

But she came back the following spring

And oh, how I made my banjo ring;

It helped me get my spirit right,

To beat the time of Charley Wright.

Kidder came home the first of June,

And I sang my song and played my tune;

I commenced trying with all my might

To put one over on Charley Wright

When the speaking was over we had a dance

And then and there I found my chance

To make my peace with Kidder Cole

And beat Charley Wright; confound his soul.

Charley came in an hour or so,

But when he saw me with Kidder he turned to go

Back to his home with a saddened soul,

For I’d beat his time with Kidder Cole.

I’ve always heard the old folks say

That every dog will have his day;

And now all of Charley’s joy has passed,

For I’ve succeeded in beating him at last.

Oh, yes, Kidder is sweet;

And it won’t be long until we meet

At her home in Cashiers Valley

And she’ll change her name to Alley. 

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .      

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