Sharing the Warners’ musical journey into N.C. history

By on November 4, 2019

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A piece of Outer Banks history came home to the Wanchese Community Center on Saturday, Nov. 2. In an auditorium that was once the Wanchese School, recordings from 70 and 80 years ago filled the hall with the singing of Tink Tillett and his wife Eleazar, and other songs of love, religion and work.

Brought here by the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC), “From the Mountains to the Sea: The Anne and Frank Warner Collection” is a remarkable trip into the culture and history of North Carolina told through the sounds of traditional music.  The multi-media event was created by the sons of Anne and Frank Warner — Gerret, a filmmaker, and Jeff, a professional musician.

Jeff Warner narrates and occasionally sings and performs the songs, sometimes joined by Gerret. What makes the presentation come alive, though, are the voices recorded by the Warners — famed collectors of folk songs and stories from the 1930’s through the mid 1960’s — and the photography of the couple’s journeys from the mountains to the sea of North Carolina.

The Wanchese performance was the first time it has been presented in the state. “What you’re seeing today will be the debut of the music that the Warners found in the state of the North Carolina,” Jeff Warner said.

The story that is told is larger than the Outer Banks, although that is an important part of the tale. It may even be where the story begins, although there seems to have been more than one beginning.

Anne Warner wrote about hearing Sue Thomas, a kitchen worker at the Arlington Cottage in Nags Head in 1933. The couple were not yet recording songs, but later they met with Thomas in Elizabeth City and did record her, her voice powerful and beautiful as she sang the spirituals that were so important to her.

It seems to have been in the mountains of North Carolina in 1937, however, where the couple came to understand how important music was and how much it could mean.

Although the couple had grown up in the South, they were living in Greenwich Village in the 1930’s. A friend had a mountain dulcimer and Frank Warner, who was an executive with the New York area YMCA, became fascinated with it. He was referred to Nathan Hicks of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, a town high in the mountains, almost in Tennessee. When the dulcimer was ready, rather than have Mr. Hick send them the instrument, they traveled to him.

There the couple heard the music that changed their lives.

“The sound and the people gave us a feeling we have never lost,” Anne Warner wrote in a diary entry that Jeff Warner recalled for the audience. “It was the beginning of our lifelong interest in traditional music and the people who remembered it.”

The following year, they were back in the mountains of the state where they recorded Frank Proffitt, a tobacco farmer singing “Tom Dooley.” It was the first known recording of the song.

Alan Lomax, who traveled the country collecting traditional songs, included it in his 1947 “Best Loved American Folk Songs.” When the song was included on an album by the Kingston Trio in the 1950s, it soared to the top of the charts.

Unlike Lomax, who was a trained musicologist and was paid by the federal government to collect songs, the Warners’ work was a labor of love.

Frank, who had attended Duke, knew about the Outer Banks. In 1940 the couple were in Wanchese where they came to know Tink and Eleazar Tillett and the Tillett family.

“The Warners only had two hours with the Tink and Eleazar, but they were great ones, yielding songs about Paul Jones, ancient child ballads, 19th century farming and fishing songs and even a tune ‘Someone is Waiting for Me’ that he played on his a-cor-deen (accordion) that he purchased from a Sears Catalogue ,” Jeff Warner recounted.

The recording of Tink playing the a-co-deen is surprisingly clean and shows a highly skilled musician.

The Tilletts and Warners agreed to meet the next year, but in the spring of 1941, Tink died unexpectedly. Nonetheless, the Warners returned, creating an enduring friendship between the families.

“The Warners went down in 1941 and many times thereafter beginning a relationship with the Tillett family that continues to this day,” Jeff Warner said.

From that friendship a remarkable event occurred at the old Wanchese School on Saturday night.

“In 1972 my parents…were visiting the Tillett family. Tink Tillett’s son, Cliff decided [Tink’s] ‘acordeen’ …should belong to the Warner family and he presented it to them. They were delighted to have it and I inherited it.  And it has been a proud possession of mine,” Jeff told those assembled in the Wanchese Community Center.

But then,” he continued, “what to do with it?”

OBC Executive Director “Ladd Bayliss, who has worked with us for several month, arranged for a person to receive a gift here out of the Tilletts through the Warners and back to the Tilletts. [She] arranged for it to come home to June Tillett Basnight. And we have it here,” he said, bringing the accordion out and presenting it to Mrs. Basnight, the granddaughter of Tink and Eleazar Tillett.

“It affected my heart,” Basnight said later, when asked what it meant to have the accordion returned to the family.

Well attended with over 200 people in the audience, the state premiere of “From the Mountains to the Sea” included a remarkable collection of historic photos and memorabilia that the OBC had gathered for the event. And the organization was offering a free scanning service of old photos and images to any of the many descendants of the families who were part of the Warner collection of songs.

“We’re going to organizing the descendants of those who were originally recorded,” Bayliss said. “We’re going to be taking family photographs. It brings in greater awareness of how we’re part of something bigger.”

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