The family cemeteries on Howard Street, across from the Village Craftsmen gallery, bear silent witness to some of Ocracoke Island’s most colorful former residents and their history & heritage. One tombstone in particular stands out. Edgar Howard, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Ocracoke’s colonial owner, William Howard Sr, was born on the island in 1904. He died in 1990. His tombstone with the epitaph, “YOU AIN’T HEARD NOTHING YET,” and the image of a banjo elicits much interest and speculation.

In the 1920s Edgar and his older brother Walter (b. 1897), both accomplished self-taught musicians, left home bound for New York City. In short order they made names for themselves on vaudeville stages in the Big Apple and other northern cities.

Edgar played banjo, performing in well-known theaters that hosted national celebrities such as Al Jolson, Gene Autry, Cary Grant, Roy Rogers, and Milton Berle.

Edgar Howard and the Kentucky Mountaineers
Edgar Howard and the Kentucky Mountaineers

Edgar Howard (above, holding banjo), with the Kentucky Mountaineers, poses beside Milton Berle (“Mr. Television”). (Photo courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society)

Edgar Howard and Milton Berle Show
Edgar Howard and the Milton Berle Show

Edgar Howard (above, left with banjo) poses with Boyd Heath and “Chubby” Chuck Roe, performers on NBC TV’s Saturday Night Jamboree, hosted by Milton Berle. Edgar performed on the show 16 weeks straight. (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

Walter landed a gig playing the Hawaiian slide guitar on the New York radio station WEAF.

Walter Howard
Walter Howard
Walter Howard and Dettborn
Walter Howard and Dettborn

The first photo above shows Walter Howard in July 1924, wearing a Hawaiian outfit. The caption reads, “Walter Howard, the wandering minstrel who moved the South Sea Islands 10,000 miles nearer to Manhattan when he sang ‘Aloha Oe’ to his tinkling guitar.”  The other photo shows Walter Howard, standing, and Charles Dettborn in a publicity photo for their radio show featuring Hawaiian music. (Photos courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

In early 1925 Walter Howard made the acquaintance of a harmonica duo. Syd Newman, a brilliant musician, and David Robertson, a vaudeville veteran, were mid-twenty-year-old performers from Brooklyn. Walter Howard, Syd Newman, and David Robertson formed a new group called The College Trio, playing jazzy pop songs. Their attire was sweaters and neckties.The College Trio specialized in novelty instrumentals and featured bluesy sharps and flats on harmonica.

College Trio
The College Trio

Walter, in the center, played guitar and banjo. Syd Newman is on the right; David Robertson is on the left. (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

In 1925 promoter Ned Nestor added the trio to his list of clients. Nestor brought on Roy King (a creative plectrum banjoist) and Lou Pope (guitar, banjo, and musical saw), and named the newly created novelty and cowboy band the Five Harmaniacs. Wide-brimmed cowboy hats, boots, and chaps comprised their new attire. A cattle ranch backdrop added to the theme.

Five Harmaniacs
Five Harmaniacs

Walter (above, standing) played guitar, harmonica, jug, ukulele, and washboard in a vaudeville program of “Round-Up Tunes.”  The successful and popular band played cowboy and western songs and ballads, as well as blues and vaudeville blues, also known as medicine show music. They soon added cowbells, musical spoons, tin funnels, whistles, teapots, and other unconventional instruments to their act. (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

Other members of the band at various times included Jerry Adams (born, Harold Whitacre), Clyde Shugart, Wade Durand, Ned Nestor, Lou Pope, Percy Stoner, and Edgar Howard. Every member of the Five Harmaniacs played harmonica, ukulele, and novelty instruments, often switching from one instrument to the other.

In the fall of 1925 the Five Harmaniacs got their first big break, playing the Roseland Music Hall[1] in New York City. Soon after, they were the featured act at Poli’s 2,476-seat Elm Street Theatre in Worchester, Massachusetts. By October they were headliners for the Keith-Bellevue/Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, playing over four hundred vaudeville houses throughout the Northeast, the South (Asheville, Atlanta, Miami), and as far as the Midwest. In addition to novelty instruments, the band began adding vocals, comedy, and even tap dancing and softshoe. The Hohner harmonica company provided harmonicas to the band in exchange for on-stage plugs.

