Songs of Old Appalachia

by Alice Wylde

Traditional Old Time Mountain SingingAlice was born and raised as one of eight children in the heart of West Virginia, the only state completely within the Appalachian Mountain range. She spent 43 years of her life living up the same holler, until she made the move to England. She learned many songs from her mother and from folks in the local area and has sung them all her life.

The cover picture shows the house where Alice was raised. The picture was taken in 1978.


My mother came from a singing family. I grew up hearing her voice in song as a constant. She sang when she was happy, when she was sad, worried, nervous and excited. She sang as she sewed, she sang as she cooked, as she hung our laundry on the line, and as she worked in the vegetable garden. I learned many songs from her without even realizing I was learning them. The songs were just a part of life.

I learned bunches of traditional hymns at church as a child. There were no musical instruments in the organ or piano...none was needed. Shape notes were sung in beautiful harmony. Among the harmony was my Mom's alto. It was heavenly! Sometimes I would think that the singing from that hilltop church would cause the roof to raise!

We often had singing relatives and other singing folks visiting us. I learned many songs from these people. I'd often make cassette recordings of songs that I wanted to learn or ask them if they would write the words down for me. When I was old enough to drive, my Mom, sister and I, would sing in various churches in the area or go to gatherings at other people's houses, reunions, schools, community buildings, celebrations and funerals. My 7 siblings can all sing, but most are too shy to ever allow themselves to be heard. However, growing up together in a small house, I heard them. I was taking it all in and memorizing their lyrics.

There always seemed to be a variety of singing styles and types of music available. Country, bluegrass, pop and rock, along side the traditional and old time. It was more about what the singer felt like singing or instrument they were playing at the time. Somewhere along the way, I had learned to play a few chords on the guitar for accompaniment.

My thanks to Dan Stewart of Rattle on the Stovepipe; for his musical support, patience and enthusiasm. I love the fact that he played my Mom's dulcimer on "Babes in the Wood."

Alice Wylde

West Virginia Boys
Sample not available
Bill Stafford
My Old Brown Coat and Me
Babes in the Wood
Sample not available
Shiloh's Hill
Sample not available
Old Pheobe Ice
Sample not available
Heart of Glass
Sample not available
Revolutionary Tea
Johnny Doyle
Sample not available
Unclouded Day
Sample not available

Folk Northwest

Derek Gifford

It says on the cover of this d�but CD from Alice Wylde 'Authentic traditional and old time mountain singing'. You could be forgiven for dismissing this rather trite description of what is actually an outstanding recording.

In fact this is a stunning album from Alice, a genuine born and bred Appalachian from Virginia who should be regarded as a prime source singer of this genre. Also, this is not a recording that should be regarded just for archive purposes either because Alice is a shear pleasure to listen to.

Her singing is clear in both voice quality and diction and her playing is of the highest quality. Whether singing unaccompanied or with banjo accompaniment she has a very relaxed and confident approach.  OK so it's a banjo she plays but, what the heck, at least it's what many Appalachians play; so no banjo jokes please. She is also joined on a few tracks by Dan Stewart who also plays banjo and guitar, dulcimer and fiddle.

The songs range from the fairly well known 'West Virginia Boys', 'Babes in the Wood' (very different from the Copper Family version but definitely from the same origin) and a well performed version of 'Groundhog'.

Songs new to me were the intriguing tale of 'Bill Stafford', the story of the Civil War battle on 'Shiloh's Hill' and the moving 'Heart of Glass' in which Alice excels in that style of old timey lamentatious singing that marks it out from all the other American traditions. This is at its best story telling through song.

A particularly interesting song is 'Revolutionary Tea' which maybe regarded as a precursor to the Boston Tea Party from the point of view of a mother and daughter living on separate sides of the Atlantic.

I have picked out only a selection of the eleven tracks on this album but all are quite superb as examples of the songs from this part of the world. The CD cover is illustrated by some lovely photographs of Alice's home area in Appalachia and gives a lot of useful and interesting background information on Alice but, sadly, nothing about the songs which would have been very useful information. (Alice's only knowledge of the songs is that 'she learned them from her family' � Doug Bailey)

Those of you who know me well know I'm very much a singer and promoter of the English traditional style which I feel should always be first and foremost in our minds as a folk community but is it also a pleasure to listen to an American tradition that is so very well represented by the likes of Alice Wylde.


