Ballads
Four people seated in front of a fireplace in a log cabin.

From L to R: Marilyn McMinn-McCredie, Bill Morris, Sheila Kay Adams, and Lena Jean Ray. (Image courtesy of Donna Ray Norton.)

In loving memory of Lena Jean Ray (1945-2021)

Lena Jean Ray, pictured here (on far right) at her first Lunsford Festival ballad swap, graced the festival with her sweet voice for many, many years, and she will be dearly missed. This year’s ballads are dedicated to her.

Each year, the Lunsford Festival features a ballad swap where bearers of the ballad tradition – some of them sixth, seventh, and eighth-generation singers – share traditional ballads. Bascom Lamar Lunsford was an avid collector of ballads and many of his ballad transcriptions can be found in MHU’s Southern Appalachian Archives.

A ballad is a story or narrative poem sung to a melody and is a type of folk song passed down through oral tradition. While ballads have been sung throughout Southern Appalachia, Madison County in particular is known for its rich treasure trove of ballads and ballad singers. When English folk song collector Cecil Sharp visited Madison County in 1916, he said he had found a “nest of singing birds.”

While some of the ballads sung in Southern Appalachia are homegrown, some have their origins in England and Scotland and date back to the Middle Ages. These ballads, called by one scholar “a whisper from the Middle Ages” (Bertrand Harris Bronson), came over the ocean to the mountains with European settlers; they often feature tales of queens and knights, ladies-in-waiting, ghosts, love gone wrong, and, occasionally, love gone right.

Recent past performers at the Lunsford Festival ballad swap include Sheila Kay Adams (National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, 2013); Bobby McMillon (North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, 2000); Joe Penland (Lunsford Award, 2005); and Betty Smith (North Carolina Society of Historians’ Paul Green Multimedia Award, 1999). The 2020 ballad swap can be enjoyed here.

To read more about ballads, visit the Blue Ridge Music Trails Down the Road Podcast.

Donna Ray Norton sharing a ballad

Dee Dee Buckner shares a ballad as her sister Denise Norton O’Sullivan looks on

NEA National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams (MHU ’75) performs a ballad at the Lunsford Festival Ballad  Swap

Transcription of the ballad “Barbara Allen,” Southern Appalachian Archives, Liston B. Ramsey Center for Appalachian Studies, Mars Hill University