Appalachian Ballad Singing
On a farm outside of Rural Retreat, tucked into a bend of small, winding White Rock Creek and down the hill from the home she grew up in, Elizabeth LaPrelle sits knee-to-knee with her apprentice, Elsa Howell.
Elizabeth sings a verse from “The Devil’s Nine Questions,” and Elsa repeats the verse—each a riddle in this song—back to her, their unaccompanied voices buoyed by the other’s energy and attention, as Virginia Folklife staff listen quietly, monitoring their recording gear. As with the flowing creek nearby, the moment represents both continuity and change: People have been singing and documenting ballads for more than five centuries.
Through their singing and their reverence for the whole context of these songs, Elizabeth and Elsa bring Appalachian ballad singing into the present day, finding new relevance and meaning in the form for 2023.
“Ballad singing is an incredibly sophisticated art form that has gone on here for a long time, and it’s still happening. People are still teaching it, learning it—it really is just so satisfying,” Elizabeth said.
“These songs really belong to everyone.”Elizabeth LaPrelle
Ballads are “folksongs that tell stories” and the earliest documented examples in English date from the sixteenth century, according to “Traditional Ballads,” a collection essay for the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. The introduction of printed lyric sheets—broadsides—put these songs into more people’s repertoire. People brought songs with them when they immigrated to North America, adapting lyrics and phrasing through the years, and writing new songs telling of current events, outlaws, murders, tragedies, romances, and heroes—memorable stories to sing for entertainment or to ease work. Documenting ballads, and tracing variants to their European roots, is also a centuries-old tradition, well in place and practiced by “gentleman scholars” by the time the American Folklore Society was established in 1888.
Eighty-two years ago, and coincidentally, about eighty-two miles from Rural Retreat in Salem, Virginia, Alan Lomax recorded Texas Gladden singing her version of “The Devil’s Nine Questions,” the version Elizabeth has taught Elsa.
“Because the songs get passed so quickly from singer to singer, they tend to change in really interesting ways, but also stay the same in really interesting ways,” Elizabeth said.
To Elizabeth, and now also to Elsa, learning to sing these ballads also includes honoring the experience of the earlier women who learned and taught their verses. As Texas told Lomax in a 1946 interview, “I have a perfect mental picture of every song I sing. I have a perfect picture of every person—most—that I’ve learned from, very few people I don’t remember. When I sing a song, a person pops up, and it’s a very beautiful story.”
When Elizabeth sings “The Devil’s Nine Questions,” she thinks of visiting Texas’s daughter and granddaughter: “I have a picture of what her home looked like. A lot of jam, canned tomatoes, all in jars sitting on this special shelf that her husband built for her. I know that she liked to collect little knickknacks. I know that she wrote poetry herself, which is so cool. And that she, like her family, liked historical romance books.” (During this visit Elizabeth was also gifted Texas’s recipe for “Million Dollar Pickles,” which she treasures.)
Elizabeth and Elsa were both influenced and encouraged by musical families to begin singing at a young age, winning ribbons in the youth folk song competition at the Mount Airy Bluegrass & Old-Time Fiddlers Convention and other regional festivals. One of Elizabeth’s most influential teachers was Sheila Kay Adams of Madison County, North Carolina. “Her storytelling, singing, the way she talked about people, and remembered the people that she learned the songs from, made a really, really deep impression with me,” Elizabeth said. (Elizabeth is also an accomplished banjo player and crankie maker, she has recorded as a solo artist and as Anna & Elizabeth with Anna Roberts-Gevalt, and is a past Virginia Folklife Program performer.)
“It’s so raw and complete on its own that it doesn’t even need the music to go with it.”Elsa Howell
“I really owe the beginning of my signing journey to my Dad, my Mom, and Elizabeth,” Elsa shares. Elsa first met Elizabeth as an eight-year-old, when she performed at her West Virginia school. Now a senior English major at the University of Mary Washington, Elsa’s apprenticeship with Elizabeth combines her two loves: singing and poetry.
Singing ballads with attention towards their women teachers, living or recorded decades ago, is part of a feminist practice for both Elizabeth and Elsa. “I’m really interested in women’s stories, especially from the times that these songs were being collected. I’m interested in what women’s lives were like,” Elizabeth said.
“I am grateful for the way that Elizabeth holds those values while teaching,” Elsa offered, continuing: “If there is a way that I can further the understanding and the power of women in history and bring that into the present, then I am doing my job as a feminist and as a kid who’s trying to find my place.”
The two are looking forward to sharing their songs and stories together at the Richmond Folk Festival, which will take place later this year from October 13 to 15.
“I want this to be a part of my life forever. I want people my age to stop being like, ‘Oh, you hillbilly.’ And be like, ‘That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing it,'” Elsa said.