Sara Cleveland (1905-1992) has been called one of America’s most important ballad singers. Born in the southeastern Adirondack region, she started learning the old songs and ballads of her Scotch and Irish parents and relatives at a young age, all the while collecting scores more from friends, neighbors and extended family in the Adirondacks. Around the age of sixteen, Sara and her mother started to compile a notebook of these pieces. With the later help of a cousin, the collection eventually grew to include over 900 regional, American and British Isles songs, and remains a cherished family heirloom to this day.
For most of her life Sara was a domestic singer who “thought nothing much of it.” Singing was just something to help make the daily work of dish washing a bit more pleasant, to pass the time on lengthy trips, or to entertain family and friends between stories in the evening.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s that she was “discovered” as a tradition bearer and ballad singer of the highest caliber, something that Sara herself found “amusing” according to granddaughter Colleen Cleveland. Sara’s son Jim, who was frequenting legendary coffeehouse Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs during these early years of the Folk Music Revival, mentioned one night that his mother knew some old songs and had written them down. The notebooks were soon in the hands of folksong collectors and record producers Sandy and Caroline Paton, who found therein a goldmine of old British Isles, Irish, and American songs and ballads.
See entries for Paton and Goldstein in the “Collectors” section for leads to further details about Sara’s biography, repertoire, and singing. Jim Cleveland, the older of Sara’s two sons, knew many of the family’s songs in addition to others he had picked up on his own. He was, in the words of the Patons, “an excellent but exceedingly bashful singer.” Jim and his daughter Colleen, who was encouraged by Sara from an early age to carry on the tradition, began singing the family repertoire in public after Sara’s death at the urging of folklorist Vaughn Ward.
2002 CD release entitled Treasures from the Attic--The Cleveland
Family showcases the singing of both Jim and Colleen along with Colleen’s
nephew James and brother Curt Cleveland.
Since Jim’s death, Colleen Cleveland stands today as the family’s
primary tradition bearer, a role that
she takes great pride in and carries on in Sara’s Irish-influenced Adirondack