“I Think That the Women Made the Folk Songs”: Phyllis Marks in Concert

Phyllis Marks, ballad singer
Phyllis Marks performs at the West Virginia Humanities Council. Photo by Mike Keller.

On September 8, 2016 we hosted our first West Virginia Folklife Program concert on the patio of the West Virginia Humanities Council, with a performance by 89 year-old Gilmer County ballad singer Phyllis Marks.

Phyllis Marks was born Phyllis Mariam Frashure on June 5, 1927, in Sand Fork, Gilmer County, WV. According to folklorist Gerry Milnes, Marks is the last active ballad singer in the state who, as she says, “learned by heart,” via oral transmission, mainly from her mother and grandmother, both of Irish ancestry. Since 1954, Phyllis has performed annually at the West Virginia State Folk Festival at Glenville. A fixture at the festival and in her community, the 2005 festival was dedicated to her.

Marks was recorded in 1978 for the Library of Congress and has been featured in various books and radio programs. In 1997, she worked with Gerry Milnes to release the Augusta Heritage album Phyllis Marks: Old-Time Songs of West Virginia.

In this clip from the event, Marks performs the Child ballad, “Bow and Balance to Me,” (aka “Two Sisters”) which she learned from her mother.

“I guess I’ll start with the “Bow and Balance to Me.” My mother seemed to think there was another song that went with this that was really the song– that this was a play party game where you sing bow and balance to me. So when we get to that part, “bow down, bow down” and “bow and balance to me,” I’d like for the whole congregation to join in that. That’s the way the songs were passed down—word of mouth. That’s why some of them have different words, different tunes if they didn’t know what went there they made up something so that’s why some of them were different.”

Phyllis Marks, ballad singer
Phyllis Marks concert on the West Virginia Humanities Council patio. Photo by Mike Keller.

“Now I think that the women made the folk songs. I think that the men come home after being out deadin’-around with their foot in the road like the men likes to do, and told their wives these stories and she had to make up the songs to entertain the older children while she churned and rocked the cradle with the other foot. But now that’s just my guess. And now all these little riddle-dy diddle-dies can entertain the children.”

The concert, which drew over 50 attendees, was supported by a Henry Reed Fund Award from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress as well as ZMM Architects & Engineers. The recording of the event will become part of the archival holdings of the American Folklife Center.

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