This story is part of a new series from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, “Hello NC,” spotlighting the residents and customs and culture of rural communities in North Carolina, “jewels in the crown” of the state that may be unfamiliar to residents and visitors. The department hopes that this series will draw other North Carolinians to the places and people who will enrich their lives and enlighten them about their state.
Yes, Joe Penland is happy. His joy comes, as all joy must, from within. But Penland believes his life’s mission now, at 71 years of age, is to share his unbridled happiness with others, through the music of his mountains, the mountains around North Carolina’s Madison County. He performed first in public after he and other “ballad singers” from the mountains who gathered in a place called Sodom or Sodom Laurel were discovered by researchers who collected folk songs and later founded festivals that featured the singers from the mountains.
Penland and the other ballad singers are members of a tradition dubbed “A Nest of Singing Birds” by folklorist Cecil Sharp, who came to Madison County from England in 1916 to collect old songs and meet those who sang them. He used the term from the English traditions, and it stuck. Some of today’s “singing birds” knew people, or were related to people, who had contact with Sharp through their own families, and today, when they perform together on stage, they’ll include a story or two about the colorful man who put those songs together.
The singers, including Penland, see themselves as historians as well as performers. They’re telling stories. And their stories can’t be told quickly and simply.
“A few (younger people) are coming along now,” Penland says. “But it’s not easy to sing these songs. These songs are long. These songs are complicated. It takes a lot of concentration to get through them. A lot of them have 20 verses. Sometimes as many as 48 verses. And when we have a ballad swap (trading songs in a circle gathering) you usually get seven or eight people, and the oldest person gets to sing first. The others can’t repeat a song. So if you’re the last, you have to know at least eight ballads.”
Penland says his favorite is a very old love song, “Pretty Saro,” which he calls a “pure love song.”
And then there’s “Mathey Groves,” a song with a decidedly different theme. “It’s about a poor young boy who meets a rich young woman and they have a big affair,” Penland says, “and her husband comes home and Mathey Groves is killed and then man takes his wife outside and asks her whether she wants him or Mathey Groves and … he chops her head off.”
The singers have long gathered in the community of nearby (well, 45 minutes, Joe reckons) Sodom — also known as Revere — but now they travel, within and without the state, and in Joe’s case, to England, where story-telling ballads from the mountains of North Carolina have a sound following. At first, Penland says, the mountain singers from whom he learned the songs didn’t want people who visited writing them down. “They’d sing a verse and then you’d sing it back to them,” he says. “But after we left, we’d write everything down as quickly as we could! We experienced the last of the oral tradition. We called it knee-to-knee singing (everyone sat in a circle.)."
For Joe Penland, a career in music came along because of a grandfather he never knew, and an illness, aggressive prostate cancer, that he thought might shorten his life.
He’d gone to college, worked in social services, become sales manager of a concrete company in Charlotte, but then … “One morning it took me 15 minutes to get out of my driveway, and I said I’m going home. The only traffic jam in Marshall is when there’s a Christmas parade.”
Prostate cancer, which he thought he might not survive, got him thinking about all the roads not taken. “I made a bucket list they call it now and I realized all the things I’d planned to do before I was 30 I hadn’t done. Now I’d played music since I was 12 or 13, and I inherited instruments from my grandfather. He died before I was born, and I thought, ‘I’d give anything to hear his voice.’ So I decided to put some things down for my children and grandchildren. Then my daughter was worried about me (after the cancer diagnosis), and she was living in England and she wanted me to come over there. So we went to a festival and I started singing and the next thing I knew I sang every night for three weeks. And it just took off from there.”
Oh, yes, it did. Penland performs the old songs, and his songs, appears on television, is a favorite of national media people because he is so good at explaining what he and the other singers do, why they do it, and how they intend to keep doing it.
Penland survived cancer, built himself a small apartment that sits near the French Broad River, where he watches eagles and osprey. And he still writes songs and sings, sings, sings.
Part of the reason is a sense of duty. “I love,” he says, “to tell the stories of the people I’ve known through life. The characters. Now we don’t have many characters. I mean, I met all sorts of folks and I didn’t have to see them on TV. And people here are proud of their heritage … we go on stage and perpetuate the accents (Joe’s mountain accent is barely heard in casual conversation) because that’s part of it. And I just think there’s something magical about Madison County.”
Magical, and perhaps mystical and most definitely colorful, from the leaves in fall to the politics to the ever-diminishing characters.
Perhaps, at 71, Joe Penland qualifies as one of those characters now, but his voice is smooth and youthful, and his songs, many of which he’s written from life experience, touch the hearts and minds of his audience. One thing is certain: Music makes him happy.
“I tell everyone,” he says, “that I was born in exactly the right time in exactly the right place. I am so lucky to have witnessed everything I’ve witnessed here in Madison County before life got so complicated.”
Madison County, and music, were pretty lucky, too.