Ballads of the Appalachians

Elizabeth LaPrelle sat in front of us tuning her bango and sipping water while we waited to hear what her voice would sound like, if she would sound like Joan Baez or Joanna Newsom.  Elizabeth introduced herself as a traditional folk singer of the Appalachians, local to Virginia, before bursting into song that was larger than her body, larger than the room.  Consistently blown away by the immensity of her voice, her breadth of songs to sing, and her willingness to teach us about Virginia folklore and folk songs I asked if she would also be willing to share a few words with So to Speak. And she was.

We talked about her background in singing folk songs and ballads and her desire to mimic the voices of those who came before her. Saying that she, “didn’t meet a real live ballad-singer until I was about 15, and had to travel away to a place devoted to passing this stuff on in order to do it,” Elizabeth believes that singing is a way of sharing stories and remembering our diverse histories and family perspectives.  She relies on core groups of fellow lovers of ballad singing to help her grow and learn as a musician.  She is currently working on collaborative projects and “crankies”, one of her performances called “Snow is on the Ground,” that she and artist/musician Anna Roberts-Gevalts began working on almost 9 months ago. I get the sense that, although she doesn’t write her own songs, this is her way of planting history and contributing to her local communities. We ended our conversation with some thoughts on the state of contemporary folksingers, the music industry and her impressions of being a woman in this field. She also spoke of some upcoming show across the country. Click on the music link to listen to Elizabeth’s songs “Awake, Awake” and “East Virginia”

Sheila: Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you start singing, your locality… I remember when you were at GMU, you often spoke of Sheila Kay Adams.  Who else are your influences and why?

Elizabeth: I always sang as a little kid: at home, at summer camp, at Fiddler’s Conventions in the summer, in talent shows.  I liked to sing folk songs, those were often my favorite.  As a kid, when I learned an old song from a recording at home, I tried to imitate the singer.  If it was a Beatles song, I tried a British accent.  If it was Joan Baez–well, I could never imitate her high ringing voice, although I tried, but she always said the words clearly and made sure you could hear the story, and she was expressive.  She took the songs seriously, and I went for that.

I grew up in an old house on a big farm in Southwest Virginia, right on the line between Smyth and Wythe counties.  Technically I live in a little community called Cedar Springs, but the post office and where the school I graduated from are a few miles away in Rural Retreat.  We’re west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It takes about an hour to get to West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, or North Carolina.  In this region there is a LOT of traditional music played by families and communities, at festivals or weekly jams.  Most of it is string-band music (lots of fiddle-tunes from Europe with banjo)–Bluegrass (more like Country Music, more singing) or Old-Time (mostly dance tunes, more antiquated banjo style)

But our region used to be famous for Ballads as well.  People were singing ballads in the mountains much more about 100 years ago.  I think it’s widely accepted that radio pretty much killed ballad-singing.  When I sing near my home, someone in the audience might tell me about their grandparent who knew those songs.  That doesn’t mean the songs aren’t out there–they just might be in the kitchen, like they have been for centuries.  I certainly sing in my kitchen.

Sheila Kay sang with a style she learned from her relatives and neighbors in Madison County, NC: lots of ornaments (what she calls “breaks and sighs”, and grace notes), and lots of power.  Lots of volume.  And to her the story and the poetry was vital.

But perhaps most importantly, she gave her family songs as freely as she could.  “These songs belong to you as much as me” she would say to her class, most of whom weren’t from the mountains.  “You don’t  have to try to sound like a mountain person with a country accent–sing it like you.”  She listened to me sing, she encouraged me.  She sent me extra verses of songs that I liked. I owe a lot to her.

Other influences: Jean Ritchie of course, Texas Gladden (from Smyth County where I live), Hobart Smith (Texas’s brother), Horton Barker (blind singer & and Anglophile), Roscoe Holcomb (inimitable vocalist & musician), Dillard Chandler, Odetta, Doc Watson,

The other important thing that happened to me at Augusta was that I got in contact with a group of people who loved folk music–not just Bluegrass, but Ballads– and who liked that I sang.  And they started hiring me, and then I made an album, and they bought it, and I learned more old songs so that I could go sing them at festivals on the weekends.  And then I made another album, and then I learned banjo, and I started teaching singing workshops.  Then I went on tour as a ballad-singer in an Appalachian music show.  And by the time I graduated college, I had a start at a career making folk music.

