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Writer and historian Suzannah Smith Miles will present “Finding Barbara Allen,” a discussion of Southern Appalachian folk music history and the “songcatchers” who first captured this music for posterity, Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp.
When Olive Dame Campbell came to western North Carolina in 1907 with her husband, educator and sociologist John C. Campbell, the mountains were largely unchanged from a century earlier when the first English and Scots-Irish settlers began to arrive. As the Campbells collected data on rural mountain life they came to closely know and admire the mountain folk, finding a people with a rich cultural history and remarkable talents in crafts and handiwork. They also discovered that perhaps above all else, mountain life revolved around music.
This music was new to Olive’s trained ear. Even the instruments, the banjo and dulcimer, were far removed from the classical music education she had received in Massachusetts as a girl. Fascinated by haunting melodies like “Barbara Allen,” she began capturing the songs and ballads on her travels through the mountains, transcribing the melodies and lyrics onto paper.
By 1915, having collected over 200 songs, Olive went to Massachusetts to meet with the eminent English musicologist, Cecil Sharp, who had come to America in search of long-lost songs and ballads of the British Isles.
Sharp was astounded by Campbell’s collection. “She has tapped a mine… of the first importance,” he wrote. “The ballads in question were apparently of Irish, Scottish or English origin which had presumably been carried to that district by the original settlers and passed down by oral tradition to their descendants and so generation by generation to the present inhabitants.”
Sharp and Campbell became collaborators and, using the Campbell’s Asheville home as base, they traveled the mountains, capturing songs. In 1917 they published, English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, a compilation of 445 songs and ballads with notes.
“This is an enthralling way to look at Western North Carolina history,” says Ms. Miles, who has written extensively on Western North Carolina history as a regular contributor for WNC Magazine. She is also widely known for her books on South Carolina Lowcountry history. .
“These are songs that go back centuries and are still being sung today. Remember Peter, Paul and Mary singing ‘The Cruel War is Raging’ back in the early 1960s? That song dates back to the early 1600s. It was just as meaningful an anti-war statement during the Revolutionary War and Civil War as it was during Viet Nam. ‘Barbara Allen’ dates to the 1660s. Some of the most popular songs we hear today like ‘Shady Grove’ can be traced straight back to the British Isles in the 17th century. That they survived and remained relatively intact is largely because the mountains were so remote. Life in the hills and hollers was unchanged . Even the way some mountain people spoke was more Elizabethan than American. Often just by following the music, you can follow the course of history—where the early settlers were from in the British Isles, where they first came into America, and how they eventually moved to the North Carolina mountains. It is fascinating.”
Raised in Charleston, South Carolina, author and historian Suzannah Smith Miles is widely known for her works on South Carolina Lowcountry history. While in Gettysburg for ten years, she also wrote extensively on the Civil War. Yet her roots are firmly embedded in Western North Carolina soil. Her ancestors were amongst the earliest to settle Asheville, Burnsville and other parts of Yancey County.
“My father’s Smith family has been in the mountains since the 1750s,” explains Ms. Miles. “I grew up on stories about Big Tom Wilson, fishing the Toe River, and listening to tales of my grandfather walking across the Black Mountains just to court my grandmother. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I’m kin to half the people who come to hear the talk on early folk music at the Earl Scruggs Center. “
Speaking on the history of early Appalachian folk music has an additional meaning for Ms. Miles. “My father was a violinist,” she says. “That is, he was called ‘violinist’ when he played Brahms or Beethoven. When he pulled out his ‘fiddle’ and started picking and playing an old square dance reel? He was just a mountain fiddler, plain and simple. He loved mountain music.”
Following her talk, Ms. Miles will be available to sign copies of her latest work, The Islands: Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, An Illustrated History, a 160-page, fully illustrated coffee-table type history of Charleston’s two oldest resort islands.
REGISTER for The Songcatchers