Suzannah Park comes from a family of three generations of traditional singers, storytellers, and dancers. She has been touring and teaching for the past 20+ years, both in the US and abroad. A native of Asheville, NC, she is delighted to call the Appalachian mountains her home, where she sings, teaches, and works for social and environmental justice. Don't miss this new #RevelsConnects: Musical Connections journey as Suzannah discusses folk music traditions and her family background in musical storytelling. Hosted by Maggie Holtzberg, Folk Arts & Heritage Program Manager at the Mass Cultural Council.
Each #RevelsConnects: Musical Connections podcast is a follow-up to a 45-minute salon-style performance with the featured musician, premiering on Facebook Live and available on the Revels YouTube channel. Visit Revels Inc. on YouTube to learn more!
The #RevelsConnects Musical Connections series is sponsored in part by a grant from The Ithaka Foundation and produced in collaboration with the Mass Cultural Council. Audio engineered by Dave Jamrog Audio/Video.
Maggie: Singer Suzannah Park was raised in a family of traditional singers, storytellers, and dancers. A native of Asheville, North Carolina, Suzannah has performed and toured throughout the US and abroad for over twenty years, sharing Appalachian folk songs, children’s ballads, spirituals, gospel, and blues with genuine love and delight. She's also a gifted teacher, coaching students in vocal harmonizing, proper breathing technique, and how to speak and sing with confidence. Suzannah Park, welcome to Musical Connections.
Suzannah: Thank you so much.
Maggie: I wanted to start out with the fact that traditional singers and musicians go back three generations in your family. Tell us something about the cultural heritage of your family on both sides.
Suzannah: I would say I come from a family of mutts. It's a combination of all the different British Isles' flavors. And some of my family has been in the US for a really long time. Some of my family were newer arrivals as well. Predominantly the musical world I grew up in is Irish, English, some Scottish - both my grandfather and my mother played the Highland bagpipes. My grandfather has passed on, but there was that kind of musical line. It's a mixture. I get a little bit of a lot of that sort of British Isles flavor on both sides of my family. It's from my mother's side that there are multiple generations of performers and songbirds. My father was raised in Tennessee, but he's the musical bone in that line of the family.
Maggie: Okay. And that region, that area, has a lot of Scots Irish heritage, right? With very rich song traditions.
Suzannah: Right, yeah.
Maggie: Can you describe some of the places where you experienced music taking place in the course of everyday life when you were younger?
Suzannah: Well, I thought everyone did that. I didn't know that that was a special thing. But yeah, there was music - we had musical traditions around waking up, around meals, around driving to school, or just driving. We had musical harmonizing, like road games that we would play. And then all the seasons had songs that went with them. Births and deaths. Celebrations. There was my grandmother who really didn't like Happy Birthday, the normal one. And so we were all charged with always having new birthday songs. So there was a tradition of multiple, varied birthday songs. So yeah, I would say it was kind of any flavor, and then there was also this ongoing musical game, like how often could you burst into song in conversation because of what someone said? So, there was always that as the background as well.
Maggie: Did you go to square dances, or...
Suzannah: Oh yeah. My father is an amazing traditional dance teacher and toured all over the place. I was born at an all-night dance that my family had organized. So I still meet people down here that are like, "I was at the dance you were born at!" My parents, you know, being on stage, the music - if anyone ever tried to take my sister and I out of where the music was as little kids, we would wake up and be like, "Oh no. Where are people?" If they left us on the stage, tucked underneath the piano with all the dancers doing their thing, all the musicians stomping and all the dust, we were like, "Great! Now we can sleep." Same thing if there's bagpipes, I'm like, "Good. Let's go to bed!" And that was the dancing community. We had that both in the south here, all around the south in all the different dance communities, and then up in Chicago as well. When my parents separated, my mom went back home to Chicago, and there's an amazing dance community in that part of the world. And then when I started working and touring a lot with Village Harmony, there’s tons of traditional dance there, lots of English country dancing, lots of traditional Bulgarian, Macedonian line dancing. So there's always this thread of dance as well as music, and it's all the time. It turns out.
