Jack Spicer wrote that a poet is a “counterpunching radio.” He also could have been talking about Madison County ballad singers. Just as poets are speakers through which the broadcast of language flows, so are ballad singers like Donna Ray Norton, who gives a free performance Saturday at the North Carolina Museum of History. They are transmitters of a musical tradition much bigger than any one voice or personality.
Norton herself puts this better: “My mom says that she’s passed the torch on to me. Whenever my time’s done, I’ll pass the torch on to my daughter or my son.”
Ballads aren’t just old songs; they’re historical documents unto themselves, and of the ilk that’s not set down in textbooks. When Norton fetches the soulful voice from deep in her chest to sing “Young Emily,” the first ballad she ever learned, she doesn’t just tell a tragic story; she becomes a surface upon which an otherwise lost slice of everyday life from early America is reanimated.
“I sing that song so much, sometimes I feel like I am Young Emily,” Norton offers. “I can feel her emotions in that song. I can really feel her hurt.”
In the ballad, Emily loves “a driver boy” named Edmund, who “drove in the main for some gold to gain/way down in the lowlands low.” But Edmund is murdered after a night drinking in Emily’s father’s “public house.” She accuses her father of the deed, and he tells her to keep her voice down. The boy’s gold, after all, is now open to be claimed.
These people, places and situations have been largely forgotten by popular culture. But in Madison County, the handing down of these ballads holds cultural homogeneity at bay.
“I sing it a lot, and people ask me to sing it a lot,” Norton recalls, “and it was really hard for me. I couldn’t get the tune of it the right way. I listened to Sheila [Kay Adams, Norton’s second cousin] over and over and over and could not get it to sound like she did it. And this lady named Mary Eagle, who’s a really good friend of my family, she recorded herself singing it for me, and sat with me and taught me how to move my voice. It worked for me.”
In ballad-singing circles, in which everyone can generally recall who taught them each song they know, pedigree is important. Norton’s family goes back eight generations in Madison County—those would be original settlers.
Although Donna didn’t start singing seriously until after high school, her household was always set on musical simmer. Donna’s mother, singer Lena Jean Ray, and second cousin, singer and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, are still her most present musical influences, passing on the old-time music with subtly new variations.
Both Adams and Ray have enjoyed long recording and performing careers, and were recognized with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award in 1997 and 1999, respectively, a family tradition Donna seems destined for after receiving the Lunsford Youth Award in 2005. As Donna sings, she hears the voices of Adams and Ray in her head, so she just follows along.
Norton’s extended family tree reads like a musical heritage listing for the state. One of her grandfathers was legendary fiddler Byard (pronounced “Bard”) Ray, who started out like most traditional musicians did—sneaking off into the Sodom Laurel hills as a kid with his parents’ instruments until he could get a good noise out of them. He found his way into a pretty conventional musical career during the folk revival in the 1950s. Ray cut records with his cousin Obray Ramsey (a banjo legend in his own right) and the Laurel Mountain Boys, took mountain music on a European tour and even played for television commercials before settling in to teach at Warren Wilson and Berea colleges.
Donna was so young when Byard passed away that she doesn’t remember it, but she’s gotten to know him over the years. Byard died on Donna’s birthday, which she shares with her mother. She didn’t know him well enough to know the famous "nod" he gave. But her mother remembers it as a reassurance, a quiet approval of what he was hearing.
“A lot of times I feel like he’s with me,” she says.” You know, I dream about him a lot. He’s at my shows, just kind of standing off to the side. He’ll give me ‘the nod,’ the go-ahead. ‘It’s okay. You got this.’”
It’s the kind of haunting that ballad singers are used to.
Singing this style of a cappella requires an unornamented evenness, but Ray allows an airiness into her voice like that of more widely popular folk singers of the 1960s. It takes some of the burn out of the moonshine. While Norton sings “Young Emily” straight as a rail, she doesn’t treat every song with such matter-of-factness. She positively belts out “Single Girl,” a woman’s lament about easier and more fun times before the drudgery of marriage. The delivery adds an irreverence that’s equal parts sass and exasperation. In Norton’s voice, the song sounds like it could have been written last year as easily as last century.
“I learned ‘Single Girl’ from Mary Jane Queen,” Norton says. “She was a really well known singer from Jackson County. I’m a funny girl. I love comedy, and a lot of times, the funnier ballads are so me. ‘Single Girl’ just sounds like something my grandmother, or the ladies from Sodom, would say. If you could just hear the women talk over there, it’s just right on.”
These songs need no accompaniment because voices from generations past sing in the mind of the lone singer onstage. The music is a living history that flares into the present when performers like Donna Ray Norton open their mouths. That’s when those voices come out.
Donna Ray Norton performs at the Music of the Carolinas series at the North Carolina Museum of History Sunday, April 14 at 3 p.m. The show is free.