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: https://folkways.si.edu/between-the-sound-and-the-sea-music-of-the-north-carolina-outer-banks/american-folk/music/album/smithsonian. 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: https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/1890-ocracoke-oyster-war/)


A few days ago, Sundae Horn, our local community librarian, sent me a copy of the sheet music for “The Ocracoke School Song.” Arnold Sundgaard wrote the words; Alec Wilder composed the music. With the annual PTA Variety Show coming up, Sundae thought it would be fun for the kids to revive the song that she remembers hearing students sing once about fifteen years ago. Principal Leslie Cole located a copy in the school files and shared it with Sundae, who asked me, “Any idea who Arnold Sundgaard was?”

Not only did I have no idea who Arnold Sundgaard was, I had never seen or heard of the song.

These are the words:

There’s a school on the sands,
on the sands by the sea;
You can see where it stands
by a green cedar tree.

There a mocking bird sings
and the gulls fly above;
O the school on the sands
is the school that I love.

There’s a light on the bay,
and it shines from the shore.
It will show you the way
to the bright school house door.

Though you travel from home
to the far distant lands,
You will always recall
the white school on the sands.

The Ocracoke School Song Page 1
The Ocracoke School Song Page 2

Thanks to the world wide web I soon learned that Arnold Sundgaard (1909-2006) was a nationally recognized American playwright, librettist, and lyricist. In addition to writing short stories and children’s books, he taught at Columbia University, Bennington College, and the University of Texas. He specialized in drama and theatrics, and was probably best known for his role in the production of six Broadway plays. He even has his own Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Sundgaard.

Just as on the “Ocracoke School Song,” Sundgaard often collaborated with the prominent composer, Alec Wilder (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alec_Wilder).

This new wealth of information led to the even more puzzling question, how did a prominent, celebrated lyricist come to write a beautifully simple song in homage to Ocracoke’s tiny school?

After a little more research I discovered “The Lowland Sea,” a one-act folk opera (Libretto by Arnold Sundgaard, Music by Alec Wilder), written in 1952. You can listen to it here: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/wilderworld/episodes/2014-02-16T20_57_28-08_00, as performed May 16 & 17, 1963, in Dolton, Illinois, at the Thornridge High School Spring Musicale.

According to the liner notes, “’The Lowland Sea’…was written as a remembering of the sea and sea songs – of dunes, of harbors, of voyaging, of loneliness, of waiting. It is hoped that it will seem familiar to anyone who has walked (or wanted to walk) the streets of Nantucket, or has waited for the evening mail boat at Ocracoke.”

I contacted Arnold Sundgaard’s son who said that his father and Alec Wilder visited Ocracoke, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and mentioned the island frequently. Our isolated island village seems to have made quite an impression on them. Sundaard’s son explained that his father and Wilder enjoyed the island and working in the peace and quiet. Unfortunately, no one alive remembers having met them. Nevertheless, it turns out that some of the school’s alumni remember singing “The Ocracoke School Song.” Mr. Theodore Rondthaler (school principal from 1948 to 1962) included the song at various school gatherings, the elementary teacher, Ms. Davis, taught it to her students in the 1960s, and Ms. Mary Ellen Piland discovered it and introduced it to her students in more recent years.

The 1917 Ocracoke Schoolhouse
The 1917 Ocracoke Schoolhouse

The old 1917 schoolhouse, painted bright white, was replaced in the early 1970s with the current, larger and more modern building. But, thanks to Sundae, the school students are again learning to sing “The Ocracoke School Song.” Maybe now it will be recognized and preserved as the official song for the Ocracoke School.


Last week one of Ocracoke’s native sons, George Guthrie Jackson, died after a long illness.  George was descended from one of the island’s very first residents, Francis Jackson.  I remember George mostly as the island barber when I was a youngster.  His tiny barber shop was located “down point” past the lighthouse.

George Guthrie was also an enthusiastic storyteller.  He clearly enjoyed telling his stories as much as his listeners enjoyed hearing them. Many times he would stop me and my father (at the Post Office, in the Community Store parking lot, or just along the road) and recount one of his favorite stories.  I call it “George & Jule” and present it here for your amusement.

George and Jule
(As told to Philip Howard by George Guthrie Jackson)

The year was 1942. World War II had reached our shores. The country was gripped with patriotic fervor and a spirit of national responsibility. Ocracoke Island was no exception. Two local boys, Jule Garrish and George Guthrie Jackson, were among those called up for military service.

By the summer of 1941 several singers, including Bill Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers, Texas Jim Robertson, and Gene Autry, had performed and/or recorded a popular song that captured the prevailing mood. “I’ll Be Back in a Year, Little Darlin'” spoke for many a young man who faced the prospect of extended time away from loved ones.

Jule and George often played guitar for the local square dances that were held regularly on Saturday nights at Stanley Wahab’s dance hall, “The Spanish Casino.” They had played their last gig. In the morning Jule was to board the mail boat on his way to serve in the Navy; George was bound for service in the Army . It was almost midnight when they left the dance hall.

Through the deep, soft sand they trudged, carrying their instruments. Once on the road towards the old Howard cemetery, and not too far from their homes, Jule and George stopped. Jule had written new introductory verses (and slightly adapted the words) to “I’ll Be Back in a Year, Little Darlin’.” The boys decided this would be as good a place as any to try them out. Standing in the middle of the lane, with guitars in hand, they struck up the tune and sang out loud and clear:

“There were two little boys used to go to school,

One was named George, and the other was named Jule.

Jule said to George, ‘Get up and put your brogans on,

And then let’s sing this farewell song;

And this is the way it goes:’

We’ll be back in a year little darlin’,

Uncle Sam has called us both and we must go,

We’ll be back, don’t you fear, little darlin’

You’ll be proud of your soldier boys we know.

We’ll do our best each day for the good old U.S.A.

And we’ll keep old glory waving high.

We’ll be back in a year little darlin’,

Don’t you worry darlin’, don’t you cry.”

According to George, Jule would “bear down on it” and stomp his foot in time to the music.

Nancy Williams, who was accustomed to retiring early in the evening, lived not a stone’s throw from where Jule and George stopped to sing and play. Just as the performance was ending she raised her window and, nightgown fluttering in the wind, called out for anyone to hear, “The only damn thing I hope is that it’ll be longer than a year.”