People who sing operettas shouldn’t tinker around with mountain music

Posted by | April 23, 2009

Please welcome guest blogger Cindy Gladden Tuttle of Salem, VA. She is the granddaughter of Texas Gladden (1895-1967), an American folk singer best known for her traditional Appalachian ballad style of singing.

A black and white log house. Red shuttered windows. Beds ablaze in summer with a multitude of blossoms of all kinds. Seven white pines, their boughs heavy laden with snow in winter. No furnace, but a wood cookstove and a stone fireplace. Spring water by gravity. Washtubs, washboards, and clotheslines. An unfinished attic bedroom, the presumed home of Rawhide & Bloody Bones and the Hairy Teeth Man. The sweet aroma of fried apples. Afternoon Bible stories sitting on the floor round Granny’s rocker.

These are some of my richest and warmest memories I have of childhood. The memories of the statuesque woman known affectionately to us as Granny, to others as Mom, and to the rest of the world as Texas Gladden. She possessed a literate style of speech accompanied by a gentle laugh and a radiant smile. She was a lady devout in her Mormon faith and devoted to her family of husband James, nine children, and twenty-eight grandchildren. Her countenance and manner belied the treasure she carried within herself.

Texas Gladden & Hobart SmithBorn in 1895 in Smyth County, VA, Texas Gladden had a repertoire of over 200 old time mountain ballads. These are songs that traveled to these mountains with the early settlers and were handed down through the generations. They are of Anglo-Saxon/Celtic origin and contain the remnants of the European ideals of female subjugation. These old ballads also gave expression to the wishes, desires, and fantasies of the women like Granny who cultivated them. Some of these ideas are easily illustrated in ballads such as The House Carpenter —the tale of a woman lured away from her loving husband and babies only to discover her ill-fated mistake.

Granny always said that these songs should be sung by an uneducated voice as the ballads themselves were uneducated. She stylized these songs through the use of odd phrasings and grace notes. She defined grace notes, which she learned from her mother, as unexpected twists on a note. She never thought that people who sang operettas should tinker around with mountain music. An hour or so of immersion into the music of the mountains allows the listener to understand that Granny was correct in her thinking on this concept.

Most of Granny’s singing was done at home and she modestly claimed she didn’t sing anything but lullabies. Raising nine children during the Great Depression certainly left her with little time to do much else. Her public appearances were rather sparse. She sang on occasion at community events at the old Fort Lewis School and at the festivals at Whitetop Mountain during the 1930s. She and her brother, Hobart Smith, performed at the White House in 1933 at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt. Her only other known public appearance came in 1941 at the request of Alan Lomax.

Texas GladdenIn 1959, as part of his Southern Journey project, Lomax visited Granny at home and recorded a number of her songs. These can be found on Ballad Legacy: Texas Gladden (Rounder CD 1800). This CD also contains snippets of Lomax’ interview with my Granny. Listening, one can hear warm gentility. She says during these interviews that she always had a perfect mental picture of the story in the song. Listening to her rendition of ‘Mary Hamilton,’ one can see the tragic picture she paints, both for the audience and in her mind, as she sings:

Word has come from the kitchen
And word has come to me,
That Mary Hamilton drowned her babe,
And throwed him into the sea.

Down came the old Queen,
Gold tassels around her head
Oh Mary Hamilton, where’s your babe,
That was sleeping in your bed?

I think that perhaps I inherited some of Granny’s visualization when it comes to music. There is an old mountain lullaby she used to sing to me. Every time I hear it, I have the most wonderful vision of all those pretty little horses.

Go to sleep, go to sleep,
Go to sleep little baby,
When you wake, get some cake,
And ride them pretty little horses.

Black and a bay, sorrel and a gray,
Whole heap a’ little horses.
Black and a bay, sorrel and a gray,
Whole heap a’ little horses.

Little old horse, little old cow,
Ambling around the old hay mound,
Little old horse, he took a chew,
“Darned if I don’t,” said the old cow too.

Granny’s music and singing style were rediscovered by Joan Baez during the American folk music revival of the 1960s. Granny was not a part of this as her health was failing at the time. She died in 1967 without ever achieving the fame and fortune she so richly deserved. Nonetheless, she remains a true Appalachian treasure to those of us who loved her and to those who loved her music.

Useful links on Texas Gladden & Hobart Smith —

If you are interested, she is also seen in a short film narrated by Pete Seeger titled To Hear Your Banjo Play. It can be found at:

Texas+Gladden Smyth+County+VA Alan+Lomax Appalachian+ballads appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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