Program explored American history through stories told in song

A group of Richmond musicians sang and played their way through 400 years of American history in downtown Hampton last week.

The program "Singing the News: Broadsides and Ballads" was put together by Gregg D. Kimball of the Library of Virginia. Kimball, a singer and musician, brought along a team of three other players and singers to help him flesh out ancient folk tunes, blues and country songs about disasters as well as ballads that recounted the deeds of some very bad men and women.

What the songs had in common was a foundation in actual events.

"Virginia has a great tradition of these kinds of songs," Kimball told the crowd gathered at theHampton History Museum on March 20. The early country music hit "Wreck of the Old 97," he explained, told the story of a deadly 1903 train wreck in Danville. In 1929, Virginia's celebrated Carter Family recorded "The Cyclone of Rye Cove" about a tornado in Scott County that killed 12 school children and a teacher. Kimball's friend and fellow musician Ron Curry sang an authentic version of that mournful Carter Family song while strumming an autoharp.

The story-song tradition, Kimball explained, stretches back centuries. Mary Smith performed "Black Jack David," a tune that crossed the Atlantic with Scottish and English settlers in the 18th century.

Leaping ahead to the 1920s, Sheryl Warner sang "Backwater Blues," a Bessie Smith song about flooding that destroyed lives in the Mississippi Delta.

Issues of class and morality often crop up in folk tunes, Kimball said. For example, the outlaw Jesse James is celebrated in song as a Robin Hood figure even though the facts don't necessarily support that idea.

"When people feel disempowered, they will start to lionize people," Kimball said. "This is what happens when law and justice don't equal each other."

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