from “Curious Tales and Captivating Voices: The Ballad Tradition of the Southern Appalachians” by Wendy Baker:
“Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound” examines the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing in Madison County, North Carolina and how both documentary work and the power of family and community have influenced that tradition. The film focuses on John Cohen and Peter Gott’s film and recording work in Madison County in the 1960s as well as the voices of today’s ballad singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O’Sullivan, and DeeDee Norton Buckner.
Peter Gott came to Madison County, NC, in pursuit of traditional banjo music. He happened to hear a recording of Madison County banjo player Obray Ramsey playing “Pretty Polly” and the traditional tune “Little Maggie.” Gott, in turn, inspired musician and filmmaker John Cohen to come to Madison County.
Cohen’s interest in the singers of Madison County inspired him to produce a film entitled “End of an Old Song” about the legendary Dillard Chandler (1907-1992). Chandler, one of a long line of ballad singers, is said to have had one of the best voices for ballads in the world.
Cohen describes Dillard Chandler’s bewilderment when, in 1963, Cohen asked if he could record him singing ballads. “There was this big wall of silence–not resistance…I was there an awfully long time trying to explain to him why he should sing for my microphone…There’s something about this music–it would be so good if other people could hear it.” From this account, we can see that clearly, Dillard Chandler had never anticipated the interest in his singing from a wider audience.
This outside interest in the people of the ballad and traditional music scene eventually led to some unfortunate misunderstandings about the use of the recordings. As singers began to perform for festivals, strangers told them about seeing or hearing a recording of them. This revelation led to the belief that others were making money from their talent, without sharing in the financial benefits.
Sheila Kay Adams explains, “Wherever they would go, somebody would inevitably come up to them and say, ‘I heard you on this record that John Cohen put out.’ To them, it started to sound like there were millions of these records out there because people would say, ‘Oh look, here I’ve got this record with your picture on it.’”
In fact, while Cohen’s work may have given the Madison County singers much deserved recognition and external respect, his efforts were focused on the documentary aspect of this culture and its traditions, rather than on reaping commercial profits.
The singers’ misconceptions continued to build. Singer Doug Wallin one day said to John Cohen, “That record you made of my parents [Lee and Berzilla Wallin]–that’s all over the place…it’s probably all over the country in jukeboxes everywhere, and you’re keeping our money.”
The conflict finally came to a head in one incident. Peter Gott and John Cohen frequently spent time at Doug Wallin’s house. One day Doug explained to them that they were welcome to come, but that he didn’t want any more recording.
In Gott’s words, “Well, John wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept begging until finally, Doug lost his temper and took a
swing at him. And he said, ‘Get outta here and don’t ever come back! And that goes for both of you!’…For me it was the end of a beautiful friendship not just with Doug but with his whole family. I never went back.”