Mentor to Many — Dellie Chandler Norton & Morris Norton Lloyd Chandler

Dellie sang to pass the day, to keep from feeling lonely. Singing made the hard work in the fields more tolerable and front porch visits with neighbors and relatives more enjoyable. .. Dellie once told me she never would have believed that she would become famous for her singing. I don’t think it occurred to Dellie that she would leave any kind of legacy to the wider world.

–Rob Amberg, Sodom Laurel Album, 2002

Dellie Norton Photo copyright Rob Amberg 2010

The Wallin family extended beyond Lee & Berzilla within their generation. Berzilla’s sister, Dellie Chandler Norton (1898-1993), sang the old, unaccompanied ballads and love songs passed down from her family and other members of the community. Not only was she a singer, she was also a mentor to many in both her family and the wide community. Dellie was visited by scholars and music lovers and helped the younger generation learn and preserve the old ballads. Among the younger generation whom Dellie mentored was David Holt.

David Holt Photo copyright Rob Amberg 2010

Grammy-Award winner David Holt is a musician, storyteller, historian, television host and entertainer, dedicated to performing and preserving traditional American music and stories. Holt plays ten acoustic instruments and has released numerous recordings of traditional mountain music and southern folktales. Holt is well known for his television and radio series. He is host of public television series Folkways, a North Carolina program that takes the viewer through the Southern Mountains visiting traditional craftsmen and musicians. The influence on his music from the time he spent in Madison County with Dellie and her relatives and neighbors is evident in his stories and also in his songs. One such song is “Morris Norton’s Tune Bow and Paper Bag.”

Morris Norton Photo copyright Rob Amberg 2010

David Holt spent some time with one of Dellie’s kin—Morris Norton –and remembers him as cantankerous and stubborn but he loved mountain music. He is remembered for keeping two unique, simple instruments alive for future generations. Those two were the mouth bow (or “tune bow” as he called it) and the paper bag. The mouth bow is the world’s oldest stringed instrument. It is simply a stick that has a single string which is plucked. When then bow is held next to the mouth the players head amplifies the sound and by moving his lips the player is able to vary the harmonic pitches…and play a tune of sorts. One of his tune bows is in the Smithsonian American History Museum. To play the paper bag Morris would hold it in his left hand and rhythmically hit it with his right hand. The sound is very much like a quiet snare drum.

In her later years, Dellie performed occasionally at festivals and in 1990 she was the recipient of a North Carolina Heritage Award. Her legacy continues with a great-niece by marriage, Sheila Kay Adams, a well-known banjo player, singer/story-teller who is also an author and with two of her great-granddaughters, Denise Norton O’Sullivan and Dee Dee Norton Buckner. These young ladies are often seen at local festivals carrying on the music tradition.

The family story of Dellie Chandler Norton was captured both in photographs and words in Sodom Laurel Album (2002) by Rob Amberg, Madison County photographer. A special treasure–a CD featuring Dellie, Berzilla, Cas and other members of the family singing some of the old ballads accompanies the book.

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Lloyd Chandler (family photo)

And, again, the Chandler name comes up in the person of Dellie’s brother Lloyd Chandler. Lloyd (1896-1978), was an itinerant Freewill Baptist preacher. Although it is unclear in Cecil Sharp’s diary, Lloyd may have been one of those who sang for Sharp in 1916. The notation in the diary lists a “Floyd” rather than Lloyd. There is controversy over his authorship of “Conversation with Death” (better known by the title “O Death”). People who knew Lloyd Chandler believe he wrote it while those who did not know him disagree. The soundtrack of the 2002 film “O Brother Where Art Thou” which included “O Death” won several Grammy Awards including Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “O Death” by Ralph Stanley as well as Album of the Year.

Other recordings of these members of these premiere families of traditional music in Madison County were made in the 1960s by John Cohen. Dellie, her brother Lloyd, and Lee’s brother– Cas Wallin (1903-1992) were included on Cohen’s High Atmosphere anthology. Another Cohen album, Dark Holler: Old Love Songs and Ballads, includes recordings of Dellie, Cas, Lee, Berzilla and a cousin–Dillard Chandler. Cohen produced a film The End of an Old Song about Dillard Chandler and both Dellie and Cas also appeared in it.

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