Folk musicians revive old tunes for new times

Folk music isn’t just old-timey tunes your ancestors sang while darning socks on the porch swing. OK, well, maybe the lyrics come from way-back-when, but the songs are making a comeback in the avant-guard folk music scene today.
See for yourself on Saturday, April 21, at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury, when duo Anna & Elizabeth perform tracks from their latest album, and New Haven native Moira Smiley adds her solo flare.
Ever wonder how musicians create a folk album?
First they have to go find the original songs. Anna Roberts-Gevalt (who was raised in Vermont) and Elizabeth LaPrelle spent a year collecting songs, including time spent exploring the Margaret MacArthur Collection at the Vermont Folklife Center Archive and the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection at Middlebury College.
The result: “The Invisible Comes to Us” — the duo’s new album released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
“The record is a spellbinding reconfiguration of ancient folk ballads that sees the duo’s immersion in Appalachian music move to a place of boundless experimentation,” reads the duo’s bio on their website (annaandelizabeth.com). “They combine two powerful and very distinct voices. Elizabeth was raised in rural Virginia and is frequently lauded as the finest traditional singer of her generation. Anna is a multi-instrumentalist whose musical curiosity has taken her from old time fiddling in Kentucky to a more recent immersion in Brooklyn’s avant-garde community. Together they find new ways to tell old stories of love, loss and intrigue, while relishing the tension that arises between their very different backgrounds and orthodoxies; holding firm to the roots of the music while removing the limits of how that music can be played and presented.”
The Vermont Folklife Center’s archivist Andy Kolovos met Anna when she visited several years ago to explore the traditional ballads and songs from Vermont and the surrounding regions, explained Kathleen Haughey, executive director of the Folklife Center.
“One of the tunes on their new album is a reinterpretation of a song ‘Mother in the Graveyard’ in our archive, that was collected by folk singer and song collector Margaret MacArthur in the 1950s,” Haughey said.
Though she’s never heard them live herself, Haughey said that many friends and partners of the Folklife Center have — and they rave about the duo’s dynamic reinterpretation of traditional Vermont repertoire.
“Anna & Elizabeth take traditional music and reinterpret it to keep it relevant to contemporary audiences,” she said. “This is an exemplar of our mission and the work we do. We at the Folklife Center are interested in documenting, sustaining and presenting the diverse cultures of Vermont, and Anna & Elizabeth are doing just that. Not to mention bringing the materials in our archive to life for audiences around the world.
“Anna & Elizabeth wanted to book Middlebury — the only Vermont venue on their international tour — because many of the tunes on this new album are from Vermont and surrounding regions,” Haughey added. “We are thrilled to be part of the effort to bring Anna & Elizabeth back to Middlebury.”
Adding to the evening of folk, will be Moira Smiley. She promises to bring elegance and grit to folk songs both original and ancient. Expect soul-stirring arrangements of Anglo-Celtic ballads, American spirituals, European folk-laments and sharp, poignant originals that call effortlessly upon the audience to whisper, clap or sing along.
Smiley will draw songs from her new album (released April 7) — “Unzip the Horizon” — at Saturday’s concert. The record “straddles Americana, indie rock and folk,” and includes Anna & Elizabeth as two of several special guests.
“Folk music is about the present, not just the past,” Haughey emphasized.
The concert on April 21 starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance and $40 at the door. Proceeds support the Vermont Folklife Center. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com/event/3357710. For more information visit vermontfolklifecenter.org.

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