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Ballad Singing

The rich tradition of ballad singing in the North Carolina mountains attracted numerous folksong collectors in the early twentieth century. When British scholar and folksong collector Cecil Sharp came to the mountains in 1916, he described some communities as places where “singing is as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking.”

Ballads of British Origin

Photo: Ballad singer Donna Ray Norton.

The ballads came over with immigrants from the British Isles and changed relatively little over the course of centuries.Singers continued to sing of distant times, people, and places.


Other folksong collectors included Olive Dame Campbell, who trail blazed for Sharp and novelist and folklorist Dorothy Scarborough, who authored the collection A Song Catcher in the Southern Mountains. The work of these two female folksong collectors inspired the 2002 feature film Songcatcher, filmed on location in the North Carolina mountains.

Ballads Today

Today, a dedicated few continue to sing traditional ballads as they have been handed down in the family for generations, while newcomers have learned the tradition by studying with these singers and listening closely to recordings. Madison County—where Sharp collected ballads from 39 singers in 1916—is still home to a number of fine traditional ballad singers, who can be heard at local music festivals in the summer and fall.