A Tribute to Ballad Singer Phyllis Marks (June 5,1927-June 22, 2019)


Phyllis Marks performing at the West Virginia Humanities Council, 2016

By Emily Hilliard

According to folklorist Gerry Milnes, Phyllis (née Frashure) Marks, who passed away June 22, 2019 at the age of 92, was the last active ballad singer in West Virginia who, as she says, “learned by heart,” via oral transmission, namely from her mother Arlene Layfield Frashure, and her grandmother, Sarah Margaret Messenger Layfield, both of Irish ancestry. She was among West Virginia’s finest musicians and was an exceptional bearer of traditional unaccompanied singing in the Appalachian region.

Phyllis Marks was born in Sand Fork, West Virginia, on June 5, 1927. As her father, Marion Frashure, of Scottish heritage, died when Phyllis was just six months old, Phyllis was raised by her mother. Drawn to music at an early age, she learned several songs from her grandmother before she passed away when Phyllis was five years old. Phyllis’ mother helped her remember her grandmother’s songs and taught her many others. At age fourteen, Marks began to lose her eyesight due to a failed invasive treatment by a country doctor after an allergic reaction, and ultimately became completely blind at age 54. In 1943, she married Jesse Marks, a coal miner, sawmill worker, and shape-note singing school teacher, and together they had four children. In addition to being a housewife and gardener, Phyllis worked for fifteen years in the cafeteria at Glenville State College, and recalls often singing while washing dishes and preparing food. In 1949, Marks met pioneering West Virginia folklorist Dr. Patrick Gainer and he invited her to perform at the college. Speaking of this first performance, she recalled in an interview:

 When I was at school, I would say great long poems but I didnt sing in public. Dr. Patrick Gainer went to Webster County to see my mother but she wouldnt come down [to sing for him]. And I was living on Lynch Run so they come up there on Lynch Run to see if I knew the songs… any old songs, and I did—I sang some. I was kind of bashful. He said, “Well your voice is not very loud but therell be a microphone there. And I said,“See all these kids, I cant sing without a rocking chair!” And when I went to the stage there was a rocking chair! I didnt really mean it!

She laughed remembering her ribbing of the professor. Though the two were both Gilmer County natives, Dr. Gainer was the esteemed professor from the public university, and the one holding the microphone, with the authority to put Marks on a stage. Marks’ joke playfully disrupted that hierarchy.

Phyllis Marks, ballad singer
Phyllis Marks performs outside the Humanities Council’s MacFarland Hubbard House, 2016. Photo by Mike Keller

Phyllis Marks was a master in her field whose artistry was made exemplary by her unique and vast repertoire, vocal skill, and her lifetime commitment to sharing and transmitting traditional balladry in West Virginia. Erynn Marshall writes in her 2006 book Music in the Air Somewhere: The Shifting Borders of West Virginia’s Fiddle and Song Traditions, “Despite the waves of interest in the wonderful sonorities sung by commercially recorded groups like the Carters [The Carter Family], Phyllis remained a solo singer. She loved the songs she had learned from her mother or grandmother and sought out others of a similar vein and time, learning, as a result, a more archaic, unaccompanied singing style.” In building her repertoire, Marks made a conscious choice to focus on songs of an older era. This curation of songs contributes to her aesthetic as an artist and made her a valuable preservationist. Her diverse repertoire includes Child ballads such as “The Cherry Tree Carol” (#54), “Lord Lovel” (#75), and “Dandoo” (#277), rare versions of old-time southern ballads that have scarcely been recorded elsewhere, hymns, lullabies, play party games, and topical songs conveying stories of West Virginia’s timber industry and frontier history. She also wrote, sang, and recited original songs and poems. Faced with blindness, Phyllis committed all of these songs and recitations, many of them lengthy, to memory, and learned by ear rather than from songbooks or written notes.

Marks performed annually at the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville. She first appeared on the stage in the festival’s inaugural year of 1954, only missing one year since due to illness. A local fixture there for over 65 years, the 2005 festival was dedicated to her. Marks was also featured at the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston; the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins; Appalshop’s Seedtime on the Cumberland in Whitesburg, Kentucky; the Berea Celebration of Traditional Music in Berea, Kentucky; and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington in Washington, D.C. In fall of 2016, she performed a special concert at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston, presented by the West Virginia Folklife Program and supported by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress’ 2016 Henry Reed Fund Award. The concert and interview recordings and related documents are now part of a collection at the American Folklife Center, adding to Marks’ existing recordings in the archive. She was revered in her community for her songs and stories, and sang regularly at local funerals, nursing homes, and for her family and visitors. She often swapped songs with her in-home caregiver, who visited her daily.

Phyllis Marks3
Phyllis Marks performing at the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville.
Photographer and date unknown.

