Interview: Saro Lynch-Thomason

Saro Lynch-Thomason singing ballads on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Saro Lynch-Thomason singing ballads on the Blue Ridge Parkway

I lived in Appalachia for four years, and it’s there that I encountered–and fell in love with–Appalachian ballad singing. Sparse and haunting, ballads are usually sung without instrumentation and tell melancholy tales of betrayal and lost love. Many draw on traditional literature–like folklore and fairy tales–and the medieval romance tradition. I wanted to know more, so I asked my friend Saro Lynch-Thomason, a folklorist and ballad singer, a few questions.

Lynch-Thomason–who is based in Asheville, North Carolina–is also an illustrator, author, and social activist. In 2012 she completed Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising–a researched compilation of over 20 historic songs from West Virginia’s labor wars. Saro has led the Asheville Community Sing since 2010 and regularly teaches regional ballad workshops, Wassailing choruses, and May Day choruses on social justice themes. In 2013, Saro completed her solo CD Vessel–an acappella compilation of ballads and songs from Appalachia and the British Isles. Her distinct, powerful singing style transports audiences to Appalachian mountain hollers, 19th-century coal camps and old meeting houses.

(As a heads up, this interview mentions sexual assault.)

Ballad singing traveled from the British Isles to Appalachia, where you live. Can you tell me a little bit about ballad singing, how it originated and how it ended up in the U.S. Mountain South?

Ballads as they are often referred to today reference a particular story-song form that has been in Europe for nearly 1,000 years. Often a ballad involves first or third person narration, a simple rhyme scheme and a repeated melody. In the 1100s and 1200s, this form of storytelling was popular across what is modern-day France and Spain. A class of minstrels, supported by nobility, traveled and composed poetry and songs in this format. Over 2,000 poems have survived from this period, along with hundreds of melodies.

Since then there have been several periods of songwriting popularity, during which everyone from nobles to peasants took an interest in creating and singing their own ballads. Many ballads were written in the Middle Ages, about 300 of which survive today. But many ballads come from a revival period that began in the 1600s and had its heyday with the creation of the letterpress. People wrote and dispersed songs across Europe and America, drawing on old melodies and themes but with updated characters and political messaging.

During this period many ballads came to America, brought by immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland who arrived throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Immigrants families carried and adapted these songs for generations as they worked and settled across the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, the Piedmont in North Carolina, and the Appalachian Mountains. These song styles became dispersed into Afro-Appalachian communities as well, where people continued to change them.

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Hedgehogs, the Keepers of Order and Knowledge in Slavic Fairy Tales

by Margaryta Golovchenko

The folk tales of various cultures have characters that act as guardians of some sort. Some are like Merlin, King Arthur’s wise advisor, while others are like Puss in Boots, the mischievous and clever protector of the miller’s youngest son. But arguably none are as unexpected, nor as little-known, as the hedgehogs of Slavic folk tales.

These adorable animals are predominantly found in Russian movies and fairy stories but they appear, also, in tales from neighboring countries. The Bulgarians have two particularly interesting accounts of the hedgehog, both of which point to his wisdom. In one tale, he advises God on how to use the sky to cover the earth, while in another he is the only animal not to attend the wedding of the Sun and the Moon. When asked for the reason, he says that he’s busy learning to eat rocks, for if the union takes place and the Sun has lots of little sun children, all the plants in the world will dry up.[1]

ezhik.v.tumane.avi.image5

In other stories, the hedgehog is an embodiment of magical powers. The Slovenian duhovin, for instance, is a version of the bewitched child, possessing special abilities and qualities, and appearing with the body of an animal such as a snake, hedgehog, or raven.[2] And, in the Soviet animated film Ezhik v tumane (Hedgehog in the Fog, 1975), Hedgehog is the bridge between the conscious and the dream world, evoking sympathy from the audience as they watch him lost in a thick mist, chasing after the mirage of a white horse in the clouds.

Perhaps the infrequency of hedgehogs in other cultural stories speaks to a unique characteristic of Slavic culture–the stereotypically cold exterior of the Slavic people gives way to a wise and kind nature. Initially, the hedgehog’s kind personality might seem difficult to find under his intimidating façade. For the persistent reader who takes the time to discover more about him in Slavic tales, however, the hedgehog serves as a reminder that wisdom, kindness, and courage come in various forms.


Margaryta Golovchenko a first year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, Canada. She serves as an editor for the journals Half Mystic and The Spectatorial.  Margaryta’s work has appeared in various publications including [parenthetical], The Teacup Trail, In/Words, and Pear Drop Press, and her debut poetry chapbook Miso Mermaid is forthcoming this fall from words(on)pages press.


[1] Tolstoj, Svetlana M. Словенска митологија: Енциклопедијски речник. (Zepter Book World, 2001), 244-45

[2] Kropej, Monika. Supernatural Beings from Slovenian Myth and Folktales. (Ljubljana: Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2012), 222.

 

Editor’s Note: Ancient Moments of Telling

Biologists reconstruct the descent histories of life forms on planet Earth as the tree of life, its dense trunks and branches leading from common ancestors to new species. Such phylogenetic relationships are not limited to biology. Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal applied the same analysis tools and techniques to storytelling.[1]  Using the catalogue of categorized written folklore in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, they “recorded the presence/absence of each [of] these tales […] in 50 Indo-European-speaking populations represented in the ATU Index” and traced along the resulting tree-like descent histories how these stories were transmitted.[2]

The vertically-transmitted story is passed down within a culture through cultural inheritance. After migration and time, the story might show up around the world, told in daughter languages that emerged out of the original language in which it was first told. A horizontally-transmitted story leaps across cultural and language boundaries to reach foreign audiences. Graça da Silva and Tehrani found evidence for stronger vertical than horizontal transmissions for many of the folk tales they studied. When “accounting for spatial relationships among linguistically related Indo-European groups,” many folktales seemed to have been rejected by adjacent cultures. Rejection by foreign cultures and missed opportunities to translate and adopt such stories that might have changed them significantly helped them to retain much of their original form.

Graça da Silva and Tehrani traced this remarkable retention of the basic story arc across hundreds and thousands of years and miles to glimpse—for a few stories—ancient origins in the oral traditions. They discovered that “The Smith and the Devil” fairy tale might have originated over 6000 years ago in the Bronze Age. Preserved in the phylogenetic relationships are ancient moments of telling: a blacksmith and their fictional story about the struggle to smelt copper and alloy, or other community members and their fictional stories about the blacksmith. After all, to pursue craft is isolating; to pursue work with metals is magical, powerful, dangerous, and thus perfect for gossip and exclusion and storytelling.[3]

Certainly the Devil is involved.[4] There’s the bargain—the smith’s soul for mastery over the new dark arts—and there’s the twist—the morally questionable smith beats the Devil at his own game—and there’s the implication that art, craft, technology, knowledge itself are both divine and damning. From roots to branches, it’s an implication that susurrates thousands of years later.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Richard Leis.


[1]Graça da Silva, Sara and Tehrani, Jamshid J. “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales.” Royal Society Open Science. 3: 150645. 20 January 2016. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645>

[2] “Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu>

[3] Monbiot, George. “The Smith and the Devil.” George Monbiot. 1 January 1994. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/smith-and-the-devil/>

[4]“330: The Smith Outwits the Devil.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu&act=select&atu=330>