Maggie: Yeah. They naturally go together, and you learned in that wonderful way of osmosis where it's just part of your environment. You're fortunate in that way. As opposed to somebody who goes to one of these camps to learn from tradition bearers, but then weren't raised with it. You also mentioned your father taking you to music festivals in the south during the summer. I'm curious about that - can you just tell us about a few of those and what stood out as being really great?
Suzannah: Well, we got to come up to Pinewoods a lot when I was little. I remember it was an early experience of getting to be at a family camp because often my sister and I were the only kids. So that was really significant, to all of a sudden be like, "Whoa, there's other little people that do this." But I think just in general, a lot of my whole upbringing felt like a music festival, you know, it's special. And I say, this is why I teach out at Warren Wilson College down here. We were doing our fall concert here in COVID, our first outdoor concert. And I was like, "I don't know who's going to come. It's cold, it's December." But it doesn't really matter how many people you sing for - the party's already happening. We're singing and whoever comes is perfect. And I think being raised with it, it's not so much about the... the presentation is important, but it's more of the fact that we're just together. So I can picture being with David Coffin, who you all know and love, getting to be with him on the porch at this festival we do up in Maine. Both my parents, even after they were divorced, were there a few summers together. And to me, the concerts were fun, but I always just loved the music parties afterward. Just eating cake during song after song, and there's just a thousand harmony parts, and people are dancing on the porch. And, to me, when it is just sort of how you're doing your day together, that's really my favorite. The festival scene, what I like about it is that you're seeing your surrogate, larger family to have these pockets of special exchanges of songs or songs that you always sing when you see each other. You're like, "Oh, you're who I always sing Bold Riley with." That's going to happen whenever I see Arthur Davis. To me, that's an extension of the festival idea - you're just in it. And I think a piece of it for me is that everyone slows down to do my favorite things. Everyone else is carving out space for what I find is like, why we're alive, but no one else seems to do it as often as I do. So, I'm always like, "Yay! Everyone's at my speed."
Maggie: Yeah. And it's probably to some extent like a family reunion, traveling around at various festivals on an annual basis. I find that, even at the Lowell folk festival, even with the crew, it's the same crew every year and it's really gratifying.
Suzannah: We like tradition, it turns out. Yes, we all do.
Maggie: You mentioned that after your parents divorced that you spent much of your childhood going back and forth between Western North Carolina and Chicago, where your grandparents were very active in the Chicago folk music scene. Talk a little bit about the range of musicians and singers that frequented your home and how this helped shape you as a singer.
Suzannah: Well, I think, getting to grow up hearing the stories about my mom and my aunt - it was getting to grow up as kids in the folk revival chapter. And my grandfather had this radio show, the Wandering Folk Song on WFMT, and so musicians would come, they'd do something on the radio show, and then there'd be a house concert, like a music party, and they would perform around Chicago. And there were certain guests that would come again and again and again. So, growing up just as generations shift, there's sort of all the stories I heard about certain folks that came when my mom and my aunt were little. And they would sometimes come through, but still would stay with my grandparents. Then there was another wave of who would come through. It was kind of a new generation, who would stay with my sister and myself and my mom. And we'd still have the music party at my grandparents. So as a kid, Sparky Rucker was one of my favorites. Dean Stevens, Jean Ritchie would come through and stay with my grandmother. Tony Barrand and John Roberts were beloved visitors and they'd been visiting since my mom was like a preteen or teen or something. So yeah, there's certain people whose visits were regular enough where I started seeing them more in different parts of my world. As I got older too, so sort of with the childhood significance, there was a guy, Floating Eagle Feather. He passed away when I was young, but he was a really significant childhood person. He lived with us for a little while when we were living on the north side of Chicago. And different storytellers would come through, and different dancers, fiddle players would come through. So I got to have this mixture, and it always felt like a special treat when they came. And it also felt like if any family member comes to visit. I remember Dean Stevens, he'd do a concert, I knew tons of his songs, but he also always would... He's really tall his feet are 12 inches, so every time he'd visit, he'd say “Time to measure the girl in Dean feets.” We'd lay on the floor, and he'd walk our height and be like, "Oh yeah, you're getting bigger." You know? So, things like that are - there's both the song exchange tradition, and then there'd be these fun... they were like extended family. Those are a couple of names that come to mind.
