Appalachian ballads passed down from generations of Scots-Irish and British settlers is a tradition that could easily die out.
Elizabeth LaPrelle, who performs for the Charlotte Folk Society’s Gathering at Great Aunt Stella Center Friday, is working to make sure that doesn’t happen.
LaPrelle grew up in a culture of string band and bluegrass music in rural Southwest Virginia. It wasn’t until she heard award-winning North Carolina storyteller and ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams sing at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.Va., that she began studying the tradition.
“When I first heard Sheila Kay sing, I was bowled over by her,” says the 26-year-old. “She sings with a lot of power and investment and commitment. I was really impressed that the traditional way to sing the old ballads is to sing unaccompanied. I found that very compelling.”
LaPrelle dove into the craft in her early teens.
“My dad helped me get going on research so I could figure out more about the history of the songs, what the songs were like in my area, and what singers had been in my area,” she says. “(Information) was not available the way things are now. This is definitely before I was downloading songs. My dad would find things on eBay and the Smithsonian was putting a website up and I’d visit the Library of Congress.”
She met a network of likeminded historians, singers, and musicians that led her from one artist or song to the next.
“There aren’t many people doing ballads in the mountains now, but there were a bunch of singers from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s – the people that Sheila Kay Adams had learned from,” she says. “They’re dead now, but they did get recorded.”
She began traveling and playing shows. In college, she majored in Southern Appalachian Traditional Performance at the College of William & Mary. It was during that time that she wowed the Charlotte Folk Society with her ability to capture the nuances and emotion of the old style of singing.
“I want people to hear the story,” she says. “That part’s exciting to me. Historically, the songs come from the British Isles and a lot of them are so mega-old that it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m listening to some of the oldest poetry in the English language.’ Everything unnecessary had been pared away by generations of memory. It’s distilled down.”
LaPrelle’s interest in traditional music extends beyond ballad singing.
Friday, she’ll play a mix of ballads and dance songs, sometimes accompanied by banjo and her family band, the Fruit Dodgers. She and musical partner Anna Roberts-Gevalt co-host a monthly radio show in Floyd, Va., play at schools and nursing homes and illustrate songs through “crankies” – moving art scrolls made of cloth and paper. (They’ll take their act to a festival in Uzbekistan this summer.)
Performance is still the best way to pass on the tradition, whether it’s to students in Appalachia or overseas.
“It’s been a social music for a long time – the kind of music you sit around and play in the kitchen just for your family and friends,” she says. “Almost everywhere you go, there’s someone who says, ‘My grandma was from West Virginia,’ or, ‘I visited there once,’ or, ‘(I) knew people from there.’ ... It’s cool that part of people’s appreciation is it might remind them of family or the past.”
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