Sheila Kay Adams

2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow
Sheila Kay Adams
Photo by Susan Moore

Jo Reed:  That is 2013 National Heritage Award recipient, Sheila Kay Adams singing "Young Hunting."

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Sheila Kay Adams is a seventh-generation ballad singer, musician, and storyteller. She was born and raised in Madison County, North Carolina, in a little place named Sodom. It's an area well-known for it’s a cappella ballad singing, a tradition that dates back to the early Scots/Irish and English settlers of the mid-17th century. Singing and playing the banjo has always been a central part of Sheila's life. She learned the traditional way of singing primarily from her great-aunt Dellie Chandler Norton; although other notable singers in the community such as Dillard Chandler and Lee Wallin were also eager to share their songs with her. Sheila began performing publically in her teens, and hasn't really stopped since. In the intervening years, she has performed at festivals, concerts, music camps, and workshops around the country and throughout the United Kingdom where many of the ballads were first sung. Somewhere along the line, she also started telling stories about all the characters that lived in and around Sodom and she found herself in demand for her storytelling as much as her singing and playing. After it was announced that she was awarded a 2013 National Heritage Fellowship, I visited her at her home in Madison County, where we settled down on her front porch to talk. In this, the first of a two-part interview, we focus on her music and its deep roots in the community of Sodom, North Carolina, but first, I had know how that area got its name.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Well, I know several stories how it got its name but if you're a storyteller what you do is you pick the best story out of all the stuff that you've heard, and so the best story I heard was back during the Civil War we were so divided in this part of the world; most of my family were in the Union army, they went over in to east Tennessee and joined the Union army, and then there was a Confederate training camp for young cadets in Hot Springs, North Carolina, which is also in Madison County. And in between the Confederates and the Union there was a troop of ladies of the evening that didn't have real loyalty to either side and so they sort of went back and forth and it just happened to be that they would meet up a lot in this little place that I grew up in. And there was a circuit-riding Baptist preacher that came through they had a brush arbor revival and from the pulpit he said, "This place-- there's more sinning goes on here than in Sodom in the Bible." And so of course the war ended and the troops moved on and the ladies of the evening found somewhere else to go and the name of Sodom though stuck.

Jo Reed:  As far as I can tell, it was populated pretty much by five or six different families?

Sheila Kay Adams:  That's right.

Jo Reed:  So you were pretty much related to everybody.

Sheila Kay Adams:  I was, by blood, marriage and usually both just because that's the way of a small mountain community. For instance, my parents were double-third cousins but it makes this ancestry-- doing your family chart as far as-- makes it really easy when you come from a place like Madison County because it just goes up like a telephone pole or else it's a family wreath. It's not a tree; it's a wreath. It just goes right around and around; it's all the same people.

Jo Reed:  It was known for a couple of things, it held on to traditional music, the way music was done in Sodom, especially ballad singing. It's a direct root back to England….

Sheila Kay Adams:  Right.

Jo Reed:  …where it had begun.

Sheila Kay Adams:  It was-- as a matter of fact, due to this oral history that's passed down in my family I know where my people came out of the northern part of England and the southern part of Scotland, the border country of Scotland and England; they came out of Whitehall. And that style of singing you hear in the border country today, which is right on the border of northern England and southern Scotland, and you also hear it in northern Ireland that's real similar to the way I heard it growing up; the songs are really similar. The ones that I sing talk about Scotland, "For I've got a wife in the old Scotland and this night she waits for me." My family got here in 1731 in Madison County what's now Madison County and so think about all the years that they have been keeping this tradition of singing these songs a lot to the point where there are still songs that talk about the Clyde River in Scotland and "I've got a wife in Scotland and tonight she waits for me," what, 300 years down the road, 400 years down the road?

Jo Reed:  It actually is closer to the original than those same songs sung—

Sheila Kay Adams:  Right.

Jo Reed:  --in England.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Right. That's what Cecil Sharp, who was a collector that came through here in the teens, said. He was from England and he said that he found purer versions of the English and Scottish folk songs in the southern Appalachians than he found in modern day England, which would have been during the teens as well and Scotland.

Barbary Allen up and hot

Jo Reed:  Why do you think that music had such deep roots in your community?