Maggie: That's wonderful. I want us to talk about singing style in the folk tradition. Here's a question for you. What is more important, the singer or the song?
Suzannah: The song.
Maggie: Okay. Talk about that a little bit.
Suzannah: Well, I think, the songs that survive, that kind of get carried on, they have resonance. They have a reason why we are going to be pulled to seeing them again and again. And I think the singer plays the role in providing the vehicle to unload the song, so you can fine-tune how much you can fit and the pace at which you're going to unload it. There are all these things that can help people discover why this song is so delicious. I think that you can fall in love with a song, even if you're not resonating with the musician. And particularly in traditional music, the ones that stick I think are because they really speak to the human experience in a really particular way that is a part of how we know how to heal. There's this creation story my grandma told when I was little, about the Creator making all of the world and the water and the plants and the interaction of all these things in mountains and tides. And then he had this great idea. The souls are zooming all over the place, having a blast in this beautiful land. And then the creator makes these bodies and he's like, "Souls, I've got this idea, get into these bodies." And the souls are like, "Man, those are chunky, bumpy, not interesting. They can't fly - we're outta here." and they zip off. And the creator was like, "Wow, that was not what I was planning." And then he has another idea and whispers down to the souls and breathes into the souls, music and poetry and songs and stories, and all the bodies start to dance and tell stories and share poetry. And the souls are like, "Whoa, what are those things doing?" And the Creator's like, "Ah, it's just music and poetry and dance and art," and they're like, "Ooh, can we do that?" He's like, "Oh yeah, sure. You just got to get into those bodies." So, to me, I think that a piece of it is that songs are there and then each soul comes in, sort of helping the song continue. But the song itself can resonate for anybody if they take the time to actually feel it.
Maggie: That's a lovely image. When singing a cappella unaccompanied, what do you strive for in tone and delivery?
Suzannah: What do I strive for? Well, I like the full-bodied singing, like being a whole instrument. I'm striving for full-body resonance. Letting whatever's hard or tricky or sloppy from my day, like sloughing that off and just... or allowing the physical vibration of tone to help slough it off. It's an opportunity to just be resonant. If and when we're able to not hold tension as singers, particularly in the a cappella realm, you know my sound. If I'm by myself, then I'm just getting to try that on my own. If I'm singing with my sister or anyone else, then it's like, I'm trying to find what it is to feel... to be my most resonant self and find your tone, and what's that overlap. And to me, that's just a fun, delicious way to interact with another person or people. We would say, you know, when I sing, I've got my voice. When my sister sings, she has her voice. And when we sang together, we called that our sister voice. And you could sometimes get to the point where you would feel like your mouth was moving and their sound was coming out of your mouth. And in teaching singing, often in harmony singing, there's holding on to your own sound, wanting to be unique. And then there's also being really selfless. Like, how could I let that go so that the song could be more important, and my tone and your tone finds this new, better balance for the song. I think there's a place of being egotistical as a singer where you're like, "Hey, I'm going to take up some space and I'm going to sing. I'm going to sing, and I want you to listen." And there's also a place of being incredibly selfless and being like, "It's about this song and I'm giving it to you. And I'm hoping that this precious cargo that I've been carrying, that I so delight in, and that I want to resonate with, I hope that it can land on you or with you in a way that is now me being generous so that they can be selfless." Like, it's not about me, take this and see what happens. So I think that's the game and the flow that I play in and around as a singer and as a teacher. And I think just really trying to invite it. And also, I remember recently, during COVID, I was a guest teacher at some university college thing. And it was all musicians, professionals, like students. And I was like, "Do you have a way you sing that you think you sound good on?" And everyone's hands went up shyly, but they're like, "Yeah, I'm a music major." And I was like, "So I want you to try to sing, not like that." Like how much have you let yourself play or explore in a way you might feel embarrassed, that you think you might not sound the best, but you might actually enjoy. But there's going to be a learning curve. There's going to be a moment where you're not like, "But this is when I look my best. This is my sexy, I sound good sound." And I'm like, "Right. But as a traditional musician, if you put this funny, polished thing on this traditional song, the song itself doesn't really have the flavor of you. I want the real you without all of the fluff and extra and polish.” Not the raw version where maybe something doesn't come out as planned, but it's more of the sloppiness of what makes you, cause that's sometimes my favorite musical moments.
