Article MT271

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"Come in, come in "

Jeff Stockton and the Flag Pond singers



On Monday 4th September, 1916, Cecil Sharp and his assistant Maud Karpeles were in the small settlement of Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee, and that was the day when they 'went off early in search of Jeff Stockton on Hogskin Creek'.

We don't know exactly why Sharp and Karpeles went to Flag Pond.  They were, of course, in the Mountains in search of folksongs and they had spent the previous weeks to the south-west of Flag Pond, working in Madison County, NC.  I suspect that they chose to be driven a goodly distance to Flag Pond because they had been told of singers there by their Madison County informants.  I say this because if we look at census and other records for Flag Pond at that time, we find many families living in Flag Pond who shared surnames with the Madison County singers, Hensley, Norton, Rice and Shelton, for example.  Indeed, when Sharp and Karpeles had arrived in Flag Pond on 31st August, 1916, they 'called on Mr Alfred H Norton … from whom I got a few songs'.  Later that day they also visited a Mrs Shelton in search of songs, though 'she couldn't sing anything'.  Reading these notes in Sharp's diary, it is, I think, clear that he was already aware of these people before he arrived in Flag Pond.

Did Sharp, I wonder, also know of Jeff Stockton before he arrived in Flag Pond?  Or did Jeff's name come up once Sharp had arrived there?  I ask this because the first mention of Jeff Stockton in Sharp's diary is the one given above and, again, Sharp clearly knew of Jeff before he set out to find him.  There are many entries in Sharp's diaries and correspondence that tell of Sharp and Karpeles setting off into the forest in search of log cabins, whose unknown occupants, they hoped, might be able to sing some ballads or songs.  But we also know that Sharp would sometimes be told of singers in advance and this does seem to be the case with Jeff Stockton.

Jeff came from the area of Flag Pond, a settlement so named because of the flag irises that grow around the edges of local ponds.  It is one of the most beautiful parts of the Appalachian Mountains, set at some 2,000 feet above sea level in the midst of rolling hills.  Jeff was born on 12th January, 1859, the son of Samuel Stockton (18.3.1828 - 9.2.1894)1 and Elizabeth Stockton, nee Horne (died 12.9.  1904).  County records record his name as T Jefferson Stockton, the 'T', I presume, standing for Thomas, after the US President.  On 24th December, 1874, Jeff Stockton married Eliza Carter (2.10.1885 - 28.7.1925) and the couple had no fewer than ten children.  An 1880 census shows that Jeff was a farmer who worked in both Tennessee and neighbouring North Carolina. 

Sharp and Karpeles arrived at Jeff's home sometime around 10am and stayed there until 3.30pm.  Jeff turned out to be 'a very fine singer' who gave Sharp quite a crop of songs.  There were a number of Child ballads, including versions of Fair Margaret and Sweet William, The Maid Freed from the Gallows, The Suffolk Miracle, The Wife of Ushers Well, The Cruel Mother, The Trooper and the Maid, Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, as well as a tune for Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor.  And there were Anglo-American songs aplenty, such as The Lady and the Dragoon, The Warfare is Raging, The Cruel Ship's Carpenter, The Old Grey Mare, Skewball, Edwin in the Lowlands Low, Once I Courted (Don't You Remember) and The False Lover's Farewell.  Elsewhere I have written that Jeff only sang Anglo-American songs to Sharp2, but I now know this to be incorrect, because he also gave Sharp a version of Katie Morey and a tune for the song Brother Green.

Sharp must have been delighted with this splendid set of songs, especially as so many of them came with fine tunes.  One song, The False Lover's Farewell, was carried on an exceptionally beautiful tune.  It begins with this verse:

Come in, come in, my old true love,
And chat awhile with me,
For it's been three-quarters of one long year or more
Since I spoke one word to thee.3

I think that we can also say that the Stockton's enjoyed meeting the collectors, because Jeff's wife Eliza cooked lunch for them all at 12 noon.  Sharp, a vegetarian, often had trouble with Appalachian cooking, though on this occasion he found Eliza Stockton's meal to be 'not so bad a business'.

Jeff Stockton was not the only person in Flag Pond to give songs to Cecil Sharp.  He did, however, give more songs than any of the other local singers.

