Fiddle America: Brooklynite brings mountain music to Folk Festival

Heritage music: Anna Rg spent years researching Appalachian and New England folk music and will combine the old tunes with her own modern adaptation at this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights on Apr. 6.
Brian Geltner

She’s an Appalachian trailblazer!

A Crown Heights folk musician will bring songs from her years of Appalachian field research to the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival, happening at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights from April 5–7. The fiddler, banjo player, and ethnomusicologist Anna Roberts-Gevalt, who goes by Anna Rg onstage, will perform a blend of traditional and avant-garde tunes from coal country on the final day of this year’s festival, which is sponsored by the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.

Roberts-Gevalt says that spending four years immersed in the mountain culture helped her break out of the navel-gazing urban arts scene, and connected her to a longer lineage.

“In New York it’s very easy to get caught up in yourself and your art,” Roberts-Gevalt said. “It was a good reminder that there’s these threads of life that have been going on for so long and will continue after our deaths.”

Roberts-Gevalt drove down to Kentucky in her station wagon in 2009, fiddle and banjo in tow, and learned from Appalachians young and old, including the late fiddler Paul David Smith, who spent his time passing the mountain region’s lore on to the next generation, while encouraging them to add their own twists to the songs, she said.

“He was excited that the music was changing,” she said. “The week before he died he was asked ‘Why do you like playing music with young people?’ and he said, ‘Oh the young people are choosing notes that I had never thought to choose.’ ”

The researcher also dug up some obscure local artifacts, including the “crankie,” a scroll that unwinds to tell a visual story, which she has incorporated into performances with her band Anna and Elizabeth, though she will not break it out for her solo show on April 7.

During her time in the bluegrass state, Roberts-Gevalt saw how young songsters connected with their heritage, which inspired her to research her own New England ancestry at a Vermont archive of more than 4,000 song recordings. After moving to Crown Heights three years ago, she also took inspiration from the city’s experimental and improvisational music scene, adding a personal flavor to her traditional catalog.

“I want to present the traditional songs and then my response through the arrangements and improvisations I make,” she said.

During her show, she plans to sing and play traditional songs from Appalachia, along with New England ballads and her own original material — but rather than keep them separate, she hopes the forms will combine into a mix that stays true to herself.

“The long term goal for my music is to let it synthesize, I’m trying to let them all marinate together,” she said. “Not a new genre, but finding combinations that are very personal to me.”

Anna Rg plays the Brooklyn Folk Festival at St. Ann’s Church [157 Montague St. between Henry and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 395–3214, www.brooklynfolkfest.com]. April 7 at 8 pm. $25 Sunday night pass; $40 all day, $80 three-day festival pass. Festival lasts from April 5 at 7:30 pm to April 7 at 10 pm.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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