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)


Last month I published the first half of a short journal my father, Lawton W. Howard (1911-2002), wrote shortly before his death. This month I share the second half of that journal. My father had only the most basic formal education, and I have transcribed his journal almost exactly as he wrote it. I hope his comments provide a small glimpse into life on Ocracoke Island a century ago.

Lawton (on fiddle) with Fowler O’Neal:

You can read the first half of what he wrote here.


The 4th of July was a great day at Ocracoke that was the day the big horse penning they sold colt and mare’s & studes. The horse pen was between Van henry and the school them days. Walter Oneal was out there with home made ice cream selling ice cream. 5¢ comb. I think it 1927 the older men wasn’t going to pen hore that 4th July I don’t why they were mad about something So another pal Ansley oneal and myself pen horse that day I asked my Father if I could use his horse & Ansley asked his Grandfather if he could use his so we could pen horse that day well the two of us left 2 am in the morning and started for Hatters inlet. We got at the Coast guard Station around 5 am. Rested & gave our horse some food & water we stayed for a couple hours. And then we started Ocracoke Village rounding up the wild horse on our way back we got back around 1 PM after noon some off the older men said we had more horse in the pen that day than they had seen for a long time.

The Life Saving Station at Hatteras Inlet (1883-1955):

Some time we would go out to Bald Beach and have a horse race the Horse my Father was really a good runner no other horse could beat him. You had watch him if he saw a piece off paper move on the other side road he would jump across the road so you had to watck him at all times. One time I was running him from the light house toward home. With out a saddle on. When I got about where Philip has his house the horse saw a young fellow laying in the ditch by the road so Bill the horse name had to put his brakes on so over his neck into the road but I did not get hurt. Got back on and went to the Station and put him back in the pen.

We used to play cat. this is Ball game something like Baseball. We had three base and home plate I don’t know where cat come from I guess the Older men gave it that name. the only thing that wasn’t the same as base Ball was we would hit the man running from one base to other We would hit the man with the ball. My mother made me a ball made out off yarn and cover it with Leather from an old shoe. And sew it on the ball. It look just like a baseball.

In the year off 1926 or 1927 a banana ship run a shore at Hatteras Inlet. The coast Guard Station took the crew at the Station for a week I know my father and some other crew from Ocracoke Station had to go at Hatters Inlet Station to helf the crew there in case if they had any trouble with the crew of the Banan ship and then throw all the Bananas over board so they could refloat the Ship at high tide which they did. Our beach was full off banana for a good while so we had all the bananas we wanted for some time. I had never saw a ship that big before.

The Banana Boat:

I went fishing with Simon E Balance I work for Simon and Luther work form Mr Balance Luther oneal & I were about the same age. We went at night they would ankor the boat and to hear the trout make a noise I then I would jump over board with the net and stand and hole the net until they would go around the fish where I was and pull the net in the boat and take the fish out off the net. When the Older men got enotch fish we went to Hatteras and sold them We stayed at Hatteras at Tom Angles place he was a black man the only one on hatteras at that time We stayed at his Stayed all night and had breakfast and all for 25¢ the next day come back to Ocracoke we had only a small sail boat. I made $25.00 that week. I felt rich.

I found $10.00 when I was about 12 or 13 yrs old. My father stuck a note up at the store for week if any one had lost $10.00. so no one claim it my mother sent to Sears an got me a suit of cloths the first suit I ever had I really though it was pretty it a blue.

Mr Ben Oneal lived next Door. In the house Gayenell lives in he had cow was out of the pen. So miss Elithe Gaskins & Mamie Styron was over to Tom Jackson to see his mother Tom was a pal of mine. I heard the two women were talking about how scared they were off Mr Ben cow. I went home so later the two women were going by our house going home. Down point I waited until they got by the Island in. I went up to the back off them and jump in a hole with dry tree limb jump in the hole and said “mow” did they run each one a baby in theire arms they didn’t stop until they got pass James Jr. house they look around to see if the cow was there and they saw me they shook their fist at me because I was laughing at them.


Many of our readers will remember my father, Lawton Wesley Howard, Sr. (1911-2002). He was quite the character, and I have written about him in several other newsletters. You can read those articles here and here.

