Elizabeth LaPrelle is a short woman under any circumstances
, but she seemed even shorter standing in her stocking feet next to her very tall musical partner, Anna Roberts-Gevalt, who was wearing cowboy boots. The two women, who perform as the duo Anna & Elizabeth, were standing in Roberts-Gevalt's East Baltimore alley house, perhaps an odd context for the traditional Appalachian music the women specialize in.
LaPrelle was singing "The Ballad of Lord Bateman and the Turkish Lady," a British story song that had traveled across the Atlantic with the early colonists and had settled in the Appalachian Mountains, where it remained little changed, under the name "The Turkish Lady," over the centuries. LaPrelle may be a small woman, but she has a huge soprano voice. She sang out the tale of a British nobleman who sails to Turkey, is imprisoned by a sultan and falls in love with the sultan's daughter, who steals her father's keys and frees the Englishman. Years later, the Turkish Lady shows up in England during the reception after Lord Bateman's wedding. She reminds him of his promise to her; Bateman sends away his newlywed bride and takes the sultan's daughter for his one true love.
While LaPrelle was singing, Roberts-Gevalt was operating a crankie, a wooden box through which a pictorial scroll is pulled. In this case, the scroll was cloth with fabric appliqué depicting Bateman on his boat amid swirling waves in blue cloth strips, the sultan reclining within a palace beaded with costume jewelry, and the two lovers kissing beneath a tree of snaking black arms. The homemade visuals fit the homemade music perfectly, and each reinforced the other.
On Saturday, April 12, LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt will host Anna & Elizabeth's Crankie Festival, "a variety show of illustrated scrolling crankies, storytelling and fiddle and banjo tunes," at the Creative Alliance. Joining the two women will be banjoist Brett Ratliff and banjoist/painter John Haywood, both from Kentucky; and, from Baltimore, composer Erik Spangler, designer Katherine Fahey, illustrator (and
contributor) Alex Fine, painter Chris Owen, drummer Tom Haller, painter Matt Muirhead, photographer McKenzie Ditter, painter Ashley Minner, and young students from the Baltimore American Indian Center.
Crankies may be old news to those in the puppet-theater and commedia dell'arte worlds, but for most folks these handmade boxes and scrolls are a surprising revelation. So they were to LaPrelle when she first met Roberts-Gevalt in Blacksburg, Va., in 2010. Roberts-Gevalt was co-producing a compilation album called
The New Young Fogies
, and she wanted to include a ballad singer. Everyone recommended LaPrelle, and the two women hit it off as soon as they met.
When Roberts-Gevalt dug out a crankie she had made in college, LaPrelle was fascinated. Here, perhaps, was the solution to a problem she'd been struggling with. Old-time music was experiencing an immense resurgence, thanks to young bands such as the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Uncle Earl.
But all these string bands were playing the region's dance music. How could the ballad part of the tradition experience a similar resurgence? How could you get 21st-century audiences to sit still long enough to be drawn into the tragic power of those old story songs? Maybe crankies were the answer.
"I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen," LaPrelle remembers. "I was glad to meet someone who was as geekily interested in ballads as I was. It's rare that people want to hear a whole night of ballads, and we thought that by applying theater and visual art to ballads and tunes, we might hold the audience's attention. We got very excited about what an old-time music show could be."
"When you get entranced by a ballad," Roberts-Gevalt adds, "you can see the story happening in your mind's eye. The challenge is how to get an audience to have that same experience. We've seen how crankies can make adults react like little kids. They're magic boxes."
The duo's enthusiasm for crankies has proven so contagious that Fahey has started making her own, Minner has made one with her students at the Baltimore American Indian Center, and Spangler has composed a new sound collage for a new crankie by LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt.
The two women, now both 26, arrived at their love of Appalachian ballads by very different paths. LaPrelle grew up in Rural Retreat, Va. Her college-professor father may not have been a coal miner, but he loved old-time mountain music and took the family to fiddle conventions whenever possible. His wife sang old folk songs learned from recordings of Joan Baez and Judy Collins around the house, and their daughter was soon learning them too.
As a lover of traditional music, she wasn't in a majority at her high school, but she wasn't alone either. While her classmates were listening to Soundgarden and Garth Brooks, she and her pals were listening to Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson. They met Jim Lloyd, the local barber who doubled as an instrument repairman and music teacher. LaPrelle liked the fiddle tunes, but what she really liked were the story songs.
"What I loved so much that I wanted to snort them up my nose were the ballads," she says. "As far back as when I was 10 years old, I thought those sad songs were awesome. I especially liked songs that would sound good when I sang them without the record playing or someone playing an instrument.
"I took a class from Sheila Kay Adams at the Augusta Heritage Center, and I was so impressed by how meaningful these songs were to her because they were connected to people she knew: Her grandfather sang this one; her cousin sang that one; her neighbor was a miner like the person in the song. She could make you see those people when she sang."
Roberts-Gevalt, by contrast, grew up in northwestern Vermont, where her father was editor of the
Burlington Free Press
. It wasn't until she was a college student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut that she got interested in the banjo. But when she fell in love with the instrument, she fell hard and quickly arranged an internship for herself with the Appalachian-cultural center Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky. Among her duties was helping out at the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School and driving country-music legend Charlie Louvin to the bank.
"It wasn't enough for me to sit in my room with a bunch of recordings and play along," she recalls. "I felt I had to see the Cumberland Gap with my own eyes. I had to meet people who talked with that accent. Once I got there, I just connected with these people and became obsessive about the music. There's a long history of people who go down there, learn the music and then leave. I wanted more of a long-term relationship."
Despite their differences in background and height, LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt quickly bonded and formed the duo Anna & Elizabeth. They released their debut album
Sun to Sun,
which includes a crankie video, in 2012, and are preparing to record the follow-up soon. They co-host a monthly radio show in Floyd, Va., a localized version of
A Prairie Home Companion
. Not only do they perform and host other musicians, but the two women also write skits and fake ads to go between the songs.
The partnership was tested when Roberts-Gevalt decided to move with her boyfriend Chris Owen to Baltimore last summer. But it survived, and the two women are constantly driving I-81 between Baltimore and Rural Retreat to prepare for
The Floyd Radio Show
, recordings, and crankie shows.
"What I like about crankies," LaPrelle says, "is they add something new to these old ballads without changing the sound of the ballads themselves."
"Through the crankies we're able to reach people who didn't know much about Appalachian music-or care-and see them get excited," Roberts-Gevalt says. "When we perform for people our own age, we want them to think about where all this music comes from. It's not just floating in the air; it was created by specific people in a specific place at a specific time."
Creative Alliance hosts Anna & Elizabeth's Crankie Festival on April 12. For more information, please visit creativealliance.org. John Haywood will host a square dance and art show at the Windup Space April 11. For more information, please visit thewindupspace.com.