By Phil James
When Ben and Icy Shifflett’s beautiful baby girl Victoria was born into the highlands of western Greene County in late fall of 1895, the name of everyone’s game was work, and none of it easy. The challenge of surviving the upcoming winter in the mountains was compounded with the arrival of their ninth child, two of whose earlier siblings had not lived beyond childhood.
Greene’s Bacon Hollow is contained by Flattop, Wyatt, Hightop and Snow Mountains. Roach River, proceeding from below Powell Gap, runs the full length of this secluded vale. Since the 1930s, residents have exchanged distant glances with the windshield explorers who stop at the hollow’s namesake overlook 1,200 vertical feet above on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
It was an apt description that “a woman’s work is never done,” particularly amid such remote surroundings at the turn of the 20th century. Sans electricity and with a water supply that only ran outdoors and downhill, everyday was a tough haul for Isaphrine “Icy” Shifflett simply to keep her growing family fed and clothed. Her husband Ben’s lot “from sun to sun” centered on subsistence farming and managing his minimal livestock. Wage paying jobs were seasonal, few and dangerous: stave mill jobs, cutting and dragging timber logs, saw mill work, digging sassafras stumps and roots or stripping tree bark to sell.
More often than not, any semblance of diversion from most tasks at hand involved singing ballads, to one’s self or in turn with others. This pleasing distraction was one in which several members of the Shifflett family excelled, and it was a very important part of the family and communities in which young Victoria was nurtured.
When Victoria wed Leonard Morris near Christmastime in 1919, song collectors from home and abroad had begun to wend their way into the hinterlands of Appalachia in search of the old tunes. Sometimes referred to as “songcatchers,” these collectors were typically academics. Their passion was to preserve variants of original English and Scottish popular ballads before the singers, along with their songs brought over from the old country, were lost to eternity.
Among the more preeminent of the collectors was Cecil Sharp, who made several trips to America from England during the years of the First World War. With his able assistant Maud Karpeles, he traversed the remote mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, noting down the words and tunes of a vanishing art form. Owing to the remoteness and difficult access in certain regions of Appalachia, pockets of singers could still be found who remained uncorrupted by more contemporary musical influences.
Nearing the close of his time in America in 1918, Sharp wrote in a letter to one of his hosts, former U.Va. English Professor C. Alphonso Smith, “I have found the tunes in Virginia extraordinarily beautiful; I think of greater musical value than those I have taken down anywhere else in America.”
Smith, a founder of the Virginia Folklore Society and himself an avid ballad collector, had introduced and directed Sharp to traditional singers in central Virginia. Among those local singers, a small handful eventually would be singled out for special honor.
Victoria and Leonard Morris moved to Browns Cove in northwestern Albemarle County, and, between 1922 and 1927, were blessed with three boys of their own. Leonard found ample work on the area’s farms, and, in his spare time, shaped wooden handles for all manner of hand tools, selling them through the local store. During fruit harvest seasons, they labored together alongside their neighbors in the orchards and fruit packing sheds, earning seasonal cash in an otherwise barter society.
The Great Depression sent the nation reeling. Though its effects were less visible on the rural poor than on the dependent masses in the cities, despair was prevalent throughout the land. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives offered relief work and a subsistence government wage to many of the neediest.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt quickly became known for her interest in the plights of the poor and oppressed, and she maintained a rigorous travel itinerary to that end. The same weekend in 1933 that FDR toured the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Shenandoah National Park, the First Lady was a guest at the Whitetop Folk Festival in southwest Virginia, where she was entertained with the musical traditions of mountain singers, dancers and musicians.
John Powell, one of the organizers of the festival on Whitetop Mountain, was a Virginia native and renowned composer who had graduated in 1901 from the University of Virginia. His association with Mrs. Roosevelt led to his being invited to organize a contingent of traditional singers and musicians from central Virginia to perform in concert at the White House.
Victoria Morris was among the group chosen to accompany Powell to Washington. Her credentials had long been acknowledged by her neighbors. Scholars and authors Roger Abrahams and George Foss analyzed the repertoire and styles of many singers from the region and noted that Victoria and her Shifflett cousins Ella and Florence were “some of the most outstanding folksingers in the area.”
In attempting to describe the voice of Victoria Morris captured on early field recordings, Ernest C. Mead Jr., then-chairman of the music department and now professor emeritus at U.Va., wrote, “No system of notation can adequately catch the epic quality of Victoria Morris’ severe yet intense and figured style…”
During the long administration (1933–1945) of President Franklin Roosevelt, more than 300 diverse musical events were held at the White House. Both the President and First Lady genuinely enjoyed traditional music styles, and John Powell’s circle of performers surely did not disappoint.
Following the performance, Eleanor Roosevelt, in her usual warm and gracious manner, chatted with the group and showed them around the White House. Near the close of their time together, she asked Victoria if there might be something she would like to have as a souvenir of her visit. Having noted a rough edge on the stair railing where her hand rested, Victoria replied that she wouldn’t mind having a “splinter of wood” from the White House by which to remember her special visit. Mrs. Roosevelt replied that she would see that Victoria’s wish was fulfilled.
A short time after settling back into her busy life as wife and mother in Brown’s Cove, a package arrived from the White House. It contained a photograph of the First Lady, personally inscribed to Victoria—framed in wood that originally had been used in the reconstruction of the White House roof following its burning by the British Army during the War of 1812. The treasured keepsake had a small, engraved brass plaque affixed to it stating its provenance.
Victoria Shifflett Morris’ God-given talent for singing, nurtured and encouraged by family and friends, provided her with lifelong enjoyment, as well as a story or two to be cherished by her descendants.
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 © 2003–2013 Phil James