On the morning of 31st August, 1916, Sharp called on another Flag Pond farmer, Alfred Herbert Norton, who sang two songs, Harm Link (a version of The Lazy Farmer Boy or The Young man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn) and Barbara Allen, as well as a tune for In Seaport Town.  Later that day Sharp was introduced by a schoolteacher to three of Alfred Norton's younger children, Harry Banner Norton (5.4.1905 - 24.11.1966), Ralph Moore Norton (5.11.1906 - 31.8.1963) and Dayton Webb Norton (5.1.1909 - 8.7.1980) who sang him a version of the song The Old Grey MareTwo other brothers, David Lamons Norton (17.12.1897 - 1988) and Dana Harmon Norton (b.  16.11.1891) also sang to Sharp that day.  David gave Sharp a good version of the ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, along with a tune for The Sheffield Apprentice and Dana Norton sang The Three Butchers and a version of the ballad Giles Collins.

The next day Sharp and Karpeles were taken to meet the Blankenship family, who lived up Higgin's Creek, just outside Flag Pond.  It was, said Sharp, 'a weary, stony walk up to the top of (the) creek'.  Mrs 'Press' Blankenship and Liddy Blankenship, possibly her daughter, sang versions of two songs, Bethany and Fair and Tender Ladies. It now seems likely that Mrs Blankenship was Lydia E Blankenship, nee Callahan (19.2.1861 - 24.1.1939), who was married to Presley Blankenship Snr (26.5.1860 - 22.3.1929).  Some Blankenship children sang versions of The Needle's Eye and The Hog Drivers and, on a later date, 5th September, 1916, which happened to be Cecil Sharp's last day in Flag Pond, Mr L Blankenship, also of Higgin's Creek, gave Sharp a version of the song Pretty Little Pink.  It may be that Mr Blankenship was Lewis Taylor Blankenship (Sharp's handwriting is notoriously difficult to read at times and Mr Blankenship's first name seems to be written as 'Louis'), who was born on 16.5.1873 in Washington County, Tennessee, and who married Laura Elizabeth Lawing (8.8.1877 - 28.4.1946) on 22.3.1892.4

Returning from Higgin's Creek on 1st September, 1916, Sharp and Karpeles called on other singers, such as twenty-one year old Mrs Addy Crane, Sylvaney Ramsey and Mr & Mrs James Gabriel Coates.  As I have already written about Mr & Mrs Coates elsewhere5 I will simply say that they were the people who gave Sharp a version of The False Knight Upon the Road much to Sharp's delight.6  Sylvaney Ramsey, from Higgin's Creek, provided a tune for the song The True Lover's Farewell and a fuller version of The Daemon Lover.  Mrs Addy Crane also gave Sharp a tune for The Daemon Lover as well as tunes for Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor, Goodbye Sweet Jane, Brisk Young Lover and Awake, Awake.  She was also able to give complete versions of The Lily of the West, The Shooting of His Dear, The Rejected Lover and what seems to be a song that was unique to her, called The Discontented Husband.

On Saturday, 2nd September Sharp and Karpeles again called on Mr & Mrs Coates during the morning.  It rained for most of the time.  After lunch they tried to find Mrs Crane's husband, Hezekiah, a possible singer, but he was away from home.  The pair visited nearby Rocky Fork, where Mary Norton gave them a version of The Gipsy Laddie, before returning to some of the other Nortons who gave them a couple of the songs mentioned above.  It had not been a particularly successful day.  They had been soaked, had only collected a few songs and, in the evening's mail, discovered that the composer George Butterworth had been killed at the Somme.  Butterworth's death affected Sharp badly, 'I feel too sad to set to work to do anything'.  We don't know how Maud Karpeles felt, although later she said that Butterworth had been 'one of the objects of her romantic yearnings'.7

On Sunday, 3rd September, Sharp had a lie-in, not having breakfast until 'half-an-hour later', at 7am!  He spent the morning copying out song tunes before walking over to the Crane household.  Sharp spells the surname as 'Crane', although most families in the area use the spelling 'Crain'.  It would seem that Sharp had been told that Hezekiah sang a song which, so Sharp believed, was a version of the ballad The Wife Wrapt in Wether's Skin.  Hezekiah was in when they called, but the song turned out to be 'a very moderate version of My Boy Billy!' But all was not lost, as Hezekiah also gave Sharp versions of three other songs, William Hall, The Brisk Young Lover and Awake, Awake.

