Ernest (on left) and Osey Helton

Sights & Sounds

Types of Artistry

Historic Artist

Osey and Ernest Helton

String band musicians

Buncombe County, NC

Brothers Osey and Ernest Helton, a fiddler and guitarist, grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, the sons of a Cherokee father and white mother. Osey learned to fiddle from an African American former slave who worked with his father at a whiskey distillery in Asheville. When Ernest was a baby, both parents died, and Ernest was adopted by Civil War veteran James Patton. Patton raised Ernest to be a musician as well, teaching him banjo, guitar, and Hawaiian guitar.

When Ernest was a teenager, he was reunited with his older siblings, and he and brother Osey began to perform as a musical duet. Ernest accompanied fiddler J. D. Harris on his recordings for the Broadway and Okeh labels, and the brothers played on the radio in the Asheville area as Helton's Old Time Stringband. They played for the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, and at a variety of events throughout the region. In 1927 Osey formed a duet with Jimmie Rodgers.

Osey worked as a plasterer, but was eventually able to make his living as a professional musician. Ernest worked as a house painter in Asheville, until World War II, when he went west to work in a shipyard in Portland, Oregon. Osey died in Jackson County in 1942, and Ernest died in Baltimore in 1979.

 

Note: "Historic Artist" designates one who is deceased but whose legacy continues to influence and inspire new generations.