Sheila Kay Adams:  Well, mountain people don't like change for one thing and the other thing is that they stay in the same place. It's just like the woman that I refer to as Granny. Granny lived, was married, raised her children, buried all of them but one, buried her husband, and then died and was buried herself within a five-mile radius, and that's true of all of the singers that I learned from. They lived in one place, they stayed right there in Sodom, and I think as a result of that because all of them were related by blood, marriage or both, and usually both, it stayed within a community as opposed to just one family because that's what you found in a lot of other areas was that there would be one family that was keeping the tradition alive but here we had an extended family but that amounted to the whole community that kept these, singing of the old songs a capella tradition alive.

Jo Reed:  And that is how it's done.

Sheila Kay Adams:  It is.

Jo Reed: Without music.

Sheila Kay Adams: Without music.

Jo Reed:  And the woman you refer to as Granny is Dellie Norton.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Yeah, that's Dellie Chandler Norton and her sister's name was Berzilla Chandler Wallin so they just kept marrying back into the same families, but Granny had the most unique voice other than Dillard Chandler that I heard singing over there.

Jo Reed:  You said that she would sing Young Emily for example, a beautiful, beautiful song, and she would always sing that when she was milking the cows.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Milking the cows.

Jo Reed:  What was your job while she was milking the cows?

Sheila Kay Adams:  Holding the tail 'cause Daddy called me his active child and so I had to be kept busy and I had to hold the tail so it wouldn't come around in the springtime, summer and fall and swat Granny in the side of the head because she would always lean her head against the cow's side while she was milking, and of course the cow would if I wasn't holding the tail would come around and smack her in the face with it so I got to hold the tail while she sat there and milked and sang.

Jo Reed:  She always sang that song.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Always sang Young Emily, yep.

Jo Reed:  Do you think you could sing a little bit for me?


Sheila Kay Adams: (singing)

Young Emily was a fair maid. She loved a driver boy. He drove in the main for some gold to gain way down in the lowlands, low.

My father runs a public house all on yonder shore. Go ye, go ye and enter in and there abide thee this night.

Jo Reed:  It's such a beautiful song.

Sheila Kay Adams:  It really is.

Jo Reed:  And I'm sure when you hear that or when you sing that you have a very different image in mind than I have as I'm listening to it because you have this entire history that comes with it.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Do you know the funny thing is that when I sing "Young Emily" it's like I am transported back in time to that little girl that held on to the tail of that cow and I can smell warm milk in my mind, in my mind's nose I guess is what you'd say, because it takes me back to especially in the early spring and the late fall when Granny was milking the steam would rise up out of that bucket and I can still smell that smell whenever I sing that song.

Jo Reed: That's a wonderful image.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  And you learned to sing from her.

Sheila Kay Adams:  I learned to sing from her and as a result of learning these old love songs I also got to learn from Cas Wallin and her sister, Berzilla, and Dillard Chandler and Lee Wallin, Berzilla's husband, Inez Chandler. There were so many of them that were singing over there at that time that once I kind of started learning these songs when I was five they all wanted me to learn their songs; they called them their songs but it was just the ones that they kind of showcased themselves.

Jo Reed:  How did you learn?

Sheila Kay Adams:  I learned in what Granny called was the old-style "knee-to-knee" where I sat across from whoever was singing with our knees almost touching and I would close my eyes, because some of these songs have got a lot of verses to them--and I would close my eyes and they would sing a verse and I would sing it back to them and then they would sing the second verse and I would have to sing the first and second back to them. So by the end of the song even if it was one with 40 verses to it I would have caught the song by the time it was over 'cause I would have repeated it, however many verses were in the song.

Jo Reed:  We talked a little bit about what was unique about the ballad singing that came out of Sodom and it's a cappella; it's done without music. What else?

Sheila Kay Adams:  They did a lot of what Cecil Sharp called ornamentation and that was the collector that came through in the teens, and he even says in his introduction that he could write the tune, he could write the note down that they were singing, but there was no way that he could provide the embellishment and that really the embellishment that the singer gave to each song. And he said that the only way that one could acquire that would be to listen to somebody who had learned in that tradition because he said it was foreign to anything he had ever heard anywhere.

Jo Reed:  Were you always taken by that music, Sheila?