Jeff Stockton, as I said above, was visited the next day and it may be that his fine collection of songs helped the collectors out of their sorrow over the death of George Butterworth.  Later Sharp was to say that 'the mountain ballads helped to keep me sane' and he may have been thinking of this period of his life when he made this remark.

Tuesday, 5th September, 1916, was to be Sharp and Karpeles' last day in Flag Pond.  They sent their luggage ahead to Alleghany at 7am and then began walking over the mountains.  They called in to see Lewis Blankenship for a final time and they also visited a Kitty Gwynne who gave then two songs, The Old Man and The Wagoner's Lad, as well as tunes for The Gypsy Laddie and Barbary Allen.  Again, the surname 'Gwynne' may have been taken down incorrectly, 'Guinn' being the preferred Flag Pond spelling, and it is possible that this singer was Kitty L Guinn, who was born sometime around 1878.  Then it was on to Devil's Fork and Carmen, where many other singers awaited.

***

I am now sitting looking at the photograph of the Stockton Family.  It is a formally posed photograph of Jeff and Eliza Stockton and eight children.  Three chairs have been brought out for the younger children and the rest are standing in front of a split-rail fence in a field that is probably close to their home.  Some unknown person has written the names of four of them, Jeff and his wife Eliza, son Wesley and daughter Bertha.  These latter would be Wesley Stockton (19.10.1888 - 17.4.1979) and Bertha Stockton Phillips (18.8.1890 - 25.9.1975).  But who are the others?  Are they, in fact, some of Jeff and Eliza's other children?  Wesley had an older brother, William Henry Stockton (13.3.1881 - 16.6.1968), but in the photograph there are only two younger boys.  And who are the other girls?  Are any of these either Cordelia Stockton Tipton (10.12.1875 - 11.5.1958), Betsy Jane Stockton Blankenship (22.8.1878 - 22.11.1953), Lonie Stockton Mashburn (11.11.1892 - 7.12.1975), Nancy D Stockton (2.5.1883 - 30.11.1899), Minnie Lee Stockton Silvers (born 22.5.1885) or Kittie Stockton Hensley (2.4.1899 - 18.8.1976)?  There was also another daughter, Tilda Stockton (30.10.1896 - 29.6.1898), but none of the children seem to be young enough to be Tilda.

So we are left with a mystery.  Jeff and Eliza are giving nothing away.  Their faces are those of people with a strong character, people who were bold enough to not only stand all the hardships that the mountains could throw at them, but who could also raise a sturdy family to carry on their work.  Interestingly, when I was recently looking through Cecil Sharp's photographs of English and American singers, I sometimes found it hard to say whether or not the faces were those of American or English people.  Perhaps this was why Sharp felt so at home in America.

***

In September, 1950, Maud Karpeles returned to Flag Pond, this time armed with a tape recorder, and she recorded two singers there.  The first was Jeff Stockton's son, William Henry Stockton, who sang an abridged version of his father's song Fair Margaret and Sweet William, and the second was Mrs Donald Shelton, formerly Emma Hensley of Madison County, NC, who had sung to Cecil Sharp in 1916 when she was only thirteen years old.  She gave Sharp a version of the ballad Barbara Allen, but thirty-four years later was able to record versions of Sally Gooden, Shortening Bread, Locks and Bolts, The Gypsy Laddie, Pretty Little Girl and Cripple Creek.8

Almost one hundred years have now elapsed since Cecil Sharp and Maud Karples visited Flag Pond together, and it is just over sixty years since Maud Karpeles returned on her own.  In all, Cecil Sharp had collected almost sixty songs from the Flag Pond singers during a period of six days.  Sharp felt that the songs and ballads that he was 'rescuing' would soon disappear from the mountains and that people would no longer sing them.  And, in a way, he was right.  When Maud Karpeles returned to the area in 1950 she found far fewer singers.  Today, however, there has been a revival of interest in the 'old love songs and ballads' and much of the repertoire has re-entered the mountains via the books that Sharp and Karpeles published from their great collection.  Thankfully, all their hard work and dedication can now be heard on the lips of so many new singers, and that is a wonderful legacy.

Mike Yates - 14.3.12
Wiltshire

Acknowledgements

To Beth Gann of Johnson City, Tennessee, for sending me the photograph of the Stockton Family and to Malcolm Taylor, Librarian at Cecil Sharp House, London, for allowing the photograph of Mr Blankenship to be reproduced here.

Endnotes:

Article MT271

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