You’re Like a Translator of the Past: Anna & Elizabeth’s Queer Historiographic Methods – Elliott Kuecker

Anna & Elizabeth, an old-time duo comprised of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, weave together sinuous layers of sounds and imagery, drawing on unearthed and often incomplete historical sources to create an experience that exists apart from both the past and the present. They play Appalachian standards, but more often they perform and record found songs that they have discovered in archives or through talking with people who remembered them or wrote them. They are both musical performance experts (LaPrelle as a ballad singer and vocalist and Roberts-Gevalt as a vocalist and fiddler) and extremely competent in musical composition, but also in understanding how to integrate other skills—such as banjo playing, sewing, and flat foot dancing—into their music and performances to create a unique, nonlinear, enigmatic, and sometimes haunting experience.

Though their music on the one hand can sound very traditional, because of the strong religious content that Appalachian ballads are known for, it is nonetheless different from anything else coming out of the folk music or old-time scenes. Anna & Elizabeth are singular because their practices of song acquisition and presentations of the music reveal a queer methodology grounded in queer theory’s focus on temporality, intimacy with the dead or outdated, and the process of telling affective rather than empirical histories.

On September 21, 2016, at a live performance at the Ozark Folk Center, Roberts-Gevalt told the audience about how she and LaPrelle find the songs they perform and record, saying, “A lot of this old music Elizabeth and I learn at archives. Are there any archivists in the audience? Make some noise … It means we go a lot to libraries. Go to the basement of the library and listen to collections of recordings made in the 30s and 40s … For a whole day though … I guess our job is that we have to sift … You’re like a translator of the past” (“Anna and Elizabeth,” 7:29- 8:35). They describe to the audience what an old archival recording sounds like by blowing into the microphone and making a high-pitched, nearly-inaudible melody. (You know what this sounds like if you have ever streamed a Library of Congress union song recording or a Smithsonian field recording from the digital archives.) The use of the word “translator” is accurate—the audio they use often supplies only moments of clarity, some words come through and some don’t, and so it is different from covering a traditional piece or learning a song from someone (which they also sometimes do); it is like listening through a door or trying to remember a dream, hoping to get the atmosphere right, even if the details are wrong.

Kathleen Stewart writes in her study of everyday people in Appalachian West Virginia, A Space on the Side of the Road, “Imagine history not as an accomplished fact or a formless tendency, but as an occupied space of contingency and desire in which people roam. Think of it as a matter of re-membering, a process of being hit by events, an aggravation that stirs a relentless scanning and chronicling. In the hills, you could say, the effects of history lie gathered into a space of impacts and remainders storied as a space on the side of the road” (90). Stewart’s words could easily be describing what happens when Anna & Elizabeth listen to a recording for moments of clarity—that is what it means to be “hit by events” and listening and re-listening in a “relentless scanning and chronicling” trying to find the subject in the archives to bring back to life—the subject who will be no more notable than “a space on the side of the road.” Stewart explains that when West Virginians told her their stories she sometimes could write things down, but sometimes she had to just remember them, and that it took a while for her to get used to the language of storytelling, writing, “Missing pieces and unknown meaning taught me to listen not just more intently, but differently—a listening in order to retell” (8). Anna & Elizabeth must listen to the archival recordings with a mind for retelling.

This historiographic method cannot be empirical or exact. As Carla Freccero writes in Queer Times, this method works “by rejecting a notion of empirical history and allowing fantasy and ideology an acknowledged place in the production of ‘fantasmatic’ historiography as a way to get at how subjects live, not only their histories, but history itself” (488). Anna & Elizabeth are immersed in the fantasmatic with their work, never suggesting that they tell empirical history, while also rejecting the idea that they are merely covering old songs. They identify as historians and archivists, but as artists, they have permission to perform their history without having to describe their method. If they did describe it, their method would be what queer theorists have been discussing. Matthew Brim and Amin Ghaziani state: “With repercussions beyond the academy, queer methods can offer a framework for ‘making space for what is’ as they illuminate the messy and chaotic interstices across theory, lived experience, and practice” (18).