Fred McCormick

In this day and age, the subtitle 'authentic, traditional and old time mountain singing' represents quite a claim, especially when it relates to such a little-known singer. Even so, Alice Wylde justly lives up to it. She comes from a singing family in West Virginia, and lived in the one neighbourhood there all her life, until she moved to England some years ago. Here she sings and plays banjo, while Dan Stewart, of Rattle on the Stovepipe fame, backs her on various instruments.  Stylistically, she does not conform to the stereotype of the harsh, angst-ridden Appalachian mountaineer. Rather, her voice � warm, relaxed and darkly husky �reminds me somewhat of Sara Grey, while her self-effacing manner put me in mind, of all people, Walter Pardon!

Yet, for all I enjoyed the disc, I occasionally got the feeling that she hasn't sung in public sufficiently to develop her confidence, or to knock off all the rough edges. For instance, in 'Heart of Glass', I found her ornamentations tended to get in the way of the words and the tune. Again, in 'Bill Stafford', she drags out the word Ark-an-sas, until I thought it would break.  The tracklist appears to come entirely from her own heritage, and a fascinating and unusual selection it is. It's a pity, then, that there is no information on the songs, for I wonder how many British listeners will be familiar with 'My Old Brown Coat and Me', or the salute to the Boston Tea Party, 'Revolutionary Tea'. For that matter, the notes are short on biographical data, not even saying where in West Virginia she hails from.

Yet these are miniscule quibbles in a delightful release. I hope we hear a lot more of Alice Wylde in the future.  Meanwhile, this disc will be wedded to my CD player for many days to come.


David Kidman

This disc is plainly subtitled "authentic, traditional and old time mountain singing", and that's exactly what you get. Born and raised in West Virginia, right in the heart of the Appalachian Mountain region, Wylde didn't even leave the area until she was 43, since which time it's taken several years of persuasion by her husband to get her to capture her voice for posterity (and then only in the wake of several appearances at a Hampshire folk club, where her singing so impressed WildGoose label boss Doug Bailey�).

Wylde comes from a singing family, and learnt all her songs at home (many from her mother, and often without even realising she was learning them!). Some will already be familiar to devotees of the old-time repertoire, and her renditions are invariably fresh, considered and those of a true source singer. There's also a version of Babes In The Wood that's deliciously managed (quite in contrast to the lugubrious way this song tends to get treated), and Wylde's spirited takes on West Virginia Boys and Groundhog lack nothing in straightforward appeal.

But it's the unfamiliar gems that provide the standouts here, notably the entirely a cappella selections: the intense Heart Of Glass most especially, but additionally Shilohs Hill, Bill Stafford and the ballad of Johnny Doyle. The upbeat Revolutionary Tea, the closing gospel hymn Unclouded Day and the rather Carter-esque cautionary tale of My Old Brown Coat And Me are also real discoveries. For around two-thirds of the disc, Wylde accompanies herself on banjo, often with the benefit of an additional instrumental line by Dan Stewart, who variously plays guitar, fiddle or banjo during the course of the record (and on one track, Wylde's mother's own dulcimer).

The only deficiencies of this delightful disc lie in the uncharacteristic total absence of any notes on the songs, and the comparatively ungenerous playing-time (37 minutes). But this is absolutely enchanting down-home music-making, and an essential purchase for aficionados of simple, unaffected old-time music.


