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Louis Watson Chappell


A leading figure in the study and preservation of West Virginia folk music, Louis Watson Chappell (October 29, 1890-December 22, 1981) was born at Belvidere, North Carolina. Educated at Wake Forest (B.A. 1917) and the University of Virginia (M.A. 1920), he received an appointment to the English Department faculty at West Virginia University in 1921. In the ensuing years he developed a keen interest in regional folk song study, stimulated in part by the work of his WVU colleague, John Harrington Cox.

Chappell’s initial scholarship focused upon the ballad ‘‘John Henry.’’ Whereas previous folk song scholars, including Cox, had considered the ballad to be a variant of ‘‘John Hardy,’’ Chappell disagreed and spent several years methodically uncovering the distinctions, and regional origins, of the two folk songs. The results of his research were published in 1933 in his book John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study which set a new standard of thoroughness in ballad scholarship.

In 1937, Chappell purchased one of only a few portable disk recording machines in existence at the time. During the next decade, he employed this equipment in recording more than 2,000 songs and instrumental tunes throughout West Virginia. This collection, which is now preserved at the WVU Libraries, is considered to be among the most significant primary resources for the study of regional folk music history.

Written by John A. Cuthbert


  1. Chappell, Louis W. John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study. Jena, Germany: Frommannsche Verlag, W. Biederman, 1933, Reprint, Kennikat Press, 1968.

  2. Chappell, Louis W. Folk-Songs of Roanoke and the Albemarle. Morgantown: Ballad Press, 1939.

  3. Cuthbert, John A. West Virginia Folk Music. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 1982.

  4. Cameron, Kenneth W. West Virginia University Sixty Years Ago and Memories of Louis Watson Chappell. West Virginia & Regional History Collection Newsletter, (1988).