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When I first met Dellie Norton and her adopted son, Junior, Dellie was seventy-six years old and had been widowed for about ten years. Junior was in his early thirties and had lived with Dellie since he was six. When Junior's father, who was Dellie's first cousin, died, and Junior's mother couldn't care for all seven children, Dellie took him in. Informal adoption was common in tight-knit mountain hamlets. In addition to her own five children, Dellie raised her husband's three daughters from a previous marriage, and had numerous other children stay with her for varying amounts of time. Children provided her with company, as well as with an extra pair of hands for the never-ending work around the farm. Junior also received a monthly disability check which was an important part of the family's cash income. So taking in Junior, while clearly an act of kindness, was also a very practical decision.

Electricity and telephones didn't come to Madison County until the 1950s, and there was little money in the community before the federal programs of the 1960s. Throughout her life Dellie worked to fill her family's most basic needs, raising food and canning, maintaining the farmstead, cutting firewood, caring for animals, and planting tobacco to earn money. She knew her land intimately: which field produced the best beans, where to find a stand of locust trees that could be split into fence posts, how to store food through the long winters without electricity, what time of the year to collect specific herbs that were used as medicines, where the springs were. She seemed proud of this hard-earned knowledge, and her life. As far as I could tell, she harbored no secret wish to live elsewhere or differently. I believe that Dellie knew the land itself was her most valuable asset. Her ability to survive and do well on her land provided her with real security; it was her home place and promised the continuation of her family line.

Burley tobacco was the mainstay of the area, and for most of the twentieth century Madison County was the leading producer of burley in North Carolina. County residents kept cattle and sheep, cultivated gardens and large fields of corn, and grew commercial tomatoes and ornamentals, but tobacco paid the bills. Up until the mid-1980s, most families with a tobacco allotment raised the crop themselves, often trading work with their neighbors on the labor-intensive crop. Tobacco has many problems: itıs hard on the soil, susceptible to disease, and the end product is bad for people. Yet cultivating tobacco also promoted a sense of community and a pride in making a living from the land; it provided mountain people with the means to stay on their land and assured the continuation of a rural, agrarian way of life.

While tobacco was the money crop, most families also found other ways to earn income. Some left for factory jobs elsewhere, as Dellie describes in her stories, but many also found ways to come home and resume their farm life, sometimes with new resources. Dellie and the other old-timers in Madison County had maintained an almost self-sufficient way of life. Dellie was not only self-reliant, she also was very strong from her years of farming and maintaining a household. She didnıt get her first electric washing machine until the late 1950s, and it was there on the porch, with its old-fashioned wringer still in working order, when I arrived on the scene.

By the 1970s, Dellie, like most of her neighbors in the small community of Sodom Laurel, had become more firmly connected to the world of modern conveniences, and committed to living in it. She still raised a big garden, milked a cow, grew tobacco, and hunted for ginseng, but she also loved her telephone and TV and the polyester pantsuits she wore whenever she left home, which she did with some frequency. She had oil heat and shelves of prescription medicine in her bathroom. She paid bills, had insurance, and shopped for groceries at the store. She also received disability and social security checks and supplemental food and medical care. While Dellie remembered a time when she had been more self-sufficient, she seemed to like the changes in her life.

Dellie also sang ballads. Music was one of the few available and affordable forms of entertainment, and most everyone in Sodom Laurel, even the children, sang or played instruments. The community had produced professional musicians with dreams of stardom, but the majority of residents viewed music as part of their daily routine. They sang in church. Dellie sang to pass the day, to keep from feeling lonely. Singing made the hard work in the fields more tolerable and front porch visits with neighbors and relatives more enjoyable. Singing was something people just did. Dellie once told me she never would have believed that she would become famous for her singing. I donıt think it occurred to Dellie that she would leave any kind of legacy to the wider world.

The wider world has been aware of the music of the southern mountains for almost a century. The noted British ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp and his assistant, Maud Karpeles, collected more songs in Madison County in 1916 than in any other single place for their classic volume, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. One of their singers was Dellie's aunt Zipporah Rice, and although Dellie herself never sang for him, she had a clear memory from her teenage years of the man from "across the water" who collected ballads in the community. Sharp recognized the southern mountains, and Madison County in particular, as being the storehouse of the British–American music tradition. The ballads he collected had made their way across the ocean to America, endured over many generations, through untold hardships and relocations, and ended up in Sodom Laurel, North Carolina, where they were being sung the same way they had been in the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Sharp said, "I discovered that I could get what I wanted from pretty nearly everyone I met, young and old. In fact I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal as speaking."

In the mid-1960s, there was a national revival of folk music. Main stream musicians like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary were doing popular renditions of songs that had been in the Sodom Laurel community for centuries. There was also a growing curiosity about the sources of this music. Soon Dellie, her sister Berzilla, Dillard Chandler, Cas Wallin, Doug Wallin, and a number of others were "discovered" by folk music scholars and collectors. By the time I arrived, this group of mostly elderly community members was traveling regularly to folk festivals. There was also a steady stream of students, musicians, photographers, collectors, and culture tourists flowing in and out of the community.

This attention provided the singers with an opportunity to meet new people and see places they had only heard about or seen on TV. Being among the first in their community to fly in a jet, or see Washington, D.C., or receive awards from the state, added to their celebrity in the community, which they relished. The money singers received was often needed and always appreciated, and that educated people would record their songs and pay them to talk about their lives assured them a place in the world that went far beyond their histories in Sodom Laurel. The old–timers were not fixed in a remote and isolated place, were not living in the past. They were busily making the connections that some of us young people found so hard to see.

