Youth Spotlight: Elizabeth LaPrelle
Keeper of Mountain Songs and Ballads
By ANGELA WAMPLER | A! MAGAZINE FOR THE ARTS | May 22, 2009Elizabeth LaPrelle, 21, is keeping alive the Appalachian tradition of handing songs down from generation to generation. She learned by singing with her family, who taught various singing styles and encouraged her to sing their favorite American folk music.
Her singing has been described as "a haunting Highland a cappella." I saw LaPrelle perform last fall when she joined the legendary Mike Seeger on stage at the historic Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. for a program entitled "On and Off the Crooked Road: A Concert of Virginia's Traditional Music." Some of her ballads gave me chill bumps!
Her magnificent voice, her respect for the songs, and her authentic mountain sound and style brought her to the attention of renowned musicians and balladeers like Sheila Kay Adams, who performs stories and songs handed down through seven generations in her family.
Of LaPrelle, Adams says, "Anyone can learn the old ballads. There are numerous collections in libraries and books that are available on-line. But Elizabeth is interested in the feel, the sound, the ornamentation of these songs. She is, in my opinion, one of maybe a handful of young singers able to capture the rhythm, the intensity, the breaks and sighs that make this style of singing authentic. The only problem I have while listening to Elizabeth is that I'm always listening through tears. She reminds me so much of my older relatives — the same profound feeling for the ballad, yet with such a clear voice."
LaPrelle has made two CDs, Rain and Snow (2004) and Lizard in the Spring (2007), backed up by her mother, Sandy LaPrelle, among others. At Barter Theatre, LaPrelle's mother joined her daughter on stage. They sang many songs a cappella and two songs accompanied by a fiddler.
When A! Magazine for the Arts contacted her for an interview, LaPrelle was finishing her senior year at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. and planned to continue performing after graduation.
Recently she opened for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys during the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk. In June she will appear at the Old Songs Festival in New York and in September at The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention in California.
That's a long way from home. LaPrelle grew up on her family's farm in Smyth County, Va., and was educated in the town of Rural Retreat. She has been performing Appalachian ballads and old-time songs — and winning prizes for her singing at fiddlers conventions — since she was 11 years old.
In Her Own Words
I've always loved to sing, and Appalachian music went right into the mix. My parents love music, and I grew up on the record collection they played around the house. More than that, though, my mom is a singer. She'd sing for us kids, teach us songs, and sing with us. My dad plays a lot of instruments for his own enjoyment, so I'd hear him pick guitar or play harmonica.
There's a summer camp on our farm, and every day we sang a lot of campfire songs. And every week a band of local musicians would come play for a square dance.
Living where we do in Southwest Virginia, my parents took me to a lot of fiddlers conventions. I can remember from a very young age dancing on a board and later falling asleep on the bleachers with the music still rocking away.
I competed at a fiddlers convention for the first time when I was 11. I sang "Red River Valley" with my mom and my uncle backing me up.
After a couple of years singing at fiddlers conventions, I got a youth scholarship to go to the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia [where] I took a week-long class from Sheila Kay Adams. She handed out pages and pages of ancient lyrics taken down from memory. That poetry and the sliding, breaking tunes in her loud, strong, honest voice all made a deep impression on me — the way she talked about the ballads: about paying attention to the story, about putting the song first, about the "tradition" belonging to everybody who sang the songs.
After that I started seeking out mountain ballads to sing, and people actually started asking me to sing them! I started performing at folk festivals and gatherings, then concerts. At that time, Appalachian ballad-singers were pretty few and far between, but that has begun to change.
After a little while I started teaching workshops myself. A couple of years ago I went back to the Augusta Heritage Center as a teacher. I wouldn't really call [workshops as] "handing it down" in a traditional way. Back in the day, I don't think folks got together much for workshops — and most of the songs I know I've learned from recordings, not in person.
However, a few years ago, I taught a young friend "Fair and Tender Ladies," a song my mom taught me after she learned it — maybe from an album, maybe from a friend. We spent time doing the dishes and singing it together. [My friend] took it to the Youth Folk Song competition at Mount Airy and won first place! We were all tickled, but she grinned even bigger when I told her that I remembered winning second place with the same song.
I think that's the experience people are looking for when they take their kids to a fiddlers convention, or when they talk about "passing it on." The music is something we love from way out of the past. To see somebody new find the same old thing and grab onto it and see them love it, too — and see them make it their own — that has a rare satisfaction to it.
Singing — especially singing ballads — has always been a very personal and emotional experience for me. Ballads have an element of storytelling and even theater to them: they put a picture in your mind. They're also poetry: they give a voice and a beautiful form to some of those really lasting human experiences and emotions. Just to listen to a song is really powerful for me. I think most people have been moved by a song or a piece of music at one time or another. When I sing I'm really just trying to have the same feelings I get from listening — only it's me speaking. I may be telling a story about someone long ago, but it's my story, too; and I'm letting out my heartbreak or jealousy or joy.
I've been insanely lucky to have the honor of getting to meet face-to-face some of the most amazing musicians I can think of. All I can say is that, regardless of talent or experience or age or whatever, if two people love music — and folks like Mike Seeger and Sheila Kay Adams wouldn't be where they are if they didn't love music — then they've always got something to share and something to talk about. Or at least that's what I tell myself to keep from feeling like a goon when I meet musicians I really admire.
[Currently] I'm putting together some traveling and singing. I may fulfill my longtime wish to visit the British Isles this fall. Further down the line I may go more into the teaching aspect of ballads and Appalachian music.
To listen to LaPrelle singing, visit www.old97wrecords.com (under "Artists," click on "Elizabeth LaPrelle") or search for YouTube videos (keyword "LaPrelle").
Elizabeth LaPrelle's singing has been described as "a haunting Highland a cappella."