Five Harmaniacs Advertisement
Five Harmaniacs Advertisement

The advertisement above features the Five Harmaniacs, who, with “two funsters from the Batcheler-Jamieson Revue,” were among the “special artists who will take part in the ‘Loew Midnight Frolic,’” a radio show broadcast from Lockport, NY, in 1926. Walter Howard is on the right.

Five Harmaniaces 1926-1927
Five Harmaniaces 1926-1927

The album cover above shows The Five Harmaniacs in a New York City studio in the summer of 1925. Left to right are Lou Pope, Syd Newman, Dave Robertson, Walter Howard, and Roy King.

Among other venues, the Five Harmaniacs played at the 1800-seat auditorium, Shea’s Theatre[2] (Vaudeville & Photoplays), on East Second Street, Jamestown, New York. One playbill in the 1920s enthuses about the band, writing that it is, “positively the best vaudeville show in Jamestown’s history,” “the greatest instrumental act in vaudeville,” and “an unmatchable assembly of five vaudeville entertainers, instrumentalists, and rollicking comedians.”

In the mid-1920s the band cut several records in New York and Chicago for major recording companies. In September 1926 the Five Harmaniacs cut “Sadie Green (the Vamp of New Orleans),” and made the first ever recording of the now classic “Coney Island Washboard” (composed by band members Wade Durand and Jerry Adams) for the Victor Recording Company.

After their recording session, Jerry Adams and Roy King left the band. Roy King had insisted on traveling with a suitcase full of prohibition-era gin. He was often so drunk that the other band members had to carry him on stage. When the curtain opened he played brilliantly, but had to be carried off stage again after the curtain call. King was eventually forced out of the band. Walter’s brother, Edgar, and Arthur “Satchel” Sullivan replaced them. The Five Harmaniacs continued to play on the vaudeville circuit in the Northeast and Midwest. Back in New York in 1927, they re-cut “Sadie Green” and “Coney Island Washboard.” They also recorded “What Makes My Baby Cry” with Walter Howard on vocals, which Jack Norton, in his 2022 e-book, Cornstars: Rube Music in Swing Time,[3] describes as “a showcase for their zany, experimental instrumentation and novel approach to jazz.” Norton considers the music of the Five Harmaniacs as, “simply brilliant, exciting and full of early jazz influence.”

By the spring of 1927, the Five Harmaniacs were back on the vaudeville circuit, touring with the Loew’s chain of movie houses as openers for their feature films. But their touring days were soon over. Moving picture shows had replaced vaudeville. The band’s final performance was in late 1928.

According to Jack Norton, in 1929 Syd Newman recruited Walter & Edgar Howard and Dave Robertson to form a new band, the short-lived “Cowboy Revels.” Three young ladies, Ethel and Marion Mann and Virginia Barrett, joined them to dance, yodel and perform rope tricks.

Walter and Edgar also made a number of radio appearances, including performing on the popular Texaco Star Theater, a comedy-variety radio show that ran from 1938 to 1949.

1978 liner notes for a compilation of the Five Harmaniac’s tunes remarks that “the music [of the band] transcended their era. While many of the best swing and early rock-and-roll bands sound hopelessly locked into their respective decades, the Harmaniacs remain as fresh and vital as ever.”