Yet there were downsides to the attention as well. There were misunderstandings about money –the expectation of royalty checks that never arrived, the hope of contracts that didn't materialize. Twenty–five years after Alan Lomax recorded her, Dellie continued to complain about him never sending her any money. Doug Wallin even took a swing at the filmmaker John Cohen, claiming that Cohen "had kept all the money" though, as Cohen told him, the record he'd made had sold very few copies. The promise of paying jobs also produced a competitiveness among the singers for those jobs, and there was jealousy if one person was included in a festival or album and the others weren't. A subtle, but friendly, rivalry over whose was the correct version of a particular ballad had always existed, but with money and an audience involved, that rivalry became more spiteful. Whatever preconceptions I came with about romantic mountaineers were beginning to crumble, faced with real people and places.

Other incidents began to alter my understanding. Life in Sodom was uncertain. The local way of speaking was so different that I feared unknowingly offending someone with a wrong phrase or oVhand remark. There was also a lot of drinking which often led to fights, shootings, thefts, and other acts of violence and mayhem. Most everyone, Dellie included, carried a gun. Her life seemed punctuated by troubling incidents when someone settled an old grudge or took the law into his own hands. Did it make sense? Here in Sodom, twenty-two miles from Marshall and the sheriffıs office, people solved their own problems and were quick to defend themselves and their land. And while everyone was proud of their generational links to the land, and their love of it, there was also, what seemed to me, much abuse of that land. Many home places were littered with trash piles and junked cars, and had outhouses built over creeks.

There were also countless acts of kindness and moments of serenity. Dellie and her friends telling stories and singing on the porch. Impromptu meals at someone's house. Visits to friends in the hospital, vigils by a kin's sickbed. Gifts of chicken and eggs. Coins and dollar bills given freely to a neighbor's kids. People would invite me to spend the night and mean it, not taking no for an answer, and I sensed that people not only watched out for me but accepted me into the community.

Dellie loved to "run about" and my ability to find my way around "them foreign places," as she referred to Asheville and other cities, was a skill she definitely valued. Dellie often told me about her earlier life, about bad roads and little money, when it wasn't possible to see new places and meet new people. She wanted to make up for it now. For a few years I was her chauffeur of choice. For me, our trips were fun, a way to feel useful; it was also a valuable introduction to her family and friends. Short trips to the bypass for groceries, to the doctor in Greenville, Tennessee, over to a relative's house for a visit, or to someone else's place to get apples were numerous and routine. Longer trips to festivals, where she and Berzilla performed with other ballad singers, or out to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to visit her granddaughter Sue, were true adventures. Missouri was the farthest any of them had been from home, and for much of the seventeen–hour drive, Dellie regularly moaned, "Weıre surely lost now. We'll never find Sue and Vince. We'll never see Sodom again." When we finally pulled up in front of Sue and Vince's, Dellie's face beamed with surprise and relief.

When I moved to Madison County, the population was three–tiered: the old–timers, rooted in traditional ways; their children and grandchildren born into the mountain culture, but many moving away, finding new kinds of work; and the newcomers, often yearning for a traditional way of life and an escape from the modern American suburb. Today, as the population born outside Madison County approaches 50 percent, that earlier world is gone. The old–timers have mostly died, taking their way of life with them. I see fewer gardens and no milk cows. People rarely visit in person, choosing instead to telephone or send e-mail. Better roads have provided easy access to town, and most everyone works away from their farms. Tobacco is no longer the secure income or proud crop it used to be. The younger generation of locals, descendants of Scotch–Irish settlers, see their land, culture, and heritage being slowly consumed by the mainstream, and often don't fight the trend. The latest wave of newcomers no longer have people like Dellie to share her stories of a more integrated and hardscrabble life close to the land. Many newcomers homeschool their children and seem more interested in insulating themselves from the local culture. The land is more a hobby, or a financial asset, than the sustainer of families it once was. The grocery store that opened just prior to my arrival has expanded to a superstore, and the county now has its first fast–food restaurant and chain motel.

Dellie belonged to an oral tradition. She rarely wrote down songs or stories, repeating them the way she had heard them. At her core, Dellie was a teacher, and she understood the importance of passing on those ballads, family histories, and knowledge of the land to new generations. Family, friends, and audiences were drawn to her, and would heed her words. While Dellie's life gave expression to a particular time and place, her inner strength and understanding of the complexity of life were qualities that crossed all boundaries. Her ability to live mostly off her land was a reminder of a more self–sufficient and connected way of life most of us can only read about or imagine. Organic food, herbal medicines, simplified needs, and neighborhood workdays are notions that resonate clearly with many of us, but they were part of her daily routine. For Dellie, hers was not an "alternative" lifestyle; she was a pragmatist and a survivor. She used her surroundings to provide a life for her family in a place where you could easily get lost or die if you didn't know how to work and do.

The totality of Dellie's life experience was not one I, or her grandchildren I suspect, would choose to repeat. The thought of living off the land, without a car, computer, chainsaw, health care, and the other "necessities" of life, is a scary and sobering thought. But everyone who knew Dellie, or someone like her, has kept something of her and her way of life. A story or a song. A love of gardening. A quilt she made. A certain way of doing a task. An understanding and acceptance of the strength and resilience it takes to live. A memory that makes you laugh, or cry. In those ways, Dellie's legacy is of a culture that has not so much vanished as continued to evolve in new and unexpected ways.




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