Gin Burris: Wind and Rain

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Gin Burris was born in 1953 and has lived all her life in Carroll County, Virginia.  Born to Roscoe and Ethel Lovell Burcham, Gin entered into a family with a profoundly rich musical heritage.  Music has been a part of Gin’s life from the beginning.  “Dad says that when I was born,” Gin recalls, “Dr. Beeken slapped me on the rear and I hit a perfect high C.  That’s a little early for me to remember but if he says it, then it must be true!”  In Gin’s southern mountain childhood, music was not just for public performance and presentation; it was a constant presence in the home, made with family and friends for pleasure and company.  Gin remembers Sundays in particular as a time of music making:

Every Sunday afternoon we would go to my grandmother’s, my mother’s mother, and sing. She lived right beside her mom and dad, which would have been my Great-Grandpa Smith. It was an every Sunday thing after church, and I just thought everybody did that. I grew up thinking that everybody made music on Sunday evenin’. I found out later that everybody didn’t.

Gin says that there were hymns and folksongs performed at these gatherings, as well as some popular country music of the day.

Gin’s great-grandfather on her mother’s side was legendary old-time fiddle and banjo player Glenn Smith, who appears on several Folkways records from the 1960′s, notably Traditional Music From Grayson and Carroll Counties, Virginia, released in 1962, as well as a seminal collection on County Records, Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 2.  One of Smith’s instruments is housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

Gin’s great aunt, Evelyn Smith Farmer, who plays guitar and autoharp, and Gin’s mother, Ethel, performed on the radio in Galax, VA on Saturday mornings when Ethel was a teenager.  They were known as The Sunshine Girls, after their sponsor Sunshine Mills, purveyors of flour and corn meal.  Gin’s uncle, Jesse Lovell, is also a well known guitar player and singer in the area.  The family’s ancestry is from England, and Gin has traced their lineage in Virginia back to before the Civil War.

On Gin’s father Roscoe’s side, the family’s roots have also been traced back to England, going back to the 1500s.  The family came to America in the late 1670s, and settled in what is now the Grayson and Carroll County region of Virginia sometime in the mid 1700s.  Roscoe’s great uncle, Sidna Myers, was a storied fiddle and banjo player who appears on John Cohen’s legendary field recordings from 1965, released as High Atmosphere.  Sidna also appears with his nephew, Fulton “Jimmy Natural” Myers, with whom he played music for over 50 years, on the aforementioned County Records Clawhammer Banjo collection that features Glenn Smith.  For years, a large photograph depicting Sidna and Fulton on Sidna’s front porch graced the walls of the Smithsonian Institution.   It now hangs in the First National Bank building in that cherished hotbed of old-time music, Galax, Virginia.

Among the songs that were passed on to Gin by her family are several ballads that are traceable back to the British Isles of the 1600s and 1700s.  The collection and study of these ballads, and their continuation and appropriation by the peoples of Southern Appalachia in particular, has long captivated students of folklore.  Of particular interest to folklorists and collectors was evidence of American survivals of ballads referenced in the collection of Harvard Professor Francis J. Child (1825-1896).  Child’s massive five-volume work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was so seminal that scholars to this day refer to any of the 305 songs that he transcribed and catalogued as “Child Ballads,” differentiated by the numbers (1-305) that he ascribed to each song in his canon.  For many students, musicians, and aficionados alike, these songs are nothing less than the Rosetta Stone of Anglo-American folk music.  Four of the songs that Gin sings on this recording are variants of Child Ballads that were passed on to her by her kin.  Fully five more are found in the collection of G. Malcolm Laws, one of the pioneers of the study of balladry in America.  The remaining songs on this recording are three of American origin, familiar to music lovers everywhere, all passed on to Gin by her family.

These songs have been performed for generations and have traversed the globe, providing both the foundation for some of the first recordings of American vernacular music, as well as the basic texts of the American and English folk music revival of the early 1960s. To find these songs at the dawn of the twenty-first century, performed by someone to whom they were given in an unbroken lineage that pre-dates sound recording and modern media, is almost unheard of.  That they comprise as full and varied a collection as this, is historically significant. That they are the possession of a singer as powerful as Gin Burris is simply priceless.

Gin learned some songs from her grandmother on her father’s side, but the majority of them were learned from her mother and her mother’s family:

A lot of them I had heard her sing back when I was small, and some of them – my Grandma Burcham used to babysit me when I was little – and a lot of them she would sing at home. At the time, you know, I didn’t know what they were. I just thought they were pretty songs. I didn’t know that they were really, really old songs.

