Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Love, Murder and Mystery: Talking about Appalachian Ballads


Soon after returning from Florida I was presenting a program for West Virginia University on the Appalachian ballads. Ballads as you probably know are really storytelling in song, so it's easy to see why I was attracted to them. I had heard ballads re-done in the 60's and 70's during the "folk revival," by people like Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez and others but it didn't click with me then that these were actually very old songs with a very different sound than what the rock musicians gave them.

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
My repertoire has grown slowly and yet I had plenty to fill two hours of presentation at WVU, and with some to spare. It's a rare pleasure for me to talk about ballads and to sing them for those who appreciate this old music. I sing in the traditional style, unaccompanied by any instrumentation. Singing this way allows me to set the pace I want, to stress certain notes and so the timing is not what is needed when an instrument is playing along. Just as in speaking we have no set rhythm but go faster or slower, louder or softer, pause, etc to suit whatever we are saying, so it is with traditional ballad singing.


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.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

3 comments:

Michelle said...

Granny Sue! Wonderful to hear you sing this ballad. My father-in-law used to play mandolin, dance, and sing in traditional Appalachian styles. I am also glad to see that there are young people interested in this historical music.

annie said...

Loved it Granny Sue, I see the cool gray mist hanging round the trees out by the old barn. A man stands leaning against the rail fence looking far down the ridge singing to his love...,,,, :)

storytellermary said...

Beautiful! Thanks for sharing this.

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