Saturday, 5th August, 1916, was a day of stark contrasts. In Europe, it was the day on which the composer George Butterworth died as part of the collective madness that became known as the Battle of the Somme. In America, some three thousand miles to the west, his friend Cecil Sharp was just completing his first week of song collecting in the tranquillity of the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. It is hard to imagine how two people could have found themselves in such disparate situations.
Cecil Sharp had arrived in Madison County, North Carolina, on Thursday, 27th July, 1916, reaching White Rock late in the afternoon. Sharp and his assistant, Maud Karpeles, had been driven north from the town of Asheville by John Campbell, the husband of Olive Dame Campbell who had first directed Sharp’s attention to the Appalachian singers.1
Writing about her experiences, Maud Karpeles had this to say about the first few days in the mountains:
‘At White Rock, our first resting-place, where we spent several days, we were entertained by Dr and Mrs Packard, and during our travels in 1916 we depended on board and lodging very largely on the hospitality of the Presbyterian missionaries, making our head-quarters with them and walking sometimes long distances to visit singers in the surrounding country.Evidence contradicting Sharp’s ideas of a transplanted English peasantry may be extracted from a number of sources. Take, for example, the 1820 census for the Laurel section of what was then part of Buncombe County, NC. (it later became Madison County), which lists families with the names of Walen (sic), Rice, Chandler, Shelton, Norton, Bowman, Henderson and Ramsey - names which are still prevalent in the area today. Cecil Sharp collected songs from members of the first five families - as well as from the Gosnells, Sandses, Harrises, Griffins, Hensleys, Landers and Sotherlands - in this area. Some of these names suggest a Scottish ancestry, Sotherland, Henderson and Ramsey for example; while the names Gosnell and Rice suggest an Irish ancestry. Some names, Sands and Landers for example, are known in both Scotland and Ireland. The surname Griffin, by way of contrast, is an anglicized form of the Welsh surname, Griffith, which, just to confuse matters, is also known in Ireland!
‘At first Cecil Sharp was carefully shepherded and introduced to selected singers, for there was a certain amount of nervousness as to how he and they would "re-act" on each other, but these fears were soon dispelled. After three days at White Rock he (i.e. Sharp) writes:There is no doubt that I am going to add some wonderful stuff to my collection. I have never before got such a wonderful lot in such a short time. The singers are just English peasants in appearance, speech and manner... Indeed it is most refreshing to be once again amongst one’s own people.‘And a fortnight later:Although the people are so English they have their American quality [in]...that they are freer than the English peasant. They own their own land and have done so for three or four generations, so that there is none of the servility which unhappily is one of the characteristics of the English peasant. With that praise I should say that they are just exactly what the English peasant was one hundred or more years ago.’2
In 1773 James Boswell visited the island of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, where he witnessed the reality of emigration. He recorded the following note in his journal on the 2nd October:
In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Skye has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till they are all in motion; and the dance seems intended to show how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat’.3Putting aside, for a moment, Sharp’s rather romantic - and, one now suspects, historically inaccurate - image of an ‘English peasantry’, we are left with the extremely interesting statement that Sharp and Karpeles were ‘carefully shepherded...to selected singers’. Maud Karpeles implies that the pair stayed with Dr & Mrs Packard at White Rock. Cecil Sharp’s diary entry for 27th July, 1916, however, shows that they stayed with a Presbyterian missionary, a Miss Helen Fish, and that it was Miss Fish’s sister, Edith Fish of Allenstand - described by Sharp as ‘a very grim old maid’ - who next day introduced them to a number of singers, including ‘Aunt’ Polly Shelton of White Rock, who gave them a version of the old ballad Earl Brand , much to Sharp’s delight. ‘(I am) thoroughly satisfied with my first afternoon’s work’, he was to write that evening in his diary. On the following morning Miss Fish took Sharp to meet Norah Shelton and other members of the Shelton Family who lived in the nearby settlement of Alleghany. Within four days Sharp and Karpeles had collected over fifty songs.
