Anna & Elizabeth,
Sun to Sun
(Free Dirt, 2016)

Originally self-released in 2012, Sun to Sun appears in this remastered reissue from the folk label Free Dirt. I learned that the original was unavailable after I attempted to order a copy, following my review of Anna & Elizabeth's second, eponymous disc (Rambles.NET, 30 May 2015).

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle's project sets them apart from all but a handful of their contemporaries who perform old folk songs and tunes in the new century. They make no effort to modernize the sounds; rather, they seek to present them in a thoughtful approximation of the originals. The difference is that these two young women, while residents of Appalachia, are educated, intellectually and culturally comfortable in our time, anything but (in the jargon of ethnomusicologists) "naive informants." Roberts-Gevalt once remarked that their intention is less to revive the past than to bring it into the conversation, which seems an eminently honorable thing to do. Today, lamentably, a past more than five years old seems barely to exist in most people's consciousness.

Obviously, none of what they seek to do would work if they didn't do it so memorably. Anyone with an ear and a heart will respond to, say, "When I Was a Young Girl," the stark testimony of a dying woman lamenting a dissolute life. Those who know their traditional music will recognize it as a branch on a big family tree of songs ranging from "The Unfortunate Rake" to "St. James Infirmary" and "Streets of Laredo," but those who know nothing of the history will yet feel the chill.

"Old Kimball," learned from Texas Gladden, feels like a mash-up of "Old Stewball," "The Cuckoo" and "Jack o' Diamonds," exemplifying the wonderful fluidity of lyrics, images and melodies when they flow from the voices of local songsters. Likewise, "Green Icy Mountain" spins out of "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains," "Going Across the Mountain" (the latter, associated most famously with North Carolina banjo balladeer Frank Proffitt, was covered nicely on Anna & Elizabeth's second album) and even a verse of "Cindy, Cindy."

Anna & Elizabeth deliver an appropriately meditative reading of the dark-shadowed "Lone Pilgrim," one of the most powerful sacred songs in the American tradition. Written by Karl Davis and Harty Taylor (who recorded it 1934 as Karl & Harty), the tear-jerking story-song "I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" employs a melody that owes a notable debt to "Nine Hundred Miles" and its many variants. Though it has often been covered since (by the Blue Sky Boys and the Everly Brothers, along with a mess of bluegrass bands), few have attempted it in so skeletal an arrangement and with such arresting female harmony singing.

Banjo, guitar and fiddle are the accompanying instruments, though never all three at once. Four of the 13 cuts have no accompaniment at all, just solo or harmony voices in profound communication with the songs. What Anna & Elizabeth do is not "oldtime" music in the common definition -- that is, rural string bands serving social occasions (e.g., dances, auctions, street-corner jams) -- but in the sense of something personal and domestic: at home, for oneself or family and friends, or inside a church. These days, nobody is celebrating the sturdy honesty, beauty and durability of this music more movingly than Anna & Elizabeth.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 July 2016

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