Doug Wallin “Pretty Fair Miss in a Garden”

Doug Wallin, of Madison County in western North Carolina, was perhaps the most expressive singer I have encountered and possessed a personality unlike anyone I have ever met. Doug was the son who stayed on at the home place and took care of his parents in their old age. He never learned to drive and although family members called or dropped in on a regular basis, Doug seemed to spend much of his time alone at home tending to his burley tobacco crop, cutting firewood, or keeping the family cemetery cleaned up. His brother, Jack, recognized that Doug was the sibling who had most deeply absorbed the self-reliant, fiercely independent lifestyle of previous generations and lovingly referred to Doug as “the old mountaineer.”

Doug played the fiddle and sang almost every day and used music as a way to stay connected to family members past and present. I was quite impressed when he told me that he arose between 4:00 and 5:00 am. and went to bed not long after the sun went down. If he did not fall asleep after retiring, Doug said he would often lie in bed singing the old love songs.


Though Doug never married, he often spoke of love and had strong emotions around the meaning of “true love” and “false true love.”  For Doug, the song “Pretty Fair Miss in a Garden” expressed the ideal of true love. It irritated him that ballad collector Cecil Sharp, who visited Doug’s family during the time of the first World War, referred to the song as “The Broken Token.” Doug insisted that Sharp’s name for the ballad gave the wrong impression that the lovers had not stayed true to one another.

In Doug’s performances of this song, he always sang the last verse with a special intensity of feeling. He considered this verse to be the rightful culmination of this story of faithful lovers and explained “I can see that just as plain–he reached up and put that arm around her. I believe she knew that was him. She was, I think, trying him out, like he was her.”

Interestingly, though he had heard the song growing up (his great-aunt, Mary Sands, had sung a similar version for Sharp), Doug had not learned the last verse from local singers. In fact, he added it to his version after hearing it sung on a Chicago radio station in the 1930s or early 40s by a performer known as “Grandpappy Nerit.” Through Steve Green and John Harrod, I learned that Grandpappy Nerit was actually Ballard Taylor and that his radio persona belied the fact that he was a young man while performing in Chicago. I was even more surprised to hear that Taylor was alive and retired in Kentucky. I immediately called him and learned that he was born and raised in Ashe County, North Carolina and as a young man toured as a banjo player with legendary fiddler and singer G.B. Grayson. Although he did not recall how he had learned “Pretty Miss in a Garden,” Taylor was pleased that his performance of the ballad was still remembered.

This recording was made at Doug’s house in the community of Sodom in 1992 and was a project undertaken by George Holt, myself and Beverly Patterson, with the assistance of documentary photographer Rob Amberg. See the Smithsonian Folkways recording “Doug and Jack Wallin”  for this and more recordings that are an outcome of this effort.

Happy Valley Pals


Happy Valley Pals at Merritt Store and Grill

Happy Valley is part of the Upper Yadkin River watershed in Caldwell and Wilkes counties in North Carolina. Margaret and I have spent many joyful days taking in the beauty of the landscapes there and getting to know the residents, many of whom have deep cultural ties to the land and have retained as strong sense of self-sufficiency. Back home in Raleigh, we often think about Happy Valley and it has become a metaphor for a lifestyle that is focused on attention to life’s necessities and more connected to the natural world.

Margaret and I are  pleased to share the Happy Valley “state of mind” with Dwight Rogers and Gail Gillespie–wonderful musicians who for decades have encouraged and connected those of us who love old-time music. When we get together, the Pals mainly play tunes and songs that come from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, states where we have lived or have family roots. The pieces presented here are “Shear ‘Em” and “Ramshackle Shack.” Fiddlers Herman Padgett and Jess Albertson from eastern North Carolina inspired me to learn “Shear ‘Em.” In their home communities this piece was the quintessential square dance tune. Margaret’s timing on her J-45, Gail’s great finger-picking and Dwight’s bowed bass constitute a fiddler’s dream rhythm section!

