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Two women standing outdoors with trees behind them
Sidney Robertson Cowell (L) and Maud Karpeles,, setting out to collect folksongs in 1950

Song Hunting in the Appalachians with Karpeles and Cowell: In the Footsteps of Cecil Sharp, Part 2

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The following is a guest post from Brian Peters with Catherine Hiebert Kerst. Cathy was a folklorist here at the American Folklife Center, and our resident expert on Sidney Robertson Cowell, until her retirement a few years ago. Brian is a prominent English folk musician and scholar, as well as our visiting expert on Cecil Sharp back in 2015. It is part of a series about the Maud Karpeles and Sidney Robertson Cowell Recording Project collection, AFC 1951/003. Their research is being published as:

Catherine Hiebert Kerst and Brian Peters. “Return to the Appalachian Mountains: Maud Karpeles and Sidney Robertson Cowell’s Song Collecting Expedition, 1950” in Folk Music Journal Volume 12, No. 4 (2024), 6–40.

A few days after recording Florence Puckett and her daughter Rossie Fitzgerald, as we recounted in our previous post, Sidney and Maud tracked down Florence’s brother-in-law Lloyd (Philander Fitzgerald’s son) in Waynesboro. He was prepared to sing to them, but Sidney was disturbed by Maud’s attitude towards him, which she believed reflected a determination that singers should reproduce as closely as possible what they had sung for Cecil Sharp: “MK wanted the songs recalled exactly as before and kept prompting and rehearsing him and he got confused.” Maud was apparently satisfied with the result: her exclamation, “That’s wonderful!” can be heard at the end of Lloyd’s “John of Hazelgreen” (Roud 250; Child 293), which — not surprisingly, given her prompting — resembles closely Sharp’s transcription.

Lloyd sang five further songs, with some attractive tunes and a barely-perceptible “yip” on the final word of some phrases – a vocal effect often seen as the true Appalachian style, although you won’t hear it in the singing of Dol Small, Florence Puckett, or several other singers recorded during the trip.

A man and a woman sit on either side of a door on the front porch of a house. A woman and child stand in the doorway. The seated man and woman are both writing in notebooks.
Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles taking down songs from Lucindy Pratt in Hindman, Kentucky. We believe the photo is by Sharp’s friend W. A. Bradley. Courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
A woman sits at a desk preparing to write with a pen and blank paper
Maud Karpeles in about 1960. Photo courtesy of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Next, a 50-mile drive took the duo to Buena Vista, where Maud remembered meeting a couple of exceptional singers 32 years previously. However, she described it as “a wash out”: Laurel Wheeler was far away in the mountains nursing a sick relative, while Ada Allen — known to Sharp as Ada Maddox — had moved a further 40 miles to Lynchburg, where she was tracked down. Like many other former singers they met, she had sung only religious songs for some years, and had abandoned what she and others called the “love songs” (i.e. the old ballads). So, out came Sharp’s book again and, after a while, Ada “managed gradually to get some together,” performing with a “sweet and musical voice.” Although Maud was slightly disappointed that a singer she had regarded highly had neglected her traditional repertoire, she did include a couple of transcriptions of her performances in the brief report to the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society that represented Maud’s only published account of the trip.

A page of music transcription with lyrics.
Two songs transcribed by Maud Karpeles from Ada Maddox, “Rock a Bye Baby” and “Down in the Meadow.”

In his 1918 diary, Sharp had remarked on the “really beautiful tune” to which Ada had sung Lord Randal (Roud 10; Child 12), and although she managed to commit only two verses of the ballad to Sidney’s tape recorder, they are well worth hearing.

She was able to remember a much fuller version of The House Carpenter (Roud 14; Child 243), which represents an excellent example of the “standard” melody so often married in Appalachia to this ballad.

There was one more surprise from Mrs. Allen, as she performed a song accompanying herself on banjo. We haven’t identified it as yet – the title is “You’re Going to Miss Me When I’ve Gone,” but it’s not the Carter Family song of similar title and the modal tune resembles that of “Mole in the Ground.”

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman (Sidney Robertson Cowell).
Sidney Robertson Cowell ca 1926. LC Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection, Music Division. [More Information]
It’s clear that Maud was conflicted by her experiences of collecting in her old haunts. She had begun in a state of high excitement to be back, but felt increasingly disillusioned as singer after singer was found to have died or given up on the old ballads. “There were many disappointments,” she wrote, “and one has to realise that the tradition is fast disappearing.” Despite having recorded interesting material from Dol Small and Florence Puckett, Maud complained at the end of the first week that “we haven’t yet got an outstanding singer.”

