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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Hollow Mountain

by Wren Awry

At home, by the river, dishes pile up in the sink and the front steps are cracked and littered with Pall Mall cigarettes. It is chaos there: filthy with too many people living in too small of a space. Here, in the woods, it’s calm. At least it is in this stretch of twenty feet, with nettles and rhododendrons and tulip poplar leaves crunching underfoot. I chew on spicy sassafras, let it fill my mouth with the taste of this place: earth and green, unbearable green. Almost heaven.

Almost. Large portions of the mountain underfoot are hollow. Throughout the twentieth-century, it was mined out bit by bit, its coal shipped to cities like Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.

Ali Baba’s mountain held forty thieves; in the Grimm Brothers version, a girl attends an elven baptism in a mountain and learns that her three-day stay was actually seven years. Appalachian trickster Jack slips through a hole on a mountain slope. He finds a mirror world down there, with a house and a barn and a woman to wed.

This is not that kind of mountain. A few ridges over, billions of gallons of toxic coal sludge are stored in a slurry pond on the mountaintop. The pond is built over a network of abandoned underground mines. Massey Coal is blasting rock just two hundred feet away, further destabilizing geology. [1] For those who live downstream, the slurry pond is an ever-present threat: a dam break could send forty feet of water through the narrow Coal River Valley. [2]

(I do not live downstream, not really. I am a stranger here: an idealistic twenty-year-old trying to “save the mountains.” I will move back to New York as soon as it becomes untenable. I will take my memories with me, turn them in to metaphors.)

There’s an old mine entrance on the trail, a stone archway half-hidden by twisting rhododendron limbs. If Jack came along, I wonder if he’d skip right in, try his hand at tricking a giant and eating off of his subterranean table. Times have changed, Jack. You will only find darkness, bitumen, rusting tools, the occasional drip, drip, drip.


Wren Awry studies Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. Their creative nonfiction has been published in Loom Art Zine, and they occasionally write criticism for the Anarcho-Geek Review.


[1] “Renewable Energy on Coal River Mountain.” Journey Up Coal River. Aurora Lights, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://auroralights.org/map_project/theme.php?theme=wind&article=14>.

[2] “Land Use: The Brushy Fork Slurry Impoundment.” Journey Up Coal River. Aurora Lights, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://auroralights.org/map_project/theme.php?theme=crm&article=2>.