This lived experience is illuminated on stage when Anna & Elizabeth present a song they have worked on reinventing as part of an individual’s story. The people and their stories are not necessarily notable—or perhaps more accurately do not exist in the sphere of the spectacular. In queer theory, many scholars have focused on thinking about the “affective histories” of the past, or ordinary people and things that move us. Elizabeth Freeman called them “the infamous and also the unfamous, the archive’s stray dogs,” “history’s flotsam and jetsam,” and what capital “wishes us to forget” (xii). It is not “people’s history” because it is even more everyday than that—it is the type of passing recollection that tells a common history from an uncommon perspective. This is history that defies national narratives, as with Stewart’s West Virginia, a book that refuses to tell a story of American Civilization from a fourth-grade textbook view, nor from a perspective of modernization (3).

One story that Anna & Elizabeth often perform live is about Ms. Lela Todd. They describe it at their shows as a true story they heard from a woman named Letha Sexton in central Kentucky, a place where Roberts-Gevalt has taught fiddle camps. Sexton told them about growing up without television or radio and making “your own fun.” She said she was lucky because she grew up right next to Ms. Lela Todd, a woman who never had children, but adopted all the nearby children. Lela could hunt, fish, garden, and had a pet crow she caught and tamed. When Sexton’s mother lost a child in childbirth, Ms. Lela brought a beautiful bouquet of white flowers to comfort the family. Ms. Lela could play anything with strings and often played fiddle for parties well into the night, never tiring. At this point in the story, the non-musical storytelling shifts, as Roberts-Gevalt plays a fiddle tune like what Ms. Lela would have played. While they tell this story, the duo rotates a crankie, which is a long piece of fabric sewn with images that illustrate a story, cranked between two rods to reveal one scene at a time.

The content of this story and its visual and oral presentation is the epitome of the space on the side of the road, of the everyday, and of backwardness. The crankie, for example, is a nineteenth-century storytelling tool that is outmoded; something laboriously hand-sewn with dancing children, houses, hills, flowers, and musicians, by Anna & Elizabeth. Sexton at first told the musicians that she grew up with no devices to entertain her, but that life was amazing because of the loving and talented woman who lived near her. And when she thinks of childhood, she thinks of Ms. Lela. This story is about Sexton’s childhood, but at the same time the entire narrative is a description of the life of Ms. Lela Todd. The everyday and backward is what makes this queer, and this is counter-intuitive to our modern experiences. The scholar Elizabeth Freeman writes that being in queer time is not about being progressive and forward-thinking, but rather: “the point may be to trail behind actually existing social possibilities: to be interested in the tail end of things, willing to be bathed in the fading light of whatever has been declared useless. For while queer antiformalism appeals to me on an intellectual level, I find myself emotionally compelled by the not-quite-queer-enough longing for form that turns us backwards to prior moments, forward to embarrassing utopias, sideways to forms of being and belonging that seem, on the face of it, completely banal” (xiii).

In another song the duo sometimes perform live they hold their MacBook Pro up and ask for the audience to welcome their guest singer. At the Ozark Folk Center performance Roberts-Gevalt says, “But we really are excited that we had an old lady we were able to bring with us in here. Her name was Margaret Chipman and she was a singer from Massachusetts, and she was recorded in [the] 1940s, and we are going to have her sing for you tonight.” Then they play her scratchy recording from the MacBook while Roberts-Gevalt plays guitar alongside. When it ends Anna & Elizabeth then sing the same song “Jeano and Jeannette” (“Anna and Elizabeth,” 8:50-12:39) without Margaret’s vocals.

It’s possible that Anna & Elizabeth want Margaret Chipman to sing for herself—to not be exclusively translated through their interventions with the music. The effect of presenting her to the audience is haunting, and this too is a queer historiographic method. Juda Bennett explains in her work on the ghosts in Toni Morrison’s writing, “ghost stories are offered as an alternative—or challenge—to ‘official’ dominant history” (17). Ghosts don’t have to be overt, she explains, and can simply be implied. In fact, she writes of music in Morrison’s work, saying “Although this music seems to have no attached source, it is tempting to read it—as we might interpret a ghost—as full of spiritual need and unfinished business” (Bennett 70).

