Big Bend Killing: The Legacy of Appalachian Balladry
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In his liner notes for the Big Bend Killing anthology, Ted Olson – producer of the project and East Tennessee State University professor in the department of Appalachian Studies – writes:
Released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association – a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting deepened understanding of and appreciation for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Big Bend Killing seeks to explore the history and continuity of Appalachian balladry. An additional objective of this album is to illustrate that the Great Smokies and adjoining sections of the Blue Ridge have long constituted fertile ground for the preservation of older ballads and the creation of newer ballads.
Olson’s introductory statements serve to contextualize the project, as do his in-depth notes addressing the historical background of each ballad, including where the piece originated, how it may have evolved over decades or centuries, and when significant recordings took place. Olson points out that ballad singing remained common in Appalachian families and communities through the Great Depression, adding that “balladry rapidly declined in many Appalachian areas in the wake of massive regional and national changes wrought by Industrialization, which by World War II altered virtually every aspect of life in the region.”
Thomas Burton, whom Olson quotes in his liner notes, elaborates:
The influence of mass media, TV, movies, and urban culture all had a great impact upon the singing of traditional ballads … The family social context in which there are multiple traditional singers and occasions of singing songs has almost completely changed … And even in those situations where ballads are being sung, the instances in which they are being learned in the oral tradition are seemingly very small.
And yet, the tradition has endured, even if in more culturally marginal and precarious ways. Donna Ray Norton, who lends her voice to two ballads included in the project, says: “Some people’s families are ballerinas or football players. My family has been singing ballads for eight generations. This is what we do.” When I asked Norton if she could elaborate on that statement, she replied:
“I learned all these old songs growing up. I heard my mom, Lena Jean Ray; my cousin, Sheila Kay Adams; my aunt Evelyn (Ramsey); Bobby McMillon; and a ton of other singers (family members and friends) sitting around the house singing the old love songs. But I didn’t actually start to learn the words and practice the songs until I was in high school.
“I believe that the next generation will continue to sing. I didn’t think that they would when I was the next generation, but one day I realized I wanted to share my voice. Our family loves to sing. We are a musical bunch. Why not embrace a gift that you have been given? I have two children myself. My daughter is fourteen, and my son is nine. I don’t push things on them. They listen to me sing, and they come to festivals and things like that. But ultimately, it’s their choice. I know that singing is in their blood. I feel like they will pick it up when it’s their time.
“I believe that Appalachian balladry does indeed have a place in this modern world. We live in a society in which the internet has dulled down the senses, and I feel that people look for this sort of thing. I see younger and younger people at the festivals I attend. The Appalachian ballads are a huge part of my heritage, my past, my present, my future, and my soul. It’s like a birthright. I would do anything to keep this old tradition alive.”
Highlights for me from the first CD of the 2-CD set include Archie Fisher’s version of “Thomas the Rhymer,” which originated in Scotland, perhaps as early as 1400. Even though Fisher was born in Glasgow and grew up in a musical family, it’s striking to me that he so effortlessly embraces the original pronunciations. At over eight minutes, this is a lengthy – and some would say, repetitive – piece by current standards, yet I found myself enthralled, transported by Fisher’s voice to a different time and place.
I played and replayed Donna Ray Norton’s a cappella version of “Mathy Groves,” mesmerized by the unfurling narrative and Norton’s performance. Rosanne Cash’s instrumented version of “Barbara Allen” occurs almost as a modern adaptation, contrasting as it does with Carol Elizabeth Jones’s a cappella version.
The second CD opens with “Wild Hog in the Woods,” sung by Alice Gerrard (accompanied by Roy Andrade on banjo). The source for the song, according to Olson, may date as early as the 12th or 13th century; however, the addition of the banjo and Gerrard’s fiddle highlight bluegrass’s historical connection to balladry – how these early pieces clearly gave birth to and in many cases evolved into the various genres and subgenres of Americana.
