Folk Music Popularity Spotlights Madison County, NC
Then, in the 1950s and 60s, folk music was experiencing a revival throughout the U.S. with names such as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan. And, with the happenstance of a family who moved to Madison County in the 1960s combined with the widespread medium of movies/documentaries, the interest in traditional mountain music became much more far-reaching. Madison County’s chapter in this story happened when Peter and Polly Gott, musicians themselves, moved to Madison County because of the lure of the music.
According to Joe Penland, Peter and Polly came here with the idea that they didn’t want to change one thing about the county; they wanted it to change them. They totally assimilated into county life and met Lee Wallin, who introduced them to his relatives. According to Joe Penland, Peter is “one of the reasons that our music received the recognition that it does today.” Peter performed regularly with Ralph Lewis at the Jubilee Theater in Hot Springs.
Peter introduced Mike Seeger to his friend Lee Wallin. Mike Seeger played with John Cohen, New York musician, photographer and film-maker. And the result was that Cohen came to Madison County in the early 60s and recorded Lee, Berzilla and Cas Wallin plus several Wallin relatives for Old Love Songs and Ballads (album liner notes) which was released in 1963. Cohen made subsequent field recordings of Wallin family members and later released Dark Holler (album liner notes) and High Atmosphere. Their cousin, Dillard Chandler, was the subject of Cohen’s 1973 documentary, The End of an Old Song. The 27-minute movie was described by Michael Goodwin, Rolling Stone as “a superbly conceived, masterfully executed work of art.”
Musicians, collectors, music lovers started flocking to Madison County after that documentary was released.
—Interview with Joe Penland, July 2010
A common practice in the ’60s and ’70s for pop and rock musicians was to mine the depths of old-time, blues, and other folk styles. This trend took traditional musicians (and cousins) Byard Ray and Obray Ramsey beyond Madison County. Obray Ramsey was a banjo player with an old-time three-finger picking style and a smooth, high singing voice. Byard Ray was a skilled fiddler. One of the albums they released under their name of White Lightnin’ was “Fresh Air”—a meeting of the old and new in folk music.