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Big Bend Killing: The Legacy of Appalachian Balladry

EDITOR'S NOTE: This spring, we're focusing on the music and traditions of Appalachia, both here at NoDepression.com and in our print journal. For more sounds and voices from that ancient mountain region, get yourself a copy of our spring journal, available for preorder now and shipping in mid-March. Better yet, start a subscription, so you get that issue and each one that follows — a total of four for the year, each 120+ pages, ad-free, of writing and artwork shedding light on the music you love.

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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.

The highland bagpipe is largely if not totally ignored in every academic treatise I've read on Appalachian music. I hope the Spring 2018 issue of No Depression rights that wrong. If so...sign me up!

And pass the haggis.

Ugh...Mr. Mutt...no haggis please...scottish equvialent of Scrapple or Goette...

While we are considering bagpipes, what about the pan flute?  Where is Zamfir?

 

When I was in high school my mother bought me a Zamfir cassette of television theme songs thinking I'd like it.  It was awful.  So, the next Christmas I wrapped it up and gave it back to her.  This led to several years of us gifting the Zamfir cassette back and forth.  I think she still has it in a drawer somewhere.

I remember seeing those infomercials where you could buy Zamfir CD's, and others where they sold Slim Whitman, the yodeling falsetto country singer...I guess that stuff really sold well...I worked for General Motors back in the day, and there was a guy that I worked with that had all the Slim Whitman  records, and he played nothing but that...loved the guy...a little of it went a long way for me...

Zamfir...I found it even stranger that they would market him that way, and that it obviously was succesful...I can't say that I hated what little they played on the commercials, but it sure seemed like something I wouldn't want to listen  to exclusively for any length of time...

The re-gifting is a very nice touch...I love that...

Did you get the hearing aid you had mentioned?....I wondered how that would work out...they are tricky sometimes...seems like everyone has a different experience...you had said you just needed one ear...

 

 

I hit submit twice...my bad...

This was even before CDs existed!  But we won't think about that.

Yes, I got the hearing aid.  I end up taking it off at concerts because they are just so darn loud it becomes irritating and I don't need it.  Otherwise, it really helps.

My hearing is such that I have both ears and I do use them at concerts, and dial them down from workplace, as mine have 3 settings...last electric concert I attended, I shut them off...they have tips that block off the ear canal, so they were like ear plugs...that was either Marty Stewart or Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers...but I don't think anyone but the metal and hard rock bands play anywhere near as loud as they used to these days...

And yes, cassettes had their day and I remember them well, I still have a few laying around...I usually bought vinyl and then made cassettes for the car...did mixtapes for friends...those were fun times...

Zamfir is one of those things where you wonder how they got the idea to promote that, and did they really anticipate it succeeding?  Clearly some folks liked it...

 

Mine also have 3 settings. Bruce Cockburn was loud enough I didn’t need it. 

The national park website to order the cd is seriously messed up.  And Amazon only has the mp3 version.

 

Zamfir, the Jimi Hendrix of the panflute! I had the same cassette or similar. I bought it to torture co-workers on special occasions. 

And what about a ND theme issue.....

The Jimi Hendrix of the _______

Pan flute (Zamfir)

Accordion (Esteban Jordan)

Hawaiian steel guitarist (Sol Hoopii)

Harmonica (Little Walter)

Ukelele (Jake Shimabukuro)

Violin (Lili Hayden)

Harmonica I'd personally go with Toots Thielmans or Norton Buffalo, but Little Walter is right up there...the two I mentioned weren't blues players...but they, like LW were/are bad dudes...

No Herbert Khoury on Uke Mr. Mutt??

I'm not gonna Tip Toe Through Your Tulips Mr. Hunter.

That's likely a prudent decision...he was no Uke virtuoso...

 Authenticity often beats traditional talent.   Tiny Tim and Bob Dylan are just two examples that come to mind.

 

I was going to post that but I couldn't get the video to play when I checked it out bofore posting...glad you have posted it in all of it's melodic glory...

Claude Bolling in my opinion did more for the flute than Zamfir.

 

well...that's debatable, but maybe...I guess this conversation is just beginning...

Well put...

This comment is supposed to be up where Dylan/Khoury commentary was happening...

 

Some hope the Appalachian issue won't feature flute music: Zamfir or otherwise!  

Mr. Mutt, I don't want to hear what he's playing any more than you do...or the guy on the left...

I truly hope this speciality issue of NoDepression is more inclusive and covers the dying mountain art of grass whistling!

That actually works, I've done that...can I be forgiven for not realizing it was art...?

It is indeed art Mr. Hunter and yes you are forgiven. I recall at CCCC (Cripple Creek Community College) there was a music class on Appalachian Art taught by Fiddlin' Ray Man which included grass whistling, and playing the spoons, washboard, gewgaw, and psaltery, as well as yodeling.   

The person who showed me how to do that was not from Appalachia as far as I know, but must have encountered it somewhere...had I known it was art I'd have practiced more...Fiddlin' Ray Man is a great name...I had to Google "geegaw" (by the way, "Google geegaw" is fun, and a bit difficult to say...try it Mr. Mutt, make you laugh out loud...)

You may know this but, Jesco White of the "Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" is considered the finest Appalachian Tap Dancer in the world...to put it in his own words, he knows "58 more steps than anyone else"...when he chooses to perform, which is apparently only when inspiration strikes, the required accompanying music is the Ozark Mountain Daredevil's classic, "If You Want To Get To Heaven (you got to raise a little Hell)"...it is in fact quite entertaining...

