Pretty Saro

Written by Piers Cawley on

I’m a wee bit late writing this because it’s mostly about my summer trip to the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. It just so happened that YAPC (Yet Another Perl Conference) was held in Asheville this year, the week before the gathering’s Traditional Song Week. Well, I’m a perl hacker. I sing traditional songs. My employer was paying for me to attend YAPC and were willing for me to extend my stay in America by a week. It was a no brainer really.

YAPC was bloody good this year. Perl 5 development is moving forward and the community is buzzing because of it. Lots of “… and we’re hiring” slides. And that’s before we get to the pleasure of catching up with friends that I only see online most of the time. If you’re working in any field that has grassroots conferences associated with it, I can’t recommend attending them highly enough.

On to Swannanoa

At Swannanoa, I met Sheila Kay Adams and immediately switched my schedule to spend as much time singing with her as possible. Sheila’s a seventh generation ballad singer from the Sodom Laurel community in Madison Count. Her “grannie Berzil” Wallin remembered Cecil Sharp coming to Madison County and collecting songs from the family.

Pedigree in singing shouldn’t matter, but it turns out it does. Sheila grew up in a community which was changing, but which still had old ’love songs’ as an important part of how it understood the world. Today, not so much. People still relate to the world and understand it through songs, but the songs are more likely to be contemporary. Lyrically, many of the love songs that Sheila and her family sing could have been written yesterday, but their performance is radically different from contemporary style. One voice, unaccompanied, a style that requires the listener to concentrate on the song rather than any aspects of production. Not something you’re going to dance to at your wedding, say.

Sheila’s classes, on Meeting House Songs (more later) and her Ballads class with Bobbie McMillon were just wonderful; I won’t forget in a hurry the sound Bobbie singing “A conversation with Death” as a thunderstorm grumbled across the campus in the background. Spine tingling stuff. Sheila’s description of how she learned songs “knee to knee” has been helpful too. The way it would work was that the teacher and student would be sat out on the porch, often doing some chore or another, and the teacher would sing the first verse of a song. The student would sing it back and the teacher would sing the second verse. The student would then sing the first two verses then the teacher would sing the third verse and the student would sing the first three verses and so on, until the student was singing the whole song back to the teacher. A time consuming process to be sure, but it works.

I know this because I learned Pretty Saro from a recording of Sheila’s late husband Jim Taylor, using a variant of the method, “knee to CD” if you like. I’d play the first verse, hit pause and sing it back, play the second verse, pause, repeat the first two… and so on. And in very short order I had the words and tune (up to a point; I listened back to that recording again recently and I’m singing a different tune now) and could start the process of actually learning the song, which involved singing it it lots, listening to other recordings, singing it some more and then taking the song out and trying it out in front of audiences and listening to what works and what doesn’t. I’ve never really finished learning a song; this recording is a snapshot. I hope you enjoy it.

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