Sheila Kay Adams:  Oh, I loved it, I've loved it as far as I can remember. That style of singing always just caught my heart and so many of those songs were actually stories that had these great plots to them, great stories, and I was always a sucker for a story whether it was told or sung and so the fact that they were stories and those tunes were so plaintive and they always sang with such emotion that it was hard not to pay attention to what they were singing.

Jo Reed:  It's interesting because the songs are so plaintive and the stories tend to be funnier than the songs. Do you think that's accurate?

Sheila Kay Adams:  That's absolutely accurate because there were-- well, okay-- the songs that Granny and her sister sang and that Cas sang were the longer ballads, the love-- they called them all love songs but they were really traditional ballads from Scotland and England and northern Ireland mainly. And so when I finally heard Inez Chandler sing she asked me to come down to her house one day and she sang some of the dirtiest songs I have ever heard in my life. Now this was a woman who was in her late sixties, early seventies that sang one raucous, off-color song after another so there were those songs that were in the tradition but it's just that not everybody sang them, and Inez would have never sung them out in public. She taught me a song called The Seven Nights Drunk that I can only sing four verses to so it's really The Four Nights Drunk.

Jo Reed:  Do you want to give me--

Sheila Kay Adams:  Oh, I will be glad to.

Jo Reed:  Oh, please.

Sheila Kay Adams:  <sings> I come home the other night as drunk as I could be and I saw a horse a-standin' in the stable where my horse ought to be, said, "Come here, little wifey. Explain this thing to me. Whose horse is that a-standin' in the stable where my horse ought to be?"

You blind fool, you drunk old fool, now can't you plainly see that's only a milk cow your granny sent to me.

Well, I've traveled this whole world over a hundred times or more but a saddle on a milk cow's back I never did see before.


I come home the other night as drunk as I could be and I saw a hat a-hangin' on the rack where my hat ought to be, said, "Come here, little wifey. Explain this thing to me. Whose hat is that a-hangin' on the rack where my hat ought to be?"

You blind fool, you drunk old fool, can't you plainly see, well, that's only a dishrag your granny sent to me. Well, I've traveled this whole world over a hundred times or more but a J.B. Stetson dishrag I never did see before.

And so it keeps going that way and the third verse is a pair of britches on the floor and she tells him it's a flour sack and the fourth verse is a head on the pillow and that's all I can sing in public.

Jo Reed:  And you just let it rest there.

Sheila Kay Adams: I and usually I will tell whatever audience is listening that they'll just have to use their imagination on the last three verses because there's no way you can sing them in public and she had over a hundred of those songs. So there were the plaintive kind of love songs but then there were the raucous Seven Nights Drunk songs as well.

Jo Reed:  Those were more inside songs.

Sheila Kay Adams:  They were definitely inside songs but you know those are the ones that are in the danger of-- in danger of losing completely because nobody sings them in public.

Jo Reed:  When you were a teenager did you go through a period of distancing yourself a bit from traditional music? Were you seduced by rock and roll?

Sheila Kay Adams:  Absolutely. I was a child of the '60s just like everybody else was. I loved the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Paul Revere and the Raiders and all of those-- the Who, all those bands that everybody else was so taken with, Herman's Hermits. So I was a child of the '60s but at the same time I never stopped being just mesmerized by these love songs, and when I got to be a teenager they started teaching me the or learning me as they called it the more adult songs. Prior to that I had sort of gotten songs that I didn't really know the meaning of and when I would ask they would say, "Oh, you'll-- we'll explain that to you when you get older" and they did.

Jo Reed:  But your mother wasn't very interested.

Sheila Kay Adams:  No, she wasn't. Mama was a child of the Depression era and to a certain extent my father held the same views as Mama did. They felt like that old music, those old songs, that old fiddle-, banjo-playing music was directly linked somehow to that extreme poverty that they suffered as children and young adults. Mama told me one time that they threw their culture away with both hands because they associated it with that poverty so Mama would have rather me played piano than banjo.

Jo Reed:  Well, she gave you piano lessons.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Yes, she did, oh, I hated piano, oh, I hated piano, and I remember Miss Sarah Thomas doing the very best job that she possibly could and finally told my mother that I was completely tone deaf and it was a waste of her time, my time, and Mama's money so it worked. I got out of having to play piano or try to play piano but what she got really angry with me about is during the recital I didn't like the pitch of the Ballet Mazurka, whatever that is, but I remember the title to it so I changed the key of it on the piano because I didn't like how high it was and so I played it in a different key on the piano, but thank gosh I got out of that business but now my father thought that what I should do is country and western music because that was where I was going to make some money. He felt like that singing these old songs with no music behind them was just so old and so mountain-like and he didn't want me to get into that. He wanted me at 15 to be a country and western singer.

