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When Bobby McMillon opens his mouth to sing, he breathes life into songs dating as far back as the 17th century.
At a recent performance, the N.C. Heritage Award winner told the story of Frankie Silver who allegedly killed her husband, Charlie Silver, and serenaded the audience with “love ballads” and “meetinghouse songs” for more than an hour in his tender voice. About 75 people packed a room Aug. 13 in the Weaverville public library to hear McMillon and ask questions about mountain folklore. Some songs made the audience laugh, others brought a more serious mood to the room.
McMillon became interested in preserving Appalachian culture by listening to family members and neighbors sing, and by playing older recordings on his grandfather’s Victrola. By 17, McMillon had begun recording interviews with family members and singing on porches with relatives. McMillon has been performing ever since. He has performed at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife and served as a visiting artist with the N.C. Arts Council for more than a decade. In 2000, he was awarded the prestigious N.C. Heritage Aware for preserving oral traditions.
Yet McMillon is more interested in keeping the past alive than in achieving fame.
“When I got interested in songs, I never thought about singing in public at the time,” McMillon said. “I just felt it was something I enjoyed for my information and benefit, so I began studying about where songs came from and the pioneers that brought them into the country.
“Of course, many of them were written here.”
The ballads McMillon performs were not sung in auditoriums, he said, but “in sunshine or in shadow, either at night or sitting on porches.” It was once common to sing throughout the day before voice recordings seemed to discourage having many regional variations on songs, he said. McMillon has written down the versions of songs he originally heard so he could tell the variations apart.
He said he never gets over the feeling of traveling through time when he hears, researches and performs the songs.
“I could always feel like time rolled back when I heard these songs and thought about how people lived long, long ago,” McMillon said. “It was amazing to hear songs like this because my people hadn’t been around the ocean for 200 years or close to it, but yet they were singing songs so far back and long ago.”
McMillon, 61, lives near Burnsville in Yancey County with his wife, Joyce. He worked in the furniture business until diabetes slowed him down. Born in Lenoir in Caldwell County in 1951, he has roots in Mitchell and Yancey counties and in eastern Tennessee.
‘The Ballad of Frankie Silver’
McMillon learned ballads and stories from both sides of his family as a child, including his Grandmother Woody’s version of the tale of a distant relative, Charlie Silver, whose wife, Frances, or “Frankie,” was hanged for his murder in 1833 outside the Morganton courthouse. Charlie Silver was hacked to death with an ax to the face by Frankie and, according to McMillon, dismembered by Frankie’s father.
Will Silver, who is Charlie Silver’s nephew, owned the Silver family homestead off Route 80 in Mitchell County when McMillon was growing up. That was where Charlie Silver’s murder took place. Will Silver told McMillon’s grandfather he believed Frankie’s family wanted to move west, perhaps to Missouri or Kentucky, and she killed Charlie for refusing. More than 180 years after the crime, no one knows what went wrong in the Silver marriage. “That’s a story that, as one author said, the truth lies buried in graves dug long ago,” McMillon said.
McMillon sang “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” in a performance recently at the Weaverville Library. The ballad contained Frankie’s last words on the scaffold before her hanging and was sung thereafter in Western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee. It spread as far as the Ozarks and was reportedly sung before the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863. Frankie and Charlie’s story was rolled into the song “Frankie and Johnny,” a Tin Pan Alley hit in the early 1900s. A number of books and plays have been written about Frankie Silver. Filmmaker Tom Davenport made a documentary about Frankie with McMillon in 1998.
Though Frankie gave a confession two weeks before her hanging, it was lost, but what remains is her ballad. “Whether she wrote it, I doubt,” McMillon said, as historians have come to a consensus that Thomas W. Scott, a Morganton teacher, wrote the song. Some historians also question whether Frankie sang the song.
Still, the ballad can give listeners goose bumps. Here are the final three verses of McMillon’s version of “The Ballad of Frankie Silver:”
You all see me and on me gaze,
Be careful how you spend your days,
And never commit this awful crime,
But try and serve your God on time.
My mind on solemn subjects roll,
My little child; God bless its soul!
All ye that are of Adam’s race,
Let not my faults this child disgrace.
Great God how shall I be forgiven?
Not fit for Earth, not fit for heaven,
But little time to pray to God,
For now I try that awful road.
A repertoire of 2,000 songs
Shifting to songs from 100 years before the time of Frankie’s ballad, McMillon recalled learning songs from his great-aunt by marriage, whom he called “the greatest of the ballad singers” in his life. “Mamaw” taught McMillon more than 100 ballads and love songs. Other relatives also taught him songs and tales. A third cousin of McMillon taught him “Fair Ellender and the Brown Girl,” a song he performs that originated in Scotland in the 1700s.
McMillon, a self-taught musician, said he has memorized about 2,000 songs since age 12. In 1997, he donated his recordings and collected interviews with friends and family to the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC Chapel Hill, where he has also collaborated with professor Daniel Patterson.
Preserving and promoting McMillon’s work
“Bobby is a walking encyclopedia of mountain ballads,” McMillon’s friend Rodney Sutton said in introducing McMillon at the Weaverville Library. Sutton, a folk dancer and dance caller, is dedicated to preserving McMillon’s songs and stories.
“Bobby’s not a self-promoter. If there’s not somebody there to help, it’s not going to get done,” Sutton said. He and ballad singer Saro Lynch-Thomason are recording McMillon for the “Bobby McMillon Anthology Project,” which so far has included more than 40 songs.
The producers record McMillon in his living room. Sounds from the kitchen and of the heat turning on trickle in, like on old recordings. The producers plan to make a CD, and Sutton said a Kickstarter fundraising campaign will be launched on the anthology project’s Facebook page.
Sutton said the anthology project originated with a search for 15 composition notebooks and two journals containing nearly 300 handwritten songs that McMillon started collecting from family and neighbors when he was in high school. When McMillon moved from Lenoir to Yancey County, his health had deteriorated, and he had to leave the packing of his folklore collection to others. Sutton recalled thinking at the time, “I hope Joyce (McMillon’s wife) doesn’t get mad at us, but we’re going to go through every closet until we find it.” He found all but one notebook in the last box.
Preserving mountain dialects
McMillon is passionate about preserving the way Western North Carolinians spoke in years past. He noted that some residents of mountain counties still speak with accents peppered with Middle English pronunciations, like saying “hymns” as “haims.” He also spoke of his own accent being influenced by his grandparents, whom he said he was as close to as his parents.
“If I sound sometimes a little bit old-timey, it’s because of the way I learned to talk when I grew up. I learned to talk a lot like they (his grandparents) did. Somebody has to keep a going with it, so I do,” he said.
McMillon says his greatest achievement is teaching younger generations the songs. A teacher once told him that her grandson in kindergarten or first grade learned all the words to one of his songs.
“I felt I was doing my job in stimulating his memory to remember that. … That’s one of the things I’m proudest of. … I’m especially proud of the people I knew and learned from, but in my own personal experience, it’s encouraging the young people to learn things from their families.”
When asked why it’s important to keep singing these ballads, McMillon said: “Because it’s part of what we are. We are a culmination of all the generations that went before us. They didn’t have record players and computers and jam boxes and the types of things we have today that store music and cultural items in, and they had to use their memories. Memory is sort of a precious thing. … That’s how tradition was passed down for thousands of years.
“Nobody can take away what we are; they can take away our food and lodging and everything else. But they can’t take away that part of us that we learned or inherited.”