Maggie: Yeah. You're getting it to the core. I mean, it's like an opera singer singing some Ralph Vaughan Williams, something like that, versus somebody like Sheila Kay Adams singing, or a classical violinist trying to play a fiddle tune.
Suzannah: Wonderful and totally different skills. And I think there's one way of honing specific things that is completely reliable, and I could do this exact thing, and I think I could wake up and... I like to not have in my life in general, I like to try to not have habits. So trying to brush my teeth with a different hand each day, or sleeping on different sides of my bed, or if I have a favorite teacup I actively try to give that to whoever's come over for tea so that I'm not like "This is mine. This is the way." Because I think as a singer too, it's really fun to keep being like what's the most present embodied way to do it right now. And you know, every flavor is great but it's fun as a teacher of traditional music to try to kind of pull it off. I often will tell when I'm teaching like, group harmony, singing stuff, I'm like, "That was a perfect mannequin version. Everything was in the right spot." This idea of like, there's a correct way for your arm to be... all that was good. Now I want the human version where you're all a little bit different and we're still in a group, but I want the heartbeat version that's unique and like, a little bit funky. We sang commercials when I was little in Chicago, my sister and I, and we did a couple where we would like overdub ourselves a lot to be a choir of just two voices. But you would often do a throwaway track that's kind of out of tune. And they're like, "Otherwise it doesn't sound real." Like you do one version recorded that would get mixed into the background. And to me, I think getting to hear that as a little person and also just how much my family was "Singing's for everyone," it's not this elite thing. There was a way that I was like, "Yeah, even every kind of funky, weird off-notes sometimes lead you to your new favorite harmony.”
Maggie: And singing as a participatory sport.
Suzannah: Yeah, it's not hierarchical. It's one of the bummers, I think, of the radio, is that it created the idea that there's professionals and not. There is a certain way that it brought more musical genres and different voices into your home, which I think was amazing, but it also meant that there were other people that were quote "better," that then they were the ones that could sing. And I think as a music teacher, I teach a lot of people... Zoom was actually kind of cool. I had a handful of students that, they never would sing in my choir, but with Zoom I could teach them, and they could stay muted. And I was teaching them by reading their lips and then I'd be like, "Okay, now unmute, let me tell you a couple of things. Take two breaths. Now, mute yourself and sing again. Now sing off camera and see if you are willing to keep yourself un-muted, and now come on camera and sing with your back to me." And they slowly got to where they were able to sing around another person, because the embarrassment can get so high if I don't sing once and it sounds like it sounds on the radio. It's like, clearly, I should find a different passion, you know? And I'm like, "Oof no!"
Maggie: That makes sense. And when you're singing with others, I wanted to ask you how you approach finding harmonies, and if they differ depending on the genre of song.
Suzannah: Oh yeah. They differ on the genre, and they differ on the lead singer's ability. As a harmony singer, you want to be like a delicious glove. You want to aid them. I don't want to be a thorn and be like, "Ha, let me see if I can throw you off." If it's someone like me, like one of my best friends, Emily Miller, a fabulous singer. With her, I could play with throwing thorns in because I know it won't throw her off. She could think it was funny. It could be like a surprise strange note, and it won't make her feel like she's lost her way. I think similarly getting to grow up with my family where you're learning how to sing harmony as a way to enhance the song, not as a way to show off what skills I have, and also as a way to hold up whoever's leading that song. A lot of people, you know, they're like, "I want to be able to do this." And I'm like, "Great. Don't worry about a lot of notes. Start with drones. Start with peeling away and coming back." Because knowing where the melody is, you're still in service of the melody or of that particular singer of that melody. That's again going to that selfless thing - I'm doing something fun and different, and it might pop out, but being selective. If you put too many ornaments on your tree, no one ever sees the tree anymore.
Maggie: Back to the harmonizing, if you were going to just harmonize with somebody, do you... when I think of myself, I just do it intuitively, but are some worked out, like, if you think about bluegrass, there's a real classic kind of harmonization. So, when you're teaching, are you teaching them the melody of the harmony, or are you just saying, "Find it as you're singing."
