Ballad singer Phyllis Marks, a native of Gilmer County, West Virginia, passed away June 22, 2019 at the age of 92.
According to folklorist Gerry Milnes, Marks was the last active ballad singer in the state who, as she says, “learned by heart,” via oral transmission, namely from her mother, Arlene Layfield Frashure, and her grandmother, Sarah Margaret Messenger Layfield, who were of Irish ancestry.
Marks was among West Virginia’s finest musicians and was an exceptional bearer of traditional unaccompanied singing in the Appalachian region.
Phyllis Marks was born in Sand Fork, West Virginia, on June 5, 1927. Drawn to music at an early age, she learned several songs from her grandmother before she passed away when Marks was 5 years old. Her mother taught her many other songs.
At age 14, Marks began to lose her eyesight after a failed treatment by a country doctor, and became completely blind at age 54. In 1943, she married Jesse Marks, a coal miner, sawmill worker, and shape-note singing school teacher, and together they had four children.
In addition to being a housewife and gardener, Phyllis worked for 15 years in the cafeteria at Glenville State College, and recalls often singing while washing dishes and preparing food.
Marks performed every year at the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville. She appeared at the first festival in 1954, and continued to perform at every festival for the next 65 years, missing only one due to illness. The 2005 festival was dedicated to her.
Marks was also featured at the Vandalia Gathering, the Augusta Heritage Festival, Appalshop’s Seedtime on the Cumberland, the Berea Celebration of Traditional Music, and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington in Washington, D.C.
In fall of 2016, she performed a special concert at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston, presented by the West Virginia Folklife Program and supported by the American Folklife Center. The concert and interview recordings are now part of a collection at the Library of Congress, adding to Marks’ existing recordings in the archive.
Phyllis Marks was revered in her community for her songs and stories, and sang regularly at local funerals, nursing homes, and for her family and visitors. She often swapped songs with her in-home caregiver, who visited her daily. Marks was a master in her field whose artistry was made exemplary by her unique and vast repertoire, vocal skill, and her lifetime commitment to sharing and sustaining traditional balladry in West Virginia.
Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia State Folklorist with the West Virginia Humanities Council. Learn more about the West Virginia Folklife Program, a project of the West Virginia Humanities Council, at wvfolklife.org.