A time to sing

John Gernandt has been collecting old songs for 23 years. Not records, but songs. Now he’s found another way to keep that oral tradition alive: with his “floating” vocal group, Chanters All.

“To me, traditional means ‘does not have an author.’ We do a lot of traditional ballads and folk singing, and different voice harmonies,” says Gernandt. “We sing songs from the British Isles, America, all over. Drinking songs and Appalachian and early European [songs].”

Gernandt helped start the group two years ago; it meets once a month and features anywhere from 10 to 30 vocalists. “We’ve been trying to get different singers together for a number of years — we like to leave the repertoire open,” he notes, adding, “It’s mostly traditional, but we leave it open to what’s close to people’s hearts.”

The singer grew up in Yancey County and vividly recalls the community gatherings that took place there, which resonated with the singing of Appalachian spiritual music. By becoming a ballad singer and seeker himself, he figures he’s been trying to duplicate that feeling ever since.

“A ballad is a narrative story form: It tends to average 10 to 20 verses, it’s interesting topically, and may contain bits of history,” Gernandt explains. “Some of the songs come from the mountain tradition. It’s a wide variety of material, and actually, a fair amount of what we’re going to be doing for our next show is Appalachian — but there is some British Isles and other stuff that we’re working on. On the flyer at Karmasonics, we described it as ‘traditional ballads, spiritual and seasonal songs’ … not Christmas carols, but spiritual songs for the season. A lot of these, I had never heard before.”

Singer Vicki Baker attended Berea College in Kentucky. She heard singer Jean Richie at the Mountain Music Festival there and organized gatherings of friends on campus to sing. Baker, who worked as an archivist at Berea’s Appalachian Music Center, has been a key contributor of mountain songs to Chanters All: “I’ve been thrilled that the focus of this singing circle has been old ballads and traditional songs,” she says. “This group has inspired me to remember songs and look up words. It’s important to keep [the music] alive and share it. This is the way that stories used to be told, from town to town.”

Richard Brown, co-owner of Karmasonics in Asheville, notes that Gernandt has played in his store’s music series at least half-a-dozen times, and offers this perspective: “He brings [in] the tradition of British Isle singing, Scottish and Irish ballad singing, which came to America and settled in the Southland, and shows how it’s been affected by the mountain peoples, the evolution of [that] music into … old-time music, which led to bluegrass. And, then, [the ballads] led to Celtic music as we know it [today].

“People identify old-time music and ballad singing with this region, anywhere from Kentucky to Tennessee to North Carolina. But John takes it back further, and brings forth the historical significance of where it really came from,” Brown continues. “He does political songs, he does some songs that are gruesome yet funny, about drinking and women and murder. And he has a singer, Aaron, who does wailing type of ballads from the Boston area, seafaring New England/British ballads.”

Many of the songs in Chanters All’s repertoire are not documented in written musical notation. “We try to focus more on the oral tradition, songs that have been passed down and collected over the years from different sources,” reveals Gernandt.

“It’s a dying art,” Brown injects. “That’s why I think the people he incorporates, or [that] he’s met through the years, are important people, even though they’re unknowns. Basically, he brings people together who have learned something from the region and who have something to say.”

Chanters All’s eight voices include soprano Linda Pritchard, harmony specialist Margaret Kosco, traditional singers Sharon Ray, Stephanie Wilds and Robin Alexander, and Massachusetts native Aaron Thompson, whom Gernandt credits with bringing in a wonderful batch of New England sea chanteys.

Gernandt is something of a fixture on the downtown scene, cutting across the square with his long beard and cape blowing in the breeze, often carrying one of the wooden or bamboo flutes that he designs and builds.

“He’s a great line drawer, sketcher and instrument maker. He’s a mountain man in the truest sense,” says Brown. “He’s known as Flute John, Just John, and a few other names, all of them good. … We always have a great turnout [when he performs]. He puts on a good show, and he’s not a poser — he’s the real thing.”

“People seem real interested in traditional music,” Gernandt observes. “All the traditional-music projects I’ve been involved with get a lot of interest.” The singer pauses to elucidate the singular mission of Chanters All: “We’re pretty much the only group doing what we’re doing — just the variety of material that we’re covering. Some of it goes back to the Middle Ages, some of it is more current, like from the last 200 years or so.

“Our big thing is about audience participation, just getting people to sing together,” he concludes. And Vicki Baker adds, “We really do this because inside each of us is a passion for it. Somewhere along the way, we each heard it and got hooked.”

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