Preserving the Heritage-Cecil Sharp Collects Music
One of the most important collector to travel to the area was British scholar and folksong collector Cecil Sharp who arrived in Madison County in 1916. He had already established himself as the person who was given the redit for preserving many of England's traditional dances and music before traveling to the southern mountains of the United States.
One of the most important collectors to travel to this area was British scholar and folksong collector Cecil Sharp who arrived in Madison County in 1916. He had already established himself as the person who was given the credit for preserving many of England’s traditional dances and music before traveling to the southern mountains of the United States. A correspondence with Olive Campbell who had already traveled throughout the area collecting music prompted this trip. By the time she met Sharp, Mrs Campbell had collected over two hundred songs and ballads. The movie “Songcatcher” is loosely based on that endeavor. Sharp and his assistant Maud Karpeles traveled back into the hills of Madison County and took down the ballads to preserve those that had been passed down to the inhabitants of the more remote parts of the region from their British and Scottish ancestors. Sharp described some communities in the Blue Ridge as places where “singing is as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking.”
Sharp was driven into Madison County in July of 1916. One of the areas in the Laurel Country was a very remote section known then as Allanstand (the name Allanstand based on the fact that it was on a pack-horse route where the animals could ‘stand’ overnight, probably at a lodging originally owned or run by a person called Allen). One of the younger residents, Berzilla Chandler Wallin remembers that the people were nervous at first because they thought that he was surveying for a site for a new dam and they might lose their land. Their feelings softened and within four days Sharp had collected over fifty songs and had doubled this figure within seventeen days. In fact, Ziporah Rice, an aunt of Berzilla’s (known to all as “Aunt Zip”) was one of those who sang for Sharp.
Sharp spent four weeks in Madison County and we know from his diary that he was often driven around by Mitchell Wallin, Lee’s uncle, who played the fiddle for Sharp. According to Sharp’s diary, Mitchell Wallin was “a bad singer and a very difficult fiddler to note from” but Wallin is remembered by those in the area as a good fiddler. Mitchell’s half-sister, Mary Bullman Sands, sang 25 “love songs” (as ballads were called). Although Sharp was looking for songs, he also collected instrumental music. Reuben Hensley, father of thirteen year old Emma Hensley who gave Sharp a good version of the ballad Barbara Allen, played Sharp such tunes as Cumberland Gap. His travels in the county were published in a small booklet entitled Ballad Hunting in the Appalachians which included four letters he wrote during that summer. Sharp kept a diary and took photographs during his travels.