Oh, the tears that I have shed

In a documentary I was watching this weekend, the Irish singers Radie Peat and Katie Kim are talking shop, and the dialogue goes something like this:

RP:  Yeah, those Appalachian singers, though.

KK:  Holy God.

RP:  There's a girl, I think she's the same age as me actually.  Have you ever heard Elizabeth Laprelle?

KK:  No.

RP:  She has the most insane voice, it's amazing.  Proper like, best voice I think I've ever heard in the same room with me.  Yea, it's like fuckin shockin.

Elizabeth Laprelle, you say.  

She grew up in Cedar Spring, a tiny town in the Rye Valley between where the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Front run through the southwestern corner of Virginia.  Since she was a little kid, she's been singing the songs of the mountain people that live along those ridges.  She's both singer and folklorist:  She's spent a lot of time digging through archives to find out where this music came from and tracking down the still-living who remember who sang it and what it was like.

In recent years she has teamed up with Anna Roberts-Gevalt, who has been doing pretty much the same thing only in Vermont.  The two of them now tour and perform as Anna and Elizabeth, and if you have the time I recommend their performance on the NPR Tiny Desk Concert, which includes music, storytelling, and a revival the "crankie," a form of handmade animation that was common enough back in the days of the magic lantern.

To really hear what Lapierre can do with her voice, though, you'll need something like this performance of "East Virginia."  This song was recorded in the 1920s by Buell Kazee, though it's known to be much older than that - some verses are from 18th-century English folk songs.  Joan Baez sang it too, though her version's not quite so bleak.  This is a song from what Greil Marcus called "the old, weird America," and you will definitely hear its oldness and weirdness here.

Kirk Sutphin here is playing a fretless banjo with a fingerboard made of Formica, which makes this performance feel to me a little like the rooms in the palace of Versailles that have been restored to different centuries.  (The song may be 200 years old, but the Formica banjo's only 50.)  

I really liked one of the comments on this video:  "When the lifestyle goes the music loses its roots, rather like a farm tool in a museum, when there's no longer any sweat on the handle."  That may be so, but I heard what I heard.


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