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Sheila Kay Adams (Mentor Artist) and Ian Kirkpatrick (Apprentice)

Traditional Appalachian Ballads

Sheila Kay Adams

Recipient Information


Madison County, North Carolina

Project Title

Traditional Appalachian Ballads

Year of Award


Grant or Fellowship

Folk & Traditional Arts Cross-Border Mentor-Apprentice Teams

Grant Amount


Sheila Kay Adams (Madison County, NC), Mentor Artist. Sheila Kay Adams, a former North Carolina Heritage Award and National Heritage Award recipient, has been singing the ballads she learned from her family for 60 years. She is also an accomplished storyteller and banjo player.

Ian Kirkpatrick (Claiborne County, TN), Apprentice. Ian Kirkpatrick is an accomplished clogger turned ballad singer. He grew up learning ballads as “secular songs” from his gospel-singing family and is excited to deepen his repertoire and strengthen his voice as he studies with Ms. Adams.

Ballad singing in Appalachia is a tradition going back to the earliest Scottish and English settlers to the area. Settlers brought the songs they knew from home, and according to Ian Kirkpatrick, “the artform continued to grow, and distinct American songs were added to the pre-colonial repertoire.” Ballads are traditionally unaccompanied and tell a story. Kirkpatrick explains that “historically, ballad singing was an important form of social entertainment that could be engaged [in] during any task or activity. It was also vital for remembering historical events in a majority-illiterate society, as the tunes and rhyme schemes aided memorization….At one time, this artform was commonly practiced by my family and my community” but it has largely died out in many areas. “I have friends and relatives who continue to sing those ballads that were able to survive in the bluegrass and country genres, though they often do not know the history of those particular songs.”