Morgan Sexton at Appalshop, Whitesburg, Kentucky 1990

I first met Morgan Sexton in 1987 when I lived in Whitesburg. He had just made his first public appearance at Appalshop's traditional music festival "Seedtime on the Cumberland" in front of an audience of about 300 folks. He was clearly taken aback that people wanted to hear the music he'd been playing all his life in the quiet of his home up on Linefork.

It's hard to convey in words the kind of person Morgan Sexton was, and what he meant to the people around him. I do feel that people of his caliber only come along once in a great while. I remember him sitting on the couch at Appalshop, sun angling through the window behind his head, leaving his chiseled face in deep shadow. He was learning some new (old) ballads for a concert and he wanted to share them with me. When the first intricate notes cascaded from his banjo, time froze, stretched out back to a world where there was no time, and every musician who's ever played simply for the joy of it came to listen at that moment. The words to "Little Birdie" seemed to hang in the room long after he stopped singing.

The fact that he was honored so late in his life does not make it any less sweet. Although he struggled against black lung and cancer, he was able to get around to quite a few festivals. There was a moment at the 1991 Augusta Heritage Festival where he received a five minute standing ovation. He was finally being recognized by people who knew the rarity of what they were hearing. And of course there was the hoopla of the National Heritage Awards in Washington, D.C. where they had subtitles running overhead on a monitor in case people couldn't understand his mountain accent. Morgan decided to sing the song the way he remembered it, not the way it appeared on the screen. Not one to cater to stereotypes, he went out and bought himself a shiny $1,000 banjo and a new car with money from his concerts.

Morgan was one of the few mountain musicians still alive in the 1990's whose unique style remained uninfluenced by popular music. His passing will be felt by the whole circle of musicians who cherish the kind of link with the past Morgan represented. We are fortunate that his music was documented on record and video. Perhaps the memories of Morgan's music and his way of life can nurture us up through the ages.

© 1992 Rachel Anne Goodman

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