Sheas Theatre Jamestown NY ca1950
Sheas Theatre Jamestown NY ca1950

(Shea’s Theatre, circa 1950)

Writing in 2015, blogger Herb Shultz noted that “the Five Harmaniacs are cast in a somewhat different mold. [than other jug bands]. Not as strong rhythmically as the jug bands (although they do occasionally use the jug themselves), the Harmaniacs identify more closely with guitar and banjo playing groups such as the New Christy Minstrels…. Their stock in trade was the novelty number.” Shultz’s particular favorites are “Sadie Green Vamp of New Orleans, an old Johnny Dunn tune which extolled the beauties of its heroine in the whimsical hyperbole of the 1920s (viz: ‘She’d make bald men tear their hair!’), and Coney Island Washboard, an original composition of the Harmaniacs which has become one of the standard classics in the repertoire of barbershop quartets.”[4]

Edgar and Walter Howard came home periodically to entertain their fellow islanders. At times, nationally popular entertainers followed the Howard brothers to Ocracoke, often playing at Stanley Wahab’s “Spanish Casino,” a small venue near the present-day Back Porch Restaurant that included a stage, dance floor, and canteen.

Spanish Casino
Spanish Casino

(The Spanish Casino)

Walter Howard, a talented writer as well as a musician, also penned various essays, one of which recalled the story of the 1837 wreck of the steamboat “Home” on the Ocracoke beach. You can read the gripping and dramatic story here (Part I) and here (Part II). Walter also wrote the fast-paced popular Ocracoke Island song, “Paddy’s Holler,” that Edgar often played on the island after moving back home in retirement. These are the lyrics, along with a few comments in footnotes, to clarify the local history.

Paddy’s Holler
Written by Walter Howard

Many, many years ago I can truly tell you so,
There was a spot that wasn’t worth a dollar,
Where the folks were gay, so the people say,
Everybody called it Paddy’s Holler[5] .

‘Twould put us all to shame how the holler got its name.
Legends have been told by the millions,
But the one that I like best was no doubt told in jest,
Told by ol’ fiddlin’ Wid Williams[6]

Wid was on a spree; he had fiddled all night for free,
And they had to hold him up by the collar,
But like a knight of old he grew mighty bold,
And hollered out “Hooray for Paddy’s Holler!”[7]

Now in the olden days nobody offered praise
For anybody livin’ up the holler.
As the years rolled by, they moved in on the sly,
Now it’s “Mrs. Jones”[8] of Paddy’s Holler.

Paddy’s Holler, Paddy’s Holler,
Why, they come from near and far to Paddy’s Holler.
And the town is in a lurch, ’cause when they go to church,
They all have to pass through Paddy’s Holler.[9]

The Howards, the O’Neals, the Burruses, the Peales,
Why they’ve all found their way to Paddy’s Holler.
Choicest spot in town, nobody seems to frown
When someone hollers, “Let’s go up the holler!”

They built a naval base just to give the subs a chase[10]
So everybody there could earn a dollar.
When Uncle Sammy came, he put ’em all to shame,
Paved the only road through Paddy’s Holler.[11]

Paddy’s Holler! Paddy’s Holler,
They come from near and far to Paddy’s Holler.
It’s the choicest spot in town, nobody seems to frown
When someone hollers, “Let’s go up the holler!”

Now folks down there were kind to the sick and blind.
So everybody ponied up a dollar
To build a little home for Maggie all alone,[12]
Livin’ on a hill in Paddy’s Holler.

But one was mighty bold, his heart set on gold,
His mind was on the almighty dollar.
Some said “listen here, don’t put that line post there!
‘Cause that’s the choicest spot in Paddy’s Holler!”

In 1988 National Park Service Ranger, Amy Glass, interviewed Edgar Howard along with fellow islander and musician, Maurice Ballance. Maurice had this comment about Edgar:

“You know, Edgar says he’s the one that got Roy Rogers his job. Yep. They had the same agent. Gene Autry and Edgar’s band had the same agent. So when Gene Autry went in the Army in World War II, his agent was traveling around drinkin’ a few beers one night and asked [Edgar] if he knew anyone who had a good voice. So Edgar said, ‘Well I know a guy from Cincinnati.’ Said, ‘He’s got a pretty good voice, you know.’ So, he said, ‘Well send him down.’ And a couple of days later when he auditioned, he did, and he hired him. That’s what he says. He couldn’t play guitar, couldn’t ride a horse, but he made a big star out of him. [laughter].”[13]

Edgar Howard and Jack Starkey
Edgar Howard and Jack Starkey

Above, Edgar Howard poses with former world heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey (1902-1994). (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

In a personal interview, island natives, Fowler and Chloe O’Neal, commented on the Howard brothers’ talent and intelligence. They mentioned several long-forgotten songs that Walter and Edgar often played. Some of their songs were bawdy barroom tunes, but one, The Irish Jubilee, was a peppy and spirited ditty that reflected the island’s Irish heritage.