So, Edith Fish ‘shepherded’ Sharp and Karpeles to the initial singers. Was it also Edith Fish who ‘selected’ these singers? And, if so, what were the criteria used for selection? On the one hand, Edith Fish may simply have taken Sharp and Karpeles to people that she knew. But, on the other hand, was Miss Fish aware that Sharp and Karpeles were seeking ‘English’ folksongs? Had she herself decided that this was what Sharp would like to hear, and had she warned the singers in advance of the type of material that they should sing to Sharp? Or had somebody else primed Miss Fish? Dr & Mrs Packard, for example, or John & Olive Dame Campbell?
We may be sure that Sharp had entered the mountains carrying with him a number of presuppositions about the mountaineers. We know that Sharp had spent a considerable amount of time with Olive Dame Campbell prior to his visit to White Rock and that he had absorbed many of her ideas about the region and its inhabitants. But, the naive descriptions quoted above are part and parcel of what David E. Whisnant has called, ‘two theoretical and conceptual problems: Sharp’s essential neglect of social context and his concept of a "racial heritage".’4 In fact, it may be argued that Whisnant’s double problem was actually, for Sharp, two sides of the same coin. By convincing himself that the mountaineers were ‘English peasants’, Sharp had no further need to examine their social context. He had, by implication, already placed them into a social context, one rather similar to that of his English singers. Sharp, like other contemporary collectors, was, first and foremost, a song collector. For him the song itself was the important thing, not the context. It was only later that collectors began to realize the importance of seeing and understanding the act of singing in the context of a much wider situation.
Luckily, it is still possible today to examine some of the social aspects that were originally overlooked by Sharp himself, and this we will do by firstly considering two of his Madison County singers, Mary Sands (1872 - 1949) and Mitchell Wallin (1854 - 1932), both of Allenstand. We will then follow what happened, musically speaking, in this same small area of Madison County.
Cecil Sharp first met Mary Sands on Monday, 31 July, 1916, when she arrived at their lodgings shortly after breakfast. Mary, then aged 44, was the mother of nine children. A tenth child, John Wesley Sands, was to arrive on 28 August, less than a month after their meeting. Mary gave Sharp six ballads that day - ‘six first raters’, he called them. These were The Silkmerchant’s Daughter, a version of Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth, which Mary called The Perbadus Lady, The Brown Girl, Lord Bateman, Fair Margaret and Sweet William and Come You People Old and Young, a version of The Suffolk Miracle which Sharp described as ‘curious’.
Mary Sands again called on Sharp the following morning, singing him a further six songs and ballads. Sharp’s diary makes mention of Arise, Arise, You Drowsy Sleepers, The Daemon Lover and Mary’s version of Earl Brand, though not of the other three songs collected that day, The Little Soldier Boy, I Am a Man of Honour, and The Broken Token.
On Wednesday morning, 2nd August, Sharp and Karpeles went to visit Mary Sands at her home, where they collected an ‘interesting’ version of The Golden Glove and The Outlandish Knight. Sharp notes that he ‘gave her 5 dollars with which she was very pleased, though anxious that it should be understood that I was not paying her for the songs’. (Years later, one of Mary’s daughters, who would have been six years old at the time, recalled that Sharp had, in fact, given Mary $50. It seems more likely that it was only $5.) Such sensitivity was typical of Sharp, who was later to pay for clothes for the thirteen year old daughter of one of his singers, so that the young girl could go to a mission school a few miles from her home in Alleghany, North Carolina. Sharp did not seem to be at all put out when the girl later ran away from school, saying, ‘A scion of such a natural singing family could not be expected to fit any Presbyterian mould; better that she kept her liberty’.5 That evening, Sharp was ‘shocked terribly’ when he received the news that George Lucas, a member of his demonstration morris-dance team, had also been killed at the Somme.