Shear ‘Em

“Ramshackle Shack” is from Wade Mainer, who first recorded it in 1937.  Our version is inspired by the music Wade made later in his life when his accompanists were often musicians whose playing styles were hard to differentiate as either old-time or early days of bluegrass. In fact, they were neither and both! I love Gail’s and Margaret’s singing on this performance.

Ramshackle Shack

Smith McInnis’ Leather Britches

In 1985 the Cane Creek Cloggers asked me to fiddle for their performance at the Turkey Festival in the small town of Raeford in Hoke County. A sizable crowd had gathered to see the dancers perform on the outdoor stage erected for the event. As I played music for the routines, I noticed that an older, slightly built gentleman wearing a hat was watching me closely. I sensed at once that he was a musician, likely a fiddler, and when the performance ended I hurried offstage and steered through the crowd in his direction. He introduced himself as Smith McInnis and replied in the affirmative when I asked if he played the fiddle. When I handed him my instrument, he played a few notes of “Mississippi Sawyer” and I could tell immediately that he was an interesting musician. He invited me to visit him in his home, and I returned to Raeford in a few weeks. A friendship quickly developed, and I came to enjoy his wit and sense of fun as much as his fiddling.

Smith McInnis fiddled breakdowns and hornpipes at a quick pace that, nonetheless, featured fully developed melody lines. These qualities made his fiddling both exciting to hear and well suited for dancing. Smith was particularly adept at executing circular bowing and would combine bow pushes and pulls to bring interesting rhythmic embellishments to a tune, all the while maintaining a driving pulse. His rendition of Leather Britches shows all of these traits.

This video was made on January 10, 1987, as part of my documentation of North Carolina fiddlers. Videographer Nancy Kalow assisted with this project.

Peace Behind the Bridge

Etta Baker

Etta Baker (center), David Holt (left), Wayne Martin (right). Photo by Tim Duffy.

After collaborating with NC Arts Council colleague Lesley Willliams to produce the CD Etta Baker: One Dime Blues, I continued to visit Etta Baker at her home in Morganton to play and record her music.  The CD recording focused upon her guitar repertoire, but Etta had also played fiddle and banjo as a girl.  During my visits, she would often ask me to play the fiddle and she would pick up the banjo.  Margaret would add guitar when she was present, completing the string band.  This configuration stirred memories for Etta’s daughter, Dorothy, of times when she was young, listening to her grandfather, Boone Reid, play banjo with Etta on fiddle and Etta’s sister, Cora, on guitar.  As Etta approached 90 years old, when playing guitar required more strength than she could easily muster, she seemed to gravitate to the banjo.

One unusual tune that we love, “Peace Behind the Bridge,” came back to Etta after she’d been playing banjo for a while.  She recalled hearing it played by the Crisp family, her neighbors in the John’s River community of Caldwell County, who hosted music gatherings when she was growing up.  I created the fiddle part and tried to integrate the slides that I heard Etta play on the banjo.  The piece has a distinctive rhythm, and Etta liked to recall her father dancing to it.  He was known as a fine dancer, whose steps, such as “sifting sand,” followed the bended notes in the tune.

Thanks to Tim Duffy, the founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation for permission to use this recording of Etta on banjo and Wayne on fiddle. Tim released this performance on Etta Baker: Banjo in 2003.


Lauchlin Shaw and A.C. Overton

Mississippi Sawyer, Lauchlin Shaw, A.C. Overton, Wayne Martin, 1990.

A good friend of old-time music and a student of life throughout his own life, Tom Hargrove took this video of Lauchlin Shaw, A.C. Overton and Wayne at the 1990 Raleigh Fiddlers’ Convention. This sterling rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer” features Lauchlin Shaw’s propulsive fiddling and A.C. Overton’s powerful two-fingered banjo picking.

Sponsored by PineCone, the convention itself was the result of Tom’s research on the original Raleigh convention, held at Pullen Park from 1904 to 1914. One of the bright features of the event were concerts by older fiddlers and banjo players from the Piedmont of NC who had learned their music in the early decades of the twentieth century but who were still quite active.