Lawton W. Howard:

Recently I was looking through my bookshelves and noticed a journal book that I had bought for my dad several years before he died. I had been encouraging him to write down his story, and thought a blank book would get him going. As it turned out he only wrote about eight pages, but they are rich in Ocracoke Island lore.

I have transcribed his story, and reproduce the first four pages below (you can read the second half of his story here).My father attended school for only five or six years. Most of what he learned (and that was quite a lot) came through experience. He never was much for reading or book learning.  I have copied what he wrote almost exactly as he put it down on paper, with his quirky spelling, odd capitalizations, and unconventional grammar. He didn’t seem to have much use for periods. I did divide his thoughts into paragraphs for easier reading. He begins, just by listing the names of his father and his mother.


Homer Howard

Aliph Dean Oneal Howard

My Father & Mother had 13 or 14 children I was the tenth I was born 10:am the 10th day 10th month – 1911 I will give my Brothers & sisters name’s later on. My Father & Mother were living at Frisco N.C. when I was born Dad was in the Life saving Station. When I was 3 months old my Dad took a razor and shaved All my hair off because hed [he] did not want his Brother know that I had red hair. His Brother had three Red hears in his family I was the only one in his family at the time. This when we moved back at Ocracoke.

During the frist world war I was about 7 yrs old I was out in the yard playing. I heard a noise above me I look up it was an airplane flying over me. I ran and hide under the under the House I was so afraid. But I got over it after the plane left and went in the house and played.

Homer & Aliph Howard Homeplace:

My father & Mother were very stern about some thing’s We all had to answer with a no sir or yes sir and a no mam & yes mam if we or I did not my Dad & Mom that way I would get a pop on the cheek or maybe more. I do give them a lot of respect for it. I stole some sour green Apple’s from sue Howard she was Preal [Pearl] Angle Mother

I was suppose to be home before dark and I wasn’t home my father was calling for me I did not come home as soon as I was suppose to so I got a good licking but I had all my pockets full and in my shirt around my waist was I glad that no apple fell out of my pockets if they had I would of got half beat to death.

So I went to bed up stairs and that night I ate every apple I had with me It’s a wonder I didn’t Die.

I would get up 5:00 am And go out chase wild Horse’s and then come home then go out and get some Black Berries or Dew Berries If not I may go soft crabbing up some of the creek’s May catch a doz or more and have a real good dinner for the day

We would make our own kites We when I say I mean my pal Tom Jackson or Ansley who ever ect and have a kite fight We would tie a knife or a piese of glass or top of can and tie them on the end of the tail and swing the kite over from one side to the other side to try to cut the other fellow line. Then we would have a horse dirt battle take the horse dirt and throw it at one of the other until had enouch.

Some days we make our sef a boat like the [kind] in the creek or lake take some line and tie on the boat and pull it behind us Put a qt can full of holes an some crab meat in the can down in about 1 ½ foot of water in the creek and then back up and wait for some small fish to go in the can. Then walk easy up to the coan and put our hand over the opening in the can. Take the fish out of the can and put the fish in our boat to be like the older men fishing our nets.

Ocracoke Fishing Nets:

I remember one time at school a fellow Charlie D. Balance and myself had some trouble at school between ourself’s I told him that I would get him. I came home from school and was standing on the front porch I saw him going home I crept down low and caught up to him when he saw me he hit me with his Lunch box. I got hold off his Lunch box and beat it all to piece over him.

Then another time I beat the Preacher son up just before Church. He was giving my pal Tom Jackson a hard time So I told him to lay of Tom. And then he gave me some lip I punch him in the mouth and busted his lip open. He was taller than I. then again I caught three Riding my horse I lick 2 off them the other got way they were my age also.

I remember in 1926 or 27. My father was going the first patrol them days the first patrol was 6 pm.

Homer Howard:

Popp stopped by with his horse and cart and picked Mom & my Sister Thelma Brother Homer & myself and took us with him. He took his fiddle and he would play the fiddle we get out run along with him. Wee saw a Sailing vessel sailing north for a while and then turn around and sail south for while the sailing boat done this a few time my father said that the sailing vessel was waiting for night to set in so he could run the boat ashore sure enough that night around 10 pm it was a shore. The name off the vessel was Victory S.

The 1925 Wreck of the Four Masted Schooner, Victoria S:

Lawton Howard and his Fiddle, ca. 1995:


You can read the second half of Lawton’s story here.