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.
Wayne, this is beautifully written piece that does a wonderful job of describing Mr. Wallin and his world while providing a vivid context for his music. What an interesting and sensitive man.
Thank you, Wayne.
Thank you for the beautiful experience of looking at and listening to your website. The guitar pictured sure looks like one of mine, a 1895-ish Ricca parlour guitar which had been my grandmother’s. I am a friend of your cousin, Sarah Sneed. I’m so happy to have your website to use as an avenue for exploration, renewal and “updating” of my love of old time music. Nancy
I am so pleased that you are finding this web site to be a resource. Receiving your encouragement will keep us going!
My favorite from that album. Thanks for posting, and the story about the last verse and Ballard Taylor is so touching. I’m going to play this for my 4th graders who study NC music. Amy
I am so glad that you will share with your students! I really love the song and Doug’s fiddle introduction.