In 1977 musicologist and folklorist, Karen Helms, collected sixteen examples of Outer Banks traditional music that were included on a vinyl record, Between the Sound and the Sea. This album was sold on the Smithsonian’s “Folkways” label. Edgar plays his banjo on four numbers.
Between the Sound and the Sea is now available on CD and may be purchased at You can also listen to selections of the songs on the Folkways web site.

By the 1950s Walter stopped playing music professionally, and retired to Norfolk, Virginia. He returned home to visit Ocracoke periodically where he was admired for his intelligence and prodigious vocabulary.  He was especially remembered for his ability to recite Robert Green Ingersoll’s poem, “After visiting the Tomb of Napoleon.”[14] Walter Howard died in 1960, shortly after moving to Miami. His ashes were scattered at sea.

Edgar also retired to Miami, but returned home to Ocracoke in the late 1970s. He entertained islanders at variety shows, church events, and fundraisers. In April 1979 Edgar’s son, Ronnie Howard, opened Howard’s Pub. It had been 50 years since alcohol had last been sold legally on Ocracoke Island. The grand opening was the talk of the village. Edgar noted that “we’ll have hard-core hippies, hard-core Yankees, and hard-core Southerners. We’re going to mix them all and I hope they all get along.” The venture was an instant success, and Edgar was often present to entertain customers.

Edgar died in 1990, and was buried on Howard Street. His epitaph, “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet!” are the words that Al Jolson, self-billed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” and one of the United States’ most famous and highest-paid vaudeville stars of the 1920s, told his audience before performing additional songs.

We can only imagine what Edgar’s and Walter’s encores will be.

Edgar Howard Tombstone
Edgar Howard Tombstone

(Photo: Philip Howard)

Edgar Howard photo by Charles Martin
Edgar Howard photo by Charles Martin
Walter Howard 1926
Walter Howard 1926

(Edgar Howard with banjo: photo by Charles Martin, courtesy of Valerie Howard Willis; Walter Howard in 1926, photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr..)



[2] After being closed for some years, Shea’s Theatre was fully refurbished and reopened in 1969. In 1989 the theatre was renamed the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown in honor of the comedienne’s hometown connection.

[3] See Chapter 9 for more information and additional photos.


[5] The Ocracoke village area, roughly parallel to, and between, the Back Road & Howard Street, from about the intersection of Fig Tree Lane and Back Road, past the back yards of houses now facing Back Road, then turning on a foot path behind the Methodist Church & Howard cemeteries and joining Howard Street and Lawton Lane, and/or continuing past the back of the Health Center to the schoolhouse.

[6]Ocracoke’s most celebrated old-time fiddle player.

[7] Some local sources suggest that Paddy’s Holler was named after a Philadelphia tap room popular with Ocracokers who had moved up north to work in the early 20th century.

[8] Mrs. Jones was Mary Ruth Kelly Jones, the first wife of early island developer and eccentric millionaire, Sam Jones. She was the granddaughter of George Gregory Howard, island sea captain who built the large house with widow’s walk that backs up to Howard Street.

[9] One early Methodist Church was located on Howard Street, and the present Methodist Church, completed in 1943, is also located in the Paddy’s Holler area.

[10]The WWII Navy Base was built where the NPS Visitors Center is today.