Sidney, however, was more positive, remarking that she had liked Florence’s singing much more than Maud; she also made detailed notes in her diary of directions to singers’ homes, in the hope that she might one day revisit them. Maud, she felt, was always in too much of a hurry to move on, and was not realizing the full potential of the people they were meeting. Lloyd Fitzgerald, for instance, while ill-at-ease during recording thanks to Maud’s harrying, “should be a fine natural singer under better circumstances.” Sidney also took some trouble to describe the lifestyles of the people they met, regardless of their musical contributions, describing one woman living in a particularly primitive place, “with wash basin hanging on a nail next the door, laundry draped on the railings, unattractive scrawny animals, dogs and cats everywhere.” Most homes, she reported, were still using long drop outhouses, “two or three holers,” though one did at least boast the “elegant touch” of a roll of pink toilet paper on a string. She also described an elderly woman who kept a roadside produce stand near Crozet, complaining of the extreme austerity prescribed by her husband’s church, the United Brethren: “You couldn’t even wear a ten-cent store pin at your neck without it being sinful… why, Christ himself had his golden crowns, after all!”

Left: Photo of an unknown house. Right: Photo of a woman sitting on a house's front porch.
Photos of an unknown house and an unknown singer from the Maud Karpeles and Sidney Robertson Cowell Recording Project collection, AFC 1951/003.

It’s apparent from their diaries and letters that the two women possessed fundamentally different ideas about folk song. Throughout the trip Maud defined in uncompromising terms the kind of material that was admissible, whereas Sidney – who had been told by her mentor Charles Seeger to “collect everything” – was more flexible. Maud was in fact deeply suspicious of the direction of U.S. folk song scholarship: writing in a letter to a friend in England about a folklore conference she had attended in Indiana immediately before the Appalachian trip, she had written: “I find there is extraordinarily little conception of what folk music is. Absolutely no distinction is made between folk and popular, e.g. the awful hill-billy stuff.” Her policy was actually stricter than that of Cecil Sharp himself, who had admitted many American-made songs into his collection, including “Hicks’ Farewell” and “Bright Sunny South” from Dol Small.

A group of 42 people standing on the stairs outside a building.
Maud and Sidney at the 1950 conference of the International Folk Music Council, immediately before their trip to collect folksongs together. Front row, left to right: Otto Andersson, Mrs. Lumpkin, Ben Gray Lumpkin, Sigurd Erixon, Jasim Uddin, George Herzog, Maud Karpeles, Marius Barbeau, Walter Anderson, Stith Thompson. Second row: Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Sirvart Poladian, Laurits Bødker, Albert Lord, Samuel Bayard, Mrs. Saygun, Herbert Halpert, Elizabeth Burchenal, Ake Campbell. Third row: Jonas Balys, [space] Duncan Emrich, May Gadd, [space] Ayala Kaufman, [space] Howard Darington. Fourth row: John Mickey. Barbara Lattimer, Harry Payne Reeves (Daca), Leonard Austin, Sidney Robertson Cowell, [space] George Pullen Jackson, Evelyn Wells, Mrs. La Farge [space]. Back row: Reidar Christiansen, E. Eddy Nadel, Victor Dolan, Sam Eskin, Ahmed Adnan Saygun, Bertrand Bronson, Olcutt Sanders, Joseph Raben, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Charles Seeger. Many attendees are missing from the photo, including Alan Lomax, Richard Waterman, Ivan Walton, and Sarah Gertrude Knott. The photo is in AFC’s Harry Payne Reeves subject file.
There was also a difference of opinion about what Maud dismissed as the “psycho-analytical” approach to song collecting, a more ethnographic method favored in the US, by which fieldworkers were encouraged to enquire of singers what the songs meant to them. Maud dismissed this as “morbid,” but she was swimming against the tide of history as this practice soon spread to the UK.

It’s clear that the modus operandi of following up contacts made by Cecil Sharp was useful in some respects, but limiting in others. It undoubtedly gave the collectors a head start, but it compromised their attitude to the singers’ repertories and performances. Sidney believed that, for her companion, the prime purpose of the trip was to provide auditory confirmation of Sharp’s notations for use in lectures, and commented wryly in a letter to her fellow song collector Vance Randolph that “the ghost of Sharp travels with us.” Fortunately, Maud was eventually persuaded to look beyond “Sharp’s singers,” with fascinating results that we will explore in the next installment.

Comments (5)

  1. It’s great to hear these singers. Thanks for keeping their voices alive. Dorothy

  2. Very interesting. I loved listening to Appalachian folk music at a Bluegrass festival in Virginia long time ago. Looking forward to the next part

  3. Thank you for this fascinating glimpse at the dynamics and motives that play a role in building collections like the one assembled by Karpeles and Cowell. Fun to ponder as we listen to the singing! And it is hard not to look around for Steve Winick’s foliate man (see adjacent Folklife blog) in Lloyd Fitzgerald’s Tree in the Wood.

  4. I enjoyed listening to the songs and reading the notes, I’m grateful the collection is available. Keep up the good work.

  5. Thanks for the appreciative comments, it’s great to know that our work is appreciated, and that people are enjoying the recordings that we were so keen to make available. As a singer myself, I’m very interested in Ada Allen’s ‘Lord Randal’ tune.

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