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Phyllis Marks
"Learned by Heart"

Text and photographs by Gerald Milnes

Phyllis Marks performing at the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville.
She is a regular participant at the Folk Festival. Photograph and date unknown.

I remember sitting in Phyllis Marks’ tiny house in Gilmer County in 1979 and hearing her sing an old song usually titled “The Two Sisters.” It’s a rare ballad about a love triangle involving a young suitor who decides to woo the younger of two sisters. The older one “didn’t like that,” becomes jealous, entices her younger sister down to the “sea brim,” and pushes her in. When found, the young drowned girl’s “golden hair” is made into a fiddle bow:

And when on the fiddle the bow it did sound,
It said, “By my sister I was drowned.”

In the song, the fiddle magically reveals how the girl’s life was taken. This ballad with its supernatural ending, extremely rare in this country, is said by scholars to have originated in northern Europe, found its way from Scandinavia to Scotland sometime during the Middle Ages, and came to America in the 18th century. It was sung by Phyllis’ grandmother and mother and is now still sung in West Virginia by Phyllis Marks. Through all of these generations, it was not learned from books, but was passed from one person to another and “learned by heart.”

I have been extremely fortunate to have known several old-time singers in West Virginia. Members of the Hammonds/Hammons family of Randolph and Pocahontas counties, Everett White of Harrison County, Russell Lehew of Marion County, William May of Mingo County, Dock Scott of McDowell County, Clyde Case of Braxton County, and Hazel Stover of Clay County to name a few. Many, including Phyllis Marks, ended up contributing to folksong and ballad anthologies I produced for the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College from field recordings I made over the years. Phyllis is the last active ballad singer I know of in the state who learned by heart from traditional sources in the traditional way. At age 87, she still proudly sings them for anyone who cares to listen.

Phyllis learned most of her ballads, folksongs, and life lessons from her mother, Arlene Layfield Frashure, whom Phyllis says was of Irish ancestry.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.