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Elizabeth LaPrelle: Carrying On The Appalachian Tradition

Elizabeth LaPrelle sings during The Floyd Radio Show, a monthly program streamed live online. (Courtesy of the Floyd Country Store)

Back in the summer, a collection of newly performed old-time Appalachian music appeared called The New Young Fogies — its title referring to the generation that will carry these songs and traditions forward. One of the singers on the album has a voice that will wake you right up on a Sunday morning.

Her name is Elizabeth LaPrelle. She says she loves the story-telling ballad — Scottish, Irish, English — especially the ones that go back centuries. At 25, she's aware she sounds older, and likes it.

"So many of my singing mentors were recorded when they were old gentlemen or old ladies," LaPrelle says. "I love the way they sound. I love gravelly voices. Luckily, rather than if I were singing opera, I'm not as worried about keeping my voice pure. And so I'm excited to sound like a creepy old lady. I can really get into that."

Ten years ago, LaPrelle heard a ballad singer in a workshop in West Virginia. She was in a room with a master storyteller, listening to just one voice. She says she thought, "This is really what I want to do."

"It focuses your attention like a total laser," she says. "It doesn't even go to your brain, but straight to your spinal column and goes up and down, and sends shivers."

Slide Up The Note, Don't Step On It

At the College of William and Mary, LaPrelle got a degree in Southern Appalachian Traditional Performance. She spent summers at festivals, learning the songs and the singers and, perhaps most importantly, the way Appalachian music welcomes embellishment and interpretation.

"It doesn't have a lot of rhythm; it's free with meter; it has long, drawn-out phrases and lots of ornaments," LaPrelle says. "So the ornaments are like the yip or trilling around the note — sliding up into the note instead of just stepping on it."

LaPrelle makes a living in a very narrow field of music. She lives on a family farm with her mom and dad near Rural Retreat, Va. She's able to drive to most of her performances — she does about 100 shows a year — sells CDs out of the back of her car, goes to festivals and teaches at music camps. Plus, she and her friends put on a live, online radio show once a month called The Floyd Radio Show.

On a Saturday night in Floyd, Va., at the Floyd Country Store, there are a few skits, a few fun commercials, lots of music and about 100 people in folding chairs watching a show go out over the Internet.

LaPrelle often sings with her eyes shut, seeing the story of her song. And she always sings loud, like they did in the old days.

"They say that singers could be heard from ridge-top to ridge-top," LaPrelle says. "And it has to do with the high lonesome sound and the bagpipes, which are notoriously loud and maybe a notoriously obnoxious instrument.

"It's about commitment, I think, which you can think of in a theater sense, you know. When I took theater classes, they talked a lot about commitment — you have to commit to that scene, and what that means is you don't hold a part of yourself separate for that moment.

"To me, the volume — the force of pushing out that sound — people talk about it being nasal, of being a forced sound, which I think to some extent is true. And the effort of making the sound come out is part of it. The style is part of the form."

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More Photos
Elizabeth LaPrelle sings "3 Little Babes."
Using an old-time illustrated scroll device called a "crankie," Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt present the story of "The Lost Gander." Roberts-Gevalt plays the banjo accompaniment.
Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When you hear Appalachian music, it's like being transported back in time. And a lot of the music is of a different time, recording generations ago. But this past summer, a group called The New Young Fogies released a new collection of old-time Appalachian songs. And one of the singers has a voice that you just have to hear. Her name is Elizabeth LaPrelle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON BRIDGE")

ELIZABETH LAPRELLE: (Singing) As I walked over London's bridge, so early in the morning, I overhead some fair one say, Lord, spare me the life of Georgie.

MARTIN: LaPrelle loves the story-telling ballads - the classic ones from Ireland, Scotland and England. Elizabeth LaPrelle lives in Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains. And that's where NPR's Noah Adams went to visit for a musical weekend.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: Elizabeth LaPrelle is small, smiling, and 25 years old. She's aware she sounds older, and welcomes it.