Gin’s first performances took place when she was a child at Shiloh Methodist Church and at Spraker’s, a small community store:

Horace and Pearl Spraker ran the store when I was 5, 6 and 7 years old.  I can remember them setting me up on the pop cooler and getting me to sing. My payment was a popsicle, a bottle of pop, or a candy bar. I didn’t realize how much this helped me overcome my shyness. My mom said I used to twist my fingers in my dress tail and hang my head when I sung, so I guess those popsicles and double colas did the trick.

Gin soon became a seasoned performer with her family, which traveled during the summers as a family troupe of old-time flatfoot dancers.  Some family members danced, while others provided the music.  One time, they performed for the infamous Governor George Wallace of Alabama.  Mostly, they would perform at music festivals and fiddlers’ conventions.  These gatherings usually center around contests between the performers. When Gin was fifteen or sixteen years old she entered a singing competition for the first time.  Until then, she had competed only as a dancer.

It was at this time in her life that Gin first became aware of the wealth and uniqueness of her musical upbringing:

I would say probably when I first started competing, when I was like 15, 16 years old is probably when it really, actually sunk in what the songs were that I was singing. The old-time music… I grew up hearing it from the time I was born, and I just thought everybody played it.  I thought it was a common thing.  But when I got into high school, I found out a lot of my friends didn’t even know what I was talking about.  Then it hit me that it must be something kind of special that we’ve got, because the majority of them didn’t even go to the fiddlers’ conventions or anything.  I was like, “I can’t believe this.  I thought everybody done this!”

In addition to dancing and singing, Gin is a bassist, as well as a master player of the dulcimer.  Gin is also a wife and mother who makes her home in Hillsville, Virginia.  When time permits, she and her husband Joey, who is a fine old-time and bluegrass musician as well, continue to perform at fiddlers’ conventions.  They have both amassed an impressive number of ribbons and awards over the years, including many at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, one of the most prestigious competitions in the field.  Of special note in a long career of championships, Gin’s 2006 victory in the dulcimer category at Galax marked an astounding seven championships in that category alone.  She has also won at many other competitions in several different categories.  Only an elite few musicians can lay claim to performance careers as successful as those of the Burrises.

When asked what victory stands out the most in her many years of competition, Gin recalls one some years ago at Galax, a small contest called the Twin County Hillbilly Championships:

I won first place in the vocal. I was 29 years old, and that was the first time I have ever won anything singing. The first time!  I had competed since I was 15, all over the place, and never won a thing. That’s the one that stands out the most. I had competed for 13 or 14 years in folksong and never won a thing in the world, and then I won first place. It was a lot easier after that, I think.

Given that performers are usually limited to entering only one category in the competitions and that Gin hasn’t fronted a band for some years, her remarkable talent as a singer is relatively unknown to the world at large. “I don’t get asked to do a lot of shows,” she says, amazingly.  “A lot of people don’t even know I sing.”

These days, her singing, at least publicly, is limited to a few shows a year.  Occasionally, Gin will perform a few numbers with Joey’s group, The Southern Pride Band.  In addition, Gin contributed some vocals on their 2001 recording, Something Different.   Like Gin, Joey also comes from a long line of storied old-time musicians.  It is the Southern Pride Band and their friends and family who provide the wonderful accompaniment to the recordings on this record. They strike a perfect complement to Gin’s singing – skillful yet understated, never overshadowing her lovely vocals. It should come as no surprise to the listener that they have won a similarly impressive array of ribbons and awards. “They win everywhere they go,” Gin says proudly.

When producer Jon Lohman asked Gin who she wanted to play on her record, the choice was simple.  “Jon told me I could get anybody I wanted to play on there,” Gin explains, “I said I can’t think of anybody better than my husband and his band. They played with me for a long time and kind of put up with me.”  In addition to the historical importance of the songs and Gin Burris’ lovely vocals, these recordings are noteworthy for their tasteful accompaniment.  No one here is “putting up” with anyone.

Ultimately, this recording gives Gin the chance to pass these songs on to another generation of singers and players.  After many generations in her family, this unbroken line of music, sadly, may not outlast Gin.  “Right now in my family, I’m pretty much the end of the line.  I’ve got one son and he’s got no interest in it whatsoever.  My brother has two sons, and they don’t care anything about it.  I really can’t think of anybody in the family that has any interest in carrying it on.  I’m pretty much the end of the line…and that’s a sad thing.”

