WNC Mountain Ballads - A Benefit For Bobby McMillon - Sun Apr 17th 2016 at 7:30pm

$12 in advance

$15 at the door


National Heritage Award recipient 
Sheila Kay Adams 

North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient
Bobby McMillon

along with
Joe Penland
Donna Ray Norton
Sam Gleaves
Marina Trivett

One hundred years ago, in 1916, English folklorist, Cecil Sharp made a much heralded journey into to the mountains of Western NC in search of the ancient ballads of Scotland, Ireland, and England  .  In these remote mountains he found a treasure trove of traditional ballads which remained much as they were when they arrived with the early European immigrants who settled here in the 1700s.  Sharp found the ballads in appalachia, and especially in WNC,   better preserved, more traditional and true to their ancient origins than the similar versions back in Europe. 

Sharp spent a couple of days in Black Mountain NC collecting songs and ballads from singers whose family surnames are recognizable to local residents.  Among these singers were Mrs. Sarah Buckner, Carrie Ford, and Susan Sawyer.

Sharp found one of the  richest areas for ballad collecting to be Madison County NC.  The ballad tradition remains strong in the county to this day with several singers carrying on the tradition ballads they learned from aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and neighbors.

 I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking.
------Cecil Sharp, 1916

On Sunday, April 17th, at 7:30pm 
at White Horse Black Mountain, 
friends of Bobby McMillon with ties to the ballad singers 
from the Sodom Laurel Community of Madison County 
 will present a traditional round​-​robin ballad swap 
as ​a ​fund-raiser for 
Bobby McMillon.

Bobby McMillon developed an early appreciation for the traditional stories, ballads, and religious songs performed by his grandparents and other older relatives in the southern Appalachian region and started learning them as a child.

By the age of eighteen, Bobby McMillon had become an important collector and archivist of regional songs, stories, and interviews found in and near his hometown of Lenoir, North Carolina. By 1978, McMillon had forged a career as a professional ballad singer and storyteller with an authentic performance style.

Because these songs and tales have deep roots in his own family and experience, Bobby has a passion for them and for sharing them.
"Eventually, I began to realize," he says "that if I didn't perform the songs I was learning, most of the repertories of the people I learned from would be lost because they didn't have family members of their own to hand them down to."
His greatest gift is his rare ability to convey to listeners a feeling for the world from which the stories come

Bobby McMillon is beloved by his friends and neighbors, other ballad singers, folklorists, academics.....and just about everyone he's come in contact with over the last half century.    Recent health problems and other challenges have presented Bobby with significant financial burdens.   "Friends helping friends" is a mountain tradition as old as ballad singing.

​​This “fun”-raiser will help Bobby meet his growing medical bills as he deals with nagging health issues related to his recent heart surgery and complications due to his and his wife Joyce’s recent auto-accident, where their car wa​s​ totaled after being rear-ended by a texting driver. Luckily, Bobby and Joyce were not seriously injured, but the drivers car insurance did not cover the “gap” cost of what Bobby owed on his car.

More About Bobby McMillon
Robert Lynn "Bobby" McMillon, was born in Lenoir, NC in 1951, and was heir to numerous strands of Appalachian culture. From his father's family in Cocke County, Tennessee, he learned Primitive Baptist hymns and traditional stories and ballads. From his mother's people in Yancy and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina, he heard "booger tales, haint tales," and legends about the murder of a relative named Charlie Silver. 

In Caldwell County, he went to school with relatives of Tom Dula, learned their family stories, and heard ballads, gospel songs, and Carter family recordings. Bobby was always drawn to old songs and stories, but as a teenager he discovered the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore in the Lenoir Public Library and got a glimpse of the historical background and significance of the things he knew. This inspired an enthusiasm for folklore documentation that has made him an invaluable resource to his community. 

By the age of seventeen, he had begun taping and interviewing family members, neighbors, and friends who knew old songs and stories. Bobby is considered a national treasure. He has performed throughout the US as a singer and storyteller and for the lovers of Appalachian ballads. He has appeared at events such as the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife, the A. P. Carter Memorial Festival, national storytelling conferences, and the Festival for the Eno. For a decade he served public schools as part of the Artist in the Schools and Visiting Artist programs.

