On a sunny afternoon in July, I sat down with Alison Kinney and Hannah Rosencrans in Arcata, California to hear them sing Appalachian folk ballads and share stories surrounding the songs.
Songs Begin at:
00:00 I Love My Little Rooster (short sample)
2:45 Short Jacket and White Trousers
17:25 My Little Rooster
23:26 Willie Moore
HANNAH ROSENCRANS: There’s a YouTube video of Molly Andrews singing the,
[SONG: I Love My Little Rooster]
KASIA KUGAY: Hello! And Welcome to the very first edition of Tunes ‘n Tales, a podcast that explores traditional and contemporary folk music through the experience of storytelling. My name is Kasia Kugay.
In this episode, I interviewed Alison Kinney and Hannah Rosencrans, in Hannah’s home in Arcata, California. Alison and Hannah shared three songs, mused about their meanings, and spoke about what drew them to singing folk ballads in the Appalachian tradition. They recently released an album called In My Home which can be found on bandcamp, and you can find the link for that at tunesntales.net. Thank you for listening; I hope you enjoy this episode.
HR: We’ve been singing together for…
ALISON KINNEY: Ooh, that’s a good question.
AK: Maybe nine months?
HR: Yeah. Well, Alison and I lived in this house together, we were housemates at one point, and we started singing… I think we started singing shortly into the year last year, so like around January-ish? We started working on ballads and just doing that —
AK: It was after Linden was born, right?
HR: No, it was before —
AK: We sang sometimes —
HR: I didn’t even know you were pregnant. Alison had a bunch of ballad books here, and she actually brought one with her today, the Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, and then there were a few other ones that you had, like the Women’s Ballads Book —
AK: Oh yeah, we had one that’s all about cross-dressing women that I got from a professor of mine at University of Oregon, Dianne Dugas, and there’s a whole tradition of ballads about women in history who have cross-dressed to be men and make their way in the world, and sort of the dramas that ensue. What else? We had an Alan Lomax collection.
HR: Yup. And we have one of the cross-dressing songs to sing today, actually.
AK: Yeah, we could do that one.
HR: Short Jacket and White Trousers. Do you want to sing it?
AK: Sure, we could do that one. Hmm… Short Jacket and White Trousers. [humming note] That feel good?
[SONG: Short Jacket and White Trousers]
Part of the reason I love singing this music, and part of the reason I feel connected to it, is I’ve always wanted a sort of a door into the Old Time tradition, but it really feels like a man’s world. Especially when you’re in bluegrass jams, and old time jams, you go and it’s mostly men and there’s a lot of competition, you know. You’re doing your long banjo solo, and you’re kind of in competition with the guy who’s doing his long mandolin —
HR: There’s an element of showiness.
AK: Yeah, it’s sort of showy, and feels like — I went to a number of old time jams when I lived in the South, and I just felt out of place. It’s like a bunch of elderly men, and there’s not a lot of space for women. But when it comes to the vocal traditions, they feel like women’s stories, often. They feel like they’re being told from the women’s perspective, and a lot of my biggest influences in the tradition have been women, like Texas Gladden, Jean Ritchie, even some of the people that we listen to on the old archives where we find songs. Alameda Riddle, this great elderly lady that has a lot of songs on one particular archive. But anyway, it just feels like — it feels like it’s where you can find women’s voice in the history within the music. And that song is, you can probably tell, it comes from the Irish tradition, not the Appalachian tradition. But it’s really kind of sassy, and I love that about it.
AK: I think that’s why I was drawn to it. There’s a number of variants of that song, usually called The Handsome Cabin Boy. That one’s called Short Jacket and White Trousers, or how I’ve heard it. But The Handsome Cabin Boy is in general, the story is a woman dresses up as a man, goes on board a ship to cross the ocean. It was during that time, maybe [in the] 15, 1600’s, was the only way for a woman to get on a ship to cross the ocean, was to pretend she was a sailor, or to be a prostitute or a maid. So there aren’t many opportunities for a woman in that era. And so she dresses up as a man, and she proves that she can be a sailor, and nobody notices that she’s actually a woman, except for maybe the captain who seems to be falling in love with her. And there’s another version where the captain’s wife is also on board, and the captain’s wife seems to also be falling in love with her, and maybe in one version there might be a threesome, it’s hard — it gets really convoluted, and there’s a lot of sort of alluding to sexuality, but it never really, it’s not straightforward. Um, those stories also show up like in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.
HR: Yeah, and I played Sebastian at one point. I had to duct tape my chest. It was really uncomfortable.
