Many North Carolinians in the 1930s would have recognized the name of Mrs. Maude Minish Sutton. She led the quiet life of a housewife and mother in a small town on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge, but the Sunday editions of three major state newspapers regularly carried her “Blue Ridge sketches” and feature articles on folk song. She was occasionally in the news as an officer of the state folklore society or as a speaker on its annual program. She was known to have given her own song collection to Dr. Frank C. Brown for the publication planned by the folklore society. When the volumes of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore finally appeared (many years after Mrs. Sutton’s death in 1936), they held 154 song texts and 112 tunes she had submitted, not to mention entries in categories like beliefs and games. The “General Introduction” to the first volume praised her as probably Brown’s “most loyal, and certainly his most highly valued co-worker.” 1
Today Maude Minish Sutton is largely forgotten. In part this is because the Brown Collection did not serve her well. To take an example, her manuscript “Folk Games of North Carolina Children” — a collection of 119 games she recorded during 1927 and 1928 in Rutherford and adjacent counties — was broken apart and the games scattered among those contributed by other collectors. The editors put the game descriptions in Volume I and the tunes for the singing games in Volume V. They accidentally omitted the descriptions of eight of her 11 “Negro Games” and misattributed most of the tunes of this set. While intending Mrs. Sutton no injury, they managed to conceal the one piece of focused and intensive field work that she — or any other contributor — submitted to the Brown Collection.
Mrs. Sutton probably would not have complained. Although her letters show that from time to time she thought of trying to publish a collection under her own name, she gave up her title to her materials in the interest of Dr. Brown’s project. She never really thought of herself as a folklorist. Collecting songs was her hobby, but what she most enjoyed was the teaching she did before her marriage and her work later with “Little Theater” in her home town, Lenoir. She had a knack for writing and did dream, like many young people in that day, of penning the Great American Novel. In the end, she turned to journalism, drawing chiefly on her experiences as a song collector.
The awakening of her interest in folk song was accidental, although it followed a pattern not uncommon among the contributors to the Brown Collection or among other amateur and academic folklorists of tire day: her English teacher at Davenport College read “The Douglas Tragedy” in class. Maude immediately recognized the similarity of this British ballad to an old song she had often heard from a mountain woman, Mrs. Myra Barnett Miller. After the death of Mrs. Minish when Maude was ten, Myra came and lived with the family for years as a housekeeper and caretaker for the children. She could not read or write, but she had a capacious memory and sang old songs as a matter of course as she went about her daily work. Thrilled by the discovery that Myra’s songs had long histories and were printed as literature, Maude began, at the age of 16, to record them in a notebook. Later, when she took a position in 1917 as a rural school supervisor in Avery, a county deep in the Blue Ridge, song collecting was one of the few diversions open to her, and she made much of the hobby. Even after her marriage to Dennis H. Sutton in 1924, she never lived far from the mountains and often found time to hunt up singers.
The vogue of the day among the emerging class of American professional folklorists was to capture a specimen of song and to mount it on a page amid the paraphernalia of nineteenth century textual scholarship. Mrs. Sutton set out with this as her model. She packed Kitteridge’s one-volume edition of the Child ballads in her saddle pocket when she rode about in Avery County. Frank C. Brown reinforced this orientation in later years by writing to dun her repeatedly for stanzas of songs she had mentioned or for tunes.
Mrs. Sutton, however, moved beyond the gathering of texts. When she went to teach in the mountains she was a large, good-natured, young woman who enjoyed people and was alert to the comic side of her encounters. As she entered songs in her notebooks, she took to recording a vignette along with each text. These materials she later sent on to Brown. Some of her accounts appear in the published collection, but they are easily overlooked in the fine print of the headnotes. In any case the editors so excerpted and scattered them that they lose any effect they may have as a picture of the world within which she found the songs. Mrs. Sutton drew upon her notebooks for the more than 60 newspaper articles she wrote between 1927 and 1935; but these too lie scattered through bulky volumes that gather dust on library shelves.