Amythyst Kiah’s vocals on “Pretty Polly” and “John Henry” are some of the more compelling on the anthology. Corbin Hayslett offers a dynamic take of “Wreck of the Old 97,” the story of a train that derailed, careening off a Danville, Virginia, bridge in 1903. According to Olson, Hayslett’s version is “likely the most complete text of the ballad ever recorded.”
The anthology is brimming with compelling performances, intriguing narratives, and haunting melodies. A listener will recognize, particularly when hearing the songs on the second CD, how balladry has impacted modern songwriters, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan (one could argue that Dylan’s chief accomplishment is contemporizing the balladic form — for example, “Gates of Eden” and “Desolation Row” — using uber-poetic and socially hip lyricism to convert an antiquated form into a fresh vehicle). In addition, recent years have marked a folk revival, with bands such as Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, the Decemberists, and Dawes, among others, drawing in their own ways from perennial (and secondary) sources. There’s no doubt that this music remains a fodder from which much contemporary Americana continues to sprout. The pieces included in Big Bend Killing are compelling on their own merit; however, heard within the context of their historical significance, they further stoke a listener’s curiosity, underscoring how the human desire to voice stories is an ever-evolving impulse, one that has prompted a creative continuum dating back to our murky origins.
Interview with Ted Olson
JA: What prompted this project and how long did it take to complete?
Olson: Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition is the fourth album I produced for Great Smoky Mountains Association. The first was the Grammy-nominated Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, released in 2010; it compiled rare 1939 field recordings of traditional music made in the Great Smoky Mountains among people who were soon displaced to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The second album, Old-Time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, from 2014, featured historically significant 1956 and 1959 field recordings of legendary Smokies-area banjo-player Carroll Best, who is often credited with pioneering a style of banjo-playing popular today with bluegrass players — the melodic three-finger banjo style. On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, the third album, was released in 2016 and featured many contemporary roots music acts reinterpreting those older field recordings; that album was named Best Tribute Album by the Independent Music Awards and Most Innovative Product by the Alliance for Public Lands, and the album was officially recognized by the Tennessee State Senate. Big Bend Killing grew out of On Top of Old Smoky, as several musicians, while recording songs and tunes for the earlier project in the spring of 2015, also shared their interpretations of a ballad or two, and I decided to save those ballad recordings for a separate album project; additional recordings of ballads were subsequently sought for this new album from other musicians.
JA: It seems that you’ve produced a very representative anthology. How did you go about choosing the pieces and sequencing the songs? How did you find and/or enroll the various performers?
Olson: Big Bend Killing focuses on a tradition that once was vital and widespread across Appalachia but that declined dramatically, and today ballads are actively sung in only a few locales in the region. But ballads were historically crucial cultural keepsakes that helped Appalachian people retain a connection with their Old World roots, and this new album attempts to broaden public awareness about that tradition while celebrating the aesthetic beauty of the ballads. Many of the people who contributed ballads were musicians whose recordings I had listened to and learned from over the years, though others were younger performers (including several current or former students in East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program). If a musician really wanted to record a particular ballad, I tried to accommodate that for this album. Of course, with a thematically controlled compilation such as this one, we needed to include certain types of ballads, and several musicians were gracious in agreeing to interpret underrepresented material.
JA: Could you speak a little about East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program? What do these students study? Do many of them have a true love for traditional forms? Is the tradition of Appalachian balladry cultivated and kept alive through this program?
Olson: Founded in 1982 as the first program of its kind affiliated with a four-year academic institution, ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program offers performance instruction in and scholarly understanding of the music genres that have historically been connected to Appalachia. The people affiliated with the program over the years — teachers and students — constitute a who’s who in these genres. That said, Appalachian balladry had been somewhat overlooked within the program. One of the purposes behind Big Bend Killing was to try to encourage deeper awareness of and appreciation for the ballad tradition among the program’s students, and one can hear on this album that many students really responded to learning and interpreting those old narrative songs.