[11] Ocracoke’s first paved road was a one-lane concrete strip starting at the Navy Base, turning where the Anchorage Inn is today, turning again down the Back Road, through Paddy’s Holler, then turning across from the library, and “T-ing” at the end of the road. From the “T” the Navy added short aprons, and there they stored ammunition, hence the local name “Ammunition Dump Road,” though it is officially called “Sunset Blvd.”

[12] Maggie is “Mad Mag Howard,” widow of John Simon Howard, sea captain, who took Margaret Eaton from Rockland Maine when she was only fifteen years old, married her, and brought her to Ocracoke. She became legendary for her quirky, odd, and very peculiar habits; hence her local name, Mad Mag.

[13] The interview was part of an endeavor called “Lifeways of the Outer Banks” sponsored by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, National Park Service and The Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The original transcript is on deposit at the southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Library.


[14] After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon
by Robert G. Ingersoll, 1882

A little while ago I stood by the grave of Napoleon, a magnificent tomb of gilt and gold, fit almost for a dead deity, and gazed upon the sarcophagus of black Egyptian marble where rests at last the ashes of the restless man. I leaned over the balustrade and thought about the career of the greatest soldier of the modern world.

I saw him walking upon the banks of the Seine contemplating suicide; I saw him at Toulon; I saw him putting down the mob in the streets of Paris; I saw him at the head of the army of Italy; I saw him crossing the bridge at Lodi with the tricolor in his hand; I saw him in Egypt in the shadows of the pyramids; I saw him conquer the Alps and mingle the eagles of France with the eagles of the crags. I saw him at Marengo, at Ulm and Austerlitz. I saw him in Russia, where the infantry of the snow and the cavalry of the wild blast scattered his legions like winter’s withered leaves. I saw him at Leipsic in defeat and disaster, driven by a million bayonets back upon Paris, clutched like a wild beast, banished to Elba. I saw him escape and retake an Empire by the force of his genius. I saw him upon the frightful field of Waterloo, when chance and fate combined to wreck the fortunes of their former king. And I saw him at St. Helena, with his hands crossed behind him, gazing out upon the sad and solemn sea.

I thought of the orphans and widows he had made; of the tears that had been shed for his glory and of the only woman who had ever loved him pushed from his heart by the cold hand of ambition.

And I said I would rather have been a French peasant and worn wooden shoes. I would rather have lived in a hut with a vine growing over the door and the grapes growing purple in the kisses of the autumn sun. I would rather have been that poor peasant with my loving wife by my side, knitting as the day died out of the sky, with my children upon my knee and their arms about me. I would rather have been that man and gone down to the tongueless silence of the dreamless dust than to have been that imperial impersonation of force and murder known as Napoleon the Great.

And so I would ten thousand times.



Earlier this year my friend Doug asked me about the 1977 Folkways recording of Outer Banks music, “Between the Sound and the Sea.” He only had the vinyl version (but no turntable), so I loaned him my CD. That was my incentive to re-listen to the album, especially since my father, Lawton Howard, was featured playing a few tunes on his mandolin.

I was familiar with all of the songs, especially the Outer Banks classics, “Charlie Mason Pogie Boat,” the “Booze Yacht,” “Paddy’s Holler,” and “Let’s Keep the Holler Alive.” But the ballad of “Tom Daniels” (sung and played by Edgar Howard on his banjo) was less familiar. You can listen to a portion of the song here: Unfortunately, the sample does not include the four lines of the lyrics (but you can download the track for .99, download the entire album for $9.99, or buy the CD for $16.98).

Edgar Howard (1904-1990)
Edgar Howard (1904-1990)

Here are the lyrics:

Now Tom Daniels bought him a breechloader, for hunting down on the Banks.

He asked his friends Dicky and Dexter to join with him in rank.

Quawk Hammock, Quawk Hammock, Quawk Hammock’s the place to be gay.

And just about night, sunk the skiff(s) out of sight, and drove the Core sounders away.


The song seems to be just a fragment of a longer piece, and enigmatic, as well. So, what does the song mean?