Marks taught ballad singing to her granddaughter Crystal Miller, 44, of Fairmont, West Virginia, who performed with her on occasion. Marks also taught four apprentices—Sonja Bird, Debbie Ridden, Helena Triplett, and Sarah Goldstein as part of the Augusta Heritage Center’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program, which Gerry Milnes ran for twenty-two years until the program ended in 2013. In 1996, Triplett recorded an album Green Are the Woods: Traditional Ballads and Songs from West Virginia, including two of the songs she learned from Phyllis.

Phyllis Marks stands out for the important role that she has played in preserving and transmitting the rich repertories of vocal music that constituted the musical soundtrack to domestic life of women in the Mountain State during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. –Dr. Travis Stimeling

Phyllis Marks was recorded in 1978 by Charles W. Bean and Derrick M. Jones as part of the West Virginia Folk Music Project for the American Folklife Center (AFC). That 30-minute tape is now included in the AFC’s holdings at the Library of Congress. She was featured in the 1989-1990 radio documentary Southern Songbirds: The Women of Early Country and Old-Time Music along with National Heritage Fellows Ola Belle Reed, Jean Ritchie, Etta Baker, and fellow West Virginian Hazel Dickens. In 1991 and 1997, Phyllis was recorded by Milnes, who produced two albums, Phyllis Marks: Folksongs and Ballads, vol.2 and Phyllis Marks: Old-Time Songs of West Virginia for the Augusta Heritage Center. Her recordings are included on the 2000 compilation Lest We Forget: The 50th Annual West Virginia State Folk Festival with the ballad “Molly Darlin.” Marks is also a featured musician in Erynn Marshall’s book and accompanying CD on West Virginia traditional music, Music in the Air Somewhere (2006, West Virginia University Press). In 2015, Goldenseal, the magazine of West Virginia traditional life, published a feature article by Milnes on Marks’ life and work.

One thing I recall about Phyllis’s many performances is that the audiences never seem to tire of her stories and songs. Although she has a vast repertoire of old ballads, stories, and just plain funny songs, the audiences tend to request that she repeat a lot of the material year after year. There are likely some people who don’t actually know her but who have some of her songs and stories memorized just from hearing her on stage year after year. – David O’Dell

Anyone who ever heard her perform on the stage at the West Virginia State Folk Festival for over 65 years, listened to her sing at her local nursing home, learned ballads from her recordings, or apprenticed with her directly, knew Phyllis Marks to be a national treasure. As I’ve done fieldwork around the state, I’ve heard Phyllis repeatedly referred to as the touchstone of the West Virginia ballad tradition, and “the last of the old timers”—a formidable group of West Virginia musicians which includes banjo player Aunt “Jennie” Wilson, fiddler Ernie Carpenter, and National Heritage Fellow Melvin Wine. Over the course of her 92 years, Phyllis Marks remained committed to sustaining and transmitting her skill and knowledge of traditional ballad singing in the Mountain State.

Phyllis Marks Recordings

  • Charles W. Bean and Derrick M. Jones West Virginia Folk Music Project (AFC 1979/076) Thirteen 10-inch tapes of the Hammons Family, Dewey Farley, Melvin Wine, Stan Childers, Russell Fluharty, and Phoebe Parsons. Also a party at home of Howard Glasser, Westport, Massachusetts, featuring South American Music (Ecuador); also Bobby Taylor (and “Taylor Made” group), Gerry Vance Group, both recorded at Huntersville Bluegrass Festival, Frank George (fiddle), and Professor Patrick Gainer, interview. Collected by Charles Bean and Derrick Jones, July 1978. [catalog recordAFC 1979/076: AFS 19,535B1-10: One tape containing songs sung by Phyllis Marks. Recorded in Cox’s Mills, West Virginia, July 26, 1978. (30 minutes; LWO 12,385 reel 11B)
  • “The Spitting Story,” on Seedtime on the Cumberland, Volume 1. June Appal Recordings.
  • Southern Songbirds: The Women of Early Country and Old-Time Music by Rachel Anne Goodman, 13-part radio documentary. 1989-1990. Available in the Archives of Appalachia, East Tennessee State University.
  • Phyllis Marks: Folksongs and Ballads, vol.2. Augusta Heritage Recordings. 1991. Cassette.
  • Phyllis Marks: Old-Time Songs of West Virginia, 28-track album, Augusta Heritage Recordings. 1997. Compact Disc.
  • “Molly Darlin,” on Lest We Forget: The 50th Annual West Virginia State Folk Festival. 2000. Compact Disc.
  • “In the Sweet By and By,” and “Redwing” on Music in the Air Somewhere: The Shifting Borders of West Virginia’s Fiddle and Song Traditions by Erynn Marshall, West Virginia University Press. 2006. Compact Disc (companion to the book).