Mike Wild

Alice Wylde (no relative) lived 43 years in the same back country 'holler' in the wooded mountains of West Virginia until she moved to England. She was born and raised one of eight children and the sleeve photo shows the white painted clapboard house with a corrugated iron roof with a smoking stovepipe. Her family are of Welsh and Scottish and Cherokee descent and she learned a good many of her songs from her mother who sang, in an alto voice,constantly around the house at all times and for all moods and tasks. As she says 'the songs were just a part of life' and thanks her mother for her moral guidance and values. There was also the radio, shape note songs from church and those of other neighbours. The songs sung by an individual were about what the singer felt like singing at that moment or the instrument they were playing.  It is this wellspring from which a traditional singer draws and Doug Bailey of WildGoose writes that he was stunned when he heard her sing at his local folk club in Hampshire. He reckons she is as close to a 'source singer' as he has heard. I feel that he is right but I would also like to hear at some time some of the other songs she has made her own growing up in the second part of the 20th century. The record focuses on old Appalachian songs which I take to be from the family tradition, and I would have liked more information on the sources in the sleeve notes. Alyce informed me 'The songs were chosen for the stories that they tell and just because I like them. I wanted the album to be no frills, raw, and like I was singing in my kitchen.'

On the basis of listening to the record I would agree with Doug but it is the lived expression of the songs that moved me.  As a young man in the 1950s, in the wave of enthusiasm for skiffle and 'Americana' that led to the second folk revival I met and heard singers such as Jean Ritchie (b.1922) from Kentucky and Peggy Seeger. I went on to listen to the rarer recordings of Aunt Molly Jackson and Florence Reece and the Carter family and recordings from the Harry Smith Anthology. In fact the timbre of Alice Wylde's voice reminds me somewhat of the singing of Helen Carter. She doesn't have as much of the nasal 'high lonesome' sound that can be difficult for some Brits to take to. It was old time traditional music that drew me, like a salmon going to the source, to the ballads that both Cecil Sharpe and later Alan Lomax collected. Thence to the ballads in the Child collection etc. It is ironic that Mudford and Sons are taking banjo music back to America, with admitted success, in one of those strange Atlantic trades that have linked our nations. Another singer I admire is Sara Grey, from New Hampshire, who sings from both family and a collector's perspective. In an interview with Brian Peters in the early 2000s she said she found some resistance from protective British audiences to songs that had crossed the water. Nowadays we are seeing yet another go round of the ballad tradition and Alice Wylde's singing should help inform our younger singers about the process.

It is authenticity and depth of emotion and storytelling that makes Alice Wylde, for me, such a compelling singer. She is not a 'polished' performer but that to me is her appeal. Her banjo and that of her talented young friend Dan Stewart, from East Sussex, who also adds fiddle, dulcimer and guitar to some tracks, do lend support but can overpower at times and her unaccompanied singing is really sufficient to make your neck and arm hairs tingle. Hers is a voice best heard in homely situations, I reckon, and I could have listened to a whole unaccompanied CD. There are 11 tracks, some of which may be familiar, such as Groundhog with a plonky banjo tune. Bill Stafford tells of a man going to work in Arkansas for slave rates and coming back 'as thin as a crane'.  My Old Brown Coat And Me in 3/4 time has an older European feel, about a sturdy farmer losing the girl who marries unwisely. It could have been sung by Walter Pardon (also a singer who a lot of us couldn't quite believe was the real thing at first). Babes In The Wood is not the version known to us from the Copper family but is close to the English broadsheet versions, Dan Stewart plays Alice's mother's dulcimer on this track. Heart Of Glass is a heartfelt song of loss and longing with a religious tune from the tradition of switching between great sacred and secular. Old Pheobe (sic) Ice with its leisurely banjo is a humorous requiem to a feisty old gal 'with her toes turned out and her eyes turned in'. Shiloh Hill is a moving tale of intra-family strife between the blue and the grey. Revolutionary Tea tells of the old lady across the sea who the American revolutionaries kicked out (we forget they and Tom Paine inspired the French Revolution)� whatever happened to the Republicans? Johnny Doyle is an unaccompanied song of longing in the key of G in the Irish tradition, and Unclouded Day is another religious ballad to a banjo accompaniment.

If you enjoy books by Annie Proulx you will get the same insights into the lives of people living a simple yet emotionally complex life in some isolation, with all the strength and yet the tensions that can afford.

As Alice Wylde requests in West Virginia Boys, 'Come and listen to my noise'. I would urge you to do just that. This will be a long time favourite record of mine.

