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 (http://www.folkways.si.edu/between-the-sound-and-the-sea-music-of-the-north-carolina-outer-banks/american-folk/music/album/smithsonian).

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 (http://folkhistory.blogspot.com/2014/09/inventiveness-in-oral-music-on-north.html). 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.

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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 (http://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/p/Pressley,Karen_Helms.html):

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

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Welcome to yet another Ocracoke Newsletter from Village Craftsmen.  The weather is warming up and we are looking forward to the beginning of a new season here on the island.

As folks return to Ocracoke or start planning their Spring and Summer vacations, we thought you might be interested in news of several upcoming events.

The Fourth Annual Ocrafolk Music and Storytelling Festival is scheduled for June 7 & 8, 2003.  The Festival has been a huge success every year, and 2003 is shaping up to be no exception.  As usual, this year the Festival will feature an outstanding selection of artisans, musicians, and storytellers from the coastal region of North Carolina.  We thought some of you might want to consider planning your next trip to the island to coincide with this event.

As many of you know, music has been an important part of Ocracoke’s history for generations.  In the 1920’s two Ocracoke brothers, Walter and Edgar Howard, were popular performers in cities along the East Coast.

Edgar played banjo in vaudeville, sometimes on the same stage with the likes of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and even Al Jolson.  Edgar returned home after retirement and continued to entertain islanders with his music and stories.

Edgar died in 1990 and is buried across the street from Village Craftsmen.  His grave marker has a banjo carved on it and the words “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet.”

Edgar Howard’s Grave on Howard Street
graves on howard st Edgar's gravestone

Even if you do not remember Edgar or Walter you may have the good fortune of hearing Molasses Creek play a tune written by Walter and made popular on the island by Edgar, “Paddy’s Holler.”  Paddy’s Holler is a small area of Ocracoke that lies behind the Ocracoke Health Center, near the schoolhouse and Methodist Church,  and extends to Fig Tree Lane, near the “Island Girl” gift shop.  Named in the 1800’s after a tavern up north, Paddy’s Holler, as a distinct community, was altered permanently when the Navy paved the “Back Road” during World War II.
Paddy’s Holler
Written by Walter Howard

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.

‘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

Wid was on a spree; he had fiddled all night 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!”

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

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

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
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.

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
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!”
Edgar’s brother, Walter, was also an accomplished musician.  Walter’s jug band had quite a few chart topping hits in the 1920’s, including “Sadie Green” and “What Makes My Baby Cry.”

Walter’s son, Walter Howard, Jr., alerted me to a web site where you can listen to selections from 1926.  These sound files require the “Real Audio” plug-in available free of charge at www.realaudio.com.  Once you have the plug-in just click on the links below to listen to one of Ocracoke’s old-time musicians.

“Sadie Green”

“What Makes My Baby Cry”

In other news, Island Path, an Ocracoke venture offering creative workshops has scheduled a number of events for 2003 that we thought might appeal to our readers.  Workshops will be offered in watercolor painting, writing, and pottery, as well as retreats and creativity camps.

Ken DeBarth & Ruth Fordon of Island Path:
Ken DeBarth & Ruth Fordon of Island Path

Some of their offerings are listed below:

COACHING FOR MIDLIFE WOMEN April 10-13
Join Kathleen Brehony and Ruth Fordon for a weekend residential camp.  It’s time to craft the dreams you have not yet lived.

LEARN TO WATERCOLOR   May 11-17 and Sept 21-27
Mel Stanforth will guide you gently into this wonderful medium.  All your supplies are provided, as well as food and lodging in this weeklong residential camp

THE COMPLETE WRITER  April 27-May 3 ; June 1-8 ; Oct 19 – 25
Change your life as a writer!  Karen Jones and Kathleen Brehony are back for their third year in this weeklong residential camp.  3  weeklong camps this year

HOW TO GET PUBLISHED  Sept 11-14
Here’s a weekend opportunity to focus on being a published writer.  Karen Jones and Kathleen Brehony know how and will teach you the strategies for success.

Ocracoke Beach Birds:
bird

PRIMITIVE POTTERY AT THE BEACH June 16-20
Work with clay and primitive firing techniques at the beach with our instructor Delores Coan.

GRAD CAMP FOR WRITERS  Oct 30 – Nov 3
Just for graduates of the “Complete Writer”.  This weekend residential camp was extremely popular in 2002.  Don’t miss it.

Some of Island Path’s other programs are listed below:

ISLAND PATH is a journey!
Learning how to live your dreams starts right here on Ocracoke Island.  Retreat to our beautiful beaches, explore new ideas and discover the magic your life has to offer!

PERSONAL PATH RETREAT WEEKS
When what we do in the world is not connected with our inner self, we risk feeling empty and one dimensional.  A Personal Path Retreat will give you time to reflect on your life, to address life changes and transitions, to create, or to recuperate.

COACHING
We hire personal trainers to get our bodies in shape.  Do the same for your personal life or your business.  Whether you need a hand to hold or someone to “kick your ‘but’…” Coaching offers a chance to take inventory and create workable action steps to craft the life and future you desire.

Ocracoke Sunset:
orange sunset

CREATIVITY CAMPS
Week long residential camps combine fun, creativity, learning, and lots of TLC.  Includes lodging, meals, lectures, T’ai Chi, massage, and plenty of time to explore the island.

Island Path is not affiliated with Village Craftsmen.  We are providing this information because we thought some of you might be interested in their programs.  For futher details, brochures, and costs please contact Island Path directly:

Island Path
Box 878
Ocracoke, NC 27960
1-877-708-7284 (toll free)
islandpath@ocracokenc.net

www.islandpath.com

We are looking forward to another wonderful season on Ocracoke.  Please stop by Village Craftsmen and say hello on your next visit to the island.

All the best to you from,

Philip, Dallie, Jude, Amy, Mary, and Leon

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