Review: Beyond the Grave, Ghost Stories & Ballads from the Mountains

Posted by | January 11, 2010

“Beyond The Grave: Ghost Stories and Ballads from the Mountains”
Susanna “Granny Sue” Holstein
Audio CD

Appalachian storytelling isn’t a theatrical performance with sets and costumes and lighting and accents, though a good storyteller can conjure all those things in the mind of the listener. And it’s not a recitation of history, with famous battles, treaties, statecraft and dates, though it can draw from any or all those historical aspects as needed.

Rather, the best of Appalachian storytelling weaves an emotional human narrative that, while local in details, makes the listener realize just how universal the characters and situations described really are.

Susanna “Granny Sue” Holstein of Sandyville, WV places herself firmly in this living tradition with her new collection of ghost stories and ballads, “Beyond the Grave.”

One happy coincidence of CD packaging today is that a collection of stories runs for just about the length of time you might envision a group of family & friends gathering together on the porch or in the parlor after a meal to share a round of tale swapping. Holstein takes advantage of this time frame parallel by arranging her material in an order that suggests the unfolding of an evening together, rather than just a clump of recordings thrown together in a list. For example, she builds from one of the earliest known ghost stories in WV to a finish with “The Greenbrier Ghost,” the most famous of the lot.

She intersperses her stories with three a cappella tunes, two of which, “Pretty Polly” and “Railroad Boy” will be recognized immediately by many listeners, classics that they are. She maintains the feeling that she’s sitting on the rocking chair next to you RELATING these songs rather than PERFORMING them by wisely foregoing overproduced instrumental backup. She does use a touch of echo reverb combined with forest birdcalls, which adds a sense of longing and wistfulness to the tunes. Her singing voice is a crystal clear soprano and more than holds its own without any backup.

On the third tune Holstein shows us an important lesson in why traditional Appalachian storytelling remains so vital. It’s all too easy to assume that a storyteller neutrally transmits an existing body of tales to the next generation, but in fact the best storytellers invariably add their own material and personalities into the mix. Holstein, in “The Cruel Blacksmith” recording, has set her own lyrics for the story of Zona Shue, the Greenbrier Ghost, to the well known tune of ‘Barbara Ellen.’

Furthermore, she’s taken a historical account from a 1906 book “Jackson County: A History of Mill Creek and Sandy Valley,” and developed her own saga out of that. Holstein does manage to keep a delicate balance between her new material and the standards, so purists won’t feel abandoned here!

Good storytelling should raise the question: “How’s this connect to my world?” Holstein answers in several ways: after telling “Wizard Clipp” she invites her listeners to take a drive over to Middleway, WV where they’ll find a plot of land called “Priest Field” whose name came directly from this tale. Likewise she tells us about a plaque near Glenville, WV about the old “Village of Burnt House” that verifies the fire account she’s just laid out for us. And she graciously credits a young listener from Diana, WV who first shared the “Holly River Ghost” story with her before telling it herself. “My young informant,” she says in her liner notes, “told the story in a matter of fact manner that lent credibility to the tale.” So this set of recordings conveys a real feel of give and take between Holstein and her audience.

Lots of real dates, places and people are mentioned throughout each of these delightful narratives. But are the stories themselves true? “I can only answer that if you believe, then it is true for you,” winks Susanna “Granny Sue” Holstein.

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