S: I would love to hear about the projects you’ve been working on.  What are you calling them right now?  With whom are you working?  What do you hope to accomplish or proclaim with the completion of these projects?  Do they fit into a feminist discourse? And how?  Do you have any photos of you working?

E: I have been collaborating with an artist and musician named Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

She’s played violin most of her life, and she’s a talented player and singer and teacher.  Most exciting to me, though, is sharing an approach to this old music that has a lot of excitement and energy and respect.  Anna graduated early (with a degree in –and this is approximate, please forgive me– Women’s Studies/Gender & Sexuality to study women fiddlers in Kentucky.  Her approach with that research was very straightforward: she collected the stories of women in Kentucky’s music history.  You can see that project online at www.annarobertsgevalt.com.

When we got together to do some performance, we had seen our share of the business side of traditional music (yeah, it’s small, but it’s there!), and we set out to make the best show we could:  a little more care for the narrative & arc and purpose of an hour of music; local performance including as many different audiences as possible (houses, schools, nursing homes, libraries); and multimedia including visual art pieces, puppets, and storytelling and poetry.

We themed our first show for winter and called it “Snow is on the Ground”.  Performing the music of the region IN the region was really gratifying for us.

Our latest collaboration is a visual and performance piece called a “crankie”–a picture scroll, behind which we narrate and play music to tell the story of one of the fiddlers Anna researched in Kentucky.

We didn’t set out to say, “this is a feminist piece because it’s about women!”  But our current project has shaken down to sort of be about grandmothers & mothers–just through our choosing musicians from the past–we didn’t set out to choose women–who inspire us.  Our focus right now is on porch music, kitchen music, lullabies, music shared between people on an everyday basis.  How that is no less fine art.  How to pass that along, not by isolating it and saying, “Look!  How nuanced!” but by creating an environment–for the space of an hour–where we can say, “We have something to share with you.  It was given to me by someone special, and you can take it home, too.”

S: Why do you enjoy folk singing? Why folk singing over, say, bubblegum pop music?

E: Music with a sense of place feels really good, like I’m connecting to where I live on one more level.  Also, I think traditional music is just better.  Poetry that I have heard in ballads rivals any I have ever heard in English.  Traditional songs have so much power, you’ll see them crop up as the heavy-hitters in, say, movie sound-tracks, or even albums outside the genre.  The same thing with the unaccompanied voice: there is something immediately compelling about that communicative sound.  Old songs are the favorites from years ago–songs so good, so viscerally affecting and memorable that they have been favorites not just for one generation, but for many.  And I think that’s what is meant by the word “timeless”.

I have never put much energy into trying to write my own material, mostly because I’m a pretty bad writer, but also because there is so much richness and variance of expression in traditional songs that I don’t feel I have anything to add with a new song.  I do think interpreting old songs with a sense of personality is important.  Texas Gladden said, “I just knew I could do something with that song that nobody else could do.”  I believe that to be true of any singer.

S: How do you see folk music connecting to or subverting our fast-paced, often overly consumptive “modern” day life-styles?

E: One thing about the wide and instant availability of lots and lots and lots of different music is that folk music has the opportunity to be just as consumptive and commodified as any other niche music (not that it hasn’t been commodified before).  More folk and traditional musicians are able to market themselves, make & sell albums cheaply on their own, as opposed to being discovered and marketed by a label.  Which I think is great, because hopefully, artists are giving up their rights less and getting screwed over a lot less.  I own all my own masters.  I have a couple thousand CDs stacked up in the barn.  Appalachian musicians don’t get high-paying, big arena gigs–CD sales are a main source of income, so if I have a concert, I throw fifty CDs in my trunk and set out with high hopes.  I still know lots of musicians who’ll say, “oh no, I didn’t bring CDs this time because my label didn’t send them to me in time”.  Or they have to buy their own CDs from the label if they want to sell them themselves.  Music industry fail!

But aside from marketing, old music can be an antidote to our plugged in lifestyles, because it can be made without elaborate equipment, without electricity, and it will still sound good.  It might even sound better without that stuff.  It’s also music that is really fun to make with other people, even if no one there is an especially well-trained musician.  A common joke is that old-time music is “better than it sounds”, which is partly true: it can be more for the player than the listener.  But because it’s not really difficult to grab a hold of the rudiments, that doesn’t make it exclusive.

S: What lessons does folk music teach us?

