Explore and learn about the world of sound and music found in the Smithsonian Folkways collection from the comfort of your little device. A Field Guide to... North Carolina was curated by Steve Weiss of the Southern Folklife Collection and Interim Music Librarian of UNC Chapel Hill.
By Elizabeth Cotten
Musician and songwriter Elizabeth Cotten was born just west of Chapel Hill, NC in 1893 in an area now known as Carrboro. There is a growing local interest in removing white supremacist Julian Carr ‘s name from Carrboro and renaming the town in her honor. Elizabeth grew up near the trains that ran near her home which inspired her to write her classic song Freight Train. Elizabeth remembered “We used to watch the freight train. We knew the fireman and the brakeman…and the conductor, my mother used to launder for him. They’d let us ride in the engine…put us in one of the coaches while they were backing up and changing…that was how I got my first train ride.” Recorded live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, one of my favorite music venues. /p>
That Train that Carried My Girl from Town
By The Doc Watson Family
From The Watson Family
Arthel “Doc” Watson of Deep Gap, NC learned this song from his brother Arnold, who learned the song from white blues singer Frank Hutchison’s 78rpm record (Okeh 45064 “Train that Carried the Girl from Town”; “Worried Blues”) which Frank recorded at his first recording session for Okeh in September 1926. Discographer Eugene Earle told me that when he first met Doc, while joining Ralph Rinzler on a trip to record Clarence Ashley on Labor Day weekend of 1960, he was astonished to learn that Doc not only knew this record but could perform both songs from the record perfectly. On this recording, Doc shows his unique talent on guitar, imitating the drive of the full throttle locomotive and finally the sound of a train in the distance.
If I Had My Way
By Reverend Gary Davis
From If I Had My Way: Early Home Recordings
In the 1930s and 40s, Durham, NC became a center for the blues due to the success of the tobacco industry, which drew in rural African Americans seeking work. “Blind” Gary Davis, a South Carolinian later known as Reverend Gary Davis after his ordination, moved to Durham in 1926 where he lived in the Hayti district and was active as a street singer. Davis was an influence on perhaps the best-known bluesman from North Carolina, Blind Boy Fuller. Musician, filmmaker and photographer John Cohen’s 1953 recordings of Reverend Davis, provide a close-up of this powerful singer who had moved on from North Carolina to New York City a decade earlier.
Cotton Mill Colic
By Blue Sky Boys
From Presenting the Blue Sky Boys
Performing as a duet on Atlanta radio station WGST as the Blue Ridge Hillbillies, brothers Bill and Earl Bolick of Hickory, NC chose their new name The Blue Sky Boys after “land of the sky,” the slogan for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. A very popular duo in the 1930s and 40s, their sound greatly influenced the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and the Everly Brothers. The social protest song Cotton Mill Colic was written by Dave McCarn, a self-taught guitar and harmonica player from Gaston County, NC who recorded the song May 19, 1930, for Victor (V40274).
Mole in the Ground
By Bascom Lamar Lunsford
From Smoky Mt. Ballads
Collector, performer, lawyer, and festival organizer Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973) was born in Madison County, NC, an area where folk songs, ballads and instrumental tunes, provided entertainment for the community in homes, square dances, and other social gatherings. As a young man, Lunsford sought to learn, collect, and preserve those traditions, first locally from family and friends, and later in more remote areas while travelling as a fruit tree salesman. Lunsford’s interest in collecting folksongs brought him to the attention of the foremost folklorists of the 1920, 30s and 40s as an advisor, collaborator, and contributor. Lunsford is best known for founding the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, a festival of Southern Appalachian traditions held in Asheville, NC and now in its 95th year. Lunsford performs the surreal "Mole in the Ground," a song he learned in 1901 from his schoolmate Fred Moody of Haywood County, NC.
By Doug Wallin
From Family Songs and Stories from the North Carolina Mountains
Growing up in the Sodom-Laurel section of Madison County, a community which English ballad collector Cecil Sharp noted “in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking,” Doug Wallin learned ballads and songs from his mother and father and became known in their community as the best unaccompanied ballad singer of Southern Appalachia. Here Doug sings the classic ballad Omie Wise, about the 1808 murder of Naomie Wise in Randolph County, NC.
Cold Rain and Snow
By Dillard Chandler
From Dark Holler: Old Love Songs and Ballads
I fell in love with artist and scholar John Cohen’s work early on, and it was a pleasure getting to know John when he was a visiting professor at both UNC and Duke University in the 2000s. John had a brilliant mind and a wonderful sense of humor. He always loved to share what he was working on, including Dark Holler
, his 2005 Smithsonian Folkways release on the ballad singers of the Sodom community of Madison County, NC which prominently features singer Dillard Chandler. "Cold Rain and Snow" is about a local hanging of a man who had killed his wife, his sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. The Grateful Dead’s 1967 recording of the song, which they learned from an Obray Ramsey record, is undoubtedly the best-known version. Dillard sang this unaccompanied version for “Uncle John” Cohen in 1965.