Old Time News Interview

Rob Luxton

I am sitting in the yard at La Fuente with my eyes glazed and my jaw dropped in amazement. It's the first night of the workshop week at Kate Lissauer's place and we've just had dinner. We're all getting to know one another and a few people tentatively, do a party piece on their chosen instrument. There was a lull in the conversation and in it, the woman opposite me began to sing quietly. The song was �Black Lung� (the coal miners' lament). The voice was pure, rural West Virginian and the singer was Alice Wylde, and I knew I had to find out more about Alice and how she got to be the woman who could hold us all spellbound with that simple tune.

I asked Alice about the unbroken tradition in the kind of music that she sings. ~ :

AW: My mom she was always a singing. She sang when she was working, she sang when she was making breakfast in the morning. We'd be laying in our beds and we could hear her singing in the kitchen   and I really didn't take a lot of notice of it until much later when I'd say: I remember mom singing this in the kitchen, I remember mom singing this while she was, plucking chicken. You learned those songs without even realizing that you were listening to them.

RL: When did you realise that you wanted to sing these songs yourself?

I always sang with my mom and with my siblings but as far as singing them by myself... There was a time when my little sister and me sung country music. She liked country music. There was also a lot of gospel singing and mom liked to do gospel singing, so we did a lot of that too. And mom's brothers, they all sang and mom and her sisters too, and her father sang. There was always singing at home in the evenings   and you'd pick up a lot of songs in the community that you weren't learning at home. After I started driving I could get out and go to other people's houses or somewhere where I knew there would be singing.

And what kind of community was this?

AW: The nearest little general store and post office, well, when I was really young, it was about one and a half miles away, but in later years they closed that post office. Then the nearest one was five mites away. And the nearest grocery store was about 18 miles away.

Whereabouts did you live?

Well, we lived in Gilmer County right near the border line with Braxton County but I was born at Gassaway in Braxton County. We were raised on a county lane way back in the holler about a mile from the main road.

So, you were singing at home and at other people's houses...

You know, you think about sitting around playing on the porch, but in winter time there was more singing and playing going on because people don't have their gardens and stuff to look after so they have more time. I recall there were two guys, lived up another holler over across the way, across the hill, and my first husband and these two guys liked to go 'coon hunting   racoon hunting   all the time. So, the women, the three of us, we liked to sing. So us three women, when they would go racoon hunting and stay on the hill for hours and hours, well, we would be in the house a singing. I played a little guitar at that time and we would just get out the song books or sing from memory. I learned a lot of songs from those women, you know.

I've heard you singing songs that I associate with the Appalachian tradition but do you sing other stuff?

I like the old traditional mountain way of singing, but I like country music and I like gospel music and a little bluegrass. If I like a song I don't care where it comes from, or who sang it.

My mom, she had old 78 records and I remember her having Ola Belle Reed   and the Carter family, of course. And she would write down the lyrics off the radio when she'd listen to it. Then there was a lot of songs that she learned in school and from her sisters and from her dad and... I think it was kind of a mix. For me it separates into: this is what I learned from mom and other people   and this is what I learned from recordings. Some of it was in books, some of it was stuff learned in school from the teacher and so on...

And the songs you sing now, are they from a handed down tradition?

Well, some from my mom, some from people in the community, some found in song books, recordings, and Mom wrote some herself. I worked at a Senior Centre for a while and I worked in the kitchen a cooking ... ..Senior Centre?.. Yeah, where all the older people would get together. They'd play bingo and have a meal and that   and I worked in the kitchen helping cooking meals for the them. Well, they would have one day a week where they would have a sing song, and I would arrange my work break so I could sit with them and sing. There was one lady who was always there   she was blind and she's a very well known singer in Gilmer County... and, at that time there was a little preacher woman and she had lots of songs to sing. They all did, and I was there trying to soak it in   trying to learn them.

Some of the Appalachian music I have listened to has a church influence, was that an influence on you?

Very much so. Because mom saw that we went to church and we sung a lot of traditional hymns. We sung Shape Notes in church and mom was a really good and well known alto Shape Note singer. And I know that people, a few generations back, if they were religious, they didn't sing any other kind of songs. It was one or the other, but mom, she was a religious woman and she also sang the other songs. By the time I learned them it wouldn't matter, but she would always say that, if we were singing somewhere, we should always sing one for the Lord. And that's why there's a gospel one on the CD. For that very reason.

