Bessie Killens Eldreth claims song as a constant companion. “I sing most of the time when I’m alone—just sing, sing, sing,” she says. Like many North Carolina mountain women, she has privately enriched her own life and the lives of her family and friends with song. With little time or opportunity to learn a musical instrument, she made her voice her instrument, and she accompanies everyday living with hundreds of old ballads, gospel songs and hymns, and a variety of parlor songs that struck her fancy.
Born in 1913 on an Ashe County farm, Bessie Killens was the third of twelve children. She learned songs as a young child, listening to her maternal grandmother sing such classic ballads as “Naomi Wise” and “Knoxville Girl,” as well as some of the nineteenth-century popular ballads like “Little Rosewood Casket.” A beloved great aunt taught her hymns from the Old Regular Baptist church; a wealthy cousin was the source of some rare comic songs. Her father, a fiddler and banjo player, taught his daughter fewer songs, but clearly passed on his love of music to her.
In the mid-1970s, Bessie gave her first public performance, singing with her granddaughter, Jean Reid. Even though most of her singing has not been public or even intended as performance, she has generously taken her songs and stories as far afield as New York City and the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife. The North Carolina Folklore Society recognized her contributions with its Brown-Hudson Award, and she received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1998. She was also the subject of and collaborator in Patricia Sawin’s 2004 book, Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth through her Songs and Stories.