Hutchins Library
Special Collections & Archives
Guide to the G.R. Combs Ballad Collection

Accession Number: SAA 105
G.R. Combs Ballad Collection
Bulk, 1907-1930
.4 linear ft.

Series Description
Series I - The Ballad Collection
Series II - Religious Songs
Series III - Documents by and about G.R. Combs

Access and Use

Provenance: These song and ballad texts were collected by Berea alumnus Gilbert Reynolds Combs and donated to Berea College by his daughter-in-law, Mrs. William P. Combs, in 1989.

Preferred Citation: G.R. Combs Ballad Collection, Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea, Ky.

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Gilbert R. Combs (1886-1966) compiled his collection of songs and ballads in part from those he heard growing up in Eastern Kentucky, and also from his acquaintance with gospel music and spirituals from several southern states. The collection includes some biographical notes covering Combs' early life, and his own recollections of his early childhood and description of traditional songs in mountain settings.


The Rev. Gilbert Reynolds Combs, according to his own account, was born in a cabin in Owsley County, just over the county line from Breathitt County, on August 18, 1886. At age sixteen he left home for Berea, where he studied for seven years. He worked on the Berea College farm and graduated in 1904 from Berea's vocational school (having studied woodworking). In 1904 The Historical Register lists him as teaching in Booneville and living in Berea. By 1907 he had completed the two-year course at the Berea Academy, and then spent two more years taking college classes at Berea. He transferred to Kentucky Wesleyan College and graduated there as Valedictorian in 1911. While attending Vanderbilt the following year on a scholarship, he won the Founders Medal for oratory. Kentucky Wesleyan granted him a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1926. (Historical Register of Berea College, 1904, 1916; George Bain, biographical sketch)

In 1913 Combs was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Between 1911 and 1928 he pastored three churches in Kentucky, including the First Methodist Church of Lexington. From 1928-1954 he pastored churches in North Carolina; in 1954 he was at Love's Methodist Church in Walkertown, North Carolina, according The Berea Alumnus (25:11).

During three of the years Combs spent at Berea, Prof. James Watt Raine, a Scot who began teaching English at Berea College in 1906, collected ballads from Berea students. (Raine's list of known contributors does not include G.R. Combs, but does include some Combs sources.) Although he may not have taken classes from Raine while he was at Berea, Combs had opportunity to realize that the songs he had taken for granted as a child were of interest to scholars. At some point he began to collect them himself. Carl Sandburg's 1927 collection, The American Songbag, cites G. R. Combs as the source of one version of "Red River Valley." Sandburg notes that "In a corner of his church study Mr. Combs has a collection of more than 300 mountaineer songs," and adds that "his singing of their ballads and ditties is quiet and convincing."

Series Description
  1 Manuscript Box

Series I The Ballad Collection Box 1

Occasionally Combs gives the name of an individual with the text of a ballad, but not the geographical region from which it came. Some, but not all, of these names can be found in the Historical Register of Berea College for 1916. At least one also appears in the Raine collection list of student informants. This suggests that most of the traditional ballads were collected while Combs was a student, and his notes on the history of those ballads was probably based on the work of Raine, and others.

Series II Religious Songs Box 1, cont.

Combs also collected a series of religious songs, most serious but some comic, which do not have names associated with them. These songs are labeled “white” or “negro” and identified by state. Many are from Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, as well as Kentucky. This part of the collection may have been acquired after he left Kentucky and had opportunity as a Methodist minister to travel around the southern states and hear religious or semi-religious music drawn from both white and black gospel traditions, as well as some spirituals. They are untitled; we have listed them by first lines.

Series III Documents by and about G.R. Combs Box 1, cont.

Here are filed two presentations written by Combs, and copies of information printed about him in three publications. There is also correspondence about the collection.

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