Sheila Kay Adams
Excerpted from a citation written by Daniel W. Patterson in 1998 when Sheila Adams was honored with the North Carolina Folklore Society’s esteemed Brown-Hudson Folklore Award. Used with permission from Daniel Patterson.
Englishman Cecil Sharp said that in the Appalachians during the First World War he found himself for the first time in a community where singing was as common as speaking. Many persons gladly shared songs with him, and he may not have fully grasped that his guides were taking him mostly to people recognized as leading singers. We see more clearly than Sharp could the vital role played by particular individuals, families, and communities in keeping traditional music alive. Sheila Adams is one of these individuals. She has remarkable gifts—a lovely voice, great natural musicality, depth and feeling, and a memory that won’t let any good song or story escape. Her personal gifts got fostered by the highly musical families within which she grew up—the Nortons, Chandlers, Wallins, Ramseys, and Rays—who composed the community of Sodom, in Madison County [,North Carolina]. These families have made Sodom famous, out of all proportion to its size, for its music, particularly for ballad singing. Sheila Adams is, she tells us, the seventh generation of known ballad singers in her family. She now is fostering the singing gift of her own talented daughter, Melanie Rice.
I was fortunate to hear Sheila Adams in the first year she went out to perform publicly—in 1976, at Duke University, singing in a program with her “granny,” Dellie Chandler Norton (who taught her, she tells us, much about both songs and life), and with Dellie’s sister, Berzilla Wallin. Sheila gave a ballad rendition that night that has haunted my memory ever since. Only a month ago my wife, Beverly, and I heard Sheila again one rainy, rainy night in Greensboro. The two decades had taken nothing from the freshness of her voice, but only enriched her understanding of the songs and polished her skill in bringing her hearers into the world of their meaning.
In the interim Sheila had finished college, married, become a mother, taught school and performed in hundreds of festivals, schools, workshops, and music camps. She had been featured in a broadcast series with her friend Bobby McMillon. She had recorded two song albums—Loving Forward, Loving Back (1987) and A Spring in the Burton Cove (1990)—and played a lovely banjo in some of the recordings by her husband Jim Taylor; he helped I hers, too. She had recorded an album of tales, Don’t Git Above Your Raising (1992). She had appeared in several films, including The Last of the Mohicans. And she had written a delightful book of her family stories, Come Go Home with Me, published by UNC Press in 1995. She is now nationally known and widely sought after—and for very good reasons.
Sheila’s songs, many of which come from her family’s repertory, are beautiful. Her singing, unaccompanied or with her own banjo or guitar backing, is lovely and moving. And best of all, she has found a way to frame the songs for outsiders by telling stories about the world in which she learned them. Somehow she as managed even the miracle of setting her stories down o the page in Come Go Home with Me. They read like Sheila talking. They are short and seemingly casual, yet they call up a whole world—not just the traditional Appalachian community that lives I her memory, but the human community and human experiences at their deepest.
Think of the story she calls “A Special Dance.” In it she tells of watching her grandfather and two other men struggle to move a heavy white tombstone to clear a walkway thorugh a cemetery. She is a child, and this troubles her. With the stones set to one side, she and other people might step o the burial spot. Mama had said, “You ain’t supposed to walk on graves!” Her grandfather offers a few accommodating words. Then suddenly he said, “Far be it from me to let you get away with somethin’ your Mam wouldn’t let you do.” He “held out his had o me as he began to dance a little jig on the grave,” singing an old fiddle tune, “Cumberland Gap ain’t my home and I’m gonna leave old Cumberland alone.” “I moved my feet in time with his, ad we laughed,” she writes, “and did a right arm swing, our feet now flying above what remained of a man long gone.” We carry away that image: “a skinny little girl with brown eyes too big for her face, and with the promise of all life ahd to offer stretching out in front of her, and the old man in his final days, his face tanned and creased with age, and his eyes live blue-crystal—dancing.” To me this is an emblem of Sheila Adams’ art. She does her own dances of life—in hand with beloved family and elders, to sweet old tunes—on serious ground.
Patterson, Daniel W. “Sheila Kay Adams: Seventh Generation Ballad Singer” North Carolina Folklore Journal. Ed. Karen Baldwin. Vol. 45.2, Summer-Fall 1998: 115-116.
Full Name: Sheila Kay Adams
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