New Show "From The Mountains to the Sea" Highlights Early Folk-Song Recordings of North Carolina Musicians

October 21, 2019

Eight decades ago, Frank and Anne Warner traveled from their home in Greenwich Village, N.Y. to Beech Mountain, N.C. in search of a dulcimer.

The year was 1938, and a friend of theirs had returned from a recent trip south with a beautiful dulcimer made in the mountains of North Carolina. Frank Warner simply had to have one for himself.

On their first day in Beech Mountain, they met a carpenter named Frank Proffitt who sang them a song about a local Confederate soldier who was hanged for murdering a woman after returning home from the Civil War. The victim was a woman named Laura Foster, and the soldier was a man named Tom Dooley.

“Our father said, ‘What a story,’ and took that back to his friend in New York City as best he could remember it,” says the couple’s son Jeff Warner.

That friend happened to be the eminent American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who as Jeff Warner says also thought, “In fact, what a story.”

Nine years later “Tom Dooley” was included in Lomax’s book Folksong USA (1947). In 1958 The Kingston Trio released a recording of “Tom Dooley” that reached #1 on the Billboard and sparked the folk-revival movement of the 1960s.

The Warners had no way of knowing that trip to Beech Mountain would change American music forever, but they did believe their quest to collect folksongs from rural America was valid and worthwhile. And collect they did.

Between 1938-1966 Frank and Anne Warner documented nearly one thousand songs along the eastern seaboard. Using their free time and spare cash, the Warners created what the Library of Congress (which now houses their collections) describes as “One of the great treasures in the American Folklife Center archives.”

Though their musical quests took them all over the country, the Warners returned to North Carolina time and time again. From the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the salty coast of the Outer Banks, traditional musicians from North Carolina captivated their hearts and ears.

“They realized very early on that the songs were inseparable from the people who sang them and the land that created it,” says Jeff Warner.

Music was a family affair in the Warner household, and Jeff and his brother Gerret grew up joining their parents on their song-collecting trips.

“I think it’s just remarkable that the two of them had such complementary skills,” says Gerret Warner, “My father was a great performer. He was a good photographer – all self-taught. But our mother was an archivist with a great passion and sort of al literary flair. She took down everything – unimaginable detail in shorthand because she was a professional secretary.”

Years ago Jeff, a fulltime musician, and Gerret, a documentarian, created a touring show called From the Mountains to the Sea that highlights the recordings, photographs, and stories from their parent’s adventures across rural America.

In celebration of the 2019 Year of Music designation, the North Carolina Arts Council commissioned the brothers to adapt the show to focus solely on the North Carolina recordings.

Jeff and Gerret Warner discuss the story behind their touring show "From The Mountains to the Sea"

From the very beginning, Come Hear North Carolina has sought stories that reveal how landscape, community, and context shape the music made by North Carolinians. The field recordings and photographs from the Warner collection capture a tremendous period of traditional music and life from rural North Carolina.

“Frank and Anne Warner created a great treasure of folksong by visiting singers and musicians in the mountains, piedmont and coastal regions of our state And now their sons, Gerret and Jeff, are bringing that legacy to life through a concert that integrates photography, field recordings and live performance,” said N.C. Arts Council Director Wayne Martin. “North Carolinians interested in understanding the foundation of our rich musical heritage should attend From the Mountains to the Sea.”

The Outer Banks Conservationists will host the premiere of the North Carolina show on Saturday, Nov. 2  from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Wanchese Community Building, 295 Old School House Road, Wanchese, N.C.

In 1940 and 1941, the Warners recorded more than 15 musicians along the Outer Banks. A private performance Friday night will be held for descendants of those same musicians. Plans to tour the show through North Carolina communities the Warner’s are in the works.

Learn more about From Mountains to Sea at www.mountains2thesea.com.

Passing It On: Traditional Arts Programs for Students

March 1, 2019

Traditional Arts Programs for Students (TAPS) is a statewide network of afterschool programs created by the North Carolina Arts Council in response to community requests for traditional arts education that is taught locally, knee-to-knee and across generations. TAPS programs across the state represent the diversity of North Carolina’s cultural life and heritage. Each program is uniquely shaped by its community, but all share three core values:

•    Programs are affordable, and often free.
•    Students learn the traditional arts of their own region, from teachers within their community.
•    Music is taught by ear, and crafts are taught by hand.

The traditional artists leading each TAPS program teach more than the arts; they imbue their instruction with the cultural attitudes and values that have upheld and enlivened generations of families and neighbors in their regions. TAPS instructors share affection and respect for the traditions that have shaped their lives, and that now shape the lives of the next generation.

Over the Mountains

The mountains of Western North Carolina are the birthplace of TAPS, where the cultures of indigenous Cherokee, enslaved and free African Americans, and European settlers laid the fertile ground of Appalachian music and dance.

Many TAPS programs in mountain counties are part of Junior Appalachian Musicians Inc. (JAM), founded in 2000 by an Alleghany County guidance counselor at Sparta School named Helen White. JAM laid the groundwork for the TAPS model, and today JAM programs can be found teaching traditional Appalachian music and dance across the mountain south. 

TAPS students in JAM classes across the mountains have gone on to start their own string bands, perform professionally across the state, and even return to teach the classes they once took.

