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After a career in Appalachian music Betty Smith answers the 'Call of the Valley'
Surrounded by memorabilia as her ninety-second birthday approaches, Betty Smith begins to reminisce about her days engaged in Appalachian music. With a glint in her eyes, the summer thunder and rain outside her Highland Farms apartment soon fade into the background.
“As a child in High Point, North Carolina,” she said, “it seems we were always singers. My dad was a shape-note singer. A do is a triangle. La is a square and so forth so you can learn the melodies more quickly. He sang songs like Little Mohee about a little Indian girl who invites a fellow to go with her. But he won’t go because he has a sweetheart at home. In the same way, I’ve retained the melodies and the words. And in the same way, me and my two sisters—ages six, ten and me at twelve—became a trio and sang in church. You just sang what you knew.”
Delving a bit more deeply, it crossed her mind that the old Scottish ballad Barbara Allen was her grandmother’s baby rocking song. Smith doesn’t remember actually learning it. It has just always been there as she began to sing to herself, “In the merry month of May, the green buds they were swellin’. Sweet Willliam on his death bed lay, for love of Barbara Allen.”
“I do so like the fact that ballads tell a story,” she said. “That’s one reason they’re easy to remember ‘cause I know what’s going to happen. They don’t philosophize. They may be sad, but you’re just telling a story. You’re not crying over it. Really good old time ballads will not tell you how bad the villain was. It just happened that way.”
By the same token, they’re timeless, she said. Just like children’s songs that have been passed down from England to the coast of Georgia to the mountains of North Carolina and the streets of New York. There will be different variations but only the tune and words may change a little. “You see, children only sing what they liked. Songs last because people only keep singing what they know and like. Just like mountain fiddle tunes like Wildwood Flower that have been around for a long time.”
“You’ve got to remember,” she went on, “when people first came over from Scotland and England and Ireland, they brought their songs and music with them. And gathered on their front porches or by the fireside all the time as their only means of entertaining one another.”
It follows then that Betty Smith sang and entertained all the time, branching out with a tape of her rendition of The Ballad of Omie Wise based on the true tale of an orphan Carolina mountain girl who was drowned in a deep river by a man who opted for another gal with an ample dowry. As it happens, one of Smith’s close relatives was the sheriff who arrested the culprit.
That tape, in turn, earned Smith a prominent place at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s famed Mountain Dance and Folk Festival which aired for years in front of a live audience in Asheville. Later on, there was a book she wrote about Madison County’s Jane Gentry who also performed and sang constantly, played games with children and told riddles.
As a result, Smith devised a one-woman touring show in North Carolina for young and old, regaling everyone as Gentry sings her songs and tells her riddles as the audience becomes the children.
It soon becomes apparent that Smith’s ventures were endless. There were concerts she gave at Fiddlers Grove on the harp-like psaltery. And the weekly dulcimer sessions she’s held for the past ten years at the retirement center for dozens who want to learn and play the timeless melodies that have meant so much to her.
She also revealed that she’s about to write down her ventures for the archives at Mars Hills College just north of Asheville where she once gave workshops.