Stereotypes and Mountain Culture
The best of what Mrs. Sutton wrote is worth reading, but one must not approach it unprepared. Her schooling was in a small North Carolina Methodist junior college for women, and in such a place in the years before World War I, modern literature to both teacher and pupil meant John Fox rather than Theodore Dreiser or Henry James. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Sutton’s writing shows the influence of local color fiction. She tended to accentuate the quaint, indulge in word-paintings of mountain vistas, and sentimentalize her subjects. It was probably her reading of mountain stories that caused her — before she made her first trip to Avery County - to discuss with her high school class the “arrested development of our own mountaineers.”2 She went to Avery expecting the stereotypes of local-color fiction — “feudist, “blockaders,” picturesque cabins, primitive superstitions — and of course found them. Her notebook describes, for example, one hike during which she and a gentleman friend met on the trail “a typical mountain procession”:
In front stalked the lord and master, behind him the “dawg, ” behind that the wife “totin” the baggage, a basket and flour sack. “Bo ” had my sweater and my arm and was his usual very attentive, gallant self The mountaineer stopped, stared a moment, and burst out: “Mister, is yer woman sick?”3
The stereotypes of mountain fiction were in fact matched by actual people and customs in Avery County. Mrs. Sutton found moonshiners. Granny women offered her love charms. She attended a “lassy bilin”’ and went square dancing at a “frolic.” But she quickly learned that mountain culture was more complex than fiction had shown her. She spent one evening in a cabin where “red pepper, beans, and cut up pumpkin strung on long strings, hung from the ceiling” and the woman of the house sat by the fire smoking a clay pipe. The host, who would shortly do time at a federal penitentiary for “blockading,” astonished her with heirlooms from an aristocratic Virginian ancestor: his “great-grandfather’s uniform of a colonel in the continental army, and a letter from Washington to him.”4 She knew well another mountaineer living on land settled by his family in the eighteenth century. Far from being a cabin, his home was a substantial rambling two-story frame house. He ran a prosperous farm and proved to be traveled and well informed.
Mrs. Sutton came not only to share the mountaineer’s resentment of writings that stressed the stereotypes, but also to repent of her own condescension toward the mountain people who did fit them. After criticizing the fiercely Puritanical outlook of one couple, she wrote, “I looked down upon the beauty of the cove where their home is — a far view. Maybe if I knew it from a daily struggle with its barren soil and grim sides my own soul would believe in such a harsh revengeful god.”5 In some encounters she got a flash of insight into how mountain people regarded her own cultural assumptions. Much as she appreciated ballads, for example, she could not work up enthusiasm for the mountain singing style, which she once described as being in “a nasal tone and so very strained that my throat ached in sympathy.” She could not “see how a human voice can get the tone that the mountaineer women sing ballads in. It is as if the voice was placed in the upper part of the mouth and nose. It has charm, but never sweetness.” Her sister Pearl — a trained musician who sometimes went collecting with her to take down the ballad tunes — was asked by a group of people at a home in the Brushy Mountains to sing a song. When she had finished, an old lady asked, “Do they learn you to sing so deep down at college?” Mrs. Sutton suddenly saw that these mountain people “liked her singing as little as she liked theirs.”6
When Mrs. Sutton wrote of mountain life, however, her saving grace was her sense of humor. It makes her writing resemble the humorous sketches of the Old Southwest as much as the local-color stories she grew up reading. She drew her material from actual life and retouched it for comic effect. Like the early humorists she produced popular journalism at times fresher and more true to a regional culture than the efforts of many a fashionable literary figure. But Mrs. Sutton also shared some of the weaknesses of the early humorists. Though her ear for vernacular speech was good, she let phonetic spellings cloud her transcriptions of it. She was more skillful in presenting dialogue and sketching a character than in constructing a plot or integrating action and setting. In her authorial paragraphs, stilted diction and respectable attitudes sometimes incongruously intrude. In short, she could write a paragraph or page that has more liveliness or stern veracity than anything in such novels as The Time of Man, but her stories and articles are in the end neither completely successful as writing nor completely reliable as fact. Mrs. Sutton wished for informed criticism of her writing. A rather low-key Southern Writers’ Conference in 1935, however, offered the only opportunity she ever had even for shop talk with fellow authors.