Please feel free to partake...

https://youtu.be/Al9r4ahuK1w

The music of the Appalachian Mountains receives much more attention than that of the Ozark Mountains. Even the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains has received more attention.  This is upsetting. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils , The Skeletons, and The Morells, among many other bands hail from the Ozarks and have excelled in providing lasting contributions to the music of the Ozark region generally and to roots music specifically. Ironic and perhaps telling that an Appalachian folk dancer relied on Ozark music.

Are you suggesting an Ozark ND theme issue would convince you to subscribe?

 

Today’s vocab word, kids, is: variety

With that said, there is a real story to tell of the Ozarks region. Dave Hoekstra, one of our finest writers of roots music and off the beaten path places delves into some of it in this piece: http://www.davehoekstra.com/2017/05/31/the-sound-of-springfield-missouri/

Dave’s website www.davehoekstra.com is must read stuff about roots music and off the beaten path places. 

that is an intersting website...

http://www.thecreekrocks.com/wolfhunter/  I came across this duo from Springfield, MO last year at the KC Folk Festival.  It's an album of songs from the Ozarks.

http://www.thecreekrocks.com/albums/wolf-hunter-lp  Hopefully, this link works better.

So, the link doesn't exactly work but it gets you to their site.  Look under shopping for Wolf Hunter.

got it...that's not what I expected exactly, but those are certainly traditional songs...I had to peruse Mp3 on Amazon to listen, but I finally figured out how to get to it on their site...the shopping link didn't show up at first...

Truthfully, Jesco was always abusing substaces at such an alarming rate that I doubt he recognized the irony...you will note when you watch the video that he dances throughout the song, but when it gets to the chorus he stops and sings along...not sure if he thought he was going to heaven or not, but he had held up his end on "rasing a little hell"...

Seriously, I highly recommend the films "Dancing Outlaw" and "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia"...Jesco White is literally one of the most entertaining human beings on the planet...he was a bit brain damaged from sniffing glue and substance abuse, pretty erratic guy...and the family he begat is the subject of the second film...indescribable...you have to see it to believe it...

Few people believe/realize that Appalachia extends into upstate New York.  

Your comments Jim reminded me of this film years ago:

Brother's Keeper.  

That film was on one of the pay channels a few years back, I watched part of it...interesting film...

When I worked for GM, many of the people who worked there came from Tennessee, Smoky Mtns., a couple of the guys who worked for me couldn't read or write, they had heard the factory was hiring and they came up and got a job...good guys...one of them was a really bad alcoholic...he was fired a couple of times but got back on, and he had stopped drinking to keep his job but was not happy about it...great employee, super hard worker...he got his 30 years in and announced his retirement date and I asked him what he was going to do when he retired...he said he had a shack in the mountains in Tennessee, and he was going back there and sit on the porch and start drinking again...he had kids and a wife here that were from here...and damned if he didn't leave them all here and go back...I assume he drank till it killed him as I never heard from him again...

 

 

Alright, Appalachia, Ozarks, Poconos (what's better than fiddle music and heart-shaped bathtubs?).

But what about Adirondack Folk Music?

Ted Ashlaw!

And I shit you not. I own Ted's album on vinyl.

That goes back a ways Mr. Mutt...I'm not sure Rounder even puts out titles on Philo anymore...I listened to a snippet of that...sounds like we have erred in omitting the Adirondacks and Ted...or someone has...a whole issue on Appalachia was not my idea, but it appears to have been exclusionary in hindsight...everything is these days you know...

I'll just go on record now as being in favor of inclusion...

I don't think it excluded but rather fosters the stereo type of Appalachia as being somehow more authentic (especially to newbies who got here through Mumford's Sons and then grew a beard).

Just for the record, I've had a beard for 25 years.

Speaking of regional music, there is quite a community of folk/blues/bluegrass in the upper Minnesota and Wisconsin area, especially Duluth, such as Charlie Parr, Trampled by Turtles, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and so forth, and so on, etc., etc.

I was not questioning your authenticity Mr. Williams!  Alas, both you and I (and most likely Mr. Hunter and Jack 11.0) are too old to be hipsters (bearded or not). 

Haha, thanks for playing along Matt, Mr. Mutt...Jack 11.0 and I., sort of egg each other on at times for entertainment value (that's me, they may not be as entertained as I am)...duly noted that the beard is and has been a fixture far too long to be considered part of any current trend jumping scheme...

There is indeed quite a community of all of that (Minnesota has always impressed in the area of arts, which I found interesting in the sense that people move there for that reason, and it is cold there...it's not like moving to LA or Nashville...John Gorka talks about getting his start as a folk artist in Bethlehem, PA, and then mentions that he moved to Minneapolis because the winters in Bethlehem were so harsh)...some Jazz as well if you count Minneapolis and St. Paul...Red House label is based there too...Ben Sidran...lots of great music to the north...and we haven't crossed the border yet to Canada...

 

Are you begging for an all Canadian issue? I for one would love a feature on Stompin' Tom Connors!

Sit down with a mason glass of craft beer and enjoy!

 

I'm down with that...maybe we can get another interview where Ian Tyson disses Dylan and we argue about who is the bitterest old man...

Indeed, northern Minnesota, specifically the Mesabi Mountain Range and the Embarrass Mountains sub range have a rich musical history and have  been an influence on modern folk music, as Tom Russell explains:

 

That's a good record...I got onto him late, that was one of the first I bought...

Mountains are the common thread here...I suppose we'll have to cover them all, including Andes, Urals, etc...that's several mountain issues...