The following day was very hot and sultry, and Sharp went down with an attack of dysentry. He was also suffering from an injury to his foot. ‘My left foot, which I hurt in walking on Saturday from White Rock to Alleghany, still hurts me a bit. It is still far from well’. Even so, he did manage to note a further four of Mary Sands’s songs. Lord Lovell, Married and Single Life, a version of The Sheffield Apprentice, which she called My Sad Overthrow, and a version of Lord Randal.
By Friday afternoon, 4th August, Sharp had managed to throw off his dysentry and was well enough to visit the home of Mrs Mary Gosnell, nee Shelton, of Allenstand. Mary Sands joined them and Sharp noted that ‘Both she and Mrs Gosnell sang and I got some very good songs indeed’. That day Mary sang versions of Polly Oliver, I Waited Out My Hours, The Boatsman and the Chest and If You Want to Go a-Courting. Sharp also noted four songs from Mary’s half-brother, Mitchell Wallin. These were Early, Early in the Spring (which Mitchell called Willie), Betsy, the Thresher’s Daughter, The Broken Token and Fine Sally (The Brown Girl). He also gave Sharp the fiddle tune High March. According to Sharp’s notebook, the song Fine Sally was collected from a Richard Wallin (aged 63), although when printed in Sharp’s Appalachian collection it was attributed to Mitchell Wallin, who was also shown as aged 63. It seems likely that Sharp made a mistake with the name in his field notebook. Mitchell Wallin was the eldest of five brothers - none called Richard. There may have been another relative (a cousin, for example) called Richard Wallin who sang to Sharp, but we have been unable to trace anyone with this name. It was, said Sharp, ‘A very fruitful day on the whole’.
Cecil Sharp last saw Mary Sands on the following morning, Saturday, 5th August, when he walked over to her house to note a final three songs, Pretty Saro, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender and My Dearest Dear.
Sharp must have been extremely happy with his encounters with Mary Sands. In all, Sharp and Karpeles noted a total of twenty five songs from her, all but two of which were later included in the two volume English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1932). The songs omitted were I Am a Man of Honour, which is also known as The Virginian Lover, and I Waited Out My Hours. Mary’s tune and single verse for I Am a Man of Honour is similar to a version that was noted a month later from another Madison County singer, Mrs Rosie Hensley of Carmen. Mrs Hensley’s version, which comprised two verses, was included in Sharp’s Appalachians book, together with a longer version collected the following year in Tennessee, and a single verse version collected in Kentucky, also in 1917.6 Mary Sands’ verse is as follows.
I am a man of honour and from Virginia come,By a strange coincidence, the Virginian singer Texas Gladden was also only able to provide one verse - which is very close to Mary’s version - when she was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1941 on behalf of the Library of Congress:
I courted a fair damsel and Polly was her name.
I gained her affection and plainly it did show;
But her self-conceited brother he proved her overthrow.
I am a man of honor, from Virginia I did come.I Waited Out My Hours, which appears to be of either British or Irish broadside origin, contains five verses, although one line is missing from the first verse.
I courted a pretty fair maiden, Miss Polly was her name.
I won her affection, her love did plainly show.
Her self-conceited brother did cause our overthrow.7
I waited out my hours as patient as Job,We are not exactly certain about the origin of the song I Am a Man of Honour, which may originally be from the Old World. But we may say with some certainty that the rest of Mary’s songs were, originally, from British and Irish sources. All of the songs that Sharp collected from Mary Sands are ballads, either of the type assembled together by the Harvard Professor, Francis James Child, in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads 5 vols. (Boston and New York, 1882 - 98), or else the genre of ballads printed on single sheets of paper that were known as ‘broadsides’ (or ‘ballets’ in the Appalachians), and all of them would certainly have been called ‘folksongs’ by Cecil Sharp. Were these all the songs that Mary knew? Or did she know any other songs? We know that, later in life, Mary composed hymns and it seems likely that she would have also sung play-party songs to her children and grandchildren.
