Mary Greene

Music, ballads, folksongs, mountain dulcimer, Shape-note music

Mary Greene

Recipient Information

Location

Boone, North Carolina

Medium

Music, ballads, folksongs, mountain dulcimer, Shape-note music

Year of Award

2021

Grant or Fellowship

Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship

Grant Amount

$0

Mary Greene, a traditional singer of Appalachian ballads and folksongs, a shape-note singer, and a mountain dulcimer player, is both a performer and teacher. Listening to ballad singers and traditional musicians as well as playing and singing with these mentors illustrate Greene’s lifelong commitment and development as a traditional musician and singer.

Greene learned shape-note singing (the seven-shape tradition) from her family and church. The tradition of shape-note singing runs deep in Greene’s family as her grandmother was a Christian Harmony singer, and her father started teaching her the shapes of the notes by the time she was five. Today, she is part of the contemporary gospel shape-note singing community that involves teaching singers how to sight-read and compose using shape notes.

“When I was ten, a man came to our house and sang songs on our porch,” explained Greene. “His songs made such a strong impression on me. Later I learned that my father's mother and mother's grandmother had both been ballad singers. But my father was 57 when I was born, and my mother was 43. There was no way to directly learn from my family. So, I apprenticed myself to Ora Watson, a traditional singer and instrumentalist, in my early twenties. She was born in 1911 and had a remarkable memory for songs and tunes. I told her I wanted to learn the old mountain music and she said, ‘Well, just come along with me.’ I did just that.”

Over the years, Greene has been influenced by an impressive roster of traditional singers and musicians with deep roots in Appalachia. In addition to Ora Watson, she has worked with and learned from tradition bearers who include dulcimer player Phyllis Gaskins, ballad singer Bessie Eldreth, and several acclaimed dulcimer makers Stanley Hicks, Leonard Glenn, and Clifford Glenn.

“Within the larger Appalachian region, there is an observable decrease in the number of young people who are exposed to ballads, shape-notes, and the mountain dulcimer.” Greene continues the tradition of teaching and mentoring serving as an instructor for the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program. She teaches balladry, shape-note singing, and the mountain dulcimer. Greene works diligently to keep these traditions alive in hopes that younger practitioners will embrace the music heritage of Central Appalachia.

Greene’s lifelong learning plans are two-fold. She anticipates visiting several research and archival centers to learn more about the history of Appalachian music. This includes visits to the Library of Congress, The Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University, (which contains field recordings of Watauga County singers collected in the 1960s and 70s including Ora Watson), and the Southern Folklore Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill among others. Her research will also include networking with other ballad singers, dulcimer players, and shape-note singers at gatherings such as Tri-City Gospel Music Camp (Kingsport, Tennessee), Traditional Song Week at the Swannanoa Gathering (Asheville, North Carolina), Kentucky Music Week (Bardstown, Kentucky), and Christian Harmony singings (Etowah, North Carolina). Greene also hope to meet with renowned North Carolina ballad singer Bobbie McMillon via Zoom. She anticipates these new learning opportunities will impact and expand her teaching curriculum and performance repertoire.