The ‘Sixteen Stories’ of Anna & Elizabeth
It’s been an especially cold and snowy winter here in New York’s Hudson Valley, although not quite on the level of what my friends up in Boston have been dealing with. They just might stay frosty until the summer. But it’s been a good time to catch up on films, books, and music. On my digital jukebox, I’ve been exploring several compilations of 78 rpm records that have been recently released, and I can thank Amanda Petrusich for that directional nudge. Her wonderful book on record collecting and the people who do it (Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records) sort of gnawed at me, to the point that I was barely able to listen to anything that didn’t have oodles of scratches and surface noise coming out of the speakers. Indeed, there is something to be said for low fidelity.
Ten days ago, the sun finally peeked out a little and the mercury began to rise. I felt the pull to hear something with a more current vibe. Preparing to take a much-needed ride through the country, I stopped at my mailbox, found a disc in a plain brown cardboard envelope, got into my car, put it into the player and took off. Honestly, I didn’t even look at the cover or read the note that was stuffed in the package. It didn’t matter. My ears were longing for something new – a singer or songwriter, a band, folk, blues, country, rock, techno, neo-industrial post-punk thrash – it really didn’t matter. Something. Anything. Modern. Please.
What came out of the speakers were two voices and 16 songs. Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle. Harmonic vocals, banjo, fiddle, guitar. One track has a bass. There is a touch of uilleann pipes. Anna & Elizabeth, as they call themselves, did not sound like anything new; but it sounded simply amazing.
I turned off the heat in the car, rolled down the windows, cranked up the volume, and drove around long enough to listen to each song three times. I got home, found their website, sent Roberts-Gevalt an email, listened one more time, and three hours later I was talking to Jefferson Hamer from the Murphy Beds and telling him about this great album I discovered. He sort of smiled, scratched his beard and said, “Yeah, me and Eamon just recorded some stuff with them. They’re great, aren’t they?”
LaPrelle is a native of Rural Retreat, Virginia. While her friends listened to Britney Spears and Maroon 5, she found herself deep in the archives of old-time ballad singers.
“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” she told Beth Macy for Garden & Gun of the first time she heard North Carolina novelist and balladeer Sheila Kay Adams. “There was something very magnetic about hearing just that one voice, seeing the potential it has to focus attention like a laser beam.” She attended the College of William and Mary and majored in a self-designed program of Southern Appalachian traditional performance.
Roberts-Gevalt, meanwhile, got into old-time music in college in Connecticut, where she was a gender studies major. She told Hearth Music: “I remember reading a book about string bands, and there was a two-page section dedicated to women musicians, saying there were lots of them, but that the author didn’t really find that much information about them. That kinda galvanized me to get interested in women musicians of Appalachia, and I wrote a thesis about three generations of women (and girls) playing fiddle in East Kentucky. From there, I was fortunate to receive a grant from Berea College to do oral histories about some of the women whose music is in the archive.” She spent a summer in Kentucky interning at a traditional music program, moved back to Connecticut the following summer, and eventually settled in southwest Virginia.
The two came together about five years ago, after they met at a house concert and discovered that they both shared an interest in presenting this music in different ways. Storytelling, dancing, original artwork, shadow puppetry, and scrolling illustrations made of felt called “crankies” are incorporated in their shows. And their multimedia approach helped score them a gig as hosts of the weekly Floyd Radio Show. This variety show, streamed at floydcountrystore.com, features original plays, comedy bits, ads, jingles, and music from the area’s finest pickers and singers.
Why two young women still in their 20s have chosen to study and perform Appalachian traditional music makes me scratch my head. When I was their age, I wouldn’t listen to my parents’ music, let alone what my grandparents might have heard. But they are among a growing number of people not only keeping it alive but building upon it.
Over on the Hearth Music website, I found an interview with Roberts-Gevalt in regards to a compilation album from this new generation of Appalachian old-time players called The New Young Fogies, Volume 1. There, she articulately addressed that group’s interest in not only the music, but the lifestyle and folklore:
“For some folks, it’s a matter of choosing to live how their families have lived for generations, music included. For others, it seems that there (is) a desire (and nostalgia) to find a life that was simple, or one that was based on tradition, or country living—music is one part of that.
There’s a lot of plaid wearing kids in old time music, and we get excited to try homemade wine or so-and-so’s ancient cornbread recipe. We delight in old things as much as old-time music. But this isn’t universally true. John Haywood (who is featured on the album), for example, also plays in a heavy metal band. And there are plenty of New Yorkers who love the tunes and would never want to live in the country.”
With such an intense music and cultural marketing focus taking place in Austin at SXSW this week as I sit here writing, I like the juxtaposition of Anna and Elizabeth celebrating their album release by not being there. Instead, there was a Sunday night in Brooklyn followed by a series of concerts in Vermont. In May they’ll be touring the UK, and their website (www.annaandelizabeth.com) lists their latest itinerary, including the Floyd dates.
Think I’ll listen to some Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard before I go to bed.