Dellie Norton sang the old English and Scottish ballads that were carried to the Southern Appalachians with the first settlers of the region. She sang in the traditional way, unaccompanied and with richly ornamented melodies, and her repertoire favored old songs like “Lord Bateman” and “House Carpenter” that recall events of the deep past.
Norton was born in the picturesque community of Sodom Laurel, in Madison County. The product of an independent and self-reliant society, she was an expert canner, spinner, weaver, quilter, and herbal healer, who once accompanied her father, an herb doctor, on searches for ginseng, yellow root and other natural remedies. She remembered mornings when her father would come into the kitchen before daylight and sing and pick the banjo while bacon was frying on the cook stove.
She learned to sing as a child in a part of the country where English folksong collector Cecil Sharp once observed that “singing was almost as common and universal a practice as speaking.” She took pride in singing the ballads in the manner of her mother and father, from whom she learned much of her repertoire. “You can’t hardly change a song,” she said. “It just doesn’t sound right if you put something to it.”
From the 1960s on, Norton was visited by numerous folklorists, song collectors, and film crews, with whom she was unfailingly kind and generous. Occasionally she left the mountains to sing for audiences distant from home. She performed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife, the North Carolina Folklife Festival at Durham, and the 1982 World’s Fair at Knoxville, Tennessee. A couple of her songs are featured on the album High Atmosphere, an important anthology of Appalachian music produced by John Cohen. Dellie Norton received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1990.