Many derivatives followed, including “The Oxford Girl,” “The Cruel Miller,” and “The Bloody Miller.”
English, Scottish, and Welsh settlers began moving into Appalachia before 1800. The wilderness and isolation made life hard. In an era when the average life-expectancy was about 35, living could sometimes be crueler than death. In the early days, death found settlers in many ways: child-birth, war, poverty, and lack of medical care were just a few.
The new settlers of Appalachia brought the music of Europe to America, but they were quick to change the songs to accommodate their own experiences and values. Hard work, self-sufficiency, and an unshakeable faith in God ruled their lives. On the other hand, hard drinking, quick tempers, and occasional infidelities created a brew of violence. Into this backdrop, the Knoxville girl was born.
Who wrote the song? I like to think the tune blew in off the wind like the hard-scrabble existence and cold anonymous deaths of the inhabitants of Appalachia. Some poet playing a dulcimer or guitar or banjo may have first thought of those lines: “I met a little girl in Knoxville...” Then he may have used the English murder ballads as the cloth through which to thread his own words. The song doesn’t have the “feel” of an English city-instead, it has the timelessness of the Appalachian mountains.
One question remains: why did the girl’s lover kill her? Infidelity? Unwanted pregnancy? Because she wouldn’t marry him? Sometimes the best stories leave the reader hanging. The nameless girl who pleads for her life with the poignant cry, “I’m not prepared for eternity,” is ageless. The cruel murderer is, too. And that’s what makes a song last for hundreds of years.
Dozens of artists have recorded this song. One of the best-known versions is by the Louvin Brothers. Charlie and Ira Loudermilk were born in Alabama but changed their last names to Louvin when they began to record music. They started out as gospel singers, but later became popular recording artists. Ira was killed in an automobile crash in 1965. The Louvin Brothers were elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
The Knoxville Girl (Traditional)
I met a little girl in Knoxville,