Big Bend Killing: New Appalachian Ballads Album Resounds Today

With the plaintive saw of Kalia Yeagle’s fiddle in the background, Hasee Ciaccio’s unsentimental rendering of the “Omie Wise” ballad, a 200-year-old song about the abuse of women, provides a haunting air of the enduring power of the Appalachian ballad tradition.

“I’ll tell you all a story about Omie Wise,” Ciaccio lightly sings, with the immediacy of a truth-teller, “How she was deluded by John Lewis’ lies.”

Fascinating, beguiling and evocative, the newly released two-disc album, Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition, presents a wide range of songs and singers that chronicle the every-day wonders of ”mystery and magic, pathos and passion, vision and violence, death and destruction,” and reminds us of the intricate storytelling tradition in Appalachia and beyond today.

“If I had the money to do more than just feed them, I’d give them good learning, the best could be found,” Elizabeth LaPrelle sings in a deep and heartfelt version of Jean Ritchie’s chilling “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” bringing its message from a coal mine disaster in 1968 to today’s headlines: “And not spend their whole life in the dark underground.”

“The singing of ballads is like a high-wire act—there is a thin line between a true performance of a ballad and a desecration,” according to producer Ted Olson, a long-time Appalachian scholar, poet and musician, who also wrote the extensive liner notes of the album set for the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

As Amythyst Kiah wonderfully demonstrates in the classic blues and railroad ballad, “John Henry,” with a soulful and gothic sound, Roy Andrade driving plucks on the banjo in the background, Big Bend Killing is not simply a reissue of relics influenced by British Isle and Irish traditions, but a captivating and original presentation of the continuum of ballad storylines in our daily lives and musical stage today.

Olson notes that some trace John Henry’s legendary railroad figure to West African folklore—like the banjo’s own journey across the Middle Passage from Africa—building inroads into new musical territory.

From Grammy Award-winning artist Rosanne Cash’s lilting rendition of the centuries-old Scottish lament, “The Parting Glass” to Kristi Hedtke and Corbin Hayslett’s wistful account of the “Knoxville Gal” murder ballad, Big Bend Killing aptly shows the evolving narrative woven by immigrants into the American experience.

The second CD in the set, in particular, showcases the diversity of the Appalachian ballads in modern times. With echoing harmonies of Teresa Jett and Oscar Harris, playing guitar and autoharp, Dale Jett interprets the classic Carter Family ballad, “The Cycle of Rye Cove,” with the foreboding air of weather disasters. The ballad was based on the devastating tornado in southwestern Virginia in 1929.

Give us a home far beyond the blue sky,
Storms and cyclones are unknown;
At the end of life’s strand we’re gonna meet at God’s hand
Children in a heavenly home

Thanks to Olson’s work, and this great showcase of singers and musicians, Appalachian balladry will continue to resound with new interpretations and celebrate its authentic traditions long into the twenty-first century.