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Rob Luxton of Old Time News Interview

reviews Songs of Old Appalachia by Alice Wylde

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 ....