Robert Lynn “Bobby” McMillon, a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient, was heir to numerous strands of Appalachian culture. From his father’s family in Cocke County, Tennessee, he learned Primitive Baptist hymns and traditional stories and ballads. From his mother’s people in Yancy and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina, he heard “booger tales, haint tales,” and legends about the murder of a relative named Charlie Silver. In Caldwell County, he went to school with relatives of Tom Dula, learned their family stories, and heard ballads, gospel songs, and Carter family recordings. “The real storytelling,” Bobby said, “was so intertwined that a bear tale or a fish tale or a witch tale or a tale of some history that had really happened—a family tale—they were all equally believable.”
He was always drawn to old songs and stories, but as a teenager he discovered the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore in the Lenoir Public Library and got a glimpse of the historical background and significance of the things he knew. This inspired an enthusiasm for folklore documentation that made him an invaluable resource to his community. By the age of seventeen, he had begun taping and interviewing family members, neighbors, and friends who knew old songs and stories. Even before that, he had begun to develop his skills as a performer. He and his cousins “would get together in the evenings” and “just tell everything in the world that we had heard.”
Bobby McMillon performed throughout the state as a singer and storyteller. His solo performances included storytelling, ballad singing, and other songs with guitar playing. Bobby completed a number of residences in schools throughout the state, often including projects that got the school children to collect stories and songs from their own families. He appeared at events such as the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, the A. P. Carter Memorial Festival, national storytelling conferences, and the Festival for the Eno. For a decade he served public schools as part of the Artist in the Schools and Visiting Artist programs. Filmmaker Tom Davenport produced a film, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, that features Bobby singing the ballad and telling stories passed down in his family and community about the murder.
Because these songs and tales had deep roots in his own family and experience, Bobby had a passion for them and for sharing them. “Eventually, I began to realize,” he said “that if I didn’t perform the songs I was learning, most of the repertories of the people I learned from would be lost because they didn’t have family members of their own to hand them down to.” His greatest gift was his rare ability to convey to listeners a feeling for the world from which the stories come.
Bobby McMillon passed away November 28, 2021.