John Gernandt sings songs resurrected from the Middle Ages. But to hear him tell it, the demise of these ancient Celtic ballads (as well as the early Appalachian songs they bred) is a thoroughly modern phenomenon.
“It’s something that was lost in our lifetime,” the Burnsville native declares with some bitterness. “I blame it on the satellite dish and cable TV.”
With fellow traditionalists Quinto Espina, Clark Chapin and Aaron Thompson, the singer will present a live show featuring ballads from each bard’s collection. A longtime host of private song circles in the Asheville area, Gernandt now looks forward to unveiling the brimming pathos of this music in a public setting.
Gernandt’s extensive knowledge of ancient songs — the fruits of 20 years of gathering old verse — stems from diverse sources. “I’ve been able to access different people’s libraries. There’s a local woman, Betty Smith, a native of Madison County, and I got hold of some of her songs,” he says. Drawn to both religious and secular works, Gernandt has collected many obscure texts; some of his songs, he reveals, come from a time when certain instruments (like the violin) were actually outlawed.
“They’re community tales; tales about people, townships, travel, exile, emigration, regional habits and peculiarities,” he notes quietly, adding, “A lot of troubles people talk about today are not new troubles, and we should be aware of that aspect.”
“History and Oppression” is Gernandt’s chosen theme for the upcoming show. You don’t need to be an expert on old social structures to appreciate the songs, he assures: “I’ll be talking about their historical and political contexts.”
Don’t let that scare you, though. Quinto Espina recalls the enchanted audience at the singers’ last formal performance. “I was really surprised to see a lot of people I didn’t know at that show,” he confides. “And everyone’s attention was definitely caught. … They were riveted.” Gesturing to the Sunday-night crowd at Jack of the Wood, where he regularly performs, Espina continues, “Even in a bar, people will go suddenly quiet when one of these songs is sung. They have a haunting quality, and there’s something about them that makes people shut up and listen.”
In blustery contrast to his easygoing songmates, Aaron Thompson exhibits the stormy swagger of a Yankee sea captain. A native of Gloucester, Mass., the recent transplant grew up hearing his father lift his voice in “chanteys” (rhythmic sailors’ chants), and the songs of the sea still churn heavily in his blood.
“Many of the songs I sing are work songs — songs that were meant to keep time on a sailing ship,” he explains. The singular tragedy of the sailor is poorly understood, Thompson feels: “He comes to shore for his pay, but when he finally gets it, his debts overwhelm him, and he has to go back out to sea again.”
Whaling songs are also part of Thompson’s repertoire — but, for him, these are not the gluttonous boasts of the mighty hunter. Instead, he chooses the dirges the mammals might sing themselves, if they could. “[Whaling] is not a happy thing,” he notes ruefully.
Clark Chapin — whom Gernandt credits with “a unique singing approach to ballads and the most extensive collection I’ve ever come across” — draws on ancient and modern folk songs alike, favoring political and traveling music.
“A few songs that I sing are more oppressive in themselves than [they are] about oppression,” he muses, reciting an acerbic Irish nursery rhyme as an example.
Chapin doesn’t view himself as the kind of performer who meticulously perfects a group of songs for public consumption. He seems to breathe ballads. “I just like to sing,” he declares simply. “I sing when I’m whacking weeds. I sing when I’m driving — angry songs. I [like to] approach a show with an attitude free of expectations.”
As a youth, Chapin says that he was obsessed with death and dying. “I [liked] songs about crows picking out people’s eyeballs,” he confesses with a smile. Centering a show around a theme like oppression is more natural and digestible than it might sound, he points out.
“Everyone knows what joy and suffering are, but suffering is remembered so much more than joy,” Chapin says. “Happy songs are short-lived. … People remember the hard times. … People remember Billie Holiday, but not Donny Osmond,” he asserts, adding quickly, “Or maybe they do remember [Osmond's] songs. But they don’t want to repeat them.”