This point was tragically underscored for Gin shortly after these songs were recorded:

My mother died June the 7th, and my father died July the 26th.  I asked for a copy of the rough cut of the cd because they hadn’t heard it, and I got it the day that my mother died.   So she never did get to hear it.  My dad did, but she never did get to hear it.  The majority of it came from her.  There’s a few of them that came from my grandma on my dad’s side, but the majority of it came from Mom.

I really had some great influences growing up, on both sides of the family.  Later on when I got older, I realized that not everybody had that and I really got a special gift.  I owe them for giving me the gift of music, and I just hope by me carrying it on that they’re looking down, smiling on me.

This recording, then, is Gin’s way of passing along the gift that was so lovingly passed on to her.  In lieu of a younger generation of family to share it with, she will selflessly and happily pass it along to anyone who wishes to share it.  “When I go to conventions, a lot of people, they’re kind of weird about their songs and their music, and they don’t share it readily.  And I’m not like that.  If somebody wants to learn something from me, I’m glad to let them know.”  She adds, “I’d hate for the old way of singing to die out.  Everybody needs to keep it alive if they can, and you can’t keep it alive if you keep it to yourself. You gotta’ give it away.”

In a way, these old songs have always filled a vital need, as counsel and guide and as moral compass. They speak simply and eloquently of the seasons of the human heart and of the need to be always mindful of the effect that our lives may have upon others. As the modern world continues to trivialize and ignore the traditions that were once the highest expressions of our forebears, we would all do well to accept this precious gift of song from Gin Burris. As Gin herself says, most poignantly, “It’s good to know where you come from. You don’t know where you’re going ’til you know where you come from.”

I hope y’all enjoy this CD. I really enjoyed making it, and I put some of my favorite songs on it. I think it’s really important for the younger generation to hear these songs and to pass them down to the next generation. We must preserve the songs from our past. I hope that, in some small way, I have helped to keep these songs from disappearing and that they will live on for years to come.

This CD is dedicated to Mom and Dad.I love you and miss you.

