Recognizing that Madison County was fertile musical ground, in 1916 British folksong collector Cecil Sharp and his assistant Maud Karpeles came to Madison County and recorded several members of one of the premiere musical families in the “Laurel Country” –the Wallins. Mitchell Wallin (1854-1932) played his fiddle for Sharp who commented in this diary that Mitchell “played well but was perpetually improvising ” and therefore was difficult to note.
Cecil Sharp collected music from many families in Madison County but two of those—the Wallin family—namely Mitchell Wallin – and the Chandler family – namely Lloyd Chandler – began a long line of musical talent in Madison County. They lived a simple life, tucked away in an area known to the locals as Sodom Laurel singing their ballads to relieve the burdens of the day. Gathering on porches at the end of the day with relatives and neighbors, playing the fiddle and other instruments was the heart of their social life. And, in that process, the music lived on. The two premiere families joined together when Mitchell Wallin’s great-nephew, Lee, married Berzilla Chandler. The legacy would continue with their children (especially Doug and Jack) and reach beyond to cousins and neighbors.
When talking about Madison County musicians, I would have to start first with one of the premiere musical families of the 20th century – the Wallins. Mitchell Wallin played the fiddle and Sharp didn’t think much of his talent. But he was impressed by Mitchell’s half-sister, Mary Bullman Sands. Sharp transcribed her singing “love songs”–many of the same ballads that are sung by present-day ballad singers. Almost all of the ballads I sing today were her ballads.
—Interview with Joe Penland, July 2010
Mitchell’s half-sister, Mary Bullman Sands (1872-1949), sang 25 “love songs” (as ballads were called). Mary had solid English lineage in her background. She was one of the great grandchildren of Roderick Shelton, reputed to be the first settler to arrive in the area known as Laurel in the 1790s. At the time of Cecil Sharp’s arrival, Mary Bullman Sands was in her 40s and the mother of nine children (and eight and one half months pregnant with her tenth). On the first day, Mary gave him six songs among them Fair Margaret, Sweet William, and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter. He returned several times and on the final day, he noted Pretty Saro. In all, Sharp and Karpeles noted a total of twenty five songs from her, all but two of which were later included in the two volume English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1932).
The Silk Merchant’s Daughter
More information: Music Traditions Internet Magazine. “A Nest of Singing Birds” by Mike Yates and Kriss Sands – March 15, 2002 (Mike Yates is an English folklorist and Kriss Sands is a grandson of Mary Sands)