By JAMES HARDIN
"I wish I was back in them days again," said Dellie Chandler Norton in 1988, on the occasion of her 90th birthday. … You didn't have all this stuff to worry about like you do now." Dellie lived most of her life in Sodom Laurel, Madison County, N.C., a rural mountain community located near the Pisgah National Forest, about 40 miles north of Asheville. At the time of her death, in 1993, she had five children, 13 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren. For most of her life, she lived off the land, growing tobacco, raising cattle, and canning her own vegetables. If there was not so much to worry about, there was always plenty to do.
Documentary photographer Rob Amberg presented an illustrated lecture at the Library of Congress on April 21, offering a visual and oral history of Dellie Norton; her cousin and adopted "son" Junior, whom she raised; and the rural mountain community of Sodom Laurel. The program was sponsored by the American Folklife Center and was part of the Books & Beyond series of the Library's Center for the Book.
In the early 1970s, at the age of 26, Amberg moved from Silver Spring, Md., to Sodom Laurel, seeking to establish a home in what he believed, a little romantically by his own account, to be a simpler place. First named Revere, the town was dubbed "Sodom" by an indignant preacher, during the time when logging first came to the region. There were numerous logging camps, and men with time and money on their hands. Violence and promiscuity were rampant—or so Dellie Norton tells the story. The laurel, of course, is for the lovely mountain flower that flourishes in the region, and the contrast of violence and beauty implied by the name of the community plays itself out in the life and culture of the region.
At Mars Hill College, where he found employment teaching and working in the photography archives, Amberg met Sheila Kay (née Rice) Adams, a student who offered to introduce him to her aunt, Dellie Norton. The introduction and subsequent friendship provided him with access to the local community and led eventually to a book of photographs, interviews, and CD (with songs and stories), compiled over the ensuing 20 years: "Sodom Laurel Album" (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, in association with the Center for Documentary Studies, 2002).
At the age of 76, Dellie Norton was a hardscrabble farmer still growing and selling tobacco. She was also a ballad singer and storyteller in a tradition that had been handed down for generations. Norton sang her songs for Alan Lomax and John Cohen, performed at local folk festivals, and received a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award in 1990. Her aunt Zipporah Rice sang for the British ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp and his assistant, Maud Karpeles, when the two visited Madison County to record songs from 1916 to 1918.
Nearby Asheville has been a center for the documentation and presentation of folk music and Appalachian traditional life for most of the 20th century. The first head of the Archive of American Folk-Song at the Library of Congress (now the Archive of Folk Culture), Robert W. Gordon, visited Bascom Lamar Lunsford there in the 1920s. Lunsford founded the Mountain Dance and Music Festival in Asheville in 1928, the same year the archive was founded at the Library of Congress. For a majority of the residents of Sodom Laurel, Amberg reports, music is a part of daily life.
Although Amberg first believed that Dellie and Junior represented an archaic rustic lifestyle, he came to realize that their lives were more complicated than he had originally imagined. The photographs in "Sodom Laurel Album" capture members of a tight-knit community (and Amberg's relationship with them), working, playing their music, telling stories, raising their families, eyeing the future.
Amberg formed a special relationship with Junior, who proved to be a willing subject for the photographer and figures in a number of his most engaging photographs. "He's what I guess you'd call retarded," says Dellie of Junior.
The photographs also reveal the shape and form of a changing culture and a people wrestling with modern social and economic questions even as they remain firmly rooted in the past. They explore the cycle of tobacco production (separate chapters cover planting, harvesting and marketing), the nature of self-sufficient rural life, and the importance of family ties. As Amberg said during his Library of Congress presentation, the two most important elements in the lives of Sodom Laurel residents are land and family.
Many "outsiders" have visited the Appalachian United States, with a variety of motives and preconceptions. To this day, stereotype tends to dominate reality. With "Sodom Laurel Album," Rob Amberg invites us once again to the region. He is one outsider who has decided to stay, respectful of "them days" Dellie describes with nostalgia, but part of the contemporary scene, which now includes television sets, computers, and a new highway.
Amberg's portrait of Sodom Laurel at the beginning of the 21st century, accompanied by transcribed interviews, entries from Amberg's journal, and recorded sound, brings us face to face with one rural community, steeped in traditional ways, as it finds itself, inevitably, on the brink of change.
James Hardin is the editor at the American Folklife Center.