Madison County has been fertile musical ground since the first settler with a fiddle under his arm and a ballad in his voice set foot on this new land in the 1790s. Tracing the heritage from that time was possible because of two collectors in the early 1900s, a resurgence of interest in the 1960s, and the continued love of this music today.
Song Collectors in the Early 1900s
In the early years, the Scots-Irish settlers found time at the end of their days to gather with family and neighbors sharing the ballads and fiddle tunes brought with them when they came to his new land. That music was passed down through the generations in much the same manner. Madison County has the longest unbroken tradition of ballad singing in the United States. This treasure remained hidden until the efforts of two men to collect the music brought the heritage to others’ attention. Both were responsible for preserving the rich musical heritage of Madison County beginning in the early 1900s. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a musician himself, was born in Madison County but Cecil Sharp, a scholar and folksong collector, had to travel from England for this purpose.
Growing interest in the 1960s
Sharp collected ballads from several families, most notably from a family in the Laurel country whose musical legacy continues even today- the Wallins. Several members of the Wallins family kept the ballads alive for decades by passing them down to the next generation. But, it was not until the resurgence of interest in folk music in the 1960s that the depth of our music heritage was widely recognized. When musician/filmmaker John Cohen was drawn to Madison County in the 1960s, his tools were more powerful in spreading the story of the county’s musical heritage.
Traditional Music Today
Today, just as neighbors gathered on front porches to share music and songs, locals gather at restaurants to share the traditional music and current music with those present. There is still evidence of that heritage handed down for centuries not only in the direct descendants of the Wallin Family but in those who seem to have grown from the rich soil and those who have been attracted to the area by our legacy. Both of these groups of musicians continue the rich legacy. There are opportunities through the year and throughout the county to enjoy what has held such charm not only for the generations of families but also for those who visit the area.