Thanks so much for listening. ~ Gin

  1. BARBARA ALLEN
    The most widely known of the Child Ballads (Child 84), the song is one of the most popular in the English language.  It is, without question, the most widely collected ballad in Virginia, with a record 92 versions in the A.K. Davis Collection.The first known reference to the song is found in a diary entry from 1666.  It is rumored to have been a favorite of George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and Abraham Lincoln is said to have sung it as a boy in Indiana. Joan Baez and Jean Ritchie introduced this song to many modern listeners during the folk music revival of the 1960s. Often known as “Barbry Allen” in the Southern mountains, this song was taught to Gin by her grandmother, Jessie Burcham. “Barbara Allen is the old-time way. That’s the way my Grandma Burcham used to do it, with the little turns on the end of the words.”
    Gin Burris, vocal
  2. THE BUTCHER BOY
    The Butcher Boy is from the collection amassed by G. Malcolm Laws (Laws P24). Gin says, “This is a song from my mother, Ethel Burcham. She won many folksong competitions with this song. It is also another song from England, probably from the 1600s or 1700s.”  The Virginia Folklore Society collected numerous versions of this song, particularly in Campbell County.It has been recorded by many artists, including Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson and, most notably, by Buell Kazee in 1928, captured on the monumental Anthology of American Folk Music, on Smithsonian Folkways Records (SWF40090).
    Gin Burris, vocal
    Joey Burris,
    guitar
    Terry Semones, 
    bass
  3. CABBAGE HEAD
    A song going at least as far back as the 1700s, this is a variant of Four Nights Drunk (Child 274), which, was also often known and collected in Virginia as Our Goodman.This song experienced numerous commercial recordings, and was featured on the Anthology of American Folk Music, in a version by Coley Jones.Gin says, “My Grandma Burcham sang that when she was a girl, and she sang a couple verses of it at her 100th birthday party.  She still remembered the words to it! That amazed me. I said I’ll have to do that one for Granny!”
    Gin Burris, vocal 
    Joey Burris,
    guitar 
    Kevin Fore,
    clawhammer banjo
  4. FAIR AND TENDER LADIES
    “This song came from my mother, Ethel Burcham, and Great Aunt Evelyn Farmer, and Uncle Jesse Lovell. This song is also quite well known here in the mountains and has been performed at conventions and festivals for years,” says Gin. With the gorgeous a-capella three-part harmony, Gin and friends turn in a nearly definitive performance of this lovely song of American origin. Recorded also by Mike Seeger and Mother Maybelle Carter among others, related songs include old-time music legend Roscoe Holcomb’s haunting 1964 Willow Tree.
    Gin Burris, lead vocal
    Joey Burris, Ronnie Lyons, harmony vocals
  5. GEORDIE
    This song (Child 209) has variants reaching back to the 1600s, possibly even earlier.The earliest documented Virginia version was collected in Bedford County by the prolific song collector Cecil J. Sharp, in 1918.This song came to Gin through her mother’s family. “I’ve kind of put it a little more upbeat, a little jazzier than the original way.” Note Joey Burris’ wonderful guitar work.  In many American versions of the song, the condemned’s name is changed to “Georgie.”
    Gin Burris, vocal
    Joey Burris, guitar
  6. MARY OF THE WILD MOOR
    A song (Laws P21) popular in both Britain and America and dating back to at least the 1700s, it has been found throughout the American South, as well as in Canada and Wisconsin.  Versions were collected throughout central and southwest Virginia.Gin says, “This song is another one from my mother. I always loved the story of this song and could see the words come to life.” She adds, “It’s embarrassing; I used to cry when I’d sing that song.” It has been recorded by the Blue Sky Boys, and memorably, by an aging Johnny Cash in 2000.
    Gin Burris, vocal
    Joey Burris,
    guitar 
    Ronnie Lyons,
    mandolin
    Terry Semones,
    bass
  7. ONE MORNING IN MAY
    Variants of this song are found in England as early as 1675. This is an American version (Laws P14). Gin’s mother and great-aunt both used to sing this song, which has been recorded by Jean Ritchie, the Country Gentlemen, and James Taylor, among many. The melody was adapted by Woody Guthrie for his 1913
    Massacre.
    Gin Burris, vocal 
    Joey Burris,
    guitar
    Ronnie Lyons,
    mandolin
    Terry Semones,
    bass
  8. PRETTY SARO
    “This is a song that my grandmother, Jessie Burcham, used to sing and hum when I was small. It is said to be one of the first American ballads, probably from the mid to late 1700s,” says Gin. Other collected Virginia versions include the titles Little Saro from Albemarle County and My True Love, from Gin’s own Carroll County.Noteworthy recordings include Jean Ritchie, Doc Watson, Judy Collins, and David Grisman.
    Gin Burris, vocal
  9. SHADY GROVE
    “This song is a standard of the mountains and I can remember a number of my family members performing this song. My great-grandpa Glenn Smith used to play this song. I wanted to showcase the three distinctive styles of clawhammer banjo playing,” says Gin. The three banjos make this a delightful and innovative take on one of the true classics of old-time American music. The earliest known version dates back to 1916. Versions have been recorded by hundreds of artists, including Clarence Ashley and Bill Monroe.
    Gin Burris, vocal
    Joey Burris, Kevin Fore, Trish K. Fore, clawhammer banjos
  10. SILVER DAGGER
    Gin learned this song from her mother. This is another song of American origin, perfectly suited to Gin’s lovely voice. The earliest known version is from 1904, although it is almost certainly older.There were numerous variations of this ballad collected throughout Southwest Virginia, with titles ranging from Come Men and Maids (Dickenson County) to Broken Hearts (Roanoke County.) It was most famously recorded and performed by Joan Baez in the early 1960s, including a 1964 live recording with Bob Dylan.
    Gin Burris, vocal
    Joey Burris,
    guitar
    James Burris,
    fiddle
    Ronnie Lyons,
    mandolin
    Terry Semones,
    bass
  11. WILL THE WEAVER
    This comical song of infidelity (Laws Q9) came to Gin from her mother, via her sister, Gin’s Aunt Peggy. The earliest known version comes from a broadside from 1793. It has been found in America, Canada, and Ireland. Recorded versions include performances by Doc Watson and Mike Seeger.
    Gin Burris, vocal 
    Joey Burris,
    guitar 
    James Burris,
    bass
  12. WIND AND RAIN
    “I got this song from my uncle, Terry Wayne Burcham, in Alabama,” recalls Gin. This song, a variant of The Twa Sisters (Child 10) makes its earliest known appearance in a 1656 broadside. Gin and company turn in a fine performance of this tune.  Notable recordings include performances by Mike Seeger, and autoharp virtuoso Kilby Snow.
    Gin Burris, vocal 
    Joey Burris,
    guitar
    Trish K. Fore,
    clawhammer banjo