Mike Wild of Stirrings
reviews Songs of Old Appalachia by Alice WyldeAlice 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.