AK: So it’s a good sassy tale, right? It seems like we’re drawn to a lot of women’s stories when we pick out which songs we’re going to do.
HR: Yeah, and I love that because, to offer another perspective on what I experienced growing up, my mother sings ballads, and also plays rhythm guitar, old time and bluegrass and gospel style, um, my father plays banjo and slide guitar and rhythm guitar as well. And so there was live music happening perpetually when I was growing up, and I really took it for granted. We would go down to Southern Virginia to Independence every summer, and go to like Galax, and Elk Creek Fiddler’s Convention, and Mount Airy, and then started going to Clifftop when I was in my teenage years, and uh, I did not have any interest in learning to sing ballads as a child. Like minimal interest. It was just something that my mother did and so because she did it, she also attracted other women, or men, in, who were also carrying on the tradition of singing ballads. And it just wasn’t something that was of great interest to me until a few years ago, and then meeting Alison really helped to like reopen that door, in a way. That hadn’t necessarily closed, but it definitely wasn’t open the way it is now. And it’s just fascinating to feel like, well, now I have a choice as to what ballads I sing. Whereas before it felt like less of a choice, because my mother had her repertoire and the ones that she knew, and that was that. So now seeing that there’s so many out there, and ones that I’ve never heard. So I just want to keep exploring as many as I can. And I feel really drawn to Irish songs. I have since I was very young, and Irish music. So that’s more the kind of vein that I want to delve into.
AK: And funny enough, that’s kind of how I got into ballad singing, was this sort of uh, whimsy childhood dream to be an Irish singer? I don’t really know where it came from, I did have —
HR: Oh, you wanted to be an Irish singer, and I wanted to be an Irish dancer!
AK: I remember I had this funny memory, of watching, what is the Irish dancing —
HR: Riverdance? Me too.
AK: Riverdance, I saw it on TV —
HR: Oh, gosh.
AK: I was at a good friend of my family’s house growing up, and the father of that household played Celtic fiddle. So I was just getting really wrapped up in the music and I loved it. And then in my twenties, I was traveling around the country, and ended up helping, or shadowing a friend who was working the soundbooth at the Swannanoa Music Gathering during Irish week. So I was up in the soundbooth listening to this performance, and there was this man, Brian O’Hare singing, and he sings Sean-nos. And that is a traditional form of Irish singing that is a cappella, much like the Appalachian ballads. And just really stripped down but with a ton of ornamentation. And so it has a lot of similarity with the Appalachian ballads but I heard him singing and I just fell in love with the music, and I found out he was teaching a workshop the next week in Virginia at the um, Augusta Heritage Center, and because I was just sort of on the road anyway, I decided to go and kind of follow this silly childhood dream I’d had to become an Irish singer. And while I was there, I met a woman, Molly Andrews, who is an Appalachian singer, and she was in my workshop with me. She heard one of the songs that the teacher was singing and said, “Oh, I know this song, but I know the Appalachian variant, or a Appalachian variant,” and she started singing it, and as soon —
HR: Which one was that?
AK: I can’t remember, to be honest. And it was just a stanza. At the time I had never heard the song so it didn’t make much of a difference to me. But she started singing, and as soon as she started singing it, I was thinking, “I don’t care about this Irish music, I want to do what you’re doing. Whatever you’re doing is amazing.” And I actually approached her after the class, really nervously, and said, “Could I record you sing? I’ve never heard anyone sing like that before.” And she was like, “Well, if you’ve never heard anyone sing like this before, here — you’ve got to look up Texas Gladden, you need to know who Jean Ritchie is,” and she gave me this whole list of names which is still my list of influences. But I went to her hotel that evening and I recorded her singing three or four songs. One of them we could do. One of them we’ve been practicing, Geordie.
HR: Oh yeah.
AK: You want to do that, is that a good time?
HR: Sure. [humming, negotiating pitch] That good?
AK: So that’s a big part of ballad singing, is forgetting the words. There’s just so many words to remember.
HR: And that’s what I love, I love the forgiving nature of it. In the sense that it’s just malleable, and if you can think of another word to put it then you can put in that word, if you don’t then you stop, and it feels more conversational in some ways.
KK: I love that you’re making eye contact the whole time, too. It feels very alive.