Till I found that some other was enjoying my room.
I steered to the road by the light of the moon.
The road a-being strange and me not knowing the way,
With my bottle in my pocket so jovial was I then.
All down by yonders ruin side, all down by yonders glen,
I sat myself down and good whiskey I drunk then.
While I was setting there I found myself lone (sic),
And no one a-near me to hear my sad moan.
The small birds and nightingales8 all round me they did sing,
Adieu to you pretty Polly, my handsome young Queen.
So early next morning pretty Polly came by,
With rosy red cheeks and sparkling black eyes.
Her colour quickly left her, but it came as fresh again,
I am wounded in love, did you ever feel the pain?
I wish I were some fisherman and on some seaside,
And Polly was a salmon a-floating on the tide.
I would cast my net around her, I would bring her to the shore,
I would have pretty Polly to weep for no more.
Cecil Sharp collected songs from thirty nine Madison County singers, almost half of whom carried the surname Shelton. In fact, research by Frances Dunham has shown that no fewer than twenty eight of these singers were descended from one man, Roderick Shelton, while a further eight were related by marriage.9 Family history suggests that the Sheltons came originally from England, and that they moved into North Carolina from Virginia. Roderick Shelton was probably the first settler into that part of Madison County, an area which became known as ‘Shelton Laurel’. Today it would be extremely difficult to find any area of the English-speaking world where so many singers could be found in such close proximity.10
Mary Sands was one of the great grandchildren of Roderick Shelton. Her mother, Rosannah ‘Granny Roz’ Shelton (aka Franklin)(1836 - 1909), being one of Roderick’s granddaughters. Rosannah was married twice. Her first husband, Hugh Wallin (1829 - 1864), died during the Civil War. Hugh had been a Union recruiter in the 3rd Regiment of the North Carolina Mounted Infantry. One day Confederate soldiers rode up to his home when he was there and shot him in the back as he tried to escape from the house. One of Hugh and Rosannah’s children was the singer and fiddle-player Mitchell Wallin. Following Hugh Wallin’s death, Rosannah married again; this time to John Wesley Bullman, the father of Mary Sands. Mitchell Wallin and Mary Sands were, therefore, half-brother and sister, having the same mother, but different fathers.
According to Sharp, Mitchell Wallin was, ‘a bad singer and a very difficult fiddler to note from’, adding, though, that ‘he played well but was perpetually improvising in detail’. In the 1980’s some people still remembered Mitchell as ‘perhaps the best fiddler in the area’. They also recalled that he enjoyed, ‘rambling, fiddling and hunting more than staying home’. Sharp also says that Mitchell’s mother ‘was a Franklin. He must have Irish blood in him’.11 In fact, the suggested ‘Irish’ connection is incorrect. Roderick Shelton had an illegitimate son, William Duckworth ‘Duck’ Shelton (1796 - 1860), by a Cherokee Indian lady called Glumdalclitch. Glumdalclitch later changed her name to Mary Franklin when she married a William Franklin. She apparently also changed the name of her young child, William Duckworth, from Shelton to Franklin at that time. It appears that ‘Duck’ Shelton must therefore have been known by both names, and indeed most of his children and descendents have used the name Franklin. ‘Duck’s biological birth name of Shelton seems to have stood the test of time, however, in the history and folklore of Madison County. And most accounts of Rosannah refer to her as ‘Granny Roz Shelton (Franklin)’. Therefore, although Mitchell’s great-grandmother became a Franklin, Mitchell himself was not descended from the Franklins, nor was Mary Sands.
One curious, though interesting, aside, is the fact that ‘Duck’ Shelton was known primarily for being a counterfeiter. It seems that ‘Duck’ would leave home with a sack of cornbread over his shoulder and would return a week or so later with the sack full of newly minted silver coins. Although publicly whipped more than once for counterfeiting, neither ‘Duck’ nor his wife ever revealed the location of their secret silver mine. (Could it be, we wonder, that the Franklin Family has been content to let ‘Duck’ be known as a Shelton instead of a Franklin due to his rather unsavory notoriety?)
