Ghost lights are a staple of folklore. I’ve written a number of blog posts about them, ranging from my grandmother’s personal experience, through train-track lights that are usually associated with some tragedy, and other, more anomalous lights, some of which may have their origin in legends from the Old World; the story of Jack o’Lantern is one such.
Geographically, other than the one that haunted a nearby churchyard for a short time in the 1920s, the closest ones to my hometown appear on North Carolina’s fabled Brown Mountain. There are two origin legends that account for these dancing multicolored lights, which no amount of scientific study has managed to debunk. One says the lights represent spirits of Cherokee maidens, searching for husbands and lovers on who died in a battle on Brown Mountain in the year 1200. Another dates their origin to the year 1850, when the lights were seen during a search for a local woman who had disappeared on the mountain. Her body was eventually located at the base of a cliff, and it is believed she was murdered by her abusive husband. Other sources say the lights are mentioned in documents dating to the 1770s.
The Brown Mountain Lights appear most often on summer evenings. Skeptics have blamed swamp gas, foxfire (the phosphorescent gleam that shows up on rotting wood), pitchblende (a radioactive metallic element), and headlights for the phenomena, but none of these explanations have gained widespread acceptance.
About a quarter century ago, I heard a song called “Brown Mountain Light” for the first time. Written by country songwriter “Skyland Scotty” Wiseman, it was recorded by the Kingston Trio, but the version I learned was recorded by the Country Gentlemen in 1966, on their album BRINGING MARY HOME.
This live version, with lead vocal by Charlie Waller, dates from the mid-1980s.
The song revolves around a southern plantation owner who vanished while hunting in the Brown Mountain area. His slave came searching for him, but was lost too; the light is explained away as the slave still “searching for his master who’s long gone on.”
Nice story–except that nowhere could I locate any account in North Carolina folklore that links Brown Mountain to a lost hunter and his faithful body servant.
It would be twenty years or more before I located what I believe to be Scotty Wiseman’s source material. It’s a story about another light entirely: the Cole Mountain Light in the area of Mooresville, West Virginia.
The Cole Mountain Light origin story was originally collected by the great West Virginia folklorist Ruth Ann Musick, and retold by Michael Norman and Beth Scott in their book HAUNTED HERITAGE (2002). The story begins in the 1850s, when a planter named Charles Jones came to Cole Mountain on a raccoon hunt. Jones vanished into thin air on the mountain; his slave and others searched for him for a week before they gave up. On the one-year anniversary of Jones’s disappearance, it’s said, the slave renewed the search, but he also vanished without a trace. The light began to appear shortly after the slave vanished, and it is said to the lantern the slave carried when he went on his second and doomed search for Charles Jones.
This is purely speculation on my part, but I suspect that Scotty Wiseman heard or read the legend of the Cole Mountain Light and was inspired to write a song about it, but moved the location to Brown Mountain. Brown Mountain is internationally famous; Cole Mountain, for all that its story is equally as interesting as Brown Mountain’s, is not.