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.
How did you become interested in ballads? What has your journey studying, singing and teaching ballads been like?
Growing up in Nashville, TN, my parents played music from the British folk revival of the 60s and 70s alongside contemporary composers who drew from traditional sources–singers like Sinead O’Connor and Loreena McKennitt. I latched on to the ballads I heard and spent time by myself memorizing them. In addition, my aunts had learned many ballads in the folk revival era, and taught me songs from their repertoire.
When I attended college in the Northeast I met other people my age who studied and sang ballads. Having peers who were just as interested in these songs as I was encouraged me to learn more. After school I moved to Western North Carolina to connect with the many traditional singing communities there, and I’ve been studying ballads ever since.
The process of hearing a ballad, learning it, and teaching it has always felt very emotional and spiritual to me. Knowing that a song has been carried from body to body for generations is a powerful thing. A song has to really resonate with many people in order for it to be passed and remembered and cherished for long periods of time. When I sing a ballad, I feel like I’m not only inheriting the song but the community of people who have sung it. I have an invisible circle of folks who affirm my feelings and connection to the song’s content. Getting to teach these songs to others, and learning what the stories mean to them, is a rewarding and revelatory experience.
What kinds of stories do ballads tell? How do ballads relate to traditional forms of literature, like folk and fairy tales?
Ballads can tell just about every kind of story. They’ve been used to spread news, to teach moral lessons, as political propaganda, as escapist fantasies, and as fatalistic laments. Since these story songs have been around since at least the 1100s, it’s impossible to generalize what they tell about. Different eras do seem to have had favored themes, though. In America, for example, popular ballad themes have included murders (often based on real events), cowboy tales, betrayed love, and train wrecks. In the 1600s and 1700s in England many ballads detailed the dramas of the nobility (sort of like modern-day tabloids), lamented sailors’ deaths at sea, and celebrated famous battles.
For as long as these songs have been around they’ve enjoyed a close relationship with literature. Starting in the same period that medieval minstrelsy was popular across Europe–the 1100s– there was a literary form popular among nobility called romance writing. Nobles and aristocracy would write stories inspired by legends and older histories, using prose and verse forms. Over time people truncated these stories, added a tune, and started singing them. In turn, these ballads could eventually inspire new poetry or novels.
A great example of the interweaving of literary and musical storytelling can be seen in the Thomas of Erceldoune legend. Thomas of Erceldoune was a Scottish lord in the 1200s. According to legend, he was a seer and prophet, and is also credited with writing the English version of the romance “Tristram and Isolde”- a precursor to the Lancelot and Guinevere legend. Erceldoune passed away in the late 1200s, and about one hundred years later someone decided to write a romance praising his abilities. The narrative is written from Thomas’ perspective, and explains that he received his gifts of prophecy from a fairy queen. By the 1700s, this romance had become a ballad. The first verse of many versions says:
True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
A ferlie he spied wi’ his ee,
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
Thomas spies a “ferlie” with his “ee,” or “eye. In the Scots language a “ferlie” is a “wonder,” in this case the wondrous site of the fairy queen approaching Thomas to take him to her realm.
During the same period this song was popular, a literary ballad revival was taking place in Europe. Aristocratic scholars and writers began to collect and study ballads, using them as inspiration for poetry. One of these artists, Sir Walter Scott, collected the Thomas ballad and wrote his own third part to the narrative, extending the story and reviving interest in the singing of the ballad.
The song seems to have made its way to America, and was written down in the mid-1900s from a version sung by a woman named Becky Gordon in Western North Carolina. Her first verse reads:
True Thomas lay on yonder hill
And saw a lady gay
A lady that was bright and fair
Come riding down the way
I found this ballad in a collection of North Carolina folklore and added my own tune since it had none. I’ve been singing it for a few years now. To me, it’s a “ferlie” that a story like True Thomas has been around for so long, and I think its survival and popularity is due to the fact that it has taken literary forms many times.
Some people argue that if a ballad is written down, it begins to die–that putting the narrative to paper means people will stop knowing it and holding it in their minds and memory. I think the history of Thomas of Erceldoune demonstrates that the relationship between written stories and sung stories is natural and mutually beneficial.
You’re interested in the sociopolitical dimensions of ballad singing. How does your work with ballads – as well as the ballads themselves– relate to issues like feminism, economic justice, and environmental destruction in Appalachia?
Ballads have a powerful political dimension to them–they can be used to push against cultural expectations or to affirm them. Which meaning a ballad has is often up to the interpretation of the singers and listeners.
I’ve been teaching workshops for a while that focus on women’s experiences in ballads. Some of the stories in ballads are about the hardest experiences women go through–like economic disenfranchisement, abortion and sexual assault. In some ballads women face these challenges and find creative solutions to overcome them, and in others they simply have to bear the weight of these traumas. In my workshops, I’ve been exploring how these kinds of stories can be viewed as empowering in the right context. For example, a song that I’ve enjoyed singing to myself for years is called simply “Queen Jane.” The ballad is about a rape, and I’ve sung it to myself, alone, countless times as a way to emotionally process my experiences of sexual assault. It’s such an intense song that I would have trouble hearing or sharing it in a public space, but the solitary practice of singing it has been a great comfort to me. Whoever originally wrote “Queen Jane” may not have had that use in mind for the song, but that’s how ballads work–the songs survive because they take on personal meanings to people. This use of ballads as processing tools for traumatic experiences is profound and moving to me as a feminist and activist.
As an organizer in Appalachia, I’ve enjoyed using ballads as overtly political statements. A lot of European songs from hundreds of years ago speak to the same issues Appalachians are facing today, including environmental destruction and lack of access to land. English ballads about the enclosure of the commons could easily describe the modern state of private land ownership in Appalachia. Some of these older songs also tell about rebellions and land reclamation movements, suggesting strategies that could be used today.
One of my favorite political ballads is an adaptation of an English song called “The Cutty Wren.” The song is thought to have originally been a coded rebel song about killing the king and dispersing his riches. One of the characters in the song declares, “We’ll shoot the cutty wren!” — the wren being a longtime symbol of kings and rulers. In the new version, adapted by ballad singer and Appalachian activist Michael Kline, the song details the plans of a group of people to blow up a bulldozer on a strip site. The same character declares, “We’ll blow the big dozer!”
Appalachians have taken older songs like this and countless times adapted them to their own struggles. Like all ballad singing, whether the song ends sadly or hopefully it serves the purpose of connecting many generations and helping the singer move through their own struggles. It’s an empowering and affirming tool that I hope continues for at least another thousand years.