A more certain Irish connection can be found when we examine some of Hugh Wallin’s ancestors. Hugh was a direct descendent of Elisha Walling and his son, John Walling (27th July, 1750 - 18th April, 1836) who was born in Henry County, VA. Hugh was the son of Thomas Grandison Wallin, John Walling’s son. John Walling’s first wife died in 1785 at Martin’s Station, VA., when she was killed by Indians. On 18th February, 1786, John married Elizabeth Roberts and at least two of their sons married Irish girls. Jesse’s first wife was Rebecca Duff, who was born on the ship that was carrying her parents to the New World, while his brother Thomas Grandison Wallin (the 2nd) married Nancy Duff, the daughter of an Irishman, Joseph Duff. (Were Rebecca and Nancy perhaps sisters?). A local family tradition suggests that the Duffs fled for their lives to America following their involvement in a revolt against British rule in Ireland.
Other related singers who sang to Cecil Sharp were Solomon Shelton, b.1841, of Carmen, who was a brother of Franklin B Shelton, and William Riley Shelton, b.1873, from Alleghany, who was known as ‘the brag ballad singer’. Both Solomon, known as ‘Sol’, and Franklin B Shelton were distant cousins of Mary Sands, their great-grandmother being the same Cherokee Glumdalclitch as Mary’s great-grandmother, but having different great-grandfathers.
It is difficult now for us to imagine what life must have been like for the young Mary Bullman, who was one of four children. Mary’s parents were farmers, like most of their neighbours, and conditions in Western North Carolina must have been very hard indeed.(Even until quite recently, farmers in the area produced almost all that their families needed, their only cash income coming from the sale of tobacco in a nearby town.) Mary’s twin sister, Martha, was bitten by a snake when she was quite young and her death some years later was blamed on the snake poison. There would have been few visits to the local towns and entertainment would have made at home. No doubt in winter, when the snow covered the land, there would have been dances, and possibly singing and storytelling. We don’t know where Mary learnt her songs, though some possibly came from her mother, ‘Granny Roz’, herself a noted story-teller. Every year ‘Granny Roz’ would spend a week or so with each of her grown up children, carrying her clothes with her in a sack. One story that she often told was an account of how, as a young girl, she had been stalked by a black panther. Apparently she only escaped by tearing off pieces of clothing one at a time as she ran. She threw the pieces at the animal and gained a few steps each time as the panther snatched at each piece. She barely made it to her cabin and slammed the door as it pounced toward her.
Of course, the Madison County singing tradition did not cease as soon as Cecil Sharp left the mountains - although Sharp probably felt that this would happen. In 1950 Maud Karpeles returned to the area armed with a tape recorder and she recorded a number of people from Alleghany. These were Ella Shelton, who sang The Dear Companion, and Mrs Donald Shelton (the former Emma Hensley, the person mentioned above who ran away from school), who sang Sweet William, Fair Margaret & Sweet William, The True Lover’s Farewell and Locks and Bolts. Mrs Donald Shelton was also recorded talking about Cecil Sharp’s visit and of events that occurred during the American Civil War. Karpeles also recorded a trio (?) of musicians, ‘The Sugarloaf Sheltons’ playing Cumberland Gap, Little Maggie, Pike County Breakdown, Fire in the Mountains, Lost Indian and Boneyparte’s Retreat. Unfortunately we do not have the personnel for these recordings, which are now housed, with other Appalachian recordings that Karpeles made, in the Sound Library at Cecil Sharp House, London NW1 7AY.