Thinking back, are there any of those people that you sang with who, like yourself, have moved on and started making CDs and so on?

I can't think of anybody back home. I didn't think then that anybody would be interested and also, if I'd wanted to make a CD I wouldn't have known where you'd go to do it.

Do you think that having made the CD you'll go on and do more music publicly now?

I don't know, it remains to be seen I reckon ....

Folk Monthly

Bob Brooker

Alice was born and brought up in the Appalachian Mountains, being one of a large musical family. During her young life Alice was actively singing along with her Mom, who seemed to sing most of the day, and family, and also many musical visitors to the home. Much of the singing was done in the local church without instruments, but with, quote: "heavenly harmonies."

At the tender age of 43 Alice moved to England, bringing with her a whole repertoire of song and music from the Appalachian region (their loss, our lucky gain!) It will be no surprise that Alice plays and accompanies herself on the banjo, in true finger pick and claw hammer style, such a sought after technique so difficult to master.

The album consists of 11 tracks, but sadly there are no track notes to say whether they are traditional or original. However. Alice's voice is a pure delight to listen to, and it is not long  � before you are singing along in the chorus's and refrains. I love the track Groundhog along with My Old Brown Coat and Me. The instrumentation is simplicity itself, but so effective for the music style of the album.

A brief word on the production side of the CD, pure quality as you would expect from WildGoose, my only sadness is the lack of song notes, but the images and materials are all first class.

Alice Wylde is is going to be a name you will be seeing a great deal of at festivals and clubs nationwide   so promoters and organisers take note! Alice will be a wonderful act to have at any festival or club, headlining in her own right.


Trevor Ault

This is the real thing   "authentic, traditional and old time mountain singing"  exactly as described on the label. It's not bluegrass (jazzy and slick) or country and western (stereotyped and sentimental). This is real, unadorned, plain, beautiful American folk music.

Alice Wylde now lives in England, but was born, grew up, and lived for forty three years in West Virginia. Her songs were learned from her mother (a constant singer in the house), from church, from relatives and from singing visitors. She has a wonderful, slightly husky voice that reminds me of Ralph Stanley, most well known for his version of O Death in O Brother Where Art Thou? There is often a hitch (like the start of a yodel) at the beginning or the end of a line, and the diction is always clear and clean (a great boon in a singer). It's a real pleasure to listen to. There is an interesting range of songs here. Some of them   in subject and melody   seem to be clearly derived from British precedents. Babes In The Wood is a good example   the story of children abandoned to die in a wood, the robin covering them in strawberry leaves, and the birds lamenting them. But mostly the songs relate to American places, characters and history. There is a song, for example, about the Boston Tea Party, and one about a battle in the civil war. There is a warning to young women about the rural, unprepossessing character of West Virginia Boys, and a very lively song about Old Phoebe Ice, who is "strong as an ox" and can fiddle up an all night party   "she's a darn good gall for the shape she's in". In the song Groundhog a woman called Sal comes to the rescue of a worn out hunter and his dog who is cornered by three hogs: "here comes Sal with a hickory stick/ she killed all three with just one lick". And afterwards, when the hogs are skinned and cooked: "here comes Sal with a snicker and a grin/ groundhog juice all over her chin." The words, here as throughout, are plain and delightful   and often, as in the ballads of failed love, very powerful.

Some of the songs are unaccompanied, and here Alice's voice sounds most like Ralph Stanley's, quite haunting. On some she accompanies herself very effectively on banjo   a good example being Unclouded Day, a church song which I had loved in the Staples Singers' version and which I find I like equally well in this much earthier version. Some also have the sensitive and well judged addition of Dan Stewart on banjo, guitar, dulcimer or fiddle.

So with the minimum of means this CD achieves great variety and richness. I did wish at times for more information about the songs   with the CD or on a website   at least some translation of very American terminology and history. But that is a minor niggle. The music does stand by itself and is a great addition to anyone's folk library.

March 2013