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.