End of an Old Song, Performers’ Bios

End of an Old Song, Performers’ Bios

By Daniel W. Patterson

Background: In addition to making this film, John Cohen issued four albums from recordings he made in the mountain community of Sodom Laurel in Madison County, North Carolina. The first was Old Love Songs and Ballads from the Big Laurel (recorded in 1963 and released the next year by Folkways). The second was Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song from Folkways in 1975. The third, High Atmosphere, was recorded in 1965 and released a decade later by Rounder Records. The fourth was Dark Holler, a larger compilation issued on the Smithsonian Folkways label in 2005. It drew upon the earlier recording sessions and on recordings made during the film shoots in 1967. All told, these hold twenty different songs performed by Dillard and many by other Sodom residents too.

Of all the album notes written by John Cohen, those in the second and fourth albums are the richest in information. And other people have followed Cohen to Sodom Laurel and issued recordings and accounts of the singers. One was Mike Seeger in 1967 (see George Landers below). A visit by the English folksong collector Michael Yates in 1983 is documented in Vols. 3 and 4 of his five-volume set Far in the Mountains, issued on the British label Musical Traditions (2002, 2013). He set down memories of the singers in his notes. But several other additional accounts offer more information about the whole Sodom tradition. These include notes in the CD Doug and Jack Wallin: Family Songs and Stories from the North Carolina Mountains (Smithsonian Folkways, 1995) recorded by Wayne Martin, George Holt, and Beverly Patterson of the North Carolina Arts Council in 1992 and ’93. Rob Amberg’s Sodom Laurel Album (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2002) holds transcriptions of many taped interviews with Dellie Chandler Norton, in addition to his own recollections and photographs he had taken during three decades of living in Madison County—three decades of friendship with the singers. A pocket inside the rear cover holds a CD of additional performances and interviews: some recorded in Sodom by Allen Tullos in 1976 for a radio broadcast; others in Durham in 1975 and ’76 during festivals organized by George Holt at Duke University and at the Eno River State Park; and others taped in Doug Wallin’s home during the Arts Council project. All of these recordings include many additional singers from the families and neighbors of the sisters Berzilla Chandler Wallin and Dellie Chandler Norton.

In the periodical Sing Out (vol. 46, no. 2 [Summer 2002], pp. 60ff.) Paul J. Stamler had a long article, “Just the Thought of Going Home: Sheila Kay Adams and the Singers of Madison County, N.C.” It quotes very extensive interviews with Sheila Kay Adams, a younger singer raised in Sodom, who knew all the local people in The End of an Old Song, was related to many of them, still carries on this song tradition, and has helped inspire even younger family members to prize the tradition too. She and her cousins appear in Madison County Project, a video made by UNC folklore students, which can be watched on Folkstreams. The most vivid and moving accounts of life in the Sodom community are ones that Sheila Adams wrote for her book Come Go Home with Me (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1995). Sheila, a National Heritage Fellowship winner, is an observant and thoughtful insider and a deft story teller and writer.

Chandler, Dillard (1906-1992)

Supplementing biographical information in the film itself, John Cohen in his album notes for the Folkways LP Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song prints a full transcription of an interview he recorded with Dillard Chandler. Several passages from the tape serve as voice-overs in the film. In a passage not used in the film Dillard says, “When I was a boy, it was really a rough go in these hills. There wasn’t any way you could get back in here with a car. You had to walk footlogs down out of here. When we was little ol’ kids, we went to school at the fork of the creek. Several times, I went out of here to school, and the footlogs would be washed away; we couldn’t get there. After we got big enough to go to work, we had to get out and look out for ourselves, get jobs, logging jobs at that time. I just went out to work, that’s one reason I didn’t get no education.” According to the 1940 census, he in fact completed the second grade, and he signed his name when he registered for the draft in 1940. But his limited education trapped him. “I can go to any plant now, or any employment office for a job,” he told Cohen. “They ask me for High School Education” and “when I tell I’ve got none, they turn it off. . . . I just have to turn and walk off.”

Cohen describes Dillard as “a shy man: in person, he would rarely look directly at you, but preferred to speak with his body turned at a right angle to you in profile.” Cohen says Dillard left the mountains only once, when he participated in the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1967. He began his song facing the audience, but gradually turned, and ended “singing to the side of the stage, perpendicular to the audience, who saw him in profile.” Cohen saw that to make Dillard’s singing known, he could not use public appearances such as other traditional singers were making. He would have to make a film of Dillard Chandler.

