So in 2000 when I actually heard a field recording of a traditional ballad singer, I was blown away by the simplicity of his style and the subject matter of the songs. These were stories! A man who leaves his love to go to war, and she dresses like a man and goes out to the battlefields to find him, a sinking ship and a crew driven to cannibalism in their lifeboat, a girl who commit suicide because her love has left her, jealousy and murder between two sisters, someone boiled in lead, pregnant girls murdered by the boyfriends...my word! It was like a heavy dose of TV news--but beautifully phrased and with haunting melodies.
For the past 15 years I have been studying the ballads that traveled from Britain to the Appalachians, along with some homegrown ballads and some that were never collected here by those great songcatchers of the early 20th century.
|with Jason Burns, who organized the program|
One of the high points of the WVU program was when I asked the audience if anyone sang ballads. A young man raised his hand and said he knew a version of The Two Sisters. I persuaded him to come onstage and share it with us. What delight to find there are young people into these old songs! Two young women in the audience also sing ballads, more encouragement that the old songs will not soon die out.
Click on the orange arrow to hear me singing Pretty Saro, the first ballad I learned, and still my favorite.