 Filmmaker Tom Davenport recently completed a film, The Ballad of Frankie Silver that features Bobby singing the ballad and telling stories passed down in his family and community about the murder. In 2000, Bobby was the youngest recipient to ever receive the North Carolina Heritage Award.

Listen as Bobby sings "Sweet William's Ghost", one of the ballads which traveled from Ireland and Scotland to the NC mountains with the early settlers.

Renowned among ballad singers and folklorists alike, Bobby was selected to sing in the feature film, SONGCATCHER.  Here's a clip from that film with Bobby's singing starting around the 39 second mark.

Sheila Kay Adams

A seventh-generation ballad singer, storyteller, and claw-hammer banjo player, Sheila Kay Adams was born and raised in the Sodom Laurel community of Madison County, North Carolina, an area renowned for its unbroken tradition of of unaccompanied singing of traditional southern Appalachian ballads that dates back to the early Scots/Irish and English Settlers in the mid-17th century. Adams learned to sing from her great-aunt Dellie Chandler Norton and other notable singers in the community such as, Dillard Chandler and the Wallin Family (including NEA National Heritage Fellow Doug Wallin).

In addition to ballad singing, Adams is an accomplished claw hammer-style banjo player and storyteller. She began performing in public in her teens and, throughout her career she has performed at festivals, events, music camps, and workshops around this country and the United Kingdom. Other performances include the acclaimed International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee as well as the 1976 and 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of The Bicentennial Celebration and Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony.

Adams is the author of two books: Come Home With Me, a collection of stories published by the University of North Carolina Press and a 1997 winner of the North Carolina Historical Society's award for historical fiction. My Old True Love, a novel, was published by Alonquin Books in 2004.

Sheila Kay has also recorded several albums of ballads, songs and stories including; My Dearest Dear (2000), All The Other Fine Things (2004), and Live at the International Storytelling Festival (2007). Adams appeared in the movies Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Songcatcher(2000), a movie for which she also served as technical advisor and singing coach.

Adams' devotion to preserving and perpetuating her heritage earned her the North Carolina Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award in recognition of her valuable contributions to the study of North Carolina Folklore.

In a letter supporting her nomination as a NEA Heritage Fellow, George Holt, director of performing arts and film at the North Carolina Museum of Art wrote, "Sheila Kay Adams is the key figure in carrying forward to this day the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing that has enriched her community for more than two centuries. promoting its beauty throughout our country and beyond, and insuring that it will be perpetuated by younger generations of singers well into the 21st century."

About Cecil Sharp and his time collecting ballads in Western North Carolina

Writing of his time in Madison County, Sharp penned:

The region is from its inaccessibility a very secluded one. There are but few roads most of them little better than mountain tracks and practically no railroads. Indeed, so remote and shut off from outside influence were, until quite recently, these sequestered mountain valleys that the inhabitants have for a hundred years or more been completely isolated and cut off from all traffic with the rest of the world. Their speech is English, not American, and, from the number of expressions they use which have long been obsolete elsewhere, and the old-fashioned way in which they pronounce many of their words, it is clear that they are talking the language of a past day, though exactly of what period I am not competent to decide...... 
..... I discovered that I could get what I wanted from pretty nearly every one I met, young and old. In fact, I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking. With us, of course, singing is an entertainment, something done by others for our delectation, the cult and close preserve of a professional caste of specialists. The fact has been forgotten that singing is the one form of artistic expression that can be practised without any preliminary study or special training; that every normal human being can sing just as every one can talk; and that it is, consequently, just as ridiculous to restrict the practice of singing to a chosen few as it would be to limit the art of speaking to orators, professors of elocution and other specialists. In an ideal society every child in his earliest years would as a matter of course develop this inborn capacity and learn to sing the songs of his forefathers in the same natural and unselfconscious way in which he now learns his mother tongue and the elementary literature of the nation to which he belongs.
 And it was precisely this ideal state of things that I found existing in the mountain communities. So closely, indeed, is the practice of this particular art interwoven with the ordinary avocations of everyday life that singers, unable to recall a song I had asked for, would often make some such remark as, "Oh, if only I were driving the cows home I could sing it at once!". On one occasion, too, I remember that a small boy tried to edge himself into my cabin in which a man was singing to me and, when I asked him what he wanted, he said, "I always like to go where there is sweet music." Of course, I let him in and, later on, when my singer failed to remember a song I had asked for, my little visitor came to the rescue and straightway sang the ballad from beginning to end in the true traditional manner, and in a way which would have shamed many a professional vocalist (see No. 15, B). I have no doubt but that this delightful habit of making beautiful music at all times and in all places largely compensates for any deficiencies in the matter of reading and writing......
.....They have one vocal peculiarity, however, which I have never noticed amongst English folk-singers, namely, the habit of dwelling arbitrarily upon certain notes of the melody, generally the weaker accents. This practice, which is almost universal, by disguising the rhythm and breaking up the monotonous regularity of the phrases, produces an effect of improvisation and freedom from rule which is very pleasing. The effect is most characteristic intunes, as, for example, No. 16 G, in which in the course of the tune pauses are made on each of the three notes of the subsidiary triplets.
The wonderful charm, fascinating and well-nigh magical, which the folk-singer produces upon those who are fortunate enough to hear him is to be attributed very largely to his method of singing, and this, it should be understood, is quite as traditional as the song itself. The genuine folk-singer is never conscious of his audienc eindeed, as often as not, he has none and he never, therefore, strives after effect, nor endeavours in this or in any other way to attract the attention, much less the admiration of his hearers. So far as I have been able to comprehend his mental attitude, I gather that, when singing a ballad, for instance, he is merely relating a story in a peculiarly effective way which he has learned from his elders, his conscious attention being wholly concentrated upon what he is singing and not upon the effect which he himself is producing.

British musicologist Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) made an invaluable contribution to the history of folk music in his travels through Appalachia during World War I. On these expeditions, Sharp extensively documented the folk ballads of the region, which had been brought over as far back as the 1770s from the British Isles by the ancestors of the Appalachian Mountain residents. In their original form, some of these songs dated back to the late medieval period of English, Scottish, and Irish folk music.....
.....Olive Campbell asserted that in some of the remoter regions of Appalachia, still untouched by railroads or even formal roads, these songs were still relatively intact in the form in which they migrated across the Atlantic.
Sharp decided to make a journey and investigate for himself. He took with him Maud Karpeles (1885-1976), an English folk-dance aficionado who had been serving as his assistant, and the pair made their first trip into Appalachia over nine weeks in 1916. The trip was conducted by horsedrawn wagon, on horseback, and on foot, into regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina that had been largely forgotten by the rest of Americans except for a few missionaries and teachers who occasionally ventured there. Appalachia was both rural and wild, and its people lived in appallingly primitive conditions

In 1916, Cecil Sharp with his secretary and assistant, Maud Karpeles, arrived in America – where he initially conducted a series of lectures on English folk music and its influence on community. Throughout, Sharp was not silent of his forgone conclusion that there was no such thing as American folk music. By the time he reached Chicago, he feared his trip would yield few fruits within his field of research. Soon after, arriving in Asheville NC, Sharp called upon Olive Dame Campbell, who he had met briefly in England a year earlier. To Sharp, Campbell insisted that the inhabitants of the Southern Appalachians were still singing the traditional songs and ballads which their English and Scottish ancestors had brought out with them at the time of their emigration. And she set out to demonstrate just that.
Under Campbell’s direction, and often company, Sharp ventured into the remote communities of the region. His discoveries were extraordinary. He recorded dozens of diary entries … In Madison County, NC, Sharp crossed the French Broad on a punt to access the county seat of Marshall and nearby town of Hot Springs. The ferryman told Sharp about his wife’s singing (whom Sharp met) and that “whilst in Hot Springs he could take down a good song from the postman” “… who [subsequently] told him to look up a blind girl named Linnie Landers and get some good songs from her.”
In England, Sharp was accustomed to collecting songs from elderly people – in America he was often surprised by the young age of his singers. He writes, “Floyd Chandler sang Mathy Groves very beautifully and he is but 15. Another singer, David Norton, was seventeen years old. Addie Crane was twenty-one, and Linnie Landers only twenty years old. Even the redoubtable Mrs. Gentry was only in her fifties!”
To his collection, this initial trip to America provided Sharp over 400 songs and dances, and served to stimulate both his interest and desire to return as soon as possible. Campbell suggested an autumn visit as a good time to collect ballads as the mountain residents would be involved in “frolics, log rollings, corn huskings, ‘lasses bilings, watermelon cuts, and so on.” She added, however, that these events “may be accompanied by excessive drinking and even less desirable features.”