I’m not absolutely sure who Tom Daniels was, but oral history suggests he was Thomas Tolson (b.1856), a fisherman and the son of a Daniel Tolson (?-?). It was common on Ocracoke to refer to a son by his first name plus his father’s first name. Thus, he became Thomas [Tolson], Daniel’s son…or simply “Tom Daniels.” Dicky may have been Richard (Dick) O’Neal (1877-1944). Dexter is probably William Dexter Ballance (1876-1914). A breechloader is a rifle that is loaded with ammunition from the rear (breech) end of the barrel.  “In rank” is probably a military term, used primarily to rhyme with “Banks”. Quawk Hammock is a marsh 12 miles NE of the village.

Karen Helms, the collector of the music writes this about the ballad in her liner notes:

“The ballad of Tom Daniels is believed by many Ocracoke villagers to have been composed by [James] Horatio Williams II [1873-1958] in the later part of the 19th century and handed down via the folk musicians there. This tells the partial story of an incident (believed to be true) about a confrontation between some villagers and a group from the Core Sound region of the Banks. Quork [or Quawk] Hammock was once a fishing and hunting camp on Ocracoke Island. Since fishing was then their main source of income, the spot was very competitive. According to this song, some men from Core Sound came up to ‘firelight’ one evening and were promptly chased away in flat bottom skiffs. As in most folk songs, there is probably another version to be found there among Core Sounders.”

When I listened to the song (and read the liner notes) for the first time in many years, I realized that when I initially heard the song almost 35 years ago I had no clue what the song was about, but I was now reminded that I had discovered the last line of the song in 2015 while researching the “1890 Ocracoke Oyster War.”

The Oyster War erupted when Lt. Francis Winslow, Jr. (1851-1908), USN, (who had been paid by the government to survey the oyster beds in Pamlico Sound) used his influence and newly-gained knowledge to begin aggressively harvesting oysters with sail-powered dredge boats and a work force from Core Sound, rather than the traditional hand tongs.

Winslow had been warned by Ocracoke oystermen that they would defend their beds with weapons. The situation was volatile, and a rebellion erupted. The Wilmington [NC] Messenger, described the situation in an article titled, “Civil War in Hyde County,” published Wednesday, February 5, 1890.

Clearly, I thought, the Ballad of Tom Daniels, contains just a small kernel of the original song composed by Horatio Williams, who was 17 years old when the Ocracoke Oyster War broke out. It recounts the victory of the O-cockers when they drove the Core Sound oyster fishermen out of Pamlico Sound. I wish we had the entire song, but at least a fragment survives.

You can read more about the Ocracoke Oyster War here:


March 21, 2016

Between the Sound and the Sea

From 1973 to 1976 native North Carolinian Karen G. Helms (1947-2003), while earning a Master of Arts degree in Ethnomusicology from East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, conducted fieldwork and research on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Helms knew that much emphasis had already been placed on the folk music of the Appalachian Mountains area, but little attention had been paid to the coastal plains, particularly the Outer Banks.

In 1977 a collection of her field recordings titled Between the Sound and the Sea, Music of the North Carolina Outer Banks, was released by Folkways Records and Service Corporation of New York City.

According to the album’s accompanying notes, “In the old oral tradition ballads of the area, one can still discover some of the uniqueness and beauty of the culture, its world view, and its values. Many of the original songs of the Outer Banks contain a more colorful and often more accurate account of past events which influenced the lives of the people than any history book or written record….

“All performers on this album are native folk musicians of the North Carolina Outer Banks. Their ages range from early fifties to early nineties. The music performed was either learned by ear, handed down by word of mouth through the years, or composed on the Outer Banks. Songs from the familiar popular repertoire of these musicians represent their interpretation of music from the mainland. The original music has never been written down in notation until this publication.”

Although the vinyl record is no longer available, CDs, Cassettes, and Digital Downloads can be purchased on-line from Smithsonian Folkways (

The web site above also includes a Track Listing with clickable buttons that allow you to listen to short excerpts of each of the songs. Ocracoke Island musicians on the album include Elizabeth Howard (1910-1996), Edgar Howard (1904-1990), Lawton Howard (1911-2002), Maurice Balance (1927-2014), and Jule Garrish (born 1922).