Jo Reed:  You didn't have much interest in that.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Well, he asked me one time when I was 15 to write a song and asked me if I could play if I thought I could learn to play guitar in a week, and at 15 me and Daddy had gone from me thinking he was the perfect man in the whole universe to locking horns because I was 15. And he had a watch that he watched all the time and I had to be home every night at ten o'clock.

He said there wasn't a damn thing that went on after ten o'clock that I needed to be a part of, that was exactly what he said, and so my curfew was ten o'clock. And so he asked me if I thought I could learn how to play guitar. Well, by then I was playing the banjo although back then I called it a banjer and I said, "Well, I think if I can learn how to play the banjer I can master the guitar in a week, sure, and it would probably help if I had one" 'cause I didn't even own a guitar. And Daddy said, "I'm going to fix that. I'm going down to the home electric and buy you a guitar." So he did. He brought me back a little Yamaha and Daddy worked a public job and would leave on Sundays and come back sometimes if he worked a ten-hour day on Thursdays but if he worked an eight-hour day he'd drive all the way home on Friday evening. And so he got me a guitar at the home electric, brought it to the house, and I learned four chords over the telephone which we had just gotten in Sodom when I was 15. And I learned four chords with Ronald Gunner telling me where to put my fingers and I wrote a little song called "Over Home."

Over Home up

Sheila Kay Adams:  And so when Daddy got back the next weekend he said, "Well, did you learn that song?" and I said, "Yep," and I sang it for him and he said, "Okay. We're going to go up to Asheville. There's going to be a Nashville, Tennessee, talent scout up there and I want you to sing that song for him," but when I got up there I got nervous and wouldn't get out of the car, I locked him out of the car and told him I was scared, and he said, "Well, unlock the door and we'll go back to the house," never mentioned it again until the summer of 1997 so that would have been about 35, 40 years later. I was in the bean patch up by Burton Cove, it must have been a hundred percent humidity and a hundred and fifty degrees up there and the gnats were big enough to carry you off if they'd have had a brain cell between them. And I come up off that ground and I said, "I've had enough of this. If it was up to me, I'd never go back into a bean patch again, ever. If I wasn't so poor, I never would go back in a bean patch." Daddy said, "If you'd have got out of the damn car up there in Asheville that night, you might not have to be in the bean patch today" so he remembered it all them years later just to pop me on that particular day in July up in the head of the Burton Cove, but now he-- Daddy always felt like I could have made it in country and western but to be honest with you it was just-- it was--for a 15-year-old girl the thoughts of that sort of thing was a little too much having grown up in a little place like Sodom where everything was so comfortable for me. I couldn't imagine going to Nashville, Tennessee. I've never been to-- I've never been west of Knoxville, Tennessee, and so there was no way that I could conceive of going to Nashville, Tennessee, and getting into that mess so I stuck with what I knew and loved, which was the old love songs and playing banjo.

Jo Reed:  Now when did you begin to play banjo?

Sheila Kay Adams:  I started playing when I was eight years old. Granny had an old banjo, but she called it a banjer, under the bed in a flour sack and I can remember one day she drug that out from under the bed, got it out and there was still flour that was all over the fretboard and on the strings, and she laid it up in the middle of the bed and said, "Don't you touch that banjer. I'm goin' to the barn to gather eggs." And when she came back I was tryin' to pick out Cripple Creek on the banjo so it was a little reverse psychology. And then I had a cousin who just recently passed away, Jerry Adams, who played a fabulous two-finger-style banjo and he started teaching me how to play when I was about eight and a half or so because I was trying my best to learn and he just showed me some things that I could do. And you first had to learn the song of course and so I started listening to a lot of the fiddle tunes and then when I was a teenager I heard a banjo player from West Virginia, Dwight Diller, play and just fell in love with clawhammer style.

