Helena Triplett,
Green Are the Woods:
Traditional Ballads & Songs From West Virginia

(W. Virginia Commission on the Arts, 1999)

I first met Helena Faust-Triplett a number of years ago at one of banjoist Pete Peterson's legendary old-time music parties near Philadelphia, Pa. A New Zealand native, she was introduced to me as "Kiwi," and I spent an enjoyable weekend listening to her fine banjo playing and singing. I met her again at the Clifftop (W.Va.) String Band Festival in 1999, the year Jimmy Triplett won the fiddle competition. Jimmy introduced her to my wife, and a lively discussion of Appalachian instrumental and vocal music ensued. They told us they were exploring the deepest recesses of traditional West Virginia music and releasing a CD of their discoveries. The present disc is their first recording.

This is a wonderful collection of ballads, hymns, play-party songs and a few fiddle tunes. What sets this collection apart from other recent old-time music offerings is an almost uncanny ability of these artists to evoke the spirit of a music and culture long removed from modern sensibilities. Helena's sources include modern singers who have immersed themselves in truly archaic music, such as Bruce Greene, Loy McWhirter and legendary revivalist and Holy Modal Rounders associate Luke Faust. Helena also has mined primary source material (1970-72 Library of Congress recordings of the Hammons family made by Carl Fleischauer and Alan Jabbour, 1939 recordings from the Louis Watson Chappell Archive at West Virginia University) and obtained songs directly from informants (Phyllis Marks of Glenville, W.Va.). Jimmy contributes tunes from Melvin Wine, Sherman Hammons (Shelvin' Rock, a subtle, lilting fiddle-banjo duet with Helena) and Ernie Carpenter. His command of idiosyncratic West Virginia fiddling is masterful, without needless flash or pyrotechnics.

Helena has a pleasing, warm, slightly sandy-edged voice that extends down to the lower alto range. Her clear diction is colored slightly by a New Zealand lilt. This gives a strongly Celtic feel to some of the songs, illuminating their Scots-Irish origin. Emotionally, Helena adopts the technique of controlled understatement to increase the impact of her material. Perhaps the best example of this is one of the scariest versions of "The Lady Gay" I have ever heard. She has also mastered the microtonal shadings found in vocal traditions that do not make use of the tempered scale of western art and classical music. Possibly the most striking example of musical channeling in this collection is Helena's ability to duplicate Lee Hammons' banjo style, touch and tone. She also demonstrates this in her "sweetly sorrowful" adaptation of Burl Hammons' solo fiddle tune "Piney Woods."

The recording quality is excellent -- warm, but not hyper-focused and unnaturally large, as are a distressing number of contemporary old-time music recordings. A slight bit of reverberation applied to Helena's banjo and voice gives an appropriately eerie sense of space and distance, but is never artificial or intrusive. The insert features a faded, creased childhood photograph of Helena. Her eyes gently invite us into her musical world.

This magical recording should be of interest to people who appreciate undiluted traditional music and expressive a cappella singing.

- Rambles
written by Steve Senderoff
published 31 May 2003