Published April 24, 2023

I was raised by sleepy guitar strings on the banks of the Roanoke River. Before that, I remember summer days and fiddle tunes by the Greenbrier. Now, I play my own guitar at the University of Mary Washington, where the Rappahannock presses against its silt banks. I hope that someday soon, I’ll be in Richmond, a bustling symphonic city that strums along to the percussion of the James. The mountains and rivers of Virginia form a winding, musical path that is now leading me back to my beginnings.

In my childhood, Friday night meant square dances at the Floyd Country Store and candy in barrels in neat lines. I used to sit on the lip of the stage and watch my dad, Isak Howell, with his guitar and his harmonica, tapping his foot on an old rug. He was always accompanied by the rest of the Black Twig Pickers: Sally Anne Morgan, Mike Gangloff, and Nathan Bowles. I watched them as they effortlessly created the soundtrack to my firefly-filled summer nights for years.

“As I got deeper into it, the more familiar it felt.”

Clover Lynn
Photo of three men playing stringed instruments
Isak Howell, Mike Gangloff, and Nathan Bowles playing a tune. Photo courtesy Elsa Howell.

My dad brought me into the world of old-time music. He taught me everything I know about guitar and he never ceased to encourage me. He has always been my biggest fan, from practice sessions in the living room to accompanying me on stage. One of the things that I adore the most about my musical journey is our tradition of going to fiddlers conventions with him, which I hope to continue in summers to come.

Photo of a man playing guitar in the foreground while a young girl jumps down the stairs in the background
Isak Howell playing the guitar, Elsa Howell flying. Photo courtesy Elsa Howell.

Before music facilitated my exploration of the world, it lived in my home. It danced around aromatic kitchens and vibrated from Martin strings at bedtime. It connected me to my family and my family’s friends before I could speak. My mom, Chris Howell, sang along or played standup bass as my dad plucked the banjo or strummed his guitar. Many of the songs that filled our old house, especially at bedtime, were from Elizabeth LaPrelle’s album Sun to Sun. They served as lullabies for me and my little sister, Ivy. They were comfort in the dark, and now they’ve come back to show me a new type of comfort.

Photo of a family of 4—a man, a woman, and 2 young girls—smiling at the camera
The Howell family. Photo courtesy Elsa Howell.

I met Elizabeth for the first time at my elementary school in Greenbrier County, West Virginia where she came to sing to us and share her crankies. Now, as good friends, we are working together to further the tradition of Appalachian ballad singing with the Virginia Folklife Program. She is a knowledgeable and compassionate teacher who has completely enhanced my passion for Appalachian music. Her expansive knowledge and incredible talent water roots in me that lead me right back home.

Although I didn’t know then, there have been Texas Gladden songs decorating my perspective since I was very young. Now, I have the privilege of studying ballads sung by Texas as an adult, an academic, and as a writer, thanks to Elizabeth, who has invited me into this lineage of women artists. Elizabeth encourages me to read lyrics like poetry and feel music entirely when I sing it. I credit so much of my connection to folk music to her.

“When you’re raised around it, no matter how much you reject it, and no matter how much you’re like, ‘No, I’m not like them. I’m not like, you know, those mountain people, I’m going to get out of here. I’m going to make something of myself.’ And then you leave, and you realize it’s in your blood. It goes pretty deep.”

Clover Lynn

Performing music in community also connects me to Texas Gladden and Elizabeth. Much like Elizabeth, I started competing at fiddler’s conventions when I was 15. I began meeting people like Sam Linkous and Emily Johnson-Erday who saw the passion in me and encouraged me every step of the way. Sam Linkous and Mike Gangloff always came to watch me sing. Emily Johnson-Erday encouraged me when I was a timid 15-year-old, afraid of sharing my voice. Now, I look forward to seeing her every year at the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention. Through performance, I found a community outside my family that shares my passion for Appalachian music.

Elsa Howell singing Pretty Polly, accompanied by Isak Howell, for the Handmade Music School. 2021.

Even though this community feels like home most of the time, it can be lonely. I am growing up, growing older, growing into myself. My passion carries me into a spaces where I do not always feel seen. I am a young queer person attempting to insert myself into a musical community that rarely hears terms like “queer.” Music is what connects us, and I hope that it can continue to do so, even during this time in America when hate is so easy. Appalachia has so much love to give if we can remember to share it and continue to be compassionate and inclusive. Old-time is for everyone, all the time and I hope that I can follow in the footsteps of those who have shared it with me, and maybe even open this community wider.

I do find the generational divide discouraging at times. There are very few people who look, speak, and think like me who also enjoy old-time and bluegrass music. One of these few is Clover Lynn, who has been extremely influential for me. I met her for the first time when I was 18 at Mount Airy fiddlers’ convention where I won my first blue ribbon in the Folk Song category. She is my age, and I was instantly in awe of her. She was confident, exceedingly kind, encouraging, and undeniably talented.

Now, a few years later, I know how alike we really are. Our homes in Southwest Virginia are the driving factors in our musical journeys that started long before birth. Young women like Clover and me are the excited, passionate future of old-time and bluegrass. We want to revolutionize the art form and continue to teach it, even as we long for a connection to this community that is not always easy for us to grasp as young queer women who look different than most old timers.

“I’ve gone to jams where it’s been a lot of older people, and I’ve been the odd one out for multiple reasons. I’m younger, I’m a woman, I am heavily tattooed. There’s a point where some people are like, oh, this is so cool that you’ve got this younger generation here, and we’re so excited. And then other times, people will look at me and immediately discredit me.”

 Clover Lynn

I am comforted and invigorated by women like Clover who are driven to contribute to a genre and culture that may not always be kind to them. Clover, Elizabeth, Emily, Sally, and women like them are facilitating the maintenance and progression of old-time and bluegrass music.

My journey has followed crooked roads and winding riverbanks, a path that has come full circle with my Virginia Folklife apprenticeship with Elizabeth. As my journey picks up its pace, I will carry Appalachia with me wherever the water takes me, taking my position in this community of women that are shaping the future of the sounds I love so much.

Green River Blues

By Elsa Howell

I’ve been tied to the sleeping city on
this side of the river long enough for
my broken boughs to be splinted with iron and braced
with concrete. Sky high, rachis
swaying as the winds get colder. I eat
quietly in the back alley
alone like the other flies.
I’m predatory here
in the cattails, lurking like the ringneck
I crushed with a brick seven summers ago.
He sat in the grass waiting,
breathing dirt through his tongue and laughing. But snakes
can’t stand the cold.

I am an old woman named after
another old woman whose body had to cross
the green river alone.
If I could go home now, I’d wrap
my grapevine arms around her gumtree hips
and tell her we all cross green rivers somehow.
Crossing them a second time is the hard part.

The old billy goat in my backyard told me once
that the Devil asks you nine questions before you can cross the green river
a second time.
I part the grass and
the bruised clouds searching for his answers, but
I can’t find them.
I find only snakes, black
and copper, frozen, sleeping,
too cold to do anything but whisper
good men die too.
The city and the green river take what answers I do have and toss them
playfully to the wind. They whip at my cheeks like strands of
lemon hair as my skin collects silt loam.
I am granite on this side of the river.
I am a child on the other.

Elsa Howell (they/she) is a writer and musician from Roanoke. They are completing their BA in English Literature at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Elsa is also currently an intern for Virginia Folklife, and apprenticing under Elizabeth LaPrelle in ballad singing.

The included quotes are excerpts from an interview with Clover Lynn conducted by Elsa Howell for the Virginia Folklife Program on March 27th, 2023.