Castle Walls and Foot Pages
For the study of folklore, however, her writing has value. Few if any collectors of her day showed such interest in traditional singers and the place of song in their lives. One of her more intellectual friends — an astronomer and amateur composer from Vermont — claimed that his own music did not express himself but offered him simply an escape. From her own experiences with mountain singers, Mrs. Sutton concluded that their songs bore a more direct and simple relation to their lives. One lovelorn girl who sang about a jilted damsel who hanged herself “looked as if the heroine’s solution of her problem had its appeal for her and her mother said, ‘Lulu’s been singin’ too many lonesome tunes sence her trouble.’”7 Mrs. Sutton believed the songs even played a part in molding a mountain girl’s expectations in courtship. She took down one “warning song” that began:
Come all you fair and tender ladies
Be careful how you court young men
They are like bright stars of a summer’s morning
They first are here and then they’re gone.
She commented that this
lugubrious wail came well from Zorah. She’s the type that any long lanky scoundrel with a gray Stetson on one side of his black head, and a devil in his heavily lashed black eyes could make a fool of They are so vital that they have a certain easily explained charm, but there’s no sense in the he’s-got-to-sow-hiswild- oats attitude of these fool women. I believe these songs have a good deal to do with it. I’ve heard at least forty in this same strain.8
Many of the older women sang ballads from the early British repertory that seemed to contradict Mrs. Sutton’s theory of the relationship between life and song. She puzzled over what meaning castle walls and foot pages and ladies with milk-white hands could have for these singers. The comments she quotes, however, show that the singers passed over these exotic features without notice. In anecdote after anecdote, their concern is with the behavior of the characters. All her main informants regarded the young lovers in the ballads as true to life and thought their actions typical of human folly.
One woman who sang Mrs. Sutton “The Nightingale” was amused by the heroine’s comeuppance. The forward damsel first enjoyed her dalliance with the handsome soldier and then proposed marriage, only to learn too late of his wife in Fair Flanders and his children three. “That was a right peart gal,” said the old woman. “I’ll bet she never axes another man to have her.”9
Another sardonic assessment of a ballad character came from Mrs. Ann Coffey, when Mrs. Sutton met her on the Yonahlossee Turnpike one summer afternoon:
She strode along with several boys and men, sons and grandsons. Her slat bonnet was folded in the middle and lay across her head .... Her smoky gray eyes had the film of age, but she smiled when I recalled myself to her and wanted to know if I were still “traipsin ’ over the country huntin ’ old songs. ”
She had “riccolected” one that I might like, she thought, and she stopped, sat down on a log and sang it for me. . . . The story was of a girl who loved too well and followed her lover as his “foot spade” through rivers, forests, across swamp and mountain to the home of his ancestors. His mother was puzzled at the beauty and charm of the page and warned her son that his wife might notice the “boy. ” I had my ballad book with me and showed the singer the original ballad.
“Lord, I don’t know B from Bull’s foot, ” she said. “If I had to git my songs from ballits like you do, I’d have to quit the practice. ”
“It would be mighty nigh as hard on the old womem to quit singin’ as it was to quit stillin’, ” one of the men in the party volunteered. She withered him with a glance.
I read the ballad to her. Then I told her how old it was and how many generations of singers had sung it.
“Well, they’s been a-many of a womem with jist about that much sense,” the old woman observed. “When a womem gits her head set on a man she’s apt to do any fool thing. ”
It was another encounter with Mrs. Coffey that best confirmed Mrs. Sutton’s theory of a direct relation between song and life in mountain culture. At a ball game one Saturday afternoon, two Brushy Mountain boys had gotten “likkered up” and quarreled over a girl. In the shooting that followed, one killed the other. The murderer was Mrs. Coffey’s son, and he was put on trial for his life. His lawyer was a long-time friend of the Minish family and telephoned Mrs. Sutton to say that Mrs. Coffey was in his office during a court recess and had offered to sing her some ballads. Mrs. Sutton says that when she entered the office, Mrs. Coffey “was as friendly to me as she would have been to anyone, and greeted me with a calm, Howdy,’” She sat there, a “dark, impassive” woman with “smoky gray eyes” and “heavy hair coiled in a huge knot at the top of her head,” her hair “strained so tightly from her forehead that it raised her brows, and gave her a slightly startled look.”
The first song that Mrs. Coffey volunteered to sing was “The Gallows Tree”:
Hangman, Hangman, slack up ye’r rope,
Oh slack it up fur awhile,
I’ve looked overyander and seed Pap a comin ’
He’s walked fur many a mile.
Oh, Pap, oh Pap have you bro’t me any gold?
Any gold fur to pay my fee?
Er hev you come fur to see me hanged
Hanged high on the gallows tree?