E: Folk music teaches me a lot about the past–about vernacular and voice and what people thought was important.  It also gives me a base to remember dates with and helps me get a picture of history.  Say I learn a song, then I can remember that the original broadsheet was circulating Scotland in 1864.  I can picture who might sing it.  I can picture the author, the speaker, why it was written.  I doubt I would know anything about history if I couldn’t tie it to these little stories in my mind.  And I think that can be a powerful tool for children & schools, too.

Ballads are fascinating studies in human behavior as well.  Lots of songs play on the nature of the sexes and how they interact; lots of unflinching looks at how crimes of passion occur, and sometimes really scary looks at what madness looks like.  I’ve heard that studies show that most murders occur between lovers & family members; that’s certainly true of murder ballads.

S: What do you admire most about female voices?  Why?

E: A tough core.  Humor.  Lullabies.  A witchy channeling aspect.  Keen observation.  Common sense.  I’m sure this is different for everyone, but I to me women’s voices and what they have to say often feel inevitable and familiar, whether I agree or not.  Sometimes when a male speaker–say, a poet, a songwriter, or narrator– hits on a truth, it’s a surprise to me–and no less meaningful for that.  But from women it’s like a revealing of something recognizable, even if I wasn’t conscious of it before.

Ha!  Having written that, I’m not sure I believe it.  But one thing I’m very excited about in terms of using women’s voices in my art is affirming the value of that voice; how important it is to remember the people who have shaped us.  To value them for what they did, whether it was making pickles or playing the fiddle or quilting or giving popcorn to kids after school.  These things are as important to our history as someone who made it big on the radio in the twenties.

S: Is your field strongly male or female dominated?  Is it equal? What are your thoughts about being a women singing folk music today.  Does it help you accomplish particular goals?  And how?

E: I’ve heard lots of people talk about ballad-singing as a largely feminine art.  I can see the argument that back in the day men “traveled better”, so to speak.  So a man might be more likely to play fiddle and travel from dance to dance, while a woman might learn songs she could sing on her own while spinning, milking cows, washing dishes (that’s what I do), or whatever.  I am not so sure how true that is historically or currently.  I know of man fine male ballad-singers.  Certainly the Bluegrass and Old-Time world seems to have men in the majority.

And in a music-industry sense, I can think of way more female “folk-singers”.  Joan Baez, Jean Ritchie, Odetta, Hazel Dickens–I’d call those women “singers”.  Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Townes Van Zandt, Doc Watson, Mike Seeger–I’d call them “writers” or “musicians”.

S: What is something people will often say to you in relation to you being a folk singer, or a female folk singer that makes you feel like people “just don’t understand?”  How would you like to respond to them?

E: Sometimes people assume that I’m too sensible for this modern, rackety, rock and roll music–that because I like old things I don’t like new things too.  Or maybe that because I like to talk about poetry I don’t like punk or something.  I am always touched when someone says I have good taste in songs (because I feel like I do), but I LOVE MUSIC, and I can be a great glutton.  More than that, old music does not equal safe, prim, proper music at all.  And neither does music from the country.

S: Tell us something we wouldn’t know about you (or about the world, if you can’t think of something about yourself)?

E: I’m Quaker.  I feel very religious on the inside but I generally keep such a private and potentially divisive subject to myself.  And of course, being Quaker means that my personal experience of God doesn’t need to match up to anything in particular.

S: If we were to meet you at a folk music concert, what is one thing we should NOT ask you?

“I see you have two albums.  Which is your favorite?”

♦With that said, you can buy Elizabeth’s albums online from CDbaby here

Upcoming shows:

Summer is the time for Fiddler’s Conventions where I live, and they’re not just for fiddlers!  Almost every weekend between May and September, somewhere in the middle/southern Appalachian region, there are amazing festivals: a few days of cheap camping, often in breathtaking mountain settings, filled with 24-hour nonstop music & dancing.  They are hot, boring, either dusty or muddy, only have junk food to eat, and 100% worth it.

I’m teaching at the Augusta Heritage center in Elkins, WV the second week in August.

And I’ll be at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, MI August 13-14.

♦So to Speak is beginning a series of interviews entitled: Starring Local Feminists featuring people in the Virginia and Washington D.C. neck of the woods who exemplify wonderful will of strength and promote equality while following their passions. If you have a local feminist you would like to tell us about email sts@gmu.edu with the subject heading Starring Local Feminists.

 

1 thought on “Ballads of the Appalachians”

  1. This is a beautiful interview! What a thoughtful consideration of what folk music is, and especially what it means for women. I especially appreciated Elizabeth’s point about music as an avenue for connecting with a place, just as poetry and other art forms can be.

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