Adams and McMillon serve up 'bawdy ballads'

Staff reports

The early years of the 20th Century witnessed a flurry of folksong collecting in the Southern Appalachians. Songcatchers like Olive Dame Campbell and the Englishman Cecil Sharp, working with Maud Karpeles, searched remote mountain communities and found a treasure trove of British balladry that the outside world had forgotten, along with unique home-grown songs.

Sharp found Madison County to be especially rich ballad hunting ground, and many of the songs in his classic tome "English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians" were collected there. But the folklorists were products of late Victorian society with their own ideas about propriety and what a traditional song “ought” to be, so songs they considered too vulgar were altered or excluded.

Possibly their informants also self-edited for the outsiders, but the humor, insight and honesty of these so-called “bawdy songs” remained a lively part of Appalachian life. Sheila Kay Adams and Bobby McMillon have built a show, “Bawdy Ballads,” around their sly charms and will let the audience in on the fun at the White Horse Black Mountain on Friday, Sept. 23.

Shelia Kay Adams is a balladeer and keeps the old traditional songs of her ancestors and Madison County alive with her voice at festivals such as the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College.

A recipient of numerous awards, including a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship,  Adams belongs to a seven-generation lineage of mountain singers, having learned unaccompanied ballad singing from her great-aunt Dellie Chandler Norton and other notable traditional singers around Madison County’s Sodom Laurel community. Adams began performing in her teens and along the way has become an accomplished clawhammer banjo player and storyteller, playing for audiences throughout the U.S. and United Kingdom.

A true renaissance woman, she’s recorded several albums of songs and stories, authored two books of fiction and appeared in the movies "Last of the Mohicans" and "Songcatcher," serving as a technical adviser and singing coach on the latter. Adams has been an important figure in assuring that the Appalachian song and story heritage will be carried into the future by new generations.

McMillon, Adams’ co-conspirator in the “Bawdy Ballads” show, heard the old ballads and tales from both sides of his family as a child and by age 18 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.” He’s performed throughout the U.S. at local, regional and national events, sang in the film "Songcatcher" and in 2000 became the youngest-ever recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award.

Bobby McMillon learned many folk ballads in part to preserve them for future generations.