Dellie NortonView in iTunes
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Dellie Norton sang the old, unaccompanied ballads and love songs passed down from her family and other members of her Blue Ridge Mountain community; in her own 91 years, she helped spread the songs to younger generations and gained national recognition as a ballad singer. Her singing style featured elaborate and spontaneous ornamentation, highlighted by vocal hiccups and elongated notes; her repertoire consisted largely of English and Scottish ballads like "The House Carpenter" and "The Silk Merchant's Daughter." Though she is best remembered for her singing, her long life embraced many aspects of traditional mountain living, making her a favorite among folklorists. Not only a singer, she was a banjo player, a quilter, a weaver, and an herbal healer. Norton was born in North Carolina's Madison County, an area well-known for its vocal and instrumental heritage. Her own extended family included the Wallins (Berzilla, Doug, and Jack), the Chandlers (Lloyd and Dillard), and fiddler Byard Ray, all of whom were acclaimed performers of traditional music. In 1917 and 1919, British folklorist Cecil Sharp combed the region for its retention of ancient ballads and published the results in his English Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians; in an often-quoted passage, he proclaimed singing as universal as speaking in Madison County. A young woman, Dellie Norton offered to sing for Sharp, but he was more interested in the elders of the community. In the years to come, however, Norton would be much visited and respected by scholars (but not, ironically, until she herself was an elder). She was recorded in the 1960s by John Cohen, who included three of her performances on his High Atmosphere anthology; she also appears in Cohen's film The End of an Old Song. In her later years, Norton performed occasionally at festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, TN; in 1990 she was the recipient of a North Carolina Heritage Award. She died on October 3, 1993, within a mile of her birthplace. ~ Burgin Mathews