by Lyle & Elizabeth Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, April 2000)

We're a long ways from being done with the Outlaw Genre. Here's a relatively modern one with a story as confusing as any of the recent "Trials of the Century." In a bizarre twist one day (March 14th, 1912) in Hillsville, VA, the crimes took place inside --not outside --the court room.

Several Allen family members were there to resolve minor charges and counter-charges. Floyd Allen was being cross-examined when someone fired a revolver, setting off a chain reaction that should have informed the gun-control dispute for the entire century. Floyd received several wounds, but by the time every gunslinger in court had emptied his pistol, 200 shots had been fired. No one knows who fired first, but by the end, Judge Massie and the prosecutor lay stone dead on the floor. The Allens fled, but all were arrested shortly. No coherent account of the incident was ever presented at the ensuing trials, but Floyd and his 22-year-old son, Claude, were found guilty of murder in the first degree. The State of Virginia electrocuted father and son on March 28th, 1913, despite 3 stays by the Governor. Floyd's brother Sidna (the topic of another ballad) was sentenced to a prison term, along with several other family members.

The Allens, an old-line colonial Virginia family, were pillars in their community. Among them were merchants, legislators and preachers. Being influential in Democratic politics, they had serious adversaries in the Republican party, especially the local prosecutor and Clerk of Court. The sensational case was mis-reported nationwide. Even the New York Times was not above yellow journalism and lurid speculation. Various scholars have written on the subject, but it's still unclear if the Allens were framed by their political enemies. (All of our information comes from Ralph Rinzler's excellent liner notes to Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, now re-released as Smithsonian-Folkways CD 40029.)

We don't know who wrote this ballad, but only one year later (1914) Clarence Ashley had added it to his repertory and taught it to Hobart Smith, who made the only other recorded source we know about.

The Allen Family was clearly esteemed by some, for a group called The Women of Virginia presented Claude with a gold medal inscribed "for bravery in defending his father." The song mentions Allen family members who suffered losses, but not those of the judge or prosecutor, so we assume the song was composed by an Allen supporter. Still, the text avoids heroes or villains, and the usual outlaw romanticism is missing. The Allens appear as good people, and the Governor is hard-hearted, but if this was a miscarriage of justice, the song writer is careful not to overstate the case. The warning to young men is to "be careful how you go astray." The law has taken its course, and it's too bad, but that's how things happen sometimes. That's an unusual ballad approach. For this and a lot of other reasons (including the interesting tune), we sing it every chance we get.

Claude Allen

Claude Allen, he and his dear old father,
Have met their fatal doom at last;
Their friends are glad their troubles' ended,
And hope their souls are now at rest.

Poor Claude was young and very handsome,
He still had hopes until the end,
That he might, in some way or other,
Escape his death at the Richmond pen.

But the governor being so hard-hearted,
Not caring what his friends might say,
He finally took his sweet life from him,
In the cold ground his body lay.

Claude's mother's tears were gently flowing
All for the one she loved so dear,
It seemed no one could tell her troubles,
It seemed no one could tell but her.

Poor Claude, he had a pretty sweetheart,
She mourns the loss of the one she loved;
She hopes to meet beyond the river,
A fair young face in heaven above.

High up on yonder's lonely mountain,
Claude Allen lays beneath the clay;
No more we'll hear his words of mercy
Or see his face 'til judgement day.

Now all young men, from this take warning,
Be careful how you go astray;
Or you might be like poor Claude Allen,
And have this awful debt to pay.