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Homegrown Plus: Sheila Kay Adams

A woman plays a banjo and speaks into a microphone.

Sheila Kay Adams plays the banjo in the Library of Congress’s Whittall Pavilion as part of the Homegrown Concert Series on April 19, 2017. Photo by Stephen Winick.

In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series in Women’s History Month with Sheila Kay Adams, a singer, banjo player, and storyteller from North Carolina. Like Flory Jagoda, whom we featured last time, Sheila Kay Adams is a living example of traditions passed from grandmother to granddaughter, although in her case it was an adopted “Granny,” Dellie Chandler Norton, who was biologically Sheila’s great-aunt. Like Flory, Sheila is an extraordinary tradition bearer and performer who has received numerous awards, including the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She appeared at the Library of Congress on April 19, 2017.

Sheila Kay Adams is a seventh-generation ballad singer, storyteller, and musician. She was born and raised in the Sodom Laurel community of Madison County, North Carolina, an area renowned for its unbroken tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing that dates back to the early Scots/Irish and English settlers in the mid-17th century. Adams learned to sing from her great-aunt Dellie Chandler (“Granny”) Norton and other notable singers in the community, such as Inez Chandler, Dillard Chandler, and the Wallin family (including Berzilla Wallin and NEA National Heritage Fellow Doug Wallin). In addition to ballad singing, Adams is an accomplished clawhammer-style banjo player and storyteller. Adams began performing in public in her teens, and throughout her career she has performed at festivals, events, music camps, and workshops, around the country and the United Kingdom. These have included the acclaimed International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and the 1976 and 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festivals.

A woman plays a banjo and speaks into a microphone.

Clawhammer-style banjo player and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams performs during a Homegrown Concert Series presentation, April 19, 2017. The unusual banjo has a wooden head with f-holes rather than the typical skin head. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Adams is the author of two books: Come Go Home With Me, a collection of stories, which won the North Carolina Historical Society’s award for historical fiction in 1997, and My Old True Love, a novel published in 2004. She has recorded several albums of ballads, songs, and stories, including a CD to accompany Rob Amberg’s photo essay Sodom Laurel Album, which was the subject of a book talk sponsored by AFC back in 2003–a video is at this link. Adams also appeared in the films Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Songcatcher (2000), a movie for which she also served as technical advisor and singing coach.

Adams’ devotion to preserving and perpetuating her heritage earned her the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award in recognition of her valuable contributions to the study of North Carolina folklore. She is also a recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award. In 2013, she was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the first player, watch Sheila’s concert, which includes songs, banjo tunes, and stories.  Then scroll down for the oral history!

In the oral history, I spoke with Sheila Kay about her family and community, and the traditions of singing and music that they carried. We spent a lot of time talking about the women in her family, especially her great-aunts Dellie Chandler Norton (whom she calls “Granny”) and Berzilla Wallin, who was Granny’s sister, as well as Inez Chandler. You’ll hear about Inez’s penchant for dirty songs, Berzilla’s vivid turns of phrase, and even what happened when Granny tried to take a plane from Raleigh-Durham to Washington, D.C. to sing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s 1976 Bicentennial Celebration with a loaded snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver in her pocket!

You can find both of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the concert here at this link and the oral history at this link.

Read more about Sheila Kay Adams at her website.

The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress.  For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.

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