Old Timey Music

Anna & Elizabeth’s soulful new album breathes new life into traditional folk songs. 

Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt have been making music together since they met in Southwest Virginia in 2011. Since then, the pair have earned an international reputation for their traditional folk songs, musical treatments and the use of a traditional folk art form called the crankie, in which projected images are hand-cranked to scroll, telling a visual story as the duo sings and plays.

Anna & Elizabeth released their fourth album The Invisible Comes to Us last month on the venerated Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label, produced by the Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. We recently spoke with LaPrelle to discuss the band’s inspiration, and what she loves most about traditional folk songs.

You recently released an album on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Can you speak a bit to what inspired the music on this album?

Anna and I met about seven years ago and we began the process of creating this album about two winters ago, in 2015, when we decided to begin a new research project. We both chose archives from the places where we grew up, so I chose archives in Virginia and Anna chose archives from her hometown in Vermont, which ended up being representative of New England sort of as a whole. Most of the songs on the album are ballads that originated in the British Isles and were passed down by word of mouth.

What Virginia archives did you end up focusing on?

I began at Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute, because I was living nearby at the time. I was digging into a particular set of recordings which had been made very early for any sound recording and would have been made by a collector named Arthur Davis. Copies were scarce—there weren’t really a lot of digital copies that had been made—so I ended up having to go to another archive outside of Charlottesville and eventually ended up at the Library of Congress in D.C.

Do you have a favorite track?

It’s so difficult to choose a favorite. There is one song, “Margaret,” that appears twice on the album, as the first and the last. That one came from Anna’s research. The first track is Anna and me singing it with our co-producer Benjamin Lazar Davis and accompaniment. The last track is the original recording of the song by Margaret Shipman. There is one sweet moment where she forgets the words and then has to begin again. Hearing her voice on our album is really special to me.

How has the new label changed things?

Well first, it’s such an honor. It’s a wonderful feeling to be sharing this label with so many artists, both past and present, that we admire. Our band name, Anna & Elizabeth, is a nod to two of our favorites, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (Hazel & Alice), and Don Flemons is a friend, fellow musician and scholar who we really admire.

Our first album, Sun to Sun, was self-produced, initially. Our second album, Anna & Elizabeth, was on a small label in D.C. called Free Dirt. They ended up also producing our first album and we released a little 7-inch vinyl record with them, with just two tracks, one on each side. Now there’s a whole team of people we talk to about production and promotion. It’s been really lovely to feel their support. 

How did you and Anna meet? And how did you decide to start making music together?

We were both living in Southwest Virginia at the time. I was on my parents’ farm in Smith County and Anna was living in Eggleston. It’s a very small scene of people who are interested in old time music. Anna was studying banjo and she heard I was working on ballads. She called me about a compilation CD and almost as soon as we started we decided to do a show together.

You began singing at a very young age. What drew you to folk music and what do you think appeals most to your audiences?

As far back as I can remember, I was singing around the house, with my family—with my mother especially—and with my friends. My family was into that kind of music and a lot of the music my mother knows is old time. Within my community, string music, even without the singing, is a big part of how we spend time together.

I think traditional music can draw people for a variety of reasons—even for me, there are a variety of reasons that I’m drawn to it. For one thing, it gives you the feeling that music can be for everyone, that it can be done in your living room. A lot of these songs feel like that. And also, the poetry is really beautiful. What Anna and I are trying to do is bring out the stories that are in these songs. At our shows we try to tell the stories of the musicians and provide a picture of what life would have looked like and what the songs are about. The New England songs, for example, are ocean songs—sailor songs. We almost get a picture in our mind and it’s a landscape that we can give to our audience.

Can you tell us a little bit about crankies? Are you still making them?

A crankie is a moving picture—it gets its name from being hand-cranked on a scroll—and the light behind it projects the images, in some cases, which illustrate the story being told in a particular song. We haven’t made a new one in a long time, but we do still use them at our live shows. Anna made her first one for a special project in college. When we started making them together, I had very little sewing experience, so I learned by making the first one.

How does the visual art element lend to your performances?

We are both super visual people so when we first started performing together, in particular, that was the best way we could think of to tell these adventure stories. We wanted to pull people in to this idea that each song is actually a story to be listening to, with characters they should pay attention to.

You have a show in Roanoke on April 13. Are you looking forward to being home in Virginia?

Yes, definitely. It’s only for one night, but it will be nice. It will be a lot of fun. 

Save the date: Anna and Elizabeth will perform April 13 at the Spot on Kirk in Roanoke. $12-$15. AnnaAndElizabeth.com/tour

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