Suzannah: I do a combination. Some people are terrified of finding harmonies. They never got to practice and they want to be given a harmony. They want to know what are the quote "right notes." So, within any style of the musical genres that I was raised in, or have studied, there's certain stylistic norms. And so, getting to learn those, I could teach you two songs. That's going to give you this tiny bite in two songs. This is what would be a standard-ish harmony within those two songs. That doesn't mean that you now know how to harmonize in that tradition. You'd need to spend time listening to lots of different players and singers, and that would start giving you... it's like cooking. You could put any spices in any dish, but certain dishes, if you did that, you'd be like, "Whoa, that's a really strange choice." Certain ones like garlic, you know, that just means if I got another note to your note, it's going to work in any genre, you know, stick with butter. One of my favorites, you could put that in almost any style of cooking. However, once you get into these more nuanced flavors, which is what I feel harmony is, then it's important that you start understanding more about style. I think being raised in it, there's certain things... I couldn't give you the musical rules, because I don't think of music that way, but I would know if you were singing harmonies that feel off. You stuck cayenne in like this sweet cornbread thing. And I'm like, "That's just not what I want right there. Right then." But there's nothing wrong with cayenne. My community choir here. I say, "There's no wrong notes. There are variations," you know? And in any genre of music, it's not that the note is a bad note. It's just that it's not fitting this particular flavor we're going for. So, to teach that again, if you come to like a harmony workshop, I'm only gonna give you a few songs - you're not steeped in a tradition yet. But you have the beginning excitement of the possibility of learning a lot more about that style and making musical harmonic choices that would fit that style.
Maggie: That's a very helpful analogy, actually. I was thinking about how you do some work with social justice and thinking about civil rights and songs of protest. I thought about Odetta. And one thing I read that she said, "There's no way I could say the things I was thinking, but I can sing them." I wonder if you can relate to that, and if any songs come to mind?
Suzannah: Yeah, there's this scientific fact that when you sing with people, your hearts sync up. And being in a protest setting, or a lockdown setting, or any place where you're taking a stand with other people, when you add music in, if it is a confrontational thing, there's the fear, there's the unknown, there's the passion or anger. And when you sing together, it actually physically, tonally, body pulse-wise gets you in sync. And I think so much of the way oppression hits, it can feel incredibly isolating and defeating. So, to me, having music as a part of any social justice movement, there's a way of being able to notice that you're one piece of a much stronger whole and that all is well. The situation might be shitty, but all is actually well in that you're with other living people. I think one of the strengths of music, and what so many amazing music writers are trying to distill, is the complexity of the human experience into a couple of verses. That's an amazing art, and it's a place, I think, to help with how messy and busy oppression is and how much mental space it takes up, or you don't even know that it's taking it up. And then there's all of a sudden a song that you're like, oh my God, that's so the thing that's going on. So yeah, I think it's incredibly powerful that songs provide for so many people. My beloved mentor just passed - Larry Gordon, the founder of Village Harmony. I was like, you know, as a teenager, he taught me so many songs from the shape-note tradition, particularly those about death. I am more equipped musically to cope with his loss with all these other hundreds of singers because part of the biggest loss that we have is loss. I think that the songs about protesting are so much about choosing to be alive and pushing for the best we can figure out. And to let there be a space to have anger where we're going to tell that we're unified... doesn't flash and burn. It's like, you could protest, and you could march, and you could drum, and you can - and it feels steady. There's a way to this - there's something to do with all that intensity. Is there any particular song that comes to mind as useful? I mean, God, there's so many different veins. I think specifically to South Africa, some of the songs that I've gotten to learn, and the conversations about apartheid and our civil rights movement. Apartheid, for me, is closer in my lifetime, you know, than our civil rights, our initials. But there's so many... any struggle, there's amazing songs that become important that are like, they can be popular, or you might hear them once. And you're just like, that's exactly what you needed to hear, to sustain staying or being at that event or... which ones come to mind? There's this beautiful song I remember as a kid, one of the first songs that I heard. Maybe it was in second grade or something. Dean Stevens, the singer out of Boston, sang a song called Salmon River. And it's this beautiful song. It's talking about dams, it's talking about denying the salmons their river run - their ability to spawn and get back to the ocean. And I remember being a tiny kid, and I would always want them to sing that song. I would always cry. And at that point, being in Chicago, I hadn't spent much time by an ocean. So it felt like this really valuable song to get to here. We would have a lot of conversations, like, "So like, has the song helped? What's happening? What's going on where the salmon run?" And I think there's a place of hope whenever any individual song gets out there - it can be a message center for someone who doesn't know that particular part of the world or that particular struggle. It can be a rallying cry, a unifier. So that's one song - particularly as a little kid. I've been asked a lot, when did I become environmental, and I'm like, "I think that's an always thing." But I do know that that song was really important, and also having Sparky Rucker as part of my childhood, and Floating Eagle Feather, the two of them to create a really, obvious place of like... and the songs change and the setting changes. People are like, "What are the five best protest songs you should have in your pocket?" And I'm like, "You should have more than five, and they have to be versatile and relevant." It's about being where you are. And if you don't know, at least singing anything, humming is fabulous, so that again, your hearts will be able to sync up. If you don't know the right song, still just make a ruckus.