LAPRELLE: So many of my singing mentors were recorded when they were old gentlemen or old ladies. I love the way they sound. I love gravelly voices. Luckily, rather than if I were singing opera, I'm not as worried about keeping my voice pure. And so I'm excited to sound like a creepy old lady. I could, you know, I could really get into that.

ADAMS: It was 10 years ago that Elizabeth LaPrelle heard a ballad singer in a workshop in West Virginia. The singer filled the room with the story. Elizabeth says it doesn't even go to your brain. It goes straight to your spinal column. And she recalls thinking this is really what I want to do. Later, it was off to college at William and Mary, a degree in Southern Appalachian traditional performance; summertimes at festivals, learning the songs, the way Appalachian music welcomes embellishment, interpretation.

LAPRELLE: It doesn't have a lot of rhythm. It's free with meter, and it has long drawn-out phrases and lots of ornaments. So, the ornaments are like the yip or trilling around a note. So, instead of (Singing) amazing grace, how sweet the sound, it'd be (Singing) amazing grace. You know, sliding up into a note, instead of just stepping on it.

ADAMS: And these days Elizabeth LaPrelle makes a living in this very narrow field of music. Her home is a family farm with her mom and dad. It's near Rural Retreat, Virginia. She's able to drive to most of her performances. She does about a hundred shows a year, sells CDs out of the back of her car. She teaches at workshops, and summer music camps. And once a month, she and her friends put on a live, online radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

LAPRELLE: You're listening to the Floyd Radio Show. We're your hosts, Anna and Elizabeth, and we've got an exciting show tonight.

ADAMS: Saturday night in Floyd, Virginia at the Floyd Country Store. A few skits, a few fun commercials, about a hundred people in folding chairs watching a show go out over the Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW RIVER TRAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing) The same old train that's brought me here is gonna carry me away again.

(APPLAUSE)

ADAMS: The next afternoon, Sunday, another stage for Elizabeth, up in the mountains at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTS TUNING)

BILL DALE: That was amazing. I've never heard that kind of singing before. And it's just absolutely delightful.

ADAMS: Bill Dale was in the audience from nearby Fries, Virginia. He liked LaPrelle's version of the ballad that Jean Richie wrote about a coal mine accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST VIRGINIA MINING DISASTER")

LAPRELLE: (Singing) Number eight was all flooded. Many men were in danger. And we don't know their number, but we fear they're all doomed.

ADAMS: Elizabeth LaPrelle often sings with her eyes closed, seeing the people in her songs And she is usually loud - like the old days.

LAPRELLE: They say that singers could be heard from ridge top to ridge top. And it has to do with the high lonesome sound or the bagpipe, which is a notoriously loud and maybe notoriously obnoxious instrument. It's about commitment, I think. Sometimes, I've seen people kind of like, whoop, sit back, kind of rear back in their chair. Or, sadly, if it's at a festival and someone has miked me without expecting that, then children have been made to cry, like, 'cause it's just too loud for that sound system right then. It's just turned up like (makes noise).

ADAMS: We asked Elizabeth to end our visit with a softer song, and she offers a lullaby called "Whole Heap of Little Horses." The first recording was made in a cabin in Salem, Virginia. It was a grandmother's lullaby.

LAPRELLE: I've met the granddaughter, Vicki Miller, and she has wonderful memories of being rocked in her grandmother's recliner, pillowing her head on her chest and listening to her sing this song:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOLE HEAP OF LITTLE HORSES")

LAPRELLE: (Singing) Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep, you little baby. When you wake, get some cake, and ride them pretty little horses. A black and a bay, a sorrel and a gray, a whole heap of little horses. A black and a bay, a sorrel and a gray, a whole heap of little horses.

Shh.... And that's the important thing about the recording is shh, 'cause then you realize that, yeah, there's a granddaughter in the room and that's what the song's for.

ADAMS: Elizabeth LaPrelle, talking with us about lullabies and ballads, and her life with music in Southwest Virginia. Noah Adams, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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