AK: Yeah, I think that’s a little bit necessary also, in terms of —
HR: With the words —
AK: There’s just so many words to be trying to find each other and meet each other on every word is tricky. So that’s one of the songs — just going back to the story a little bit, that’s one of the songs I learned from Molly Andrews, and she was a huge influence on me. Her Appalachian style is one that I seek out and am always trying to, I don’t know, trying to find a way to —
HR: Channel it. Keep channeling the energy of it, because it definitely is an energy. And there are a couple funny synchronicities, or common threads, whatever you want to call them, between Alison and I in the sense that my parents taught a workshop at Augusta, which is the place, which is the place where she met Molly Andrews, and I grew up hearing one of the songs that Molly Andrews sings, and I didn’t even realize that it was her who was singing it until Alison showed me the video. There’s a youtube video of Molly Andrews singing the
[SONG: I Love My Little Rooster] (partial)
HR: So I grew up hearing that —
KK: I like it!
HR: Yeah, me too. So, yeah I’m really thankful that we have this connection. We had all these similar threads between us and our stories, and then we finally came together in Arcata, California.
AK: Yeah. And I’m not, I don’t feel like I have any kind of you know, family history connecting me, and for a while I struggled with that. Like does this music belong to someone, am I stealing it if I sing it?… I said that one time when I was performing in North Carolina, because I thought, you know, I’m performing for all these people who own this music.
AK: They live here, this is theirs.
AK: A woman came up to me after the show and said, I’m just so thankful that someone wants to sing these songs still. So I’ve just been going with that. I feel like something really attractive about this music is, it makes me feel connected to this greater history. I like to imagine all the other people in history who have sung the same song. And obviously each version is different, but —
HR: Yeah, the way it changes.
AK: Right. But I think that song, Geordie, could be traced to the 1500’s. And to imagine all the singers between then and now who have sung this song, is a really amazing thing.
HR: Yeah. I think Bob Dylan has a quote in that vein, of the story is the same, the words are just different. And so I love thinking about that, well what is the essence of the story that we’re telling in this song, and you know if we need to tweak something, a word choice or whatever, we’ll do that —
AK: It doesn’t matter.
HR: Yeah, it doesn’t.
AK: There’s even variations of that story, of Geordie, where the true love goes to find him, and she has the bail and he’s set free. And another one where first his mom comes, and he sees her out in the distance, and he says, “Mother have you come with my bail?” And she says, “No, I’ve come to watch you be hung.” And then the father comes, and the same thing happens, “Have you come with my bail?” and he says, “No, I’ve just come to watch you die.” And then the true love comes and she has the bail. Or sometimes she doesn’t. So there’s a million ways the story could go, but essentially it’s based on the same event, which is supposedly, you can’t really trace it, but supposedly there was a noble man who either stole some horses, or didn’t, who knows what he did, and he’s to be hung, and the true love asks that he’s hung with the nicest white silk chord because he’s a noble man.
KK: Great. So that is an Appalachian ballad.
AK: I mean it comes from the British Isles, and it’s traveled a long distance, and has changed a lot. And I know when Molly taught that version to me, I asked where she got it, and she probably told me the singer, but I don’t know, but I do remember that she said that she changed it a bit. And I know that everybody does that. I listened back actually, with Hannah, the other day, to her version, and it was different. So over time you’re singing it and it just sort of morphs into however you remember it. So I can’t say that we sing it like her, and I know that she said she didn’t sing it like the person she got it from, but it is Appalachian influenced now, because she taught me her version.
KK: Where was she from?
AK: She’s from Virginia. And she’s also not from the mountains. I interviewed her one time, because I was just so interested in her story, and I think she grew up near D.C., and then moved to the mountains in her adult life and had the same quandary as I did about whether or not she was authentic to the music or whatever it is. But she fell in love with it and it is her profession now. She’s a musician and an actress by trade.
KK: Alison, where are you from again?
AK: I’m from Santa Rosa.
KK: Oh, wow. Great. Did you want to share another song?
HR: We can… So just going back to, my mother’s ballad singing growing up, and she didn’t just sing ballads, she sang a lot of other songs and styles as well, but the ballads are what’s relevant to this project, and this one is called Willie Moore. I heard her singing it when I was a child, and it was around the time that I was learning to play banjo. I think I started learning to play banjo when I was eight. And then I have not been consistent about it over the years, so it’s been a very touch and go thing that I do. But anyways, I was very excited to work on a banjo part and to figure out a banjo part to this ballad that she had been singing. And so I did, figured it out, and I accompanied her when she competed in the folk song competition at Elk Creek Fiddler’s Convention, and so yeah, this one’s called Willie Moore, and it’s a suicide ballad —
AK: And I often forget the words.
HR: So we’ll see what happens lyric-wise, but might as well give it — oh gosh, give it a go.
KK: There’s a chance I’ll have to start you over…
[SONG: Willie Moore]
HR: How was the sound, was it —
KK: So sad. That was beautiful.