Cohen wrote that he wanted to “show a ballad singer talking about his own interior life” with surprising candor. A short film can give only a glimpse of that life. Other records underscore that it is but a glimpse. For example, genealogical sites show that in 1937 Dillard married a widow thirteen years his senior, whose first husband—James Bullman—had died of tuberculosis in August, 1924. Her two-year-old son died a week later of “Burn by scalding coffee.”  She had three surviving children, who were not living with the Chandlers at the time of the 1940 census. Two years later she died in a Knoxville hospital, where her death certificate bore the name of her first husband and listed her as a widow. She was apparently buried in the Green Bullman Cemetery in Madison County. Dillard himself was later buried there. However one may interpret these facts, Dillard had painful depths in his experience that he probably kept private.

It is Dillard’s powerful singing that Cohen helped the rest of us to hear. He says that Dillard’s repertory was much broader than shown in the film or even in the recordings. He seemed to know “hundreds of songs that reflected the full range of old-time music.” But the way Dillard sang, Cohen points out, “made all the songs sound like old ballads.” Dillard himself told Cohen, “There ain’t no rhythm to the music I do. . . . no rhythm, nothing to dance through.” Cecil Sharp had described this particular vocal style as “almost universal” in Appalachia. The singers he heard had a penchant for dwelling “upon certain notes of the melody, generally the weaker accents.” Sharp felt that “disguising the rhythm and breaking up the monotonous regularity of the phrases produces an effect of improvisation and freedom from rule which is very pleasing.”

Paul Stamler quotes Sheila Adams as saying, "Dillard was kind of an anomaly; he was caught in between worlds. As you know from hearing the film, he was a wonderful singer. Now, his voice was odd, and I think it was from Dillard that I learned that weird phrasing that is so common to these love songs, that sets them apart. Dillard's gone, he died fairly young, and beyond John Cohen's film, I don't think he ever really got the recognition that he deserved. Dillard was different. He was not of [Dellie Norton’s] generation . . . he was just out there by himself. He was the only one of that generation I know of, other than Doug [Wallin], that treasured those old songs,” but “I think he was probably born a hundred years too late."

Chandler, Lloyd (1896-1978)

Lloyd Chandler, a brother of Dellie Norton and Berzilla Wallin, was interviewed by John Cohen.  Cohen used a passage from the interview as a voice over in The End of an Old Song. But Lloyd Chandler was also a notable singer of ballads, and several albums include his performances. In addition to being a farmer Lloyd was a minister and leading singer in a Free Will Baptist Church. His repertory included many religious songs, and folklorist Carl Lindahl found that many people believe Rev. Chandler originated “Conversation with Death,” also known as the spiritual “Oh, Death.”

Franklin, Ernest (1913-1995)

In the film Ernest Franklin plays one tune on his homemade fiddle. He was included in none of the recordings named above. Rob Amberg in Sodom Laurel Album tells of going with Dellie Norton and her sister Berzilla Wallin to visit him in Chapel Hill, a community in Madison County down the road from Sodom. Rob says Ernie and his mother “lived far off the road in an old house with wooden shingles on the roof. There was no electricity or running water in the house, and they heated it with a fireplace and cook stove. Ernie made fiddles and wooden utensils. He gave Dellie a spoon and showed her how to carve one herself. Ernie played fiddle for us while Berzilla buckdanced on the porch,” a scene that Rob caught in a photograph (p. 122). “Ernie’s mother, Liz, seemed isolated in the remote cabin without a radio or a TV or anything to read, and she brightened at the chance to visit with Dellie and Berzilla. I made pictures. Later, I took some back to Ernie. Liz had gotten sick and moved into Asheville with Ernie’s sister. He was there by himself, and it was winter. The place felt desolate, deserted to me. He thumbed through the pictures twice as we stood in the yard and announced that they were good pictures, but he didn’t know what they’d be good for except fire starters” (p. 125).

Landers, George

In his notes for Dark Holler, John Cohen wrote, “George Landers lived in a small wood house by the road that leads to Peter Gott’s place. Peter encouraged the elderly Landers to pick up his banjo again, and then Landers remembered a wealth of songs and distinctive banjo picking. He had a sharp understated sense of humor and could always be heard from the road, playing and singing” (p. 7). In his notes for High Atmosphere, Cohen added that when George “was finally sent away to the old folks home, he took his banjo with him, playing it from his wheel chair up until the day he died"

Mike Seeger also wrote recollections of George Landers in notes for his CD Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger’s Collection, 1952-1967 (Smithsonian Folkways, 1997): “I had met Peter and Polly [Gott] in 1960 in California, and when I first went to see them in Madison County, the road was too rough for my car, so I had to walk the last half mile. It was pretty quiet, and as I walked I soon heard the sound of a banjo. As I got closer, it really sounded good, and I thought to myself, ‘Peter has really got it right.’ I rounded a bend in the road, and there was George Landers, age about 80, sitting in the doorway of his weathered board-and-batten house playing the banjo, neat, rhythmic, and driving. I acknowledged him as I walked by, and he didn’t even stop playing. Peter and I visited him a little later and recorded him for about an hour” (p. 7). In this album Landers plays “Old Joe Clark,” and High Atmosphere offers five other tunes” (p. 7).