One by one, father, mother and sister come to the condemned man and bring no gold. They come to see him hanged high. Finally his sweetheart comes declaring,
Oh yes, oh yes, I’ve brought some gold
Some gold fur to pay your fee,
My own true love shall never be hanged
Hanged from the gallows tree.
Mrs. Sutton writes that as Mrs. Coffey sang this song, her son’s lawyer,
obviously moved, wiped his brow and I fidgeted in my chair and tried to ignore the fact that the ballad story was similar to her own.
She turned to the lawyer. “I don’t think this song’s right,” she said, “I know the boy’s mother would-a got up the money. ”
“I’m sure she would, ” the old man said in a choked voice.
Then she turned to me and asked if I had “The Ramblin ’ Boy. ” I told her I did not, and she sang the following eighteenth century highwayman ballad:
They call me the rude, the rambling boy,
Through many bright shores that I’ve been through.
Through London city, I made my way,
And I spent my money in a ball and play.
I married there a darling wife. I loved her dearly as my life,
She caused me to rogue, to murder and steal,
She caused me to rob the king’s highway.
I robbed them all I do declare,
I robbed them on James Island Square,
I robbed them of ten thousand pound,
One night when I was a-rambling around.
And now I am condemned to die,
For me a-many a poor girl will cry,
But all their tears can’t set me free,
Nor save me from the gallows tree.
Mother says she’ll weep and mourn.
Father says he’s left alone.
Sister says she’ll meet despair,
With a diamond ring and curly hair.
Come all young men take warning by this,
Never to marry a feisty twist.
She’ll cause you to rob, to murder, and to steal, She’ll cause you to hang on the gallows tree.
The lawyer, veteran of a hundred mountain murder trials, was pale and trembling when she had finished. I was shaking and cold, but the woman, mother of a boy who was to be found the next day guilty of first degree murder, was calm and collected.
“Do you have the song about Jesse James?” she asked. I managed to say that I did, and my old friend looked as though he was delighted to hear that there was one murder ballad that I didn’t want to hear her sing. He’d stood about all he could for there were very few mitigating circumstances connected with this particular case, and he had put up a maryelous battle for the life of her son.11
Mrs. Sutton says that one lawyer in the court later told her that Mrs. Coffey’s “face never altered its expression for the entire trial — not even during the solicitor’s final appeal to the jury nor the judge’s charge — not even when the verdict of guilty of first degree murder was returned and the boy was sentenced to death. Her mountain reserve held her apparently unmoved .”12
In all her travels in the mountains, Mrs. Sutton never met another singer she respected as much as Mrs. Ann Coffey, but it was the woman’s character, not simply her songs, that impressed her. She wrote of Mrs. Coffey many times — first in the early 1920s in a poem that told how she was widowed as a young wife. A sheriff who had come to arrest her husband for moonshining shot him dead in the doorway. Between 1927 and 1935 she took Mrs. Coffey as the model for a character named Aunt Nancy, who figured in many of her Blue Ridge stories and sketches. All of these hover between fact and fiction. Some stories appear to be based upon Mrs. Coffey’s anecdotes or attitudes, but dress them up as fiction. In others, Aunt Nancy blends the features and words of several ballad singers Mrs. Sutton knew, or has a role in a factual incident not originally involving Mrs. Coffey.
“A Woman of the Hills”
The piece most clearly based on Mrs. Sutton’s personal observation is the one that follows: “A Woman of the Hills.”13 Its first section reports her actual first encounter with Mrs. Coffey. In other more prosaic accounts Mrs. Sutton described the woman as having been dressed that day in drab gray homespun rather than in red calico with an apron of Alamance cloth. Her picture of the mob in the courthouse square must record a composite memory of those Court Week scenes. In the next section, the narrator talks with Lyin’ Bill on the Yonahlossee turnpike. Their conversation may or may not be invented, but Bill’s account is faithful to what Mrs. Sutton elsewhere reports of Mrs. Coffey. The third part of the story seems to be based on a lawyer’s yarn, but no other mention of a scene like this appears in Mrs. Sutton’s writing. The incident that composes the fourth and final section was invented. Mrs. Sutton served as school supervisor in Avery County, not Caldwell, where Mrs. Coffey lived. The setting, however, is probably a reasonably accurate, if romanticized, picture of Mrs. Coffey’s home. Taken together, the four sections of “A Woman of the Hills” form her most considered statement of what she had learned of mountain character.