Edgar Howard (with Banjo) & Maurice Ballance (with Guitar):

Liner notes include the following observations about various songs and the musicians:

  • “A most unusual and unique vocal style…calling one’s attention to the accent of the Bankers, often associated with an early form of English speech.” (“Johnny O’Lou” sung by Dile Gallop)
  • “It exemplifies the simplicity and beauty of the folk voice as well as the romantic lyrics so often found in this area.” (“Amber Tresses” sung by Isabel Etheridge and Mary Basnight)
  • “One variant [of this song] can be traced back to an old oral tradition melody from England “ (“Nellie Cropsey” sung by Isabel Etheridge)
  • “Old familiar tunes are played…here in a folk style on the mouth harp and learned by ear.” (“Harmonica Medley” played by Jule Garrish)
  • “Two old standards…[played] in a true folk style, with irregular interludes and individual interpretation of the melodies.” (“Mandolin Medley” by Lawton Howard)

Lawton Howard (with Banjo), Jule Garrish (with Guitar) & Edgar Howard (with Banjo):

On September 12, 2014, Craig Daniel, from Raleigh, posted the following article on his blog, Folklore in History, about Karen Helms’ collection of Outer Banks music ( He graciously granted me permission to reprint his article in its entirety. Daniel explained to me that he is “not an academic folklorist,” but that he is “deeply interested in the preservation of old pieces of culture.”

Inventiveness in Oral Music on the North Carolina Coast

By Craig Daniel

Not long ago I acquired an album – I use the term slightly generously – from Smithsonian Folkways entitled Between the Sound and the Sea: Music of the North Carolina Outer Banks. It’s a glimpse into the last generation of a lost oral tradition in coastal North Carolina, as captured by a modern folklorist without the prejudices that bedeviled the antiquarian tradition of prior decades of folklore studies, and so serves as a perfect case study for the role of authorship in at least some oral cultures.

The Outer Banks are a ribbon of narrow islands which hug the coast of North Carolina, sheltering the mainland from the open ocean. (“Banks” is an old term for what modern geologists call a barrier island, though it is occasionally applied to barrier peninsulas as well.) The island chain comes to an end at a peninsula known as “Bodie Island” (at one time detached from the shore, though the inlet has since closed) at the southern edge of Virginia, and at the southern border of the state it comes back into shore and merges once again with the mainland just north of the border with South Carolina. The sound side of the islands now form part of the Intracoastal Waterway, protected from the hazards of blue water, while on the sea side they are home to notoriously dangerous shoals and capes that, at one time, required the use of an extensive lighthouse system and made them a popular hunting ground for pirates (the most notorious among them being Edward Teach, better known as “Blackbeard”), who, knowing that part of the sea better than merchants who happened to pass through, had a distinct advantage. The first Europeans to settle the islands permanently came from northern England, and subsequently remained fairly isolated culturally from the other settlers who came to the mainland. The islands have been rather poor, with an economy dominated by shipping and seafood, until the twentieth century, when tourism has come to be the driving force of the economy.

Between the Sound and the Sea
 is a selection of some of the raw recordings taken by Karen G. Helms during her study of traditional music on these islands in the early 1970s. The singers from whom the songs come were already elderly at the time of the collection, and represent the last generation for whom oral music was only minimally influenced by modern recording technology and its fruits (though one of them sings in a vocal style I for one associate with vaudeville); the fact that the younger generations seemed not to continue this tradition was cause for remark even when Helms was making her initial studies. Even today’s adults don’t pass along this tradition much at all, and a folkie friend of mine in his twenties who grew up on Harker’s Island (one of the places from which Helms collected music) tells me the modern folk repertoire inherits much of the pan-Southern tradition that has its roots primarily in Appalachia – though, he notes, old sea shanties are also still being passed along. (When I asked John to teach me a few songs he regarded as currently traditional where he grew up, some of the first things that came to mind were “New York Gals” and “Angeline the Baker”, a sea shanty and a classic old-time mountain play party respectively. But then, he’s also who recommended I look into Between the Sound and the Sea.) To hear another Carteret County native of my acquaintance describe it, the folk music of the islands today “was brought here; it isn’t from here.”