By Frank Proffitt
From Frank Proffitt of Reese, North Carolina
Musician and instrument maker Frank Proffitt (1913-1965) grew up along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, learning old songs and ballads from his father, grandfather, aunt and uncle. Proffitt is best known as the source of "Tom Dooley," a traditional ballad about the murder of Laura Foster of Wilkes County, NC in 1866. Proffitt sang the song for collectors Frank and Anne Warner in 1938, and through them, and Alan Lomax’s book Folk Song USA
, brought the song to wider attention. The Kingston Trio famously recorded their version of the song in 1958, becoming a national hit and setting off the folk revival. This recording for Folk-Legacy Records was made in January 1962 at Frank’s home near Reese, North Carolina.
One Dime Blues
By Etta Baker
From Classic Appalachian Blues from Smithsonian Folkways
A solo guitar piece by NEA National Heritage Fellow, piedmont blues musician Etta Baker (1913-2006) of Morganton, NC. Etta grew up in Caldwell County, NC learning guitar from her father when she was just 3 years old. This performance of her classic song "One Dime Blues" is a live performance from folklorist Nick Spitzer’s 1992 Folk Masters concert and radio series recorded at The Barns of Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA. As a young man, attending the Folk Masters shows was an education and a life changing experience for me.
Rag Mama Rag
By Blind Boy Fuller, Gary Davis, and Bull City Red
From Ragtime #2: The Country - Mandolins, Fiddles, & Guitars
Born in the small town of Wadesboro, North Carolina in 1907, Fulton Allen learned how to play guitar around the age of 20, shortly before losing his eyesight. As a blind man, he was dependent on his guitar to earn his living as a street musician, and with his wife Cora Mae, settled in Durham in 1929. J.B. Long, a businessman and talent scout brought Fulton to the attention of the American Record Corporation and in July 1935, the trio of Fulton (recording as Blind Boy Fuller) along with guitarist Blind Gary Davis, and washboard player George “Bull City Red” Washington recorded the ragtime "Rag Mama Rag" in New York City. Fuller recorded an influential catalog of 129 songs before his death six years later.
White House Blues
By Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers
From Anthology of American Folk Music
Charlie Poole was a hellraiser from the cotton mill town of Haw River, NC, a local hero who recorded over 80 songs for Columbia Records, including this song about the assassination of President McKinley. This is the first commercial recording of “White House Blues,” recorded September 20, 1926, in New York City, with Poole on banjo accompanied by the North Carolina Ramblers (Posey Rorer on fiddle and Roy Harvey on guitar). White House Blues emerged as a bluegrass standard after WWII. Filmmaker, mystic, and musicologist Harry Smith picked this song for Volume One of the Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952.
By Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
From Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing
First introduced in 1939, harmonica player Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee were part of the wellspring of Durham blues that included Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller. Recording and touring in the 40s brought them to national attention and into the circle of Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Moe Asch. "John Henry" is from their first duet album for Folkways in 1958. The legend’s historical origins have long been debated. Brownie sings “some say John Henry was born in Texas, some people think he was born in Maine, John Henry was born down in North Carolina, leader of a steel-driving-gang, Lord, Lord, leader of a steel-driving-gang.”
My Brushy Mountain Home
By Carolina Tar Heels
From The Carolina Tar Heels
Tar Heel is the nickname for North Carolina, earned because of the state’s leading role in the 18th and 19th century in the production of turpentine, tar, and pitch, the products of NC’s abundant pine trees. “Tar Heel” has been attached at different times to poor laborers, civil war soldiers, and now the University of North Carolina’s athletic teams, students and fans. The name was also given to two part-time musicians Dock Walsh and Garley Foster in 1927 by Victor A&R man Ralph Peer. In this 1962 reunion recording, Dock’s son Drake joins Dock (“Banjo King of the Carolinas”) and Garley Foster (“The Human Bird”) to recreate the band for a Folk-Legacy LP recorded by country music scholars Archie Green and Eugene Earle.
Georgia Buck (Georgie Buck) (Never Let a Woman Have Her Way)
By Dink Roberts
From Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia
Georgia Buck, a widely known traditional African American song offers a warning against the dangers of jealousy. This solo performance by black banjo songster Dink Roberts (1894-1989) highlights the call and response between singer and clawhammer banjo. Dink was born in Chatham County, NC and as a young man worked as a tenant farmer near the Haw River, playing for local dances and events.
By Cullen Galyean and Bobby Harrison
From Let Me Fall: Old Time Bluegrass from the Virginia-North Carolina Border
Cullen Galyean (banjo) and Bobby Harrison (guitar) are from the southwest hills of Virginia and Surry County, North Carolina, long considered the center for old-time music traditions. Here they play Reuben, which according to legend, was the tune a young Earl Scruggs was playing when he discovered his unique three-finger picking technique.