Like Morrison’s frequent use of the dead as a way to provide a voice to outsiders and those who exist in the in-between spaces of life and death, Anna & Elizabeth’s work sometimes literally conjures the dead, allowing a song, story, or singer to complete unfinished business on their stage. And since this space is liminal, the still alive also get to complete business. At the Ozark Folk Center show, LaPrelle announced, “we have a wonderful friend back in my area of Virginia. Joy Huffman. She’s in her 80s. Which is the best kind of friend to have… She is a poet. Sometimes she writes under an alter ego named Maddie Gray. And Maddie Gray is a mouse… ” Then LaPrelle reads a poem from the mouse and the crowd erupts. She says, “We forget to record the applause for her” (“Anna and Elizabeth,” 5:33-7:05). Anna & Elizabeth are yet again bringing an outsider to their stage, though she could not be there, by reciting her work for her. They provide us with something never publicly shown before, and what is articulated is kind of strange because Maddie Gray is an alter-ego mouse, but also wonderful because it is someone’s secret work.

What does it mean that the best kind of friend to have is a woman in her 80s? Later in the show, Roberts-Gevalt tells the audience that a fan once told her that the songs were beautiful, but all of them were sad and so much about death. She recounts that she decided to sing a happy song by the more well-known folk singer Hazel Dickens, whom she never got to meet, but whose funeral she was able to attend. Then she says, “You’re laughing because you think now that I have a morbid streak, and you’re right. It felt good… I guess with some musicians you feel that they are a big part of your life even if you never met them” (“Anna and Elizabeth,” 37:33-39:00). This statement of identification is a confession of backwardness. Consider what Freccero writes about her queer historiographic practice: “I also sought to force a kind of ethics of haunting that would motivate queer historiographic endeavor through the project of queering temporality. This haunting would be reciprocal in that it would entail a willingness both to be haunted and to become ghostly, and insofar as the reciprocal penetrability entailed would also be sensuous—a commingling of times as affective and erotic experience—it would also be queer” (489). Anna & Elizabeth are willing to conjure the dead and haunt an audience in a way that brings the specter of the missing singer into intimacy with the audience, but they are also willing to be haunted—to play and interpret songs and stories from a different time and place and to sit in a basement of a library straining to listen for things that are impossible to hear.

Anna & Elizabeth are working with archival material in many cases, but they are also presenting us with a new archive. Ann Cvetkovich writes of her book, An Archive of Feelings, “the individual chapters of this book should be understood as working as much to produce an archive as to analyze one” (8), and similarly an Anna & Elizabeth record or performance feels this way. Every song or story slowly unfolds, and sometimes crankies have been laboriously produced and are literally unfolded, to present an archive of an ordinary past from ordinary Appalachian people. They do as Freeman did, with the “the decision to unfold, slowly, a small number of imaginative texts rather than amass a weighty archive of or around texts, and to treat these texts and their formal work as theories of their own, interventions upon both critical theory and historiography” (xvii). The result is something radical, queer, and yet still scholarly, presented in an affective and beautiful way.

 

Works Cited

“Anna and Elizabeth Sept.21, 2016.” YouTube, uploaded by Omar aka Mark, 25 January, 2015,      https://youtu.be/y7P5ceSbKA

Bennett, Juda. Toni Morrison and the Queer pleasure of Ghosts. State University of New York   Press, 2014.

Brim, Matthew, and Amin Ghaziani. “Introduction: Queer Methods.” WSQ: Women’s Studies     Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3 & 6, 2016, 14-27.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings. Duke University Press, 2003.

Dancing to Fiddle Music. 1970-1979, photograph, Berea College Photographic Archives,  https://berea.access.preservica.com/file/sdb%3AdigitalFile%7C010efb32-c4e7-421a81b7-2978ef6bdd82/

Freccero, Carla. “Queer Times.” Southern Atlantic Quarterly vol. 106, no. 3, 2007, pp. 485-494.

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke University Press,   2010.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University         Press, 2007.

Stewart, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press, 1996.

Elliott Kuecker is the Collections Management Librarian and College Archivist at Oxford College Library of Emory University. He writes about critical labor issues in academic libraries and southern literature, and hosts digital initiatives for oral histories and photographic history at Oxford College Library. He sees country and old-time music as offering something more pleasurable and important than mainstream understandings of the music dictate.

 

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