As is natural for a tradition belonging to an era when all life was at the mercy of the sea, the songs often speak of the lives of subsistence fishermen, of those who die at sea, and of boats that the islanders are able to salvage. The inheritance of English settlement is also seen in the propensity for ballads of lost lovers and of murder for which no particular cause is given, themes which pop up with greater frequency in that tradition than in most.

Something that’s remarkable about this collection, because it is at odds with the stereotypes of what makes something “folk music” that many people inherit from Sharp, is that many of the songs being sung are credited to specific, named people (though these attributions may not all be correct – the romantic suggestion that the murder ballad “Nellie Cropsey” was written in prison by Nell Cropsey’s killer is precisely the kind of story that would arise as readily in the absence of knowledge as if it were true), and some of them are even by the people who sing them. At the same time, these can be contrasted to a lot of modern singer-songwriters who, detached from the inheritance of any particular folk tradition, don’t write in the style of any particular body of orally-transmitted music; also, like many of the most authentic folk musicians who write their own music today, they freely blend their own compositions with things they learned orally in their own repertoires without seeing the distinction as an especially important one, and at least in some cases their songs are picked up by others and float about in the tradition. (In this compare Si Kahn, who was immersed in the Appalachian tradition while working as a mine workers’ union organizer and whose “Aragon Mill,” indisputably written in that style, crossed the pond and morphed into the now-traditional Irish song “Belfast Mill.”)

Even having been composed in the twentieth century in many cases (even some of the traditional songs whose authorship is lost to the mists of time often refer to events that happened within the lifetimes of the performers), most capture something of a distinctly English musical style. “Amber Tresses,” for instance, would fit right at home among the folk songs I’ve learned from my grandparents, most of which come from England (though often by way of American recording artists such as Burl Ives). Although written to commemorate a murder in Elizabeth City, NC in 1901, “Nellie Cropsey” derives from an identifiably English murder ballad family. Others, on the other hand, show clear influence from a decidedly American tradition; “Carolina Cannonball”, for instance, is written to the melody of “The Wabash Cannonball” and its first verse clearly derives from the original (though thereafter the words are a wry commentary on the influence of the telephone on the seafood industry), while “Ole Tucky Buzzard” is thought to have originated as a square dance tune before morphing into a lullaby on the islands. And these are, of course, not two disjoint categories of song; rather, the oral tradition on the Outer Banks inherits a lot from eighteenth-century settlers from England and the music they brought with them, on top of which influences have flowed in from the rest of America since then.

These singers are undeniably part of a living, evolving tradition of music sung on the Outer Banks, at a time when that tradition was still primarily an oral one. Change came slowly to the islands, as to many rural areas; “Carolina Cannonball” references people having to go to the Coast Guard station to be able to make phone calls, which for the singer had been true in living memory. To anyone who rebels against the non-traditional singer-songwriters who are labeled as “folk” by music marketers today, it’s common to swing too far and insist that a real folk musician doesn’t play anything that was written by anybody, instead tweaking old songs and passing them on in that form. To some, the only good songwriter is a dead songwriter. But to the island musicians whose voices are preserved in the field recordings made by Karen Helms, this is hardly the most salient feature. Rather, a song is either part of the tradition or from outside of it, and when a singer who is an heir to that tradition writes in the traditional style, it’s not outsider music. Some of these songs date at least to the late nineteenth century, some are recent compositions (the last track was written in 1973), but all of them belong to the islands.


More information about Karen Helms’ research is available from the Southern Folklife Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library of the University of North Carolina (,Karen_Helms.html):

Collection Number: 20324
Collection Title: Karen Helms Pressley Collection, 1973-1990 (bulk 1975-1978)