While many popular musicians today seek out the newest digital technology to enhance their performances, there’s a young musical duo from rural Virginia who are moving in the opposite direction. Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle call themselves simply “Anna and Elizabeth.” Both accomplished traditional Appalachian musicians on a variety of instruments, together they have resurrected a storytelling tradition called the “crankie,” whose technology outdates their combined age (which is 50).
A crankie is an illustrated scroll – a panoramic swath of fabric or paper decorated to portray a sequence of scenes and wrapped around two posts with attached handles or “cranks.” While one crank winds up the fabric, the other unwinds it, creating a moving scene. Some people call it a hand-made movie. Puppets are occasionally used in the foreground to tell a story. Here’s a video of one of Anna and Elizabeth’s crankies called “The Lost Gander.”
So why use a crankie?
“We felt like people needed more to engage with.” Anna says. Traditional fiddle tunes have stories, but it’s hard to convey that with only an instrument. She wanted to share the stories behind the songs. Elizabeth agreed: “Even if you don't care about banjos or a six minute ballad, you have a visual that helps you follow along with the words.” They design their own crankies to correspond to different songs. This one was designed to correspond to a ballad called “Lord Bateman.”
Originally from Vermont, Anna Roberts-Gevalt moved to Virginia to become more immersed in Appalachian musical traditions. She plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, and dances flatfoot, and has spent ample time in the homes of traditional musicians, learning music and stories in person. A few years ago, she completed an Appalachian Music fellowship from Berea College where she wrote about the lives of accomplished female fiddlers in Kentucky.
Elizabeth LaPrelle grew up in Rural Retreat, Virginia, and is an award-winning ballad singer and banjo player. She got an early start, competing in traditional song contests at local fiddle conventions before she was a teenager, and when she was 14 performed on Prairie Home Companion. Inspired by famed ballad singers Sheila Kay Adams and Ginny Hawker, LaPrelle’s style of ballad singing is raw and powerful.
The two met about three years ago at a concert in Virginia. When Elizabeth’s car unexpectedly broke down, Anna offered to let Elizabeth stay at her house while it got fixed, and they ended up singing together to pass the time. They hit it off immediately. Anna showed Elizabeth a crankie that she had made, and not long after, they decided to play music together and incorporate crankies into their performances.
Anna and Elizabeth cling to Appalachian traditional music tightly. The songs they perform are drawn from archived recordings and master folklorists, but their favorite way to learn new tunes is by spending time with other musicians.
“I like to learn a tune to forge a relationship,” Anna says. “That’s what traditional music is. It’s tradition. It’s valuing the people that play the music.” More important than arranging a song, she says, is understanding where it comes from.
While Anna and Elizabeth play a variety of instruments and draw from a large library of songs, the one thing all of their tunes have in common is the fact that they tell stories. “I just really like storytelling,” Elizabeth says. “As much as performing, I like listening. I’m drawn to narrative. It’s why I enjoy crankies. They give narrative shape.”
Anna and Elizabeth will be performing in two concerts at private homes in Durham and Saxapahaw next week. For more information or to reserve a place, contact Stephen Stiebal, at stephenstiebel [at] gmail [dot] com.
UPDATE: Here's a photo from their first house concert on Wednesday, March 6.