Carter County, KY Fire Tragedy & Ballad

Versions of Carter County Fire Ballad

Compiled by Robert E. McCormack

Two little Girls
Come All Ye Tender Hearted
The Fire Tragedy
Come All You Tender Hearted

Saturday February 21, 2004

Frances Jane Ratliff McCormack

Frances Jane Ratliff McCormack
1839 – about 1872

My name is Robert E. McCormack.

I will share 4 versions of this heart-rending ballad and introduce each one of them.

For an introduction, let me share with you: My great grandmother, Frances Jane Ratliff McCormack, was heartbroken and distraught after losing two little girls, Annie & Suvenia, in a house fire in the early 1870s. This has been said to have happened in Carter County, KY and was in the local newspapers of the time. The 1870 census shows Frances Jane living in Greenup County with her children and her occupation was listed as seamstress. In the 1860 census, Frances Jane and husband, Floyd, were listed as living in Carter County. The status of their marriage at the time of the tragedy is somewhat fuzzy and I have not been able to locate any extant newspapers giving the story of the fire. Existing newspapers of that day are rare and fragmented. It is my desire that someday someone will locate a newspaper giving the account of the fire. Members of my family always said that Frances Jane died of heartache at the age of 33. She was the wife of Rev. Floyd Alson McCormack, a Methodist circuit minister. Although I had been told that such a ballad about this tragedy existed, I had not seen it such until a copy of the words was located by genealogical researcher, Teresa Klaiber, of Rush KY. She found the ballad in “Ballad Makin’ in the Mountains of KY” by Jean Thomas.

As you listen to the four versions of the ballad, notice that there is some variation but the story remains generally the same. The ballad has been perpetuated by the oral tradition. Anne McKeans Strong seems to combine a couple of the verses into one verse and has a final verse that is missing from the others. Also note that the version sung by Walsh Nelson (Berea College, l959) omits the first verse included by the others and calls his rendition “Last Wednesday Night I Spied a light.” His title words are the beginning words of the second verse included in the other versions. You’ll also notice that the version sung by The Country Gentlemen refers to “her little boys” but census records reveals there were two infant girls named Annie & Suvenia. I will to share all 4 versions for you to draw your own conclusions. It is a sad story and one that my family was very reluctant to talk about. Fortunately, others outside the family have kept the story alive for over 130 years. For the sake of my family history, I am grateful for that.

Let’s examine the first sung version:

A distant cousin, Carl McGlone of Olive Hill, KY, put me in touch with his cousin, Ruth Strong Frank of Tracy, CA. She shared with me a tape of her 90 year old mother, Anne McMeans Strong, singing the ballad which she called:

TWO LITTLE GIRLS — Anne Strong says that her mother, Louise McGlone McMeans Rider, put the tune to the words. Louise McGlone dated one of the brothers of the little girls in Quincy, KY about 1880. Census records show the names of the little girls are Annie and Suvenia. Now listen to Anne McMeans Strong sing her version.

Listen to the Ballad

Steve Green of Elko, NV, stumbled upon my genealogical website in 2001. Steve is writing a full length book about a man named J. W. Day (“Blind Bill Day”) who was a well-known old-time fiddle player and self-taught ballad maker in eastern Kentucky. Beginning the 1920s he became known as “Jilson Settlers” (a name perpetuated by Jean Thomas of Ashland, KY). The fire ballad was a standard in his repertoire. It is not known who the author of the ballad is. Some would give J. W. Day credit for the words as well as the tune. Nevertheless, he was responsible for perpetuating the ballad throughout TN and KY in the 1920s and 1930s. Steve sent me a tape giving 3 versions of the ballad:


From lyric sheet accompanying Folkways LP The Country Gentleman Sing and Play Folk Songs and Bluegrass, Vol 2. Folkways FA 2410 c 1961

THE FIRE TRAGEDY Sung by Wash Nelson, 1959. Collection of Mrs. Mary Stuart Nelson, for Professor Leonard Roberts. Leonard Roberts Tape Collection at Berea College LR-OR-67, Collector heard speaking on tape may have been Orin Nelson. Transcribed by Steve Green, June 28, 2000.


Listen to the Three Ballad Versions

Closing Comments:

Thank you for taking time to share this sad story of my great grandmother, Frances Jane. I have one single photo of her. She has been described as having very fair complexion and long slender fingers. She loved to dance.

Listen to my Closing Comments

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5 Responses to Carter County, KY Fire Tragedy & Ballad

  1. Thomas Staggs , Sr. says:

    We lived across the road from the bakery , about 1945 thru 1948 . Not shore about the dates . We lived there when the bakery burnt . I remember Sam , Jack and Kenneth Tiller Napier lived across the ally . Belladonna lived next door(going toward Monitor . We lived with our grand mother ( moms mother )
    Her name was Cora Mae Forbes

  2. Rutherford Clark says:

    After doing some research,I have found that the brother of those two sisters that burned in the fire in Carter County, married my grandmother Melvina Clark Enix McCormick. Willie McCormick (grandmother’s husband) is buried at the mouth of Elk Lick in Rowan County.

    • robert says:

      I’m pleased that you found the web site. Obviously my information on Willie McCormack is incomplete and very sketchy. Do you have pictures of Willie McCormack? I have one picture of Floyd as well as one of his brother Gordon. Floyd and Frances were found together in Carter County in the 1860 census but I only found Frances by herself with the children in Greenup County in the 1870 census. The fire tragedy had to be soon after the 1870 census. The 1870 census is how I knew the name of the little girls. I don’t know why my grandfather, Samuel (brother to your Willie) was not raised by Floyd and his second wife, Martha. He was actually raised by a Warnick family. My family was reluctant to talk about the fire or my grandfathers’ upbringing. I guess the break down of the family is the reason I don’t know much about Willie. I would welcome any updated family grouping of the Willie McCormack family. You have my attention.

      My grandfather tired to find the graves his mother, Frances Ratliff McCormack and his little sisters when he was grown was not successful in doing so. I’m wondering the burial place of Willie McCormack is any clue? There were suppose to be newspaper accounts of the fire but I was never able to find them.

  3. Rutherford Clark says:

    I lived on North Fork of Tripplet in Rowan County. An old man by the name of Chess Hamm who lived on Dry Branch came to our house on Saturday Night carring his banjo wearing his bib overhauls and sang these songs about the two girls that got burned up and he also sang Pretty Polly are two of the songs that I can remember.

    • robert says:

      Wow! Incredible. Thank you. When I began researching my McCormack line, my father’s older siblings who had knowledge were reluctant to talk about the fire tragedy of their grandmother. It took considerable time and effort to even find the words to the balled. Then came discovery of the recordings that have been made. Now to have someone come forth who actually heard the ballad being performed of a event that happened over 150 years ago is awesome! Thank you again, Rutherford.