Secrets of the Blue Ridge: In Search of Appalachian Singers and Their Songs

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The singing of Lura Hicks Starke (1892–1987) of Crozet (which included “The Three Little Babes,” also known as the ballad “The Wife of Usher’s Well”), was recorded in 1932 to aluminum phonograph record by UVA English professor A.K. Davis Jr.. UVA student and Crozet native Fred Knobloch had collected the text and tune to Lura’s songs in 1931, along with those of Martha Elizabeth Gibson. Mrs. Gibson’s “Sweet William” contained 18 stanzas. (Photo courtesy of the Starke family.) Additional images accompany the print version of this article.
The singing of Lura Hicks Starke (1892–1987) of Crozet (which included “The Three Little Babes,” also known as the ballad “The Wife of Usher’s Well”), was recorded in 1932 to aluminum phonograph record by UVA English professor A.K. Davis Jr.. UVA student and Crozet native Fred Knobloch had collected the text and tune to Lura’s songs in 1931, along with those of Martha Elizabeth Gibson. Mrs. Gibson’s “Sweet William” contained 18 stanzas. (Photo courtesy of the Starke family.) Additional images accompany the print version of this article.

By Phil James

A special interest was kindled in America during the 1880s for finding and preserving the songs that had been passed from continent to continent by the oral tradition of generations of ordinary singers. Harvard Professor Francis J. Child was drawn into this movement, not as a collector, but as a research scholar. He built upon the study and collections of earlier scholars and collectors. His passion for that task defined the latter half of his 71 years. The fifth and culminating volume of his published balladry collection was unfinished at the time of his death in 1896.

Succeeding generations of folklore and ballad scholars reference their own efforts to Child’s meticulously researched and numbered works, reverently referred to as the Child Ballads. The American Folklore Society was established in 1888 with Child as its first president. Subsequently, C. Alphonso Smith, professor of English literature at the University of Virginia, founded the Virginia Folklore Society in 1913. Smith made it clear that the society’s goal was the “pursuit of the ballad,” and, in particular, the variants of Child’s published ballads that could have been found in Virginia.

The eminent English ballad collector Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) and his assistant Maud Karpeles first made their way to Charlottesville and Albemarle County in 1916 at the invitation of Professor Smith. A guided jaunt into the western side of the county put them in touch with several singers including Nueal Walton (who sang renditions of “The Two Sisters” and “The Two Brothers”), Mrs. Orilla Keyton and Wesley Batten. After this trip, Sharp noted in his diary, “Brown’s Cove offers great possibilities…” Their productive visits back across the county with Napoleon Bonaparte (“N.B.”) Chisholm near Woodbridge collected 24 songs.

Ballads were commonly sung while performing household and field chores, relaxing with neighbors, or traveling on foot or horseback. One singer remarked to Sharp while struggling to recall a particular tune, “Oh, if only I were driving the cows home I could sing it at once.”

Sharp and Karpeles traveled to America’s Appalachian Mountain states from England three times: in 1916, ’17 and ’18. So captivated was Sharp with the rich oral traditions of the singers he had encountered in the Appalachian Mountains that he noted in 1917 to economic geographer J. Russell Smith: “I’d like to build a wall around these mountains, and let the mountain people alone. The only distinctive culture in America is here.”

Arthur Kyle Davis Jr., an instructor of English at the University of Virginia, was selected by Alphonso Smith to edit and publish the accumulated ballad and folklore collection of the Virginia Folklore Society. In 1924, shortly after Davis began that daunting task, Professor Smith passed away. The society’s collection, painstakingly edited by Davis, was published in 1929 as Traditional Ballads of Virginia.

Soon after the book’s publication, Davis endeavored to expand the collection begun by Smith and the Virginia Folklore Society. With financial grants in place and the enthusiastic involvement of the state’s schoolteachers, the collection grew to embrace 3,200 variants of nearly 1,000 songs, which included Child ballads. Additionally, armed with a phonograph recording machine, Smith made 325 field recordings on aluminum phono records—some of our country’s earliest such recordings.

Some of the same songs that had been noted down by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in 1916, such as those sung by Orilla Keyton in Brown’s Cove, were recorded for posterity on Davis’s record-making machine. He also recorded Keyton’s Mountfair neighbor Victoria Shifflett Morris in 1932 and ’33.

As that older generation of singers faded, and the pace of society quickened, yet one more wave of song collectors appeared in the rural areas, hoping to hear and be inspired by the remaining traditional singers. Among the hopeful were early folksingers whose special interest included locating traditional material that they might adapt for new, younger audiences who frequented urban coffeehouses. For some of those seekers, it was simply the love of the song and its origins. For a small handful of others, the allure of yet-to-be-discovered, unpublished material was like an enticing song of the Sirens, promising riches and fame.

In the early 1950s, Professor Davis introduced one of his promising students, Paul Clayton Worthington, into the parlors of some of the remaining traditional ballad singers living in the Blue Ridge foothills of western Albemarle. Worthington, who had previously collected whaling shanties in his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, began making his own forays into the mountains, armed with his friendly demeanor and tape recording machine.

On road trips to and from his New England roots, he performed some of the Blue Ridge mountain ballads in coffeehouses. In 1957, Paul, in turn, introduced ballad and folklore enthusiast George Foss to the Virginia mountains. Mary Bird McAllister, who lived close by the simple log cabin that Worthington had made into his Virginia base, provided Foss with many enjoyable hours of stories and song.

“Mary Bird’s favorite song was ‘Across the Blue Mountains,’” he recalled, “and I heard it for a long time exclusively from her. It was her story, her life. That’s the way that oral tradition worked: it gets tailored and edited at the subconscious level, and people remember what’s closest to them.”

As Foss’s visits to the area increased in frequency, he began to branch out and knock on doors further afield. A particularly talented family of singers had lived in the area of Wyatt’s Mountain, near Bacon Hollow, in Greene County: Victoria Shifflett [Morris] (whose God-given talents for balladry later earned her an audience with President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House), her sister Effie, and their cousins Ella and Florence Shifflett.

“Florence Shifflett was in her mid-eighties when I first met her,” wrote song collector George Foss. “She had always lived in the hills above Bacon Hollow. Some folks prefer to talk, and sing rarely, and then only if pressed. Florence Shifflett did not talk much, but for her, singing was as natural as breathing. Singing was a pleasant way to pass a visit with friends or even to make one’s solitary hours go by more quickly. Whenever I was with her, she was constantly singing. Some of her songs, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ ‘Peggy the Harmless Creature,’ ‘The Gypsy Laddie-O’ and ‘Across the Blue Mountain’ are among the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.”

The 1960s saw the passing of many, many more of the traditional singers, and with them, diverse oral traditions with direct links to the Old Country. For those individuals who set aside modern ambitions and conveniences in order to sit and listen to those voices from ages past, it was a golden time, never to be repeated.

“It is no exaggeration to say,” wrote Sharp in the introduction to his 1917 volume titled English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians, “that some of the hours I passed sitting on the porch of a log-cabin, talking and listening to songs, were amongst the pleasantest I have ever spent.”

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2016 Phil James

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