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Wheel keeps on turning

October 04, 2005|By FEDORA COPLEY

The traditional music of Appalachia is like a wheel, according to singer and guitarist John Lilly. When older musicians teach traditional songs to young people, Lilly says, the tradition replenishes itself and keeps rolling forward.

For Elizabeth LaPrelle, this is just the case. The 17-year-old Virginia resident sings old-time Appalachian ballads. She performed over the weekend at the Appalachian Heritage Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Lilly emceed the Friday evening concert and introduced Elizabeth as one of those musicians replenishing the Appalachian tradition.

Elizabeth sings in her melancholy, high voice decorated with old-timey vocal flips of tragedy, love found and love lost, and the challenge of surviving in the mountains.

She says she became entranced with Appalachian music from a very early age.

"My parents had a lot of tapes and CDs, and I liked them," she says.

The first time she performed for an audience was at the age of 11 at a fiddlers convention - a competition of old-time musicians - in Mount Airy, N.C. Since then, Elizabeth has performed in many fiddlers conventions and American roots music festivals. She performed on "Prairie Home Companion" over the summer.

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When performing in front of people, Elizabeth says she can be nervous, but not always.

"Sometimes I get really nervous, but I'm always able to do it, even when I start hacking or coughing in the middle of a song," she says.

Elizabeth's CD, "Rain and Snow," is a collection of traditional songs and ballads from Appalacia. Many of the songs have heavy, sometimes tragic, themes. Love is popular, as well as injustice and death. Some of her songs she performs with instrumental accompaniment. Some she performs a cappella and alone.

Elizabeth says she is drawn to sad songs and the timeless things in life.

"I don't even like sad books or movies, but these songs -" she gives a sigh and clutches her heart in mock despair.

She is attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va. between singing events and college, Elizabeth is very busy. Mainly, she is studying performing arts.

"I've always loved to perform" says Elizabeth. "But I realise that isn't the steadiest career."

Elizabeth still loves performing at folk festivals.

"It definitely beats having a part-time job at McDonalds," she says.

Family plays a big role in the lives of young performers, whether positive or negative. For Elizabeth, it's positive. Her parents, with their love of Appalachian music, are supportive. They drove her to Shepherdstown and her mother, Sandy LaPrelle, sings duets with Elizabeth as part of her concerts.

"They've been insanely helpful," says Elizabeth.

Elizabeth says most of her friends aren't interested in Appalachian music, but they have said positive things.

"My friends say 'It's great, I love it!,' but I can never be sure if they're telling the truth," she says.

Even though these songs are old, they still relate to us in these busy times, Elizabeth says. Tragedy, injustice and heartbreak are as fresh as this week's headlines. Even in our modern time, these old songs about hard times and the people who deal with them can help us cope.

With Elizabeth's help, the wheel keeps rolling on.

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