Across the Piedmont

The NC Arts Council’s Folklife Program expanded the JAM model to include other forms of traditional arts across the entire state, creating TAPS to help preserve and perpetuate all of North Carolina’s traditional arts and music.

The clay-rich hills around Seagrove, North Carolina are home to the nation’s longest continual pottery tradition. The TAPS program at the North Carolina Pottery Center teaches the generations-old practice of hand-turned pottery that has defined the area since the 1700s. Students learn at the wheel of artists like Sid Luck, a NC Heritage Award recipient, whose family has thrown pots in Seagrove for six generations and counting.

At Raleigh’s Triangle Korean School (pictured above), TAPS students celebrate the culture of one of the fastest-growing communities of new North Carolinians through traditional Korean drumming, cultural etiquette, and K-Pop, a cornerstone of Korean culture’s international identity.

Into the Coastal Plain

Where the Piedmont meets the Coastal Plain in Halifax and Warren Counties, the TAPS program of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian tribe teaches tribal arts to the next generation. As students, and even their parents, learn to wrap drum sticks, build pottery, and create powwow regalia, they express pride in themselves and their people.

In the urban hubs of Eastern North Carolina, where a legacy of African American jazz, funk, R&B and gospel holds strong, TAPS programs in Greenville and Kinston are dedicated to their region’s African American musical heritage. A long line of devoted high school music teachers and educators have traditionally passed this music from one generation to the next. In Kinston and Greenville, TAPS keeps this tradition of mentorship alive.

Explore More

TAPS allows the power of the traditional arts to bring creativity, meaning, and structure to the lives of young people, and to help them understand the grassroots brilliance of the places they call home. Today, the North Carolina Arts Council funds 22 TAPS programs based in 21 counties. To learn more about TAPS, visit https://www.ncarts.org/education/traditional-arts-programs-students.

Echoes of the British Isles: The Music of Lauchlin Shaw and A.C. Overton

February 16, 2019


Lauchlin Shaw was a Harnett County-based fiddler whose family was a part of the 18th and 19th century wave of Scottish immigration to North Carolina.

“His great-grandfather had come from the Isle of Jura off Scotland’s coast up through the Cape Fear River Valley,” says Wayne Martin. “That’s a really important story for North Carolina that we don’t hear about so much now.”

Shaw’s grandfather and father spoke Gaelic and he went to church services in Harnett County that were given in Gaelic. The many fiddle tunes he performed were passed down through generations of fiddle players in his family.

In our final installment of Director’s Cut, Wayne Martin shares a field recording of “Sally With The Run Down Shoes,” a traditional dance tune performed by Lauchlin Shaw and Chatham County banjoist A.C. Overton.

Director's Cut is a special music themed season of Arts Across NC, curated in celebration of Come Hear North Carolina, a campaign for the 2019 North Carolina Year of Music. In each episode NC Arts Council Director Wayne Martin will unearth a field recording from the archive he built during his 30+ year tenure with our agency. Each song represents a different region of North Carolina.

"These pieces that I've chosen are part of the fabric of who we are as a people," says Wayne. "They are pieces that tell the story of North Carolina.

Arts Across NC is a podcast by and about the North Carolina Arts Council.


Meet Mary D. Williams

January 18, 2019

When Mary Dobbin Williams sings, people listen.

The gospel singer, historian, and educator has a voice and a presence that demand attention. Williams captured the hearts and minds of people across our state and region who’ve witnessed her chronicle the history of the Civil Rights movement through song.

Born and raised in Garner, N.C., Williams grew up spending summer with her grandparents in Smithfield, N.C. Music was an integral part of her daily life – her father was a quartet singer and her grandmother was always singing.

“When her heart was heavy there were times when she would just be moaning,” says Williams. “Those songs gave her the tenacity when she was called names, when she was treated disrespectfully. It was like she was really telling me don’t allow what people say to you to be a blocking of you going further but use it as a stepping stone.”

In a typical performance, Williams weaves together African American spirituals from the Civil War era with more modern anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, connecting generations of music and social change.

Meet gospel singer, historian, and educator Mary D. Williams in this video produced by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“The African American slaves talked about the power of the music. It was a way of communicating something over and above what the overseer could understand. The slave community understood exactly what every song meant. It was a way of escape,” says Williams. “The thing about the songs of the enslaved is that they always looked upward. I’m not in slavery, but there are still issues and concerns of our day and trials and tribulations…and the power of a song is a way that you can deliver your own soul.”

Williams first experimented with combining music and history in a concert inspired by writer and scholar Tim Tyson’s book Blood Done Sign My Name. Tyson witnessed the performance and was moved to tears. The two ultimately began teaching a class together at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University called “The South in Black and White.” At the beginning of every class, Williams opens the session with music.

“I think people are fascinated not just with the history but [by] the fact that when I present they get to join in. There’s an experience we are all having together,” says Williams. “We develop a community.”

When asked what makes North Carolina music special, Williams says, “North Carolina just has such a presence. We have a lot of history. It is complicated, but in that complication, songs have come up out of it. It came up out of the burden. It comes up out of sorrow, joy, and happiness. It comes up out of family, and I think that’s what makes people feel it. You’re not just singing something as an empty shell. You literally have lived it, and then you’re able to share it. That, again, makes a community.”    

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