When eighth-generation ballad singer Donna Ray Norton lets loose a song like Pretty Peggy-O or Young Emily, she is reminded of home. She learned these strains on her grandmother’s front porch in Sodom Laurel, a rural Madison County community also called Revere.
Kinfolk there like to tell the story of when “songcatcher” Cecil Sharp came to town in 1916. Right when Mary Sands, Norton’s many-times great-aunt, began singing for Sharp, some cousin down the line entered the world. They likely sang Barbry Allen to quiet his coos.
“It’s my family heritage,” says Norton. “Ballads are dear to my heart, but they run the risk of dying out.”
She shared her ballad singing with David Weintraub, filmmaker and executive director of The Center for Cultural Preservation. Over the past year, he has been unearthing Western North Carolina’s musical roots for his documentary, A Great American Tapestry: The Many Strands of Mountain Music. It is now set to debut on Thursday, June 22, at 7 p.m., in Blue Ridge Community College’s Thomas Auditorium. Additional screenings, both at 7:30 p.m., will be held on Thursday, June 29, at Asheville’s Fine Arts Theatre and Friday, June 30, at White Horse Black Mountain.
Weintraub says the film reveals a more textured history that extends beyond Scots-Irish beginnings. Though European colonists provided a certain jumping off point, accounts have since been whitewashed, downplaying African and Cherokee influences. “African-Americans had been playing the Gambian gourd banjo in America one hundred years before a white musician ever did,” he says. “Through the minstrel, medicine and tent shows, that music was transmitted to white people.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Durham-based folk band, woke millions of Americans up to the black string tradition with their 2010 Grammy-winning album Genuine Negro Jig. Weintraub interviewed the three founders, including Rhiannon Giddens, currently on world tour.
Cherokee had been performing centuries before race divided Appalachia. “There were many interactions and intermarriages between Cherokee and white settlers that go way back,” says Weintraub. “Those interactions helped to develop a rich cross-fertilization of music.”
Cultural give and take, mostly between African- Americans and the Scots-Irish, would soon give rise to the ballads Norton sings today. Most are performed without instrumental accompaniment and are rife with heartache. They concern unrequited love and steamy trysts. (Spoiler: The cheater often ends up six feet under.)
In Young Emily, for instance, a fair maid falls madly in love with Edmund, a boy searching for gold. One morning she goes looking for her suitor, but he is nowhere to be found. Her father soon admits to killing Edmund. In a performance for the Knoxville News Sentinel, Norton sings, “Don’t you speak so loud and free / His gold is all for us to claim / And his body’s in the sea.”
However gruesome, poor Emily’s legacy will be forgotten if Appalachian music slips away with each passing generation. “Families used to be big, so there were all these kids to learn love songs,” says Norton. “Now I teach everyone, blood or not.”
Thomas Auditorium is located at 180 West Campus Drive in Flat Rock; the Fine Arts Theatre at 36 Biltmore Avenue, Asheville; and White Horse Black Mountain at 105 Montreat Road in Black Mountain. Tickets are $10. Early registration is encouraged. For more information, visit saveculture.org.