Traditional Music in Madison County, North Carolina
Collecting and Preserving the Heritage
Madison County has been fertile musical ground since the first settler with a fiddle under his arm and a ballad in his voice set foot on this new land just north of Asheville in the 1790s. In those early years, the Scots-Irish settlers found time at the end of their days to gather with family and neighbors sharing the ballads and fiddle tunes brought with them when they came to his new land. That music was passed down through the generations in much the same manner. Madison County has the longest unbroken tradition of ballad singing in the United States. This treasure remained hidden until the efforts of two men to collect the music brought the heritage to others’ attention. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a musician himself, was born in Madison county but Cecil Sharp, a scholar and folksong collector, had to travel from England for this purpose. The movie, “Songcatcher” is loosely based on the discovery and collection of that music. Both were responsible for preserving the rich musical heritage of Madison County beginning in the early 1900s.
The “Royal” Family
Sharp collected ballads from several families, most notably from some families in the Laurel country whose musical legacy continues even today—the Wallins and the Chandlers. Several members of the family kept the ballads alive for decades by passing them down to the next generation. But, it was not until the resurgence of interest in folk music in the 1960s that the depth of our music heritage was widely recognized.
100 Years Later
Today, there is still evidence of that heritage handed down for centuries not only in the direct descendants of the family but in those who seem to have grown from the rich soil and those who have been attracted to the area by our legacy. Our traditional music and dance is celebrated with special events and festivals. There are opportunities throughout the year and throughout the county to listen to the music that has held such charm not only for the generations of families but also for those who visit the area. And, there is even more to Madison County’s place in traditional music history. Beyond playing and singing the music, we hold a place in the history of traditional dancing, or clogging. And, “you can’t throw a rock in this county without hittin‘ a musician.”
Laurin Penland, the daughter of one of our local singer/storyteller/musicians Joe Penland, is an intern at NPR. Her story about “The Evolution of Oral Tradition of Mountain Ballads” was aired on December 4, 2011. Read the full article or listen to her story. To learn more about our rich music heritage, continue through this section on our website. You may be surprised by the wealth of our heritage, but it’s just part of who we are!