Appalachian Ballad Singer Says Some Songs Are Just Too Painful To Sing
Some Appalachian ballads tell stories of gruesome murders of women at the hands of men. Others flip the script and allow women to emerge victorious, by playing tricks on captors or by fighting back.
Suzannah Park is a ballad singer and teacher who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She grew up singing all kinds of folk songs, but there are some ballads she just can’t bring herself to sing. Inside Appalachia guest host Saro Lynch-Thomason recently spoke with Park about her relationship to ballads about women and violence.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Park: My grandparents got dubbed “the mom and pop of the Chicago folk music scene.” And they would host these really large music parties at their house as well. So different traveling musicians would come through and they would stay at my grandparents’. There would be a music party at my grandparents with that traveling musician, as well as loads of different local musicians. So it was really kind of a hub-home, where the performing, the sharing, the exchanging, the stories, the meals, were sort of all built in together.
And then my grandparents also did multiple trips coming down here to the south to collect songs—part of their way of keeping songs alive, collecting them, sharing them. So yeah, my mom and my aunt grew up in that. And then it continued when I was little. There were still people that would come through, and we would still have these music parties and do house concerts. And there were just a whole bunch of people that came through, which I didn’t realize were—you know, when you’re growing up, you’re just with the people you’re with and you love them. But I didn’t know that Jean Ritchie was special in, like, the history. I just knew that she and my grandma looked really good sitting together singing, you know? She was just like another sweet grandma. And I liked when they sang together because they had a lot of fun. They looked like they were happy together. And so I was just, like, “Oh, Jean’s here, yay!”
And similarly, so, other styles of music—Sparky Rucker was a really big musical influence. He and my parents and Guy and Candie Carawan did a tour together before I was born, here in the south. And so when I was growing up, Sparky, whenever he would come through Chicago, or when we were down here, going through Knoxville, we would always stay with them, or he would come and stay with us. So that was a different style of music that my family did, but I got to hear his stories all about slavery and about oppression from a Black blues-gospel singer-historian, and he was always one of my favorites when I was little. And I can recognize now, like, wow, I had this rich, wide, diverse collection of extended people. But also, I just thought that was normal.
Lynch-Thomason: From the outside, at least, that sounds like so much fun. [laughs] You know, I grew up outside of those traditions. And when I moved to western North Carolina, I was so pleased and honored by how easy it was to get to know a lot of traditional singers in the area and become a part of those communities. And nowadays, I think folk song communities are this big mix of people who both grew up in the traditions, like you, and then folks who are coming to it and are figuring it all out. And we’re all making this music together because it’s emotional, and it feels good, and it does so much for us as a community and as individuals.
And something I wanted us to talk about was, as women singing the songs, a lot of times these songs can be about women, and in really hard circumstances or women getting murdered. This can be really intense topic matter. And other times it can be really celebratory, stuff where women are really celebrating themselves, right? And so I’m curious, for you, as a woman singing the songs, are there ways that your experiences as a woman have shaped the repertoire that you’re attracted to or the songs you don’t want to sing?
Park: Great question. And a really important topic as well, just in all the ways that these songs as folk songs, I think, are an extension of the voice of the folk for so many generations. And so, yes, I think about this a lot in what I perform as well as what I teach. I would say that as a little person, I wanted to feel more heroic. I wanted to feel like I was represented in a better way in the stories and songs that I was growing up around. And my mom and my aunt had done some investigation to find songs that were, you know—the females came out victorious in some way.
My sister and I took it on as a project to collect more of those kinds of songs, because I think as kids growing up in the ’80s—so I was born in 82—there was just a lot of wanting to feel represented. There’s a handful of ballads that my family would sing that I have never committed to memory because they hurt too much to sing. But I know them but I still won’t sing them. I think as a singer, as a song carrier, you have to be able to also let the song through you, and some songs I think actually hurt a little too much to sing depending on your own personal experience.
Other songs I find really powerful that it’s like I can play a part in letting there be an opportunity for that voice to still come through me because there’s a way that it’s a relevant song still, that feels like I can hold that space and I can hold that space well. Songs give us an opportunity to tap into an emotion that we might not otherwise feel like there’s space for in our day. It’s like three to six minutes of giving your body an opportunity as the singer and also as the listener to let the story sort of wash through you.
And then my hope is that it can spark—maybe it sparks a discomfort, but I think any time there’s something hard, that also can mean that there’s an opportunity for it to have a release. And songs are just moving. And so it’s paying homage to history, to your own body, to people that might need to hear that this is a relevant issue. It’s been a valuable, cool thing that women can have victorious songs. Or, it is valid and recognizable that we still are murdering and making women go missing as a regular piece of today as well. So yeah, it’s a juicy, juicy, heartbreaking, beautiful, expansive—you know, half the planet is women, so these are songs that should be sung, and should be celebrated, and should be talked about.
Lynch-Thomason: I’m wondering if you could describe a song that you’re like, “Yeah, I’m not gonna sing that one. But here’s another hard one that does mean something to me.” Just to give examples for folks who aren’t as familiar with these genres.
