Back in 1989, I first wrote about the musical Helton family in my notes to the Rounder LP, The Library of Congress Banjo Collection, and for the Old-Time Herald in the article “Whip the Devil Round the Stump,” (vol. 2, no. 2). At that time, before the advent of the Internet, my information was limited to the recollections of a few surviving family members and tidbits unearthed by scholars such as Charles Wolfe and Nolan Porterfield. Luckily, those initial inquiries drew the attention of Wayne Martin at the Folklife Section of the North Carolina Arts Council, who encouraged further research through Arts Council contracts and grants. Unfortunately, my resulting essay lay dormant until a chance email from several genealogist members of the Helton family made contact with me through the researcher Kerry Blech. The following article is a result of that interaction, which adds the research of John Pace (the great-nephew of Osey and Ernest Helton) to my own.
Native Americans are one of the ethnic groups that have contributed to fiddling in America, but the exact influence of native peoples on the fiddle music of the upland South has proven hard to document. One of the reasons for the lack of information about Indian fiddling is, like African Americans, native tribes have been marginalized by the culture at large. Often, the representatives of mainstream society have ignored or maliciously portrayed Indian musicians. As a result of this mistreatment, some descendants of unions between Anglo and Native Americans have rejected their native heritage while others have lived a kind of shadow existence on the edges of society. The latter was the case of the brothers Osey and Ernest Helton, musicians who were of Native American ancestry. Osey and Ernest were two of the sons of James Madison “Matt” Helton (b. between 1846-1854) who was Cherokee. Matt was remembered many years later as speaking the Cherokee language. “He had his bow and arrow,” one friend reminisced, “was a good shot, and often amused himself by hunting.”
[When] Ernest returned to the family fold, he and Osey dedicated themselves seriously to public performing. Arrowood remembers Osey Helton as “the best old time fiddle player in the country. But Ernest was the best in the changeover from that old to the modern.” In 1924 and 1925, the duo accompanied fiddler J. D. Harris in making commercial records for Broadway and Okeh. Ernest also sang for Robert Gordon of the Library of Congress during this period (see below for more details). In 1927, WWNC radio signed on in Asheville. Beginning one month after the station’s February sign-on, the Helton’s Old Time Stringband performed, sponsored by Chesterfield Meals. During their first year on the air, the Helton Brothers were joined by the Canton Fiddlers, the B and B Stringband, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, in performing over radio station WWNC. They appeared as well on the “Old Fashioned Farm Hour” Saturday mornings for four or five years.
Ernest and Osey Helton were also regularly featured at the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, which was founded by Bascom Lunsford in 1928. Newspaper accounts, including regular articles in the Asheville Citizen Times, mention their presence in 1933, 1935-1938 and 1940. According to the Citizen Times, Osey “had appeared in nearly every festival since it was begun in 1928.” By the time of Osey’s death in 1942, his mock fiddle contest with Bill Hensley was one of the prominent features at the yearly event.
Through their association with Lunsford and the Folk Festival, the Heltons recorded for Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress sound truck in 1941. They made other non-commercial recordings at WWNC for Professor Schinhan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lunsford used Osey Helton as a member of his stock company of folk musicians, bringing Helton to festivals throughout the country. Lomax arranged for Osey Helton and Bill Hensley to recreate their “fiddle contest” for radio audiences in New York City. Helton may have accompanied Samantha Bumgarner when she traveled to Del Rio, Texas, to make transcriptions for XERA, the powerful Mexican border radio station.
Osey Helton often played for local house dances, accompanied on guitar by Albert or Ernest. His nephew, C.W. Arrowood, remembers that when Osey was the musician at a dance, he might receive a contribution for his playing, “but, mostly [played] for the love of it.”
Ernest, however, had other ideas. Through the 1920s, although married, Ernest Helton aspired toward making a living with his music. He was even listed in the 1926 Asheville City Directory as a “musician,” the only time he or any other family member named that as his primary occupation.