RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Mountain ballads have been an integral part of life in the rural Eastern United States since the earliest English and Scottish settlers moved there more than 200 years ago. These songs were passed down orally from generation to generation. That's how it went in reporter Laurin Penland's family. But as she tells us, that tradition has had to evolve past the front porch to keep from going extinct.
LAURIN PENLAND, BYLINE: My 5-year-old nephew, Ezra, sits between his mother and grandmother on a porch swing covered in old quilts. An expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Madison County, North Carolina spreads out before them. The porch used to be a really important part of mountain music. Ezra's mother, Melanie, sings one of the old ballads just like her ancestors used to do 200 years ago.
MELANIE RICE: (Singing) The heart is the fortune of all womankind. They're always controlled and they're always confined.
PENLAND: The hope is that if Ezra hears the ballads in his everyday life, he'll start to learn them, just as he's learned the names of the trees on his farm, says his grandmother Sheila Kay Adams.
SHEILA KAY ADAMS: We used to go all the way to the top of the mountain behind his house where he lives over in Sodom, and we would sing as we were going up the mountain. Remember?
(Singing) Here comes Sally with a snicker and a grin. Here comes Sally with a snicker and a grin.
EZRA: I know that.
PENLAND: Adams is a musician and writer. She learned the ballads the old way: by spending time with singers like Inez Chandler.
ADAMS: When you learned them the way that I did, you had to spend the time with them. There was no other way around it. And that meant more to me, and means more to me now, than the song itself, learning the song. Anybody can learn a song. But to sit with Inez Chandler for three hours on her front porch, buddy, was an experience. But I'm glad I didn't just go down there and say, let me record this, because you got all Inez Chandler and a song.
(Singing) Reel and wrap up, little bitty Ann. Reel and wrap, I say. Reel and wrap, my little bitty Ann, for love I'm goin' away. Sixteen years of cannonballs I've been around this line. Sweetheart gives a little, little love but a good wife's hard to find.
PENLAND: There are hundreds of ballads that have been passed down from generation to generation. Sheila Adams asks her grandson to sing "Jerusalem Mourn." But to Ezra, it's "Jerusalem More," because that's the way he understands the song.
EZRA: (Singing) Don't you hear Jerusalem more? Don't you hear Jerusalem more? Thank God there's a song that's singing in my soul. Don't you hear Jerusalem more?
PENLAND: The small change Ezra makes to the lyrics is a good example of how songs morph as they're passed down through the oral tradition. The fact that my 5-year-old nephew is singing a ballad at all is nothing short of a miracle. The ballad survived 300 years of being passed down solely through the oral tradition. But documentary photographer and writer Rob Amberg says there was a moment when the old songs almost died out.
ROB AMBERG: I think in succeeding generations, as people started listening to more and more radio and then watching more and more TV, the availability of music, other types of music, you know, that really changed the whole dynamic
PENLAND: Amberg filmed and recorded the old singers in the 1970s. It was during the folk revival movement of the 1950s and '60s that people like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez recorded their versions of the songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "BLACK IS THE COLOR")
JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) Black, black, black is the color of my true love's hair.
PENLAND: The folk revivalists may have saved the oral tradition from oblivion, but they also changed the ways songs were passed down by recording everything. And that's a problem for my Dad, Joe Penland.
JOE PENLAND: I heard the statement from one of the younger singers in Madison County say it's not knee-to-knee anymore. It's knee-to-CD. That struck me wrong at first, and then when you start thinking about the new technology that we have, any way to learn and preserve our heritage is a good way.
PENLAND: Dad has recorded two of his own albums of the old ballads.
PENLAND: (Singing) We'll camp a little while in the wilderness. In the wilderness, in the wilderness.
PENLAND: I have to admit, I'm one of those singers who's learned mostly by CD. I left home almost 15 years ago and will probably never move back. But transmission by CD isn't the only change the ballads have undergone.
RICE: I will say it was different for me in that Mom heard it from a bunch of, you know, old people working in the garden, and I heard it from a bunch of folk revivalists from New York City sleeping on our front porch.
PENLAND: That's Ezra's mother Melanie Rice.
RICE: You know, it was kind of different for me in that it's been a performance-geared situation. And I've known Mom being on stage, and I've known big groups of people playing music, and it was a big party. It wasn't as much as in the natural setting.
PENLAND: However they're shared, Melanie says the important thing is that the ballads have survived.
RICE: I will always say that in order for anything to survive, it must evolve. And in order for the ballads to have survived, they had to evolve in that way so that it could be taken to the greater population and still be getting interest and still be growing and still be something that was viable enough to pass down to my son.
PENLAND: As for me, maybe one day I'll be taking it back to the porch, and Ezra can teach me a ballad sitting knee-to-knee. For NPR News, I'm Laurin Penland.