Cecil Sharp reached the Appalachians in July, 1916, arriving at the Asheville, NC home of Mr and Mrs John Campbell in company with his secretary and assistant, Miss Maud Karpeles, who was also a member of his English folkdance demonstration team.
The couple spent a few days acclimatising themselves to the mountains and Sharp noted some tunes from Mrs Campbell's singing. In this way Sharp felt that he was accurately preserving the tunes which she had previously collected, but which he felt she had been inaccurately transmitted to paper.
Finally, early on Thursday morning the 27th July, Sharp and Karpeles were driven north into Madison County, towards the Tennessee State line, by Mr Campbell who drove them to the community of White Rock. Miss Fish, a resident Presbyterian Missionary, took them the next day to Allanstand and introduced then to a number of singers.
Without her, and Mrs Campbell's help, it would have been very difficult to get started. 29It is only recently that the area around Allanstand has become relatively easy to negotiate. In Sharp's day it would have been an extremely isolated region, although the name Allanstand does suggest that it was sited on a pack-horse route where the animals could 'stand' overnight, presumably at a lodging originally owned or run by a person called Allan.

One singer encountered on Sharp's first day was Aunt Polly Shelton who sang them a fine version of the old ballad Earl Brand. The next day Mr Campbell took a buggy to drive Sharp and Karpeles to meet Norah Shelton, 'Who sang me 2 or 3 beautiful songs',  and other members of the Shelton family. Within four days Sharp had collected over fifty songs, and had doubled this figure within seventeen days.......
........Although Hot Springs is only a few miles from Allanstand, Jane Gentry's repertoire was unlike that of the other nearby singers that Sharp had been visiting. Almost all of the Laurel area singers were descendants of Roderick Shelton. Indeed, of the thirty nine Madison County singers that sang to Sharp, no less than twenty eight were related to this person.  Jane Gentry, however, was the granddaughter of Council Harmon (c. 1807 to c. 1896) from Watauga County, NC Her maiden name was Hicks and her repertoire was similar to that of the Beech Mountain Harmon/Hicks singers who were visited by numerous collectors from the 1930's onwards. 
 Many of today's Laurel area singers claim relationship to the singer Jane Gentry. But this may be another person of the same name who lived in the Laurel area and was married to a Colonel Sharp ('Colonel' being a given name and not an army rank) . In all, Jane Gentry gave seventy songs to Sharp - the most that he collected from any one singer - including fine versions of ballads such as Lamkin, The Cherry Tree Carol, The False Knight on the Road and The Grey Cock. Sharp visited her home on at least eight separate occasions and was clearly welcome there......

...... 'Spent all the morning and afternoon at Mrs Buckner's and Mrs Swan Sawyer's. Got 26 songs altogether and some very good ones, including The Farmer's Curst Wife and Little Sir Hugh. Two more 'Children'.' 47 Mrs Buckner, who lived in Black Mountain, was the daughter of Mrs Ellie Johnson, a singer whom Sharp had met in Hot Springs, and it seems clear that many of Sharp's trips to 'new' collecting areas were the result of previous information supplied to him by other singers.

One of the songs collected by
Cecil Sharp in Black Mountain NC