A night of Affrilachian storytelling is planned at Shepherd
Frank X Walker, the 2013 Shepherd University Appalachian Writer in Residence, will return Tuesday, Sept. 23 to Shepherd for the upcoming 19th Annual Appalachian Heritage Festival for the celebration of an anthology based on his work.
“Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Frank X Walker Volume VI” was released earlier this year. Walker served as editorial advisor for the book, which features a short story he wrote called “Grown Folks,” and includes work by the winners of the 2013 West Virginia Fiction Competition, who were selected by Walker: Paul Kessler, Zach Davis, Jessica Salfia, and Melissa Howley.
Walker will join writers Shauna Morgan Kirlew, Randall Horton, and African American storyteller Omope Carter Daboiku in reading from the Anthology for the sixth annual Celebration of Appalachian Storytellers Program Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m., at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.
“It’s an important compilation of generally missing voices and what readers have come to expect from the very excellent series,” Walker said. “I am excited to return to read with my co-contributors.”
The anthology also brings to print heritage writer Elizabeth Keckley, ex-slave and Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, in what Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt, professor of English and coordinator for Shepherd’s Appalachian Studies Program, calls one of the most fascinating slave narratives of the 19th century. And the book features work by West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman, along with poems, essays and short stories by other Appalachian writers, as well as the work of several photographers.
“Editors David O. Hoffman, Natalie Sypolt, and Charlotte Henning have put together an extraordinary book, which features photographic the art as well as poetry, fiction, essays, and memoirs,” Shurbutt said.
Falling in love with Appalachian singing
Joining the writers will be shape-note singer, local poet, and Shepherd University registrar, Tracy Seffers, who will close the program with her “Lessons in Ballad-Singing,” which was inspired by Seffers’ growing love of traditional Appalachian singing.
Seffers is a native of Texas, and a so-called Army brat who’s lived in Arkansas, California, Virginia, and Germany. She’s worked as Shepherd’s registrar since 2003. A member of Masterworks Chorale and trained in formal choral singing, Seffers discovered shape-note singing after seeing the 2003 movie “Cold Mountain.” Shape notes originated in the early 1800s in churches. The heads of notes on printed music were given shapes, like triangles or squares, to make it easier for members of congregations to read the music and learn the hymns.
But Seffers didn’t really fall in love with the genre until she took a class on Appalachian music at Shepherd conducted by Rachael Meads and Adam Booth that was transformative and encouraged her to adjust her attitude about this very traditional form of music.
“I was really challenged by the realization that my approach to that music had been from a position of bias and prejudice,” Seffers said. “That my perception of the singing in particular was that the melodies are lovely, the harmonies are rich, and the lyrics are poetry if they would only just sing it right.”
Seffers said her training in formal singing colored her expectations of what the songs should sound like.
“Appalachian music comes out of its own tradition, and I realized it deserves to be approached on its own terms and understood that way and appreciated and preserved in that manner,” she said.
After taking the class, Seffers became an Appalachian music convert, and out of that experience came the poem in the Anthology, “Lessons in Ballad Singing.”
During her performance Seffers will use both her singing and writing talents to weave together stanzas of her poem with stanzas of the Appalachian ballad “West Virginia Mining Disaster” by Kentucky singer songwriter Jean Ritchie. She’s performed the two together several times now.
“With the combination of the poem and the ballad, I’m starting to hear for myself this internal conversation between the poem and the ballad,” Seffers said. “The stanzas of the poem really set up the next verse of the ballad. And that was purely unintentional, it was just serendipity. The more I sing it and say the poem together the more I fall in love with it so I hope that it will illuminate something for those who hear it, and give an understanding of that musical tradition.”
Seffers hopes those who hear the performance will do as she did and let go of their prejudices and preconceptions about Appalachian ballad singing and honor it.
“It’s a love song to the music itself,” she said.
Reception and quilt display
At 8 p.m., following the reading, a reception will take place in the Scarborough Library Reading Room. Through October 17 the library is displaying photographs from the Anthology, along with Phyllis Nichols Rowe’s Ballad Quilt, a gift to the Scarborough Library and Shepherd’s Appalachian Studies Program.
The reading and reception are sponsored by the Shepherd University Appalachian Studies Program, the Shepherd University Foundation, and the West Virginia Center for the Book.
This year Homer Hickam, author of “Rocket Boys,” is the 2014 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence and winner of the Appalachian Heritage Writers Award, a program funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council.
For information about the book, see the residency website at www.shepherd.edu/ahwirweb/. The public can purchase copies of the book at Tamarack, Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, or Shepherd University Bookstore:www.shepherdbook.com/. Click on Trade Books to order your copy.