FROM THE MOUNTAINS
an interview with songmaker Elizabeth LaPrelle of Anna & Elizabeth
Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle create music with a mission. Students of traditional Appalachian folk music, accomplished artists and storytellers, Anna and Elizabeth bring new life to age-old songs and stories. They learn these songs through research and relationship, studying in libraries and at the feet of folk elders. Murder ballads, songs of hard traveling, fairy stories, and folk songs from Appalachia and other cultural wellsprings all have found a home in Anna & Elizabeth’s repertoire, often illustrated with a handmade scrolling picture show, or “crankie,” which the two artists create out of paper, fabric, wood, and light.
It was an honor to interview Elizabeth LaPrelle for this issue of Cordella.
CORDELLA: Folk music has a deep connection to place and belonging, while at the same time it can travel long distances and speak across generations. How do you experience the idea of place with regard to folk music?
ELIZABETH: Music is one of the best ways that I have found to connect with the place that I’m from. Researching music has led me to meet elders and mystical, artistic people in my area, and to learn about the history of the mountains. I find that invaluable. At the same time, I make my living mainly from travel, and when you do, you can easily see the power of music to connect across language, age, background, you name it. In a way, when you travel to perform, you are saying “here’s what I know”; “this is where I’m from”; and I like for that to become an invitation for people to think about where they are from, what they have to say.
C: You have devoted yourselves to the studies of southern Appalachian traditional performance. What drew you to this music? Have you explored folk music from other parts of the world?
E: What drew me to this music is a combination of many factors, including the fact that I grew up in Appalachia, my parents having an interest in folk music, and most especially the storytelling and poetry of old ballads. But we’re also both Americans born in the late 80s, so of course we’ve heard and listened to and loved other things! We recently participated in a collaborative project with musicians from Java and shadow-puppeteers from Bali, scoring a puppet show with a combination of Appalachian old-time and Indonesian kroncong music. One of the tunings we learned from our Indonesian friends has made its way into a banjo tune we now play.
C: Why do you think folk music is relevant in contemporary culture?
E: I think it’s relevant because I see a lot of people living with folk or traditional music in their lives. One of my favorite things about “folk” music is the idea that you don’t have to be someone special, a professional, or a “musician” in order to have music enrich and enliven your life. Making music is a free and fulfilling way to connect with friends, pass time, ease work, and cheer a troubled heart. Traditional music works well for this because folks have been using it for those same purposes for a long time. I also believe that undertaking to learn about the traditions close to you—from your family, or neighbors, or companions—can bring dimension and beauty and a sense of the sacred to the world you inhabit.
C: You have played with musicians from bands of strikingly different genres, such as metal and hip hop. What qualities of folk music allow it to connect to other genres of music?
E: Actually, it feels more like we are embarking and feeling our way out to different genres now. We are in a slow growing period of trying to make new sounds together that don’t necessarily belong to the old-time or ballad tradition. It’s exciting and a little daunting! However, while we haven’t collaborated much outside the tradition as a pair yet, we are looking forward to doing so. Separately, and increasingly as a pair, we do love to listen to rock, pop, new and classical music.
C: How do you determine musical compositions/arrangements for old songs that you record?
E: Anna’s historically a bit more of the ideas-woman of the group. :) Increasingly, though, we are letting arrangements emerge out of rehearsal and group improvisation.
C: Do you feel the need to write original music?
E: Personally, I don’t. I’ve never had a strong drive to do so — unlike many of my writer friends who NEED to write to stay happy, strong, and sane. However, it may just be that the process of turning on that part of my creativity is simply taking much longer for me. I seem to be inching that way, with some poems here, shaping a new melody there. But I’m not in a hurry. Traditional songs have spoken of my deepest feelings for most of my life.
C: You create enchanting “crankies” that accompany specific songs that you perform. They are essentially large scrolls held within a wooden frame that are cranked, revealing the scroll incrementally as the song proceeds. You have made versions that are quilted, drawn and made of cut paper silhouettes. Some are quite haunting, such as the murder ballad “Greenwood Sidey,” while others are more whimsical like “Lella Todd.” What qualities of the crankie makes it a unique vehicle for communicating a story, as opposed to a picture book or a film?
E: I’m glad you find them enchanting! We are performing artists—when we first started collaborating I think we thought of ourselves as primarily musicians—so having an art piece that must be performed to be seen was an obvious choice for us (as opposed to a painting, a quilt, or book). And the live nature of the crankie, how it was made to be seen in person in a fairly small room, was right up our alley, especially five years ago when we both lived in rural Southwestern Virginia, and were dreaming up shows that would work in small, non-traditional venue spaces, like friends’ living rooms and the upstairs of restaurants.
C: What historical relationship do crankies have to folk traditions? What about this art form connects to you as individuals?
E: Not much of one, as far as I know. The ancestor of the crankie is the scrolling panorama, which had a bit of a vogue around the turn of the last century. They were a pre-film way to entertain large groups, usually with informative (or even propaganda) stories of battles, whaling voyages, or foreign lands. Most of the folks who make crankies now can trace the idea and the name back to the Bread and Puppet theater company, based in Glover, Vermont. The combination of words/music and image that comes with the crankie is still incredibly entrancing for us.
C: As musicians, you are unique in having a particular mission that involves remembering, honoring, and passing on the traditions of folk music. Does the weight of this self-given responsibility affect your relationship to the music?
E: I would say that although this mission is particular to us, it’s not unique. I think most folks who play traditional music sooner or later end up encountering this question or weight — either being asked or asking it of themselves. How to live with this music that doesn’t belong to them? How to share it in an ethical way? Many of our teachers and role models embodied and taught generosity as a value of the music. Many show a beautiful reverence for their own teachers, and an honor of their legacy. We feel these things as we work. At the same time, we are also working on trusting ourselves, and trusting our creative process, to develop things that could only come from our own weird hearts and brains.
Elizabeth draws inspiration from many genres, and created this little mix for our readers. Enjoy!
Anna & Elizabeth
Elizabeth LaPrelle has pursued her interest in mountain ballads for over a decade. Since the release of her debut album at age 16, she’s been hailed as one of the most dedicated students of the traditional unaccompanied style of her generation. She lives on a farm in Rural Retreat, Virginia.
Anna Roberts-Gevalt is a versatile and passionate multi-instrumentalist. Classically trained on the violin in Vermont, she fell in love with the sound of banjo in college, moved to the mountains, and learned with master musicians in Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.