The most appreciative comments about George Landers come from banjo players. Mike Seeger comments, "George Landers employs a two finger style of picking, quite common in the mountains around North Carolina, where the melody is plucked by the index finger, and the thumb drones on the fifth string, or moves to secondary notes of the melody. Landers brushes them up and down with his index finger to achieve his sound." John Cohen in notes for High Atmosphere wrote, “George Lander’s sense of time and phrasing can’t be imitated, it can only be wondered at and admired.” But in his notes for Dark Holler, Cohen himself carefully analyzed how Landers plays “Scotland Man”: “He has devised a banjo style that accommodates the irregularities and oddities of his singing. His banjo duplicates precisely the sound of the words he sings, rather than setting down a basic rhythm” (p.25). Enthusiastic comments are posted by others on the blog Banjo Hangout.

Norton, Dellie Chandler (1898-1993)

Adapted from Burgin Mathews, courtesy of the AllMusic Guide, www.allmusic.com.

Dellie Norton sang the old, unaccompanied ballads and love songs passed down from her family and other members of her Blue Ridge Mountain community; in her own ninety-five years, she helped spread the songs to younger generations and gained national recognition as a ballad singer. Her repertoire consisted largely of English and Scottish ballads like "The House Carpenter" and "The Silk Merchant's Daughter." Though she is best remembered for her singing, her long life embraced many aspects of traditional mountain living, making her a favorite among folklorists. Not only a singer, she was a banjo player, a quilter, a weaver, and an herbal healer.

Norton was born in North Carolina's Madison County, an area well-known for its vocal and instrumental heritage. Her own extended family included the Wallins (Berzilla, Doug, and Jack), the Chandlers (Lloyd and Dillard), and fiddler Byard Ray, all of whom were acclaimed performers of traditional music. In 1917 and 1919, British folklorist Cecil Sharp combed the region for its retention of ancient ballads and published the results in his English Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians; in an often-quoted passage, he proclaimed singing as universal as speaking in Madison County. A young woman, Dellie Norton, offered to sing for Sharp, but he was more interested in the elders of the community. In the years to come, however, Norton would be much visited and respected by scholars (but not, ironically, until she herself was an elder). She was recorded in the 1960s by John Cohen. In her later years, Norton performed occasionally at festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, TN; in 1990 she was the recipient of a North Carolina Heritage Award. She died on October 3, 1993, within a mile of her birthplace.

An addendum excerpted from the North Carolina Arts Council’s  Heritage Award citation: Mrs. Norton spent most of her life farming and raising a family that included five children of her own and five from her husband's previous marriage. They represent only a few of the younger folk she helped guide through life. One of these for whom she was especially influential is her great niece Sheila Kay Adams, a fine singer who now carries on the tradition that Dellie Norton so lovingly preserved for the better part of the twentieth century.

Wallin, Berzilla Chandler (1892-1986)

Berzilla recorded fewer songs than her sister Dellie Norton, but one of them—“Conversation with Death” in this film—has gained a good deal of attention, probably enhanced by the effect of aging on her voice and appearance. Paul Stamler, however, quotes Sheila Adams as saying that “out of all those singers over home” Berzilla “had probably the prettiest voice of any of them. Daddy said it was just as pure as a bell when she was a young woman.”

Berzilla married Lee Wallin, who was a very active musician, as was his brother Cas. She and Lee had twelve children and two of her sons—Doug and Jack—have been extensively recorded. Sheila Adams told Paul Stamler that Doug had “probably the perfect voice for singing the love songs. Doug didn't do a lot of the ornamentation that you heard Dillard do,” but, his voice was “pure and clear. Just crystal-clear. And there was so much feeling and passion in it. I've seen Doug sit on stage when his mother was singing, and the tears'd just run down his face and drip onto his shirt.” Berzilla’s son Doug went on to receive in 1989 the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award and in 1990 the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.