My introduction to Appalachian culture, which figures so strongly in The Hum and the Shiver, really took place in the late 1990s. Prior to that, I’d looked on the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee with some of the same distant awe as anyone else. Tennessee is a long, narrow state, and I grew up on the whole other end from the mountains. But in 1998, I first attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. And it was there that I first encountered the work of Sheila Kay Adams, storyteller and ballad singer.
Sheila Kay has spent her life performing, and preserving, the ballads she learned sitting knee-to-knee with family and friends in and around Sodom, NC. In many ways she’s the last of her kind. And now filmmakers Kim Dryden and Joe Cornelius have begun work on a film, Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County, chronicling both Sheila Kay’s life and the history of ballad singing in general.
Follow this link for a preview of what they have in mind.
Kim Dryden was kind enough to answer some questions about the project.
Me: In this era of instant communication, what for you is the continued value in the ballads and Sheila Kay’s way of teaching them?
Kim: The ballads are important for several reasons. I think they are stories that are universally relatable, and therefore appeal to a very broad audience. What’s more, while they were originally brought here by Scots-Irish immigrants, I feel they’ve truly become an important part of the American musical heritage, much like jazz. Because of that, they ought to be protected fiercely, not just by those like Sheila who grew up with them as part of their birthright, but by the general public, including universities, museums, etc., as well. That’s part of what we’re trying to do, is get down on record, in visual format, what this tradition is all about. Finally, I think the ballads are most important for the way they bring people together. A big part of what our film explores is the idea of balance between the culture that once nurtured the tradition of ballad singing versus the music itself, and asking what is more highly valued in places like Sodom Laurel. It’s so interesting to me that although the old time way of living is dying out, ballads are still hanging on, even thriving in some ways. I think this is in part because of people like our characters – Sheila, Saro, and Damien – who not only sing these old songs, but work to give them context, a new community in which they matter.
The way Sheila teaches these ballads, knee-to-knee, is very important to that idea of community building. Being face to face with someone, spending time with them in their homes and in their lives, gives such a deeper meaning. I think this method is more important now than ever in this day of instant communication. It takes a really dedicated person to seek out someone like Sheila and put in the sustained effort over weeks, if not months or years, to learn from her in a meaningful way.
I first encountered Sheila Kay as a storyteller. How do you explore that role in the film?
I also found Sheila first as a storyteller, through the NC Storyteller’s Guild’s website. Ballad singing is so much a part of storytelling. We’ll explore this idea in our film by using the ballads, with emphasis on the lyrics, as a narrative device to transition and set mood/tone. Sheila is, more than anything, I think, a storyteller, both on stage and off. That’s how she communicates with others, and so naturally it’ll come across on film as well.
Which ballad speaks most directly to you? (My personal favorites are “Shady Grove” and “Omie Wise.”)
My personal favorite is “Pretty Saro.” I absolutely love the lyrics, and was so incredibly moved by seeing Cas Wallin sing it on Youtube. It makes me wish I was alive then to see that. I also really like “Over Home,” although that’s a new one. The lyrics really speak to me, hence the name of our film.
Thanks to Kim for taking the time to talk to me. You can follow the progress of Over Home at the project’s Facebook page.