One hundred years ago, British folksong collector Cecil Sharp and his assistant Maud Karpeles arrived in the mountains of North Carolina. What they found was a treasure trove of songs and ballads still in active oral tradition, woven into the fabric of the lives of the singers, in versions more complete and compelling than their counterparts in the British Isles.
Their landmark collection brought Western North Carolina ballads and singers to worldwide attention and helped fuel the folksong revival. Some of the finest living carriers of the ballad tradition will gather at the White Horse Black Mountain on Sunday, April 17 to celebrate the music and to benefit singer and storyteller Bobby McMillon.
Joining in the round-robin ballad swap will be McMillon himself, as well as Sheila Kay Adams, queen of the mountain ballads. Also performing will be other singers tied to Madison County’s Sodom Laurel community, including Joe Penland, Donna Ray Norton, Sam Gleaves and Marina Trivett.
McMillon heard the old ballads and tales from both sides of his family as a child. By age 18, he had become an important collector of regional songs, stories and lore.
“Eventually,” he said, “I began to realize that if I didn’t perform the songs I was learning, most of the repertoires of the people I learned from would be lost because they didn’t have family members of their own to hand them down to.”
McMillon has performed throughout the U.S., at local, regional and national events and in the movie “Songcatcher.” In 2000 he became the youngest-ever recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award.
McMillon recently suffered financial setbacks as a result of heart surgery and an automobile accident. In the mountain tradition of friends helping friends, his extended community has responded with the White Horse gathering.
Sheila Kay Adams, one of Western North Carolina’s most respected traditional performers, is the product of seven generations of musicians and storytellers from Sodom Laurel. She absorbed the ancient mountain ballads and stories and honed her signature clawhammer banjo style, becoming a much-loved ambassador of Appalachian culture.
Adams has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship in 2013 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The balladeer’s story
Who: Bobby McMillon and friends
When: 7:30 p.m. April 17
Where: White Horse Black Mountain
Cost: $12 advance, $15 door