Old-time music and old-time vegetable seeds have a lot in common, including both being worthy of preservation.
That was the message from William Ritter, who plays traditional music and studies Appalachian folklore, in a program Saturday afternoon at the Wilkes County Library in North Wilkesboro.
Ritter said both have multiple varieties of essentially the same song (or seed), but actually are quite different.
He said traditional Appalachian music got him interested in seed-saving. “I never intended to buy a whole freezer to store the number of seeds I have now. There’s not even room for ice cream anymore, and my wife’s not happy about that,” he chuckled.
When he wanted advice on making a guitar, Ritter said he drove to Wilkesboro to visit Herb Key, a noted luthier and musician. Key had an enormous garden with multiple rows of dried-up vines of different beans. He told Ritter to take all the heirloom seeds he wanted, because he was going to pull down all the vines and burn them.
“I remember coming home with all these grocery bags of seeds and my wife looking at me like, ‘oh no,’” Ritter laughed.
Once Ritter started giving bean seeds to people, he started receiving them back, too. “There’s something ancient and sacred about trading seeds. Some say it’s bad luck to pay for seeds or thank somebody for giving you seeds. Before long I had tons and tons of beans.”
He then started to write songs about seed saving. “The ethnobotanical songwriting is a real niche thing—not a lot of people out there doing that,” he quipped.
Ritter explained why he doesn’t order seeds from seed catalogs. “If your grandma gives you a loom, and you take it to an antique shop and sell it, it’s not an heirloom anymore—it’s an antique. That’s what’s happened in the seed industry. For me, an important distinction should be made with a capital H for ‘Heirloom.’”
Ritter said his garden isn’t just a place for getting tasty produce, it’s a place that brings back cherished memories. He sang about it Saturday in a song he wrote, titled “Living History”:
“When I grow a garden, it’s more than beans. There’s memories and families, and hopes and dreams. In the springtime, reunited with friends gone on. Well, they burst from the ground with tendrils and tails. In the summer days, when I’m bringing in ’maters and beans, I’m setting the table with their hopes and dreams.”
Ritter lives in Lenoir and is farm and cultural resources manager for the Patterson School Foundation in the Happy Valley community of Caldwell County.
He is also music director of the annual Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention and frequently plays live old-time music with his wife, Sarah Ogletree Ritter.
His wife was raised in Jackson County and started playing the fiddle when she was 8. She has an undergraduate degree in sustainable development from Appalachian and a masters of divinity degree from Wake Forest University.
Ritter was born and raised in Mitchell County and said his parents were “from off,” meaning they moved here from Michigan in the 1970s to be glass artists.
When Ritter formed a desire to make his own fiddle, his father took him to a neighbor, Ray Dellinger, “a man who completely changed my life. He taught me this old music and helped cultivate my interest in Appalachian history. He also taught me how valuable it was to learn songs from somebody.”
Ritter then played a fiddle tune, “Soldier’s Joy,” that he said Dellinger wants him to play at his funeral.
On Saturday, he performed an audience-participation song that he wrote, “Greasy Beans,” which is an ode to one of the most famous southern Appalachian beans and one that gets its name from its shiny exterior.
Ritter said he was inspired to write the song “Living History” after visiting with John Leopard in the Tuckasegee community in Jackson County. Leopard had an old-timey type of field corn called Hamburg corn, which is very different from today’s corn.
“It’s named after a community that got flooded after erection of the Lake Linville Dam. It’s what his family grew when he was young. It’s something really special because it almost went extinct.”
Ritter ended the program with fiddle tune “Leather Britches,” named after the bean that mountaineers would string together, dry out and eat later.
Deb Beckel, Wilkes reference librarian, told the audience one of the reasons she booked Ritter was because the Wilkes library has a seed library housed in an old card catalog cabinet. The seeds are free, but patrons are asked to take only what they’ll use. Brochures there contain information about planting the seeds, seed varieties and seed saving.
Ritter has an undergraduate degree in technical theatre from Western Carolina University and a master’s in Appalachian culture and music from Appalachian State University.
He recently was added to the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Traditional Artist Directory, and also received the 2019-20 In These Mountains Apprenticeship grant to study under renown ballad singer and storyteller Bobby McMillon.