Little Granny


Berzilla Wallin, Sodom, Madison County, NC 1975

Little Granny they called her. And,
by the time I met her in 1975, she was 83, and truly little.
Married to Lee, a job in itself from what I understand,
although I never met the man.
Mother to ten kids, I believe, might have been twelve.
She was a farmer and singer of the old ballads.
The whole family sang as did most families back then.
But the Wallins got some notoriety from it. 
Pictures on album covers. Collectors. Young people coming around.
Invitations to sing at big places.
Sons Jack and Doug had their own album and
Doug was something of a legend.
Many consider him to be the best, period.
But he'd tell you he got it all from his mother,
Little Granny, the Matriarch,
his best friend he told me many times,
who he stayed with 'til she died,
never marrying,
never  spending a night away.


Hero - Doug Wallin

Doug Wallin, Folk Festival, Cullowhee, North Carolina

Doug Wallin, Folk Festival, Cullowhee, North Carolina

It’s hard to think of Doug Wallin and not smile. One of my first times around him, I helped him and his brother Jack hang tobacco in the barn next to their cabin on Crain Branch. Doug was high in the barn, moving between the top two tier poles. I was new to the work and he didn't want me handling the heavy sticks of burley while up too high in the barn. After we got into a rhythm with the passing of the tobacco, Doug began singing. His voice echoed from the tin roof and filled the barn with his unique soft voice, eloquent phrasing and unaffected style. It gave me goosebumps and made me smile back then and does the same thing now as I write about it.

Doug always made me smile. He was a bit of a jokester and player of pranks as his father, Lee Wallin, was noted to be. He had a song to fit most any occasion and reputedly knew over 300 ballads and songs. Doug could be cantankerous and suspicious and he didn't suffer fools or what he perceived as disrespect. When his mind was made up about something or someone, he wouldn't change it. He would quickly drop an offender from his life. He was an incredibly gifted singer, many say the best Madison County has ever produced.

I was fortunate in that Doug’s mother Berzilla, Dellie Norton's 83 year old sister, really liked me. Her daughter Berthie once said her mother used to daydream about me, which I find amazing and flattering given our 55 year age difference. As is the case in any community that celebrates family as Madison County does, my relationship with Berzilla carried over to Doug and over the years we grew fond and comfortable with each other.

Years later, after Berzilla died, and Jack was needing increased attention at the VA Hospital in Asheville, the brothers moved to a small apartment near the Marshall bypass. As much as I loved spending time at the cabin, listening to music and stories, eating, working, sitting on their porch, my favorite memory is from the time when they were living in town.


Doug Playing Fiddle for Kate, Crain Branch, Madison County, North Carolina, 1992

I stopped at Ingles on the way home today. I had Benny and Kate with me and walking through the canned food aisle we ran into Doug and Jack who were doing their weekly shopping. We visited for a time and talked briefly of their lives in town. I begged off, needing to get the kids home and fed, and told them I’d come by soon for a visit. As we turned to go, Doug and Jack both reached into their pants pockets and pulled out their wallets. They each found two one-dollar bills and ceremoniously presented one to each of the kids - a gesture so stunning in its simplicity and sheer goodwill.


Portrait of Liz Franklin

I made this photograph in 1975, less than two years after my arrival in Madison County. I had gone with Dellie, and her sister Berzilla, to visit an old friend of Berzilla’s named Ernie Franklin who lived in the small community of Chapel Hill in the county. She knew him from the older days, when her husband Lee was alive and they would regularly make music in the community. Ernie played fiddle and banjo and also made instruments and tools. She didn’t know where he lived exactly, but they figured we’d find him.

After some asking around and missed turns, we turning onto a dirt track, passed a broad empty pasture, and into a hollar with nice southern exposure. Soon, we came to a small cluster of buildings – a house with a thin smoke coming from a stone chimney, the remains of the old house with wood shingles, now used for storage, and I think a small barn. 


A small, wiry man came out of the house. Ernie Franklin. After he and Berzilla got re-acquainted, he invited us in to meet his mother who also lived there. With winter approaching, Liz Franklin was soon going to live with her daughter in Asheville, and once inside the house, you realized how tough it would be for an older, frail, person. There was no indoor plumbing. An outhouse. Heat came from a fireplace and coal stove set in the middle of a small room. No electricity – light came from oil lamps.  This was how she was raised and lived most of her life, and you could sense she didn't want to leave. Years of hard work showed in her face and hands, but she clearly wouldn’t last through a hard season.

I haven’t shown or exhibited this photograph very much over the years. Initially, I loved it. It seemed to embody a romantic notion of place and people for me - tough, resilient, wizened, looking to the light, and seeing a past. But with more time in the community, I began to understand those heroic characteristics were largely coming from me and less so the people themselves. People like Dellie, who had lived hard lives, knew there was little of the romantic about it. So, I put the photograph away and published another from the same visit in my book.


But I’ve re-visited the first photograph in recent months, initially as part of digitizing my negative files, and then because I realized I still love the portrait. Thirty-eight years after the image was made, I can look at her face and see an idealized, noble rendering that fits neatly into a specific stereotype of place. But now, I can also see that her look is true.