Listen to Anna & Elizabeth's Spooky New Take on an Old Appalachian Murder Ballad

Stream "The Greenwood Sidey," a chilling tale of childbirth and murder.

Mar 15 2015, 5:00pm

Photo by Lisa Elmaleh

A woman walks into the woods, gives birth to a couple of children and subsequently kills them. They appear as ghosts and condemn her to hell. This isn't a black metal epic or Clive Barker movie, but "The Greenwood Sidey," a nearly four-hundred-year-old song passed down through generations from the highlands of Scotland to the dark hollows of Appalachia. In this case, it's illustrated with a hand-woven scroll moved slowly through a specially built cabinet, known as a "crankie," that displays scenes from the song to its audience. This is the work of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, a pair of 27-year-old women who perform these old songs and who will release their self-titled second album this Tuesday.

Both sing and play an array of traditional instruments, but in recording and performance, LaPrelle, who grew up in Rural Retreat, Virginia, takes the lead in belting out the old songs, while Roberts-Gevalt, who grew up in Vermont and makes her home in Baltimore, shoulders the load when it comes to playing fiddle and other stringed instruments. The duo plays a variety of rollicking instrumentals and traditional tunes, but in live performances, it's the storytelling ballads that are the show-stoppers, especially if it's one of the eight songs with an accompanying crankie to illustrate the tale. The two also host the monthly Floyd Radio Show, now in its fourth season, which has featured the Black Twig Pickers and members of Old Crow Medicine Show among its guests, and they regularly schedule time to speak to elementary students between tour stops.

Noisey caught up with Anna and Elizabeth near the start of a two-week New England tour to talk about the story behind "The Greenwood Sidey," how crankies engage their audience, and exactly why these old, twisted songs have endured for so long.

Noisey: How did you find "The Greenwood Sidey," and what inspired you to perform it?
Elizabeth: It's in the Child Ballads collection, from the big book of versions from England and Scotland published in the 19th century. In that book, which is sort of canonical, it's known as "The Cruel Mother." It's very dark, one of the darkest songs that I know. It's obviously one of the more difficult-to-contemplate crimes, even today. I think the refrain is really poignant and illuminating, that's she's all alone and lonely in this situation. You know, there's no one else: the father of these kids is not even mentioned. It's really kind of spooky imagining a woman who has just given birth to two new people, but she's still alone and is making sure she's going to remain that way, and I think she's really haunted by that decision. Even when she gets to talk to those people, they're imaginary. They're ghosts, they're not quite there, so she's alone throughout.
Anna: It's a horror story, but in some ways it can feel like a very feminist story. I remember I was learning that song and then watched this movie about the Magdalene Laundries, where people who had babies out of wedlock were shunned by their families and sent to be almost captives in these nunneries. It went on until the 70s in Ireland. It made sense to me, that there was some sort of weird strength in this cruel mother character. She would escape society because there's so much shame on her being pregnant out of wedlock. Somehow the forces outside the forest lead her into the forest to do this awful deed. That's really intriguing. I don't know if I totally agree with that reading, but it is one interpretation. Another reading is that she's totally crazy. I'd be curious to go back in time and interview ballad singers about what they thought about the song: 'What do you think about the woman? is she a sinful woman and this is a lesson? Do you sympathize with her or not?'

How do the crankies change the songs in performance and how they're received by audiences?Anna: These people who grew up with ballad singers, they heard these ballads hundreds of times by the time they were eight. They'd hear them over and over. They probably didn't understand the song the first time they heard it, or even the tenth or twentieth time. As you hear a ballad many times, it slowly comes to life. Nothing about the way it's presented obviously shows you what the story is. The music is pretty static. It doesn't change whether it's the beginning phrase or the phrase where she murders them. Hopefully the crankie gives the audience something to latch onto.
Elizabeth: If I'm singing a ballad to an audience, I feel like I'm trying to get a movie across. A ballad really is about events and following that story and getting carried away by it. Crankies help that along for people who might be hearing a ballad for the first time and might not be used to listening for the story. You get to listening to the melody and then get lost: who just stabbed who? But when you have people sitting down looking at the images and they know what the song is about, it sucks them into that movie feeling.

Do you remember the first ballad that really drew you in? What was it that stuck?
: I learned "Barbara Allen" off a Joan Baez CD my mother had. I was eleven and sang it at my summer camp talent show. I still think of that as the quintessential ballad. A young man is in love with Barbara Allen. He gets really sick because he's in love, and he tells her, I'll die if I don't have a kiss from you. She goes to visit him and says, 'Too bad, you're going to die. I don't like you.' Sometimes there's backstory, like sometimes she reminds him the other day they were at a tavern and he toasted all the ladies but her. So he dies. She sees his coffin coming and realizes what she's done. She goes to her parents and says, make my deathbed, dig my grave, I'm going to die because he loved me so truly. She dies and they're buried. Out of his heart grows a rose, out of hers grows a briar, and they intertwine in eternal love. It's appealing stuff for a teen or tween girl.

What is it about these dark old songs that stuck with people for so many generations?
Elizabeth: A lot of the old songs are dark. A lot of them do have a murder. Almost every relationship you can have with a person is covered: fathers kill daughters, girlfriends kill boyfriends, boyfriends kill girlfriends, brothers kill sisters, on and on. It's about as real as it gets. A lot of people are curious, especially if they're new to the music, 'My god, why is everything so sad?' People didn't have soaps back then. They didn't have horror movies either. They had songs and stories in order to entertain each other, and the imagination of the past is certainly just as dark if not more so than the imagination of the present.

Anna & Elizabeth is out 3/17 via Free Dirt Records.

Mason Adams is going dark on Twitter - @masonatoms