Mama Don’t Allow
By J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers
From Run Mountain
Hailing from the hill country near Asheville, NC, fiddler Joseph Emmett Mainer and his banjo-playing younger brother Wade formed the quartet Mainer’s Mountaineers with singing guitarists “Daddy” John Love and Zeke Morris. The Mountaineers were widely popular country music radio and recording artists during the 1930s. This recording of "Mama Don’t Allow" comes from an early '60s session for Arhoolie Records. J.E. is supported by his family band on this recording and his son J.E. Mainer Jr. sings lead on the hokum blues “Mama Don’t Allow.”
By Elizabeth Cotten and Brenda Evans
From Shake Sugaree
Shake Sugaree is a beautiful family collaboration. Elizabeth had the instrumental tune which she would play for her grandchildren, who added their own verses to the song. Elizabeth’s great-grandson John Evans Jr. recalled “As I remember it Libba had the tune for Shakesugaree, and she used to play it for the kids. It was a catchy tune, and we started to add words to the tune. I did the first verse, Brenda the second, Sue and Wendy (Peanut) the other verses. We each had a part in writing the words. I don’t recall that any of us contributed any more than the others, However Brenda was the singer in the group and wasn’t at all bashful about singing it in front of people.”
Can I Sleep in your Barn Tonight, Mister?
By Clarence Ashley and Tex Isley
From Clarence Ashley and Tex Isley
A sentimental old hobo romance song first recorded by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. This 1966 recording features 71-year-old medicine show comedian Clarence “Tom” Ashley accompanied by his road buddy Tex Isley of Spray, NC on guitar and autoharp.
What Would you Give in Exchange for Your Soul?
By Bill Monroe and Doc Watson
From Live Recordings 1963-1980: Off the Record Volume 2
On Monday, February 17, 1936, WPTF Raleigh radio performers, the Monroe Brothers (Bill and Charlie Monroe) recorded this number in Charlotte, NC during their first session for Victor’s Bluebird Records, and it became a big hit in the South. This later performance from May 1963, recorded live at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, CA pairs Bill with Doc Watson to recreate the classic brother duet.
Possum Up a Gum Stump
By Snuffy Jenkins with Homer “Pappy” Sherrill
From Pioneer of the Bluegrass Banjo
Dewitt “Snuffy” Jenkins developed a three-fingered style of banjo playing that provided the link between old-time and bluegrass music and was a major influence on Earl Scruggs, one of North Carolina’s and America’s most important musicians. Jenkins is joined on this 1962 Folk-Lyric recording by his band the Hired Hands and features fiddler Homer “Pappy” Sherrill who joined the band in 1939.
By Surry County Ramblers
From 37th Old Time Fiddler’s Convention at Union Grove North Carolina
Fiddling conventions are a tradition in the South, one which offers both professional and amateur musicians an annual opportunity to gather, play for each other, and compete. The Old Time Fiddler’s Convention at Union Grove, NC, started in 1924 by H.P. Van Hoy, was organized to help raise funds for a local high school. The Surry County Ramblers (Delmer Starling and Esker Hutchins) of Mount Airy, NC perform the traditional fiddle tune Grey Eagle on this recording from Easter weekend, 1961.
When Sorrows Encompass Me Around
By Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham
From Back Roads to Cold Mountain
The late musician and producer Ray Alden recorded this fiddle-banjo duet by Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham in August 1973. Both played in the Round Peak styles of Surry County, NC which gained popularity during the folk revival, bringing young musicians and folklorists to their door. Cockerham performed on radio, for medicine shows, and was a member of the Camp Creek Boys with Kyle Creed who made Cockerham’s fretless banjo, notable for its Formica covered fingerboard. Jarrell learned regional styles and repertoire as a child, largely before the influence of records and radio, and played for local dances. He dedicated himself to music after his retirement from the NC Highway Department and is best known for his unique style of fiddling which used complex rhythms and ornamental slides on the fingerboard.
Travelling that Highway Home
By The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin’ Al McCanless
From Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin’ Al McCanless
The Red Clay Ramblers grew out of the Durham’s old-time music scene of the mid-to-late 1960s and early 70s, which produced both the Hollow Rock String Band and the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. This long-running Chapel Hill band reached their largest audience writing and performing in theater productions including Diamond Studs
, Sam Shepard’s Lie of the Mind
and Fool Moon
. The original band lineup of Bill Hicks, Jim Watson, Tommy Thompson, Mike Craver, Tom Carter, and Laurel Urton, joined by bluegrass fiddler Al McCanless (of the Raleigh-based newgrass pioneers New Deal String Band and Bluegrass Experience) close out this set with "Travelling that Highway Home," a song they learned from a record by country singer Molly O’Day.