British “songcatcher” Cecil Sharp, traveling in WNC a century ago, called Madison County the “richest repository of English folk songs in the world.” Beginning in the 18th century, Scotch, English, and Irish settlers who came to this still-remote-feeling county brought ballads from the mother country with them.
In Madison County, Sharp marveled during his early-20th-century sojourn, “singing [is] almost as common and universal a practice as speaking.” Haunting, a cappella tales of murder, lust, longing, hardship, and worship were honed by the edges of the rugged new landscape — giving the ballads a distinct, hyperlocal flavor that remains a folklorist’s dream. But however tempered by mountain life, the songs have retained their 400-year-old roots in language and subject matter.
In the 1960s, ballad singer Dellie Norton of Sodom Laurel — one of the county’s most isolated “hollers” — was “discovered,” and she became a heroine to the popular folk-music movement. Modern-day traditionalists, including Grammy winner David Holt and Madison native/nationally known storyteller/singer Sheila Kay Adams, continue to highlight the county’s crucial influence on American folk traditions.
Joe Penland, a 10th-generation ballad singer, has contributed mightily to this milieu. Called “a cultural treasure,” the singer/guitarist was mentored by well-known fiddler Byard Ray, and performs regularly, interspersing songs with stories that vivify the Madison County tradition. Penland appears at Blue Ridge Community College’s Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning as part of the Center for Cultural Preservation’s series “Keeping the Fires Burning.”
“Reflections on Madison County’s Musical Heritage: An Afternoon and Evening with Joe Penland” happens Tuesday, January 26, in two parts: there’s a 1pm lecture in the Patton Building, Room 150, and an evening concert at Thomas Auditorium (7pm). $15 each event; $25 for both. See www.saveculture.org or call 828-692-8062 for more information.