Jo Reed:  Now explain what that is.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Clawhammer is where you don't pick up on a string, you're always striking the string down, and you hold you hand with the fingers curled under and your thumb kind of cocked up and you're playing all the notes with the down stroke on your index finger while muting some of the strings with your middle finger and you're riding the thumb string nonstop except now and then you drop the thumb down onto the second string, and that's what clawhammer is. It's an old, old style of playing. I remember asking Granny one time why she thought that style developed because that was not--Lee Wallin played a version of clawhammer but the popular way of playing around here was the two-finger style. And I asked Granny one time why she thought that that curling your hand around like that would have developed into a style of playing banjo with your fingers tucked, all of them curled in and like almost making a fist-- a loose fist, and she said, "Well, if you think about it them poor old fellers'd be out on the side of a mountain plowing all day, holding on to a plow handle, so when they came in their hands'd probably be blistered and so stiff that they would just adapt their playing of the banjer in the way that they'd held their hand all day long." And that made the most sense to me of anything that anybody's ever said.

Jo Reed:  Can we have an example of that?

Sheila Kay Adams:  Absolutely, I love the banjo. <plays banjo>

So let me see. The lovely thing about a banjo is that it is the only stringed instrument that is indigenous to America, the five-string banjo is, and it's one of the loudest, most obnoxious instruments as well, and Granny told me that in the olden times as she referred to them, which would have been her grandparents' generation, that the banjo was a woman's instrument and I didn't know that. She said, "It's a woman's instrument" and I said, "Well, why was that?" and she said, "Because the men played the fiddle and the women would accompany them on the banjo." She said my great-grandmother, Betty Ray, was one of the best banjo players she had ever heard.

Jo Reed:  Wow. I had no idea.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Yep. I didn't either, and I said, "Well, why hadn't you told me that before?" She was up in her eighties and she said, "Why, you hadn't asked me before now" so I wonder how many more things I missed because I just didn't know the right question to ask, but this is a tune that I actually learned from an uncle of mine by the name of Byard Ray. It's a tune called Saint Anne's Reel. <plays banjo>

Jo Reed:  That's beautiful.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Thank you.

Jo Reed:  Before we started recording, you told me what happened when you got the phone call from Barry Bergey about the National Heritage Fellows.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Right.

Jo Reed:  Share that?

Sheila Kay Adams: When Barry was trying to get in touch with me back in April to let me know that I'd received the award I didn't have a clue; I didn't even have a clue I'd been nominated for the award by anybody. And so I thought that Barry was getting in touch with me to ask me to emcee the ceremony and I thought well, golly, that'll be-- that'd be a great gig to be able to go up and be a part of that and get to meet all the recipients. So I asked Barry when we finally connected a couple of days later, I said, "So Barry, Honey, are you callin' me up to ask me to emcee the NEA Fellowship Awards? That would be so cool and I'd be glad to do that. Is that what you're after, dear?" And there was a pause and then he laughed and he said, "No, Sheila, honey, I would like for you to come up and take your award back to North Carolina with you" and I started to cry right there because I've, I understand about the NEA Award and what it means.

Jo Reed:  What does it mean?

Sheila Kay Adams: To me what it means is the highest honor that you can receive doing the kind of traditional music or stories or songs that I do; it's the-- it's kind of the highest A-OK, you're doing exactly what you ought to be doing in this tradition, award that anybody can receive.

Jo Reed:  I like that definition of it:  You're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing.

Sheila Kay Adams:  Yes, and you get recognition and awarded for that and what greater thing in your life can you receive than this that you're doing is exactly what you ought to be doing.

That was 2013 National Heritage Fellow, Sheila Kay Adams. next week, Sheila returns to tell us some stories about Sodom North Carolina..

Sheila will be one of the performers at The National Heritage Fellowships Concert which takes place here in Washington DC at the Lisner Auditorium on Friday, September 27, 2013 at 8 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public. You can find them at   and if you can't make it to Washington DC, we're live streaming the concert on our website at

You’ve been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

You heard excerpts from Young Hunting, Barbary Allen, Young Emily,

The Seven Nights Drunk, Over Home, and Saint Anne's Reel.

All performed by Sheila Kay Adams.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at You can subscribe to "Art Works" at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the "Art Works" blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks

Singer, musician and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams talks about (and sings) songs brought over from England, Scotland, and Ireland in the mid-17th century and kept alive by the people in the mountains of North Carolina.