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Sweet Tea, Red Wine, Skunks And Crankies: Storytelling Across Appalachia

Pike Piddlers.jpg
Courtesy Joan Ellen/Michael Reno Harrell
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Michael Reno Harrell performs at the Pike Piddlers Storytelling Festival in 2011.

This week on Inside Appalachia, we’re dedicating our show to the art of live storytelling. We’ll learn how musicians Anna and Elizabeth first met and how they incorporated the use of “crankies” into their songs. We’ll also travel to the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee where storyteller Michael Reno Harrell shared a story about his mother’s extended family.

What is a Crankie?

When traditional Appalachian musician Anna Roberts-Gevalt first showed ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle a crankie, Elizabeth was speechless.

“I really freaked out,” LaPrelle told WUNC’s Laura Candler in 2013.

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Courtesy Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle
Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle combined their talents to form Anna and Elizabeth. While the duo no longer performs together, they often used crankies to enhance the storytelling in their performances.

Crankies, which originated in Europe, have been used for years to enhance the art of live storytelling. A crankie consists of long rolls of fabric that are rolled up on either side, decorated with scenes and images that tell a story. The operator of the crankie then turns the crank as they sing or tell their story. Think of it as a small, tiny theater.

A "Crankie" version of Lord Bateman sung by Elizabeth Laprelle

Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle met during a show in Virginia and combined their talents to form Anna and Elizabeth. The duo decided to incorporate crankies in their performances to help bring them to life. And though they are no longer performing together, their three albums and countless performances left a lasting imprint on the Appalachian music scene.

In this week’s episode, we listen back to a 2013 interview where Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle describe how they met and their inspiration behind incorporating crankies into their performances.

 

Triangle of Skunks

Bil Lepp has made a name for himself as one of the region’s most famous storytellers. Lepp is a five-time champion of the West Virginia Liars Contest. He has also been described as “a side-splittingly funny man” by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife.

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Courtesy Bil Lepp
Bil Lepp has made a name for himself as an elaborate storyteller. Lepp has even won the West Virginia Liars Contest five times.
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Courtesy Joan Ellen/Michael Reno Harrell
Michael Reno Harrell performed his story "Sweet Tea and Red Wine" in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

One example is a hilarious story Lepp tells about summer camp and a family of skunks. He performed the story “Skunks” during a Mountain Stage performance at the West Virginia Culture Center. Listen to this week’s Inside Appalachia to hear it.

Sweet Tea and Red Wine

Michael Reno Harrell is a storyteller from Burke County, North Carolina. His mother’s family, including his aunt Eloise, spent most of their life in Buncombe County, just outside Asheville. Harrell, like so many others, hasn’t had the chance to see anyone in his extended family during the past year. So, when we asked Harrell which story of his he’d like to share, he chose one called “Sweet Tea and Red Wine,” about his mom, and her sister-in-law, his aunt Eloise. We’ll listen to a performance of the story from the 2017 International Storytelling Center.

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Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Tyler Childers, as heard on Mountain Stage, Dinosaur Burps, Michael Reno Harrell and Anna and Elizabeth.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jade Artherhults is the associate producer for Inside Appalachia and is based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jartherhults@wvpublic.org or @JArtherhults on Twitter.