Keepers of the song: Madison County celebrates a century of preserving its ballad tradition

SONGBIRDS: Ballad singer and fiddler Daron Douglas, left, joins fellow folk musician Betty Smith at a recent celebration in Hot Springs of the centennial of Cecil Sharp's visit to Madison County. Smith wrote a biography of Douglas' great-grandmother, Jane Hicks Gentry. They are pictured at Sunnybank Inn, the house where Gentry lived and sang to Sharp during his visit. Photo by Mark Morris

The summer of 2016 marks 100 years since British scholar and folklorist Cecil Sharp and his assistant, English folk dance expert Maud Karpeles, ventured into the isolated hollers of Madison County in search of songs. The goal of their journey, which also took them to other parts of Appalachia, was the preservation of the area’s folk ballads — sometimes funny but often violent or sad musical stories of adventure, love and loss that originated centuries ago in England and Scotland.

The ballads that came to rest in what Sharp called the Laurel Country of Madison County in the late 1700s arrived surprisingly unmarred, having crossed oceans and mountains nestled in the memories of immigrants. They thrived and remained mostly intact in tucked-away spots like Allanstand, White Rock and Hot Springs, handed down orally from parent to child, until Sharp captured hundreds of them in the book English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. The collection, which he penned with musicologist Olive Dame Campbell, became a fundamental part of American folk music and inspired many creative projects, including the 2000 motion picture Songcatcher.

Everyday music

“Madison has pretty rugged terrain, and getting to these communities was difficult then, even if they were pretty close together as the crow flies,” says Hannah Furgiuele, program coordinator for Mars Hill University’s Liston B. Ramsey Center, which houses the Southern Appalachian Archives. “[Sharp] called Madison County the ‘nest of singing birds,’ because the people sang for entertainment, they sang as they worked, singing was just so integrated into their culture.”

Although ballad-singing is no longer a part of everyday life for most modern residents of Madison County, the tradition itself is still vibrant — in part due to Sharp’s book. Descendants of some of the “singing birds” who contributed to Sharp’s collection uphold the area’s musical legacy.

For recent North Carolina Heritage Award winner Sheila Kay Adams, as for many ballad singers, the songs are a living thread that connects her to her heritage. She is descended from Mary Sands, who sang more than two dozen songs for Sharp. As a child, Adams learned dozens of the ballads from her great-aunt, Dellie Norton Chandler.

In June, at the annual Bluff Mountain Festival in Hot Springs, Adams told the robust crowd that the tradition nearly sputtered out several times over the years and noted that Sharp himself predicted the a cappella ballads would be extinct in the Laurel Country by 1950. “But it got a real kick in the butt when [he] showed up and made a big deal out of all of these songs that a lot of them knew,” Adams said. She added that Sharp was followed by other collectors, including Frank C. Brown, Alan Lomax and later, John Cohen.

Evolution of thinking

Sharp’s book has proved invaluable to some modern ballad singers such as Daron Douglas. Douglas is the great-granddaughter of Jane Gentry Hicks, who provided 64 songs — more than any other singer — to Sharp’s collection.

Douglas grew up in Madison County but now lives in New Orleans, where she made a name for herself as fiddler and singer. Her 2012 album, Apple Seed and Apple Thorn, includes 31 of the ballads her great-grandmother sang to Sharp. But despite her lineage, Douglas’ own experience of taking up the tradition was heavily dependent on Sharp’s book. “I learned the ballads in a hybrid way,” she says. Some she memorized sitting knee-to-knee with her grandmother Maude Long, but many she gathered straight from English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.

“I explain it as a dogleg in the oral tradition,” Douglas says. “And thank goodness they were collected. Sharp’s work really helped the transition between the time that people were learning from their grandparents to a time when the songs were really lost. If you didn’t have them in your family, they were lost.”

Douglas muses that if Sharp had never made his journey to Madison County, the tradition may have quietly died there, among the laurels, decades ago, a casualty of progress. “He says in the introduction to his book, it was just the right time. He hurried to get them before more people moved into the mountains and there was more influence from outsiders and industry, or from other music, like radio.”

Douglas — whose adult son and daughter-in-law sing the ballads — says her own mother, a classical pianist who came of age during the time when radio was introduced to the mountains, never learned the songs. “My grandmother, who loved the ballads, wanted her daughter to have a ‘better life,’ wanted her to rise up out of the mountains,” Douglas says, adding that she dedicated Apple Seed and Apple Thorn to her mother. “I said, ‘For Jane Long Douglas, because she didn’t get to do it.’ It’s a strange kind of evolution of thinking.”

Over the mountains

Beyond Madison County, the tradition has become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to the reach of YouTube and social media. Douglas says that at adult music camps she’s taught, a great percentage of the students are often younger than 30, “and just singing ballads and keeping little notebooks and collecting their favorites, really walking the walk.” And even the work of popular performers like Gillian Welch, she adds, is unabashedly informed by the old songs.

If Sharp and Karpeles had never made it to Madison County, Furgiuele says, the ballad-singing tradition may not have completely vanished, but it would look very different today. “The two of them captured this moment in time that is now available for all these young people who are coming to our area and finding an interest in these ballads,” she says. “So, I guess, if Sharp had never come, there would still be people singing them, but I don’t think there would be the wide interest that there is now because of the access we have to them.”

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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