She also uses the sketch to show changes that had taken place in her own outlook. She had grown up in a county that rises from rolling foothills on the southeast to Grandfather Mountain on the northwest. At Lenoir, the county seat, the prosperous farmers of the valleys and piedmont mixed and contrasted — with the “cove gulls” of the Blue Ridge and Brushy Mountains. This social gap grew wider when a railroad pushed into Lenoir in 1884, opening a possibility for the development of industrial wealth. Maude Minish’s family had been farmers in the foothills (she once found a dulcimer in her great-grandfather’s corn crib, six miles from Lenoir), and in the early years of the century her father helped establish furniture manufacturing in the town. He was for decades not only a business leader but “the best Democrat in Caldwell County,” a power in local politics.
Men of the rising middle class in the county, although firm in their own values — their commitment to goals such as good roads, education, and progress, or to Methodism and the Democratic party — looked tolerantly on the back-country people. Mrs. Sutton charged that the middle-class women, on the other hand, tended to have aristocratic pretensions. They “fostered the tradition of the plantation life of the Old South” and “tried to cover up the fact that their ancestors worked with their hands.”14 This was a common Southern failing, and one that particularly irritated her when she encountered it at the Southern Writers’ Conference in 1935. She tired of hearing all the talk of plantation fiction like So Red the Rose. At least in her later years, Mrs. Sutton was a Jacksonian. “I don’t like any character in the early days of our country more than I do Old Hickory,” she wrote; “he really believed in the ideals and desires of the common people.”15
Her principles were rooted, no doubt, in loyalty to her father’s traditions. Strangely enough, it was her love of ballads that actually carried her across the barriers of class and background. Though making no mention of balladry, “A Woman of the „ Hills” traces this development. The small child frightened by an alien hillcountry matriarch grows into the young teacher who could appreciate the tradition her work helped to undermine. In actual life it pained Mrs. Sutton to see the effect of the schools. One old lady would scarcely sing ballads to her for fear she wanted to ridicule them. “She can’t understand my interest otherwise, “Mrs. Sutton wrote. “She suffers from an educated (!) daughter-in-law who depreciates mountain culture.”16 In her ballad collecting and in the Blue Ridge sketches Mrs. Sutton makes recompense, leaving a report on a vanishing way of life. Ann Coffey had died. Her “cabin home is abandoned,” Maude Sutton wrote. “It isn’t far from the falls of Gragg’s Prong of Wilson’s Crest, and is included in the new boundary of the Pisgah National Forest. 1 hope the wardens and foresters will leave it alone and let it stand as a type of the homes that were built by the earlier pioneers.” 17
1. Newman Ivey White, ed., The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, I (Durham, N.C., 1952), 18.
2. Maude Minish, “A New Way of Vitalizing the Study of History in Schools,” Current Opinion, 62 (April, 1917), 242.
3. Maude Pennell Minish, [Ballads Collected in Avery County, 1917-181, I, , in The Houghton Library of Harvard University.
4. Ibid., II, 53.
5. Ibid., III, 39.
6. The Frank C. Brown Collection, Maude Minish Sutton Papers, “The Gallows Tree,” p.2, in The Perkins Library of Duke University.
7. [Ballads Collected in Avery County, 1917-18], III, ,
8. Ibid., [341.
9. Ibid., I, ,
10. Maude Minish Sutton, “Blue Ridge Folk Songs: Kitty Wells,” Raleigh News and Observer, July 25, 1935. Mrs. Coffey’s Variant of “Child Waters” is not printed in the Brown Collection. Many of Mrs. Sutton’s song notebooks have disappeared since her death.
11. “The Hangman,” Raleigh News and Observer, March 24, 1935.
12. “Old English Folk Songs in Caldwell County,” Lenoir News-Topic, April 28, 1927.
13. “A Woman of the Hills: A Blue Ridge Sketch,” Raleigh News and Observer, Dec. 18, 1927.
14. “Coming Down My Valley,” Lenoir News-Topic, Sept. 6, 1935.
15. “Coming Down My Valley,” Lenoir News-Topic, Jan. 17, 1935.
16. [Ballads Collected in Avery County 1917-18], I, 16.
17. Raleigh News and Observer, July 25, 1935.