On March 24-26, 2023, Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado will present a special Confluence concert, Appalachian Roots. This program fits perfectly into our season theme of “Musical Migrations!” It is co-curated by BCOC guitarist Paul Holmes Morton and guest soprano Fiona Gillespie. Fiona and Paul will be joined by three BCOC musicians and two of their bandmates for a magical evening of music and story, told through through interwoven ballads, songs, and dance tunes from the theaters of London to the porches of Appalachian homesteads. Here’s a sneak preview of the program notes:

The direct transmission of tunes and ballads from England, Scotland, and Ireland to the eastern United States during the many waves of mass emigrations in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in the unique preservation of a musical tradition that later functioned as the tributary to the 20th century’s flowering of what we think of today as American music. Aside from the major influence of myriad African-American cultures upon our artistic identity, there is perhaps no stronger musical thread between the old and new worlds than that of British Isles and Celtic folk music. The music brought over by those Scotch-Irish and English settlers in the 17 and 1800s traveled through the port of Philadelphia, south into the Appalachian Mountains, where it carried on generation to isolated generation, changed by its new home and evolving people, but also vastly unchanged, for the next two centuries. When English ballad collectors from the budding field of ethnomusicology arrived in the southeastern United States in the early 20th century, chasing rumors of the presence of the “old songs”, they found a treasure trove of ballads which were often closer to the oldest traceable variants in remote corners of the British Isles than the versions of the songs that were being sung by the majority of old-world folk singers at the current time. 

In many cases the songs had changed somewhat. Often, they had dropped verses, usually the ones providing contextual background and the lengthier elements of narrative development, leaving only fragments of conversation, or the core, juiciest portion of the bigger story. If a song had contained a supernatural component, this was almost always removed from its American counterpart. But some ballads remained amazingly the same. Barbara Allen is one such example. In fact, this ballad shows remarkably little variety in form, story, and verse anywhere it has been found, its hundreds of variants having only minor differences. One reason for this might be the potency of the story of Barbara Allen. In a corpus of ballads full of strange events and fairytale-like scenarios, Barbara Allen offers us a very relatable story, even if the consequence of the character’s behavior is exaggerated in an extreme outcome. Barbara Allen is a tale of warning applicable to every one of us, and a story of redemption desperately attractive to all of us. 

At the beginning of the 20th century the ballads and tunes began to be collected, published, and recorded. They grew into newer versions, with outlying stylistic influences, and they inspired the composition of new songs. Over the years and geographic regions, these Old Time songs and their companion tunes have become our bluegrass, frontier, and country western music, and eventually led to the popular singer-songwriter folk revival blossoming that began in the 1960s and continues in a cascade of output today. 

We built this program around the narrative of Barbara Allen, telling the story in prose and verse, through five melodic variants from the Child Ballads collection (published 1860, London); one English, two Scottish, and two American. The program is fleshed out with songs and tunes from the old-world Celtic, but mostly new-world Appalachian repertoire that bring the story to a life representative of the rich legacy from which it comes. We also include Playford tunes, and two arias from Henry Purcell’s operas – a nod to the somewhat thinner line that existed between “folk” and “art” music up through the Baroque era. The Playford tunes that come down to us through John Playford’s collection, The Dancing Master are old English country dance tunes that were transcribed for broad dissemination and eventually imported to the American colonies, intermingling on both sides of the Atlantic with the rawer forms of folk music to form the continuing stream of this ancient tradition. 

Fiona Gillespie and Paul Holmes Morton

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