Mars Hill University launches the Bobby McMillon Legacy Project

OF MANY TALENTS: Bobby McMillon was a regular performer at the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival. This photo was taken Oct. 6, 2012. Photo courtesy of Mars Hill University

Award-winning, Lenoir-based ballad singer, storyteller and folklorist Bobby McMillon passed away in November 2021, but The Liston B. Ramsey Center for Appalachian Studies at Mars Hill University is keeping his work and memory alive through the Bobby McMillon Legacy Project.

“Bobby had a completely disarming personality,” says Leila Weinstein, program coordinator at the Ramsey Center. “He was very soft-spoken, but he had a dry wit. He could pull you in telling stories in his quiet, understated way. And before you knew it, you were rapt with attention and in his spell.”

With a $10,000 grant from South Arts, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, the new initiative includes ongoing work to digitize McMillon’s personal archives, artist residencies, student collaborations and the development of a podcast by ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams and folklorist/musician William Ritter.

Community performances are also a key component of the project. On Thursday, Nov. 10, the Ramsey Center will host its first Round Robin Ballad Circle, featuring Adams and Ritter. The event runs 6-9 p.m. at the Broyhill Chapel, 338 Cascade St., on the Mars Hill University campus.

Similar events are currently being planned for the spring, including a formal tribute to McMillon. The goal of these gatherings, notes Weinstein, is to introduce the public to the broader project.

In addition to McMillon’s cultural importance as a guardian of songs and stories, Weinstein adds, he was “personally important” to a lot of people in the traditional music community. “Everybody loved him,” she says.

Vast ocean of knowledge

In speaking to Weinstein, you get a sense of the depth of McMillon’s contributions to the region. “He was a historian at heart,” she explains. “If there was a ballad that was about a real event, he would learn all about it.

“He was also very much a folklorist,” she says. “He would get songs and stories from people, find out where a person learned the song from and write down all the information.” McMillon’s notes make up a substantial portion of the archive being preserved at Mars Hill University.

“Bobby left us a wealth of writings, recordings and books that can serve as the seed for countless projects, albums, programs and presentations,” adds Ritter, who in addition to being a folklorist is a longtime friend of McMillon’s. “He had a vast ocean of knowledge about Appalachia, and not just its old songs. He was eager to share what he knew and just as eager to learn more.”

One of Ritter’s primary goals for the overall project is to make sure McMillon’s materials are easily accessible. “That’s why we wanted his collection to go to Mars Hill University,” he explains. “Madison County is one of the very last places with a real living, breathing ballad singing tradition that stretches back centuries.”

Ritter — who describes himself as a “serious heirloom seed saver” — says that his personal goal within the broader project has a special area of focus. He wants to complete an unfinished work based on recorded interviews McMillon conducted with his great-aunt Mae Phillips in the 1970s.

“He stopped and started a book about her and her songs and stories [many times],” says Ritter.

Awards and accolades

McMillon’s dedication also resulted in statewide recognition. In 1995, he received the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award. In 2000, he and five others were honored with the North Carolina Heritage Award, an annual presentation by the N.C. Arts Council that recognizes artists “for their contributions to our state’s cultural vitality.”

That same year, author Daniel W. Patterson’s book A Tree Accurst: Bobby McMillon and Stories of Frankie Silver came out, weaving together a nearly 200-year-old murder mystery, McMillon’s life story and the folk tales of the region. The book explores the roles that folklore, storytelling and ballads play in preserving the history of people and their communities.

“I certainly think Bobby had a sense of his importance in preserving or passing along Appalachian songs, stories and folkways,” Ritter concedes. Nevertheless, he opines that in McMillon’s twilight years, “he may have felt a little overlooked, a tad forgotten.” The Legacy Project should go some way toward setting things right.

Ritter believes the Bobby McMillon Legacy Project will make clear the cultural importance of the humble man from Lenoir. He’s also hopeful that the project will help preserve the singer and storyteller’s “blue books” in a more user-friendly format.

“Bobby carefully wrote down lyrics, sayings and stories in these blue ruled-paper notebooks,” Ritter explains. “They’re an absolute treasure, the kind of thing that should be on a shelf next to Cecil Sharp‘s classic English folksongs from the Southern Appalachians.” He emphasizes that at present, interested parties can only access McMillon’s collection of blue books at Mars Hill University; photocopies of some of these books are also stored in the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC Chapel Hill.

Furthermore, Ritter considers McMillon’s body of work of value for “anyone wanting to take a deep dive into Appalachia, or look for sayings for their Appalachian novel, or even just to find a very complete and beautiful version of a song from the 1600s to add to their repertoire.”

And thanks in part to McMillon’s emphasis on continuing the oral tradition of songs and stories, there’s a living legacy to his work that extends beyond the archives at the Ramsey Center. “Bobby knew every song, and he knew ten variants of every song,” says Weinstein.

She recalls reflecting on McMillon’s enduring presence shortly after his passing. “I remember thinking that felt like his stories and songs weren’t quite gone,” she says. “It’s almost like they were floating around somewhere in the ether; you could have caught them. You just couldn’t imagine all of that information disappearing with somebody.”

Ritter agrees. He also has additional thoughts on extending McMillon’s legacy. “I love the idea of getting a dedicated group of singers together to each learn a different song Bobby collected,” he says, suggesting the creation of an album organized around a “song stewards” theme. “That could be the springboard for getting these songs back out into the wild,” Ritter enthuses.

“For a man who talked so much,” Ritter adds with a chuckle, “Bobby was one of the best listeners I have ever known. And he was deeply grateful for his roots and the culture he was a part of.” And the Bobby McMillon Legacy Project will preserve key parts of that culture for future generations. “All in all, Bobby asked us to ‘keep it a-going,’” Ritter says. “And we aim to do that in any way we can.”

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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