HR: Oh, thank you. Oh gosh. It’s a heavy one.
AK: There’s a lot of those tales. Of true love that can’t be followed through on, suicide, or murder. One or the other.
HR: Yeah. And that’s another reason why I feel really called, right now, at this point in my life, to be working on ballads, because they really do cover the highs and the lows and death, and love, and just these really big life events. And they do it in a way that feels really graceful and almost therapeutic to me. It’s like taking a squeegee to my soul.
AK: Yeah, it seems like a lot of teaching happens through these songs. I can imagine wanting to sing — you know, actually this song I don’t know if I would want to sing it to my child. Maybe. As a lesson, but there are a number of songs that I would.
KK: Willie Moore?
AK: Yeah, Willie Moore. I mean, yes, I would sing it to my child, but not as a teaching moment.
KK: What’s the lesson, I’m curious — because it was just sad to me.
AK: Oh, I don’t know what the lesson of Willie Moore is. That true love is strong enough that you might kill yourself if you don’t get to follow your heart.
HR: Yeah, and like the idea that the woman needs to ask the parents — or the man needs to ask the parents’ consent, and then if the parents don’t consent, that you know, that dictates the outcome of the daughter’s… happiness, or just the relationship that she’s in, in a way, so it’s a loss of control on the woman’s part.
KK: Yeah. Well, and the lesson for the woman in the story that would be, what was her name?
KK: The lesson for the Anna character I guess being, that all her friends coming out, and her love disappearing, to Trinidad —
AK: And her parents mourning her for the rest of their lives
KK: Right, maybe a lesson for the parents, too.
AK: There are a number of songs that start, “Come all you fair and tender ladies, and listen to my song,” or however it goes in the particular version, but yeah those songs are often to warn women, you know, don’t date a traveling man, for example, don’t date a soldier, or a sailor, he’ll probably get you pregnant and then he’ll leave. There’s a lot of those lessons we learn from ballads. Don’t date too young of a man. What’s the — come all you fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court young men. They are like stars in a bright summer’s morning, they do appear and then are gone. So anyway, there’s that lesson. Don’t date a man who’s too young. There’s an Irish song that I’ve been singing just recently with Hannah that’s a really fun one, that’s sort of to teach abstinence.
KK: If sex ed was only this musical.
AK: My sister is a middle school teacher, and I just thought how funny it would be if I went in and sang an abstinence song to them.
HR: It’s so cryptic —
AK: I don’t know if they would understand it, even.
KK: Do you want to share a little bit of that?
AK: Sure, um.
[SONG: Little Ball of Yarn] (partial)
KK: What a jerk.
AK: Right, exactly. I mean it’s really demeaning to the woman also, who when he says, I bet you didn’t expect this.
AK: So I love the song, it’s funny, but it’s also a little hard to take.
KK: I would think it would be unwinding the ball of yarn.
HR: Yeah, I would hope, geez.
KK: I hope she at least had fun! Cool, well, how do you feel? Is there anything else you want to say, maybe about your project, your album?
HR: Oh yeah, we recorded an album in town here in Arcata at a place called the Sanctuary, and so we’re putting that together and that should be done in the next couple of weeks.
AK: Yeah, we’re just going to screenprint the covers, it’s going to be beautiful.
HR: Yeah, we had a friend do the cover drawing for us, so it’s a collaborative process on a bunch of peoples’ parts and that feels really good. And it’s called In My Home —
KK: As we are now.
KK: And what’s the name of your project?
AK: Oh, well, we’ve just been using our names.
HR: But we had talked about having it be HA! With an exclamation point.
AK: Or maybe A-ha!
HR: We might need a third person if we’re going to be A-ha! Another person whose name starts with A. So.. if you know anyone…
AK: So yeah for now we’re just Alison Kinney
HR: And Hannah Rosencrans
KK: Awesome! Thanks.
HR: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
KK: Thank you for listening to the very first episode of Tunes ‘n Tales. Thank you to Hannah Rosencrans and Alison Kinney for their generous contribution of time and music, and to Dalmau Cudney for mixing this audio, and to the many people who have nurtured the connections and resources needed to produce this episode. Please be sure to check out Alison and Hannah’s new album, which you can download at alisonkinneyandhannahrosencrans.bandcamp.com. I’ll post that link with this episode at tunesntales.net. Our next two episodes will feature traditional vocal women’s music, from Italy and Bulgaria. We’ll be releasing episodes monthly for now, as we build our resources. If you’d like more information on Tunes ‘n Tales and you can contribute to this production, please visit tunesntales.net. That’s all for now, ‘til next time!