Park: Well, the first song that came to mind is “The Two Sisters.” So I’m the younger of two sisters. My mom is the younger of two sisters. We were raised incredibly close, both of these pairs of siblings, singing and doing stuff together, performing together. And so “The Two Sisters” is this ballad that talks about these two sisters that are really close, and ageism, and the impact of that around if the younger person gets married first. And this is supposedly, historically, back in the day. And the older sister ends up murdering her younger sister because it would disrupt her opportunity for having a cared-for, abundant life, if she’s kind of made a spinster by having her younger sister get married first.
So it’s classism, and it’s sexism, and it’s ageism, all kind of rolled together. And then it’s siblings. And I think singing and being so close with my sibling, with my sister, there was a way that we could resonate and understand that the song sounds so brutal, and you’d think, like, “That sister’s so cold.” But from growing up and hearing so much about the history and the context of oppression in folk music in communities, for us, it was just like having to choose who’s going to survive. I’m thinking about the movie Sophie’s Choice, you know, pick a child, and it’s just sort of like, this is in that same place.
We just performed it once. And we both cried the entire time just standing on stage. And we’re like, “Yeah, we thought maybe we could pull this off.” And it was like, “Absolutely not. There is no way.” And we did fine until, I think, she pushes her into the water. And we both just lost it. It was like, “Oh, God, yeah, this just…”. There’s the empathy piece of being a sibling. Anyway, so that song I’ve never performed since then. I think I was 16. [laughs] And I can hear other people sing it. But I actively know—I kind of tune out a little. I still have a hard time being like—but I love talking about it. But actually trying to sing it and let those notes kind of come through me. I’m like, “Whew.” I skip it if it’s on anyone else’s record. I’m like, “Oh god, yeah, I can’t do that one still.”
So that’s one I’m not singing. One that I’m loving singing—loving is a weird word. One that I really enjoy teaching about and singing is “Orphan Girl.” So this is a young girl who is orphaned. And then it’s classism. She goes to a rich man’s house looking for some food, and the rich man won’t give her food and she freezes and dies out on the steps. It’s significant to me that it’s a little girl asking, but the entire picture is also sort of showing all these different pieces of oppression. At the same time.
Lynch-Thomason: I’m wondering if you could give an example of a song that does kind of flip that script. You know, the songs that your aunt and mother were looking for, that you were looking for, that I also look for, about women kindof getting their way, or something coming out kind of unexpectedly in the woman’s favor.
Park: Yeah, there’s one song that’s coming to mind. It’s called “The Maid on the Shore.” It’s a song about a sea captain who sees a woman on the shore and bribes his men to go and seduce her and get her onto the ship, and then they can all have their way with her and he’ll reward them all for bringing this woman onto the ship. And they go and they get her, and they bring her. And she has this spectacular verse of thanking them all for letting her get here, that she’s just been so tired of being a maiden.
Oh, thank you, oh thank you, this young girl did cry.
That’s just what I’ve been waiting for, oh,
I’ve grown so weary of my maiden head,
as I walked all alone on my rocky ol’ shore
as I walked all alone on the shore.
And then she sat herself down in the stern of the ship,
and the moon, it shown gentle and clear, oh,
and she sang so sweet and so neat and complete,
she sang sailors and captain right fast asleep.
She sang sailors and captain asleep.
And then she robbed them of silver and robbed them of gold.
She plundered their costly fine ware, oh.
And that captain’s broadsword, she’s took for an oar,
and paddled her away right back to the shore.
She’s paddled right back to the shore.
Oh, were my men crazy, or were they all drunk?
Or were they sunk deep in despair, oh?
To see her get away with her beauty so gay,
how those sailors all wished that that sweet maid was there,
how the sailors all wished she was there.
But there she stands all alone on the strand, oh,
waving her handkerchief fair, oh,
Say you are the captain that sails the salt seas,
and I’m still a maid on my rocky old shore.
I’m a maiden once more on the shore.
So yeah, that’s one of the songs that, I think, particularly being someone who has—I’ve had multiple assaults in my life. And I think that there’s something that feels helpful in singing something that goes so well, in getting out of that situation, that feels fantastical, but also that that’s part of a song, I think, for myself, that feels really healing. To be like, it definitely wasn’t fantastical for me to try to get out of these situations I was in, and so there’s an opportunity to sort of have that hope. Some part of me wanted that sort of outcome and it didn’t happen that way. But I can still sing about it. And that brings part of the healing.
We’ve come such a long way around sexism. And whenever someone offers another one of these songs, it’s like an emotionally—it’s not about the men losing. It’s just about the idea that this woman’s going to be victorious. So it’s never, to me, it’s not like “Who did she cunningly trick?” I’m just like, “She made it,” like, that’s the thing. I’m so relieved. I’m just like, “I’m so glad that got celebrated.” [laughs] The trickery part is not the most important to me in the song. It brings me a smile, but it’s really the survival that is the focus for me.
Lynch-Thomason: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Suzannah. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
Park: It’s a pleasure. I could hang out with you all day.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.