A few years later Peter Gott moved into the area and befriended a number of singers who were recorded by Peter and John Cohen for the album Old Love Songs & Ballads from the Big Laurel, North Carolina (Folkways FA2309). The singers were Cas Wallin, one of Mitchell Wallin’s nephews, (Pretty Saro & Fine Sally), his brother, Lee Wallin (Juba & Neighbour Girl), Lee’s wife, Berzilla Wallin (Love Has Brought Me to Despair, Johnny Doyle & Conversation with Death), Berzilla’s cousin, Dillard Chandler (A Soldier Travelling from the North, The Sailor Being Tired, Hicks Farewell, Awake, Awake & Mattie Groves), and neighbour Elisha Shelton (Don’t You Remember & In Zepo Town). Elisha Shelton, (named, perhaps, after Elisha Walling?), lived on Shelton Laurel at Alleghany. He played a number of musical instruments, including the mouth-bow and the banjo, and it could be that he was the banjo-player for the ‘Sugarloaf Sheltons’ recorded by Maud Karpeles.
Other Madison County recordings by John Cohen are available on the anthology High Atmosphere (Rounder CD 0028) and The End of an Old Song (Folkways FA 2418) where Dillard Chandler sings The Carolina Lady, Black Jack Daisy, Rain and Snow, Old Shep. Hicarmichael, Short Time Here-Long Time Gone, Meeting is Over, Gathering Flowers, Gastony Song, Sport in New Orleans, Drunken Driver, Jesus Says Go, Going Down the Road and Little Farmer Boy. Doug Wallin, one of the sons of Lee and Berzilla Wallin, also sings Young Emily on this album.
Other collectors have followed, including Mike Yates, who visited Sodom Laurel in 1980 and 1983 to record songs from Cas Wallin, his wife Virgie, and his nephew Doug. He also recorded Berzilla Wallin, her sister Dellie Norton and three members of the Ramsey Family - Evelyn Ramsey, her husband Douston, and her father Morris Norton. Douston was the brother of Obray Ramsey, a banjo-player and singer who made a number of recordings in the 1960’s, often with fiddle-player Byard Ray, who had learnt many tunes from Mitchell Wallin. Many of Mike Yates’s Appalachian recordings will shortly be made available on a 4-CD set Far in the Mountains (Musical Traditions MTCD321-24).
Working on behalf of the Folklife Section of the North Carolina Arts Council, Wayne Martin, Beverly Patterson and others, made further recordings of Doug Wallin and his brother Jack, some of which can be heard on a Smithsonian Folkways album Family Songs and Stories from the North Carolina Mountains (SF CD 40013).
Today almost all of these singers are no longer with us, although singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, a great-great niece of Mary Sands, continue the tradition. Sheila learnt many songs from her great-aunt Dellie Norton, and, with her musician husband, Jim Taylor, performs throughout America. One of Sheila’s latest albums My Dearest Dear contains six of the songs that Mary Sands gave to Cecil Sharp.
And so the circle has been completed. Cecil Sharp saw himself as a person who was ‘rescuing’ folksongs from oblivion. It was Sharp’s practice to publish as many of the songs that he collected as possible. Thus, he hoped, people would once again take up the singing of folksongs and the playing of folkmusic. Today there are concerts and folkmusic festivals held in many parts of western North Carolina. Perhaps these events would have appeared without the help of Cecil Sharp and singers such as Mary Sands and Mitchell Wallin. But then again, perhaps not. "Chance", said Cecil Sharp, "brought me to America". Maybe. But chance had nothing to do with the way that Sharp worked once he had discovered such a fine nest of singing birds. In 1919 Sharp told a friend that he was, "often dreaming about America and the wonderful time I had there and the invaluable experience I gained there". No doubt his dreams would have included memories of those first days in Madison County and of Mary Sands, her half-brother Mitchell Wallin, and all those other fine singers who gave so generously of themselves and their songs.
Mike Yates and Kriss Sands - 15.3.02
(Mike Yates is an English folklorist
Kriss Sands is a grandson of Mary Sands)
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