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  • Southern Folk Singers
  • Charles Joyner (bio)

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Guy Carawan (here, in 2007), came to Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School in the 1950s and soon became its music director. He helped spread two freedom songs from the South Carolina Sea Islands—“We Shall Overcome” and “Eyes on the Prize”—to Civil Rights workers across the South. Photography by Heather Carawan, courtesy of a Creative Commons License 2.5.

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Folk singers is an ambiguous term. To folklorists it means those whose repertoires have been passed down orally from generation to generation within the family and community. To others it often means professional singers, regardless of background, who learned most of their songs from recordings and offered them to the general public as folk songs. I shall call the former traditional singers and the latter singers of folk songs.

Traditional Singers

The Wallin Family of Madison County, North Carolina, is tenth. British folklorists Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles recorded members of the family in 1916, and John Cohen (filmmaker and member of the New Lost City Ramblers) recorded and filmed the family extensively in the 1960s. They sang, in the traditional unaccompanied style, the old English and Scottish ballads of love, betrayal, and revenge. Perhaps the most memorable of their songs is Berzilla Wallin’s heart-stopping “Conversation with Death.”

Horton Barker, the blind ballad singer from Chilhowie, Virginia, is ninth. The clarity of his unaccompanied tenor, his sly wit, and his extraordinary repertoire of songs, hymns, and such rare ballads as “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender,” “Bow and Balance,” and “The Turkish Rebilee” were unforgettable to those who heard him from Virginia’s White Top Folk Festival in the thirties to the Chicago Folk Festival in the sixties.

Eighth is Vera Hall of Livingston, Alabama. Her rich contralto, recorded for the Library of Congress by John Lomax and Ruby Pickens Tartt, was nationally recognized from the late 1930s to the 1960s for such songs as “Trouble So Hard,” and “Boll Weevil Holler.”

Emma Dusenberry of Mena, Arkansas, is seventh. Born in 1862, and blind since her early twenties, she is the earliest singer on this list. According to John Lomax, who recorded her for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, her repertoire of traditional ballads was the largest ever recorded from a single person.

Janey Hunter and the Moving Star Hall Singers of Johns Island, South Carolina, are tied with Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers of St. Simons Island, Georgia, for fifth and sixth. Their virtuoso voices, accompanied only by hand-clapping and foot-stomping, evoke an incredibly spiritual response as close to its African roots as any in America.

Jean Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky, is number four. From the 1940s to the present she has sung the songs, ballads, and hymns from her family’s repertoire in her authentically Appalachian voice, sometimes a capella, sometimes accompanying herself on the Appalachian dulcimer.

Almeda Riddle of Heber Springs, Arkansas, is third. She learned ballads and [End Page 74] other traditional songs from her parents and her mother’s brother growing up in the Ozarks. Known by her friends and fans as “Granny Riddle,” she preferred to sing rare old ballads in the traditional a capella style, always keeping the haunting ambience of her voice behind the song, but embellishing it with unique vocal decorations punctuated by leaps into the falsetto at the end of lines.

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South Carolinian Josh White (here, in 1945) became a protégé of Eleanor Roosevelt and a frequent guest in the White House. His “One Meatball” was the first million-selling record by an African American male singer. Photograph courtesy of The Estate of Josh White (Sr.) and the Josh White Archives.

Tying for first place are North Carolina’s Frank Proffitt and Louisiana’s Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Ledbetter is remembered as much for his powerful accompaniment on the twelve-string guitar as for his high sweet voice and unabridged repertoire of work songs, love songs, ballads, and blues, such as “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” “Take this Hammer,” and “Goodnight Irene.” Frank Proffitt learned most of his...


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