Maggie: I want to talk about how you find new repertoire. You had mentioned that your grandparents had this amazing record collection. I was also wondering if it was important to you to learn a song directly from another singer versus from a printed song collection or an online source.
Suzannah: So I fake-read music. I would say that's not one of my skills. I can look relaxed while I'm internally like, oh shit. That's all just the facade of being a good performer. So, I'm never going to pick up a book of an anthology and be like, "Oh, let me leaf through this and pick up a new diddy." I could leaf through it and be like, "Woah, what cool poetry. I like the little drawings they put in here," or "That's a beautiful picture of Jean Ritchie," or "That's a beautiful image of so-and-so or the Clearwater festival," I could be pleased with how something is set up, but that's not how I'm going to collect new songs. I do the person to person, that's how I was raised. That's definitely my favorite. I think my grandparents passing away and specifically my close relationship with my grandmother - the ability to have these records that they've starred, and there's checkmarks partially from their show, but then there's also notes from so many of the artists to them - it's a fun way to still feel like there's a connection to my grandparents. Even though then, I am learning a song from a record. On any given record, I'll put on skip the needle to the ones that they've marked. 'Cause I'm just like, well, what did they like... like listening for what I think they would have loved about this particular song. So that's a beautiful way that the record collection is a part of my world. And I haven't actually really used the record collection, as a new project that I'm launching this coming year, this marked with a star project, is to actually start doing a deeper dive through those: learning specific songs, doing more research, connecting it back to my grandmother. She kept these amazing calendars, all from their early marriage through her whole life, of who was visiting when and who came to the music parties. So, I'm excited to sort of do more of a deep dive that way. But that's a new thing - that's not been how I typically collect or sing songs. From people is my favorite because it is the folk process. Like if I sing you something, if I say sing after me, and I sing you phrase, phrase, phrase, phrase, and we might get to do that only today, I'm relying on... I'm hoping that I've done a good enough job, gifting you the song and giving you some hints so that if you keep singing it, you know, you're going to hold on to the core part that mattered to you. And it should change, because I'm already singing it the way I'm singing it. So, if you try to sing exactly like me, that's a little strange because I'm already here. So, the folk process is staying close in and connected, but not trying to be a mimicking exact. Because there's a way that that's respectful, but there's also a way that's a little bit funny because I've already got my version covered. And then it's sweet, and you're like, "Man, Suzannah did this ornament in this particular way." And like, I can now do that in homage because it's a way that someone who's passed on their musical choice, their voice, their intention, gets embedded into the song by love as opposed to by necessity. Or like, because this means that I'm doing it right. Again, like there's no right way in traditional music - like the melody we're singing now, we don't have a way to know, really, if it's the same version that was sung 200 years ago. And I'm positive it's not, but there's going to be a valuable, beautiful thread of the person that sang it, that taught it, that's saying it, that learned it, that taught it, you know?
Maggie: You mentioned that you had learned a camp meeting song from Sheila Kay Adams. I was wondering how you see yourself in relationship to her and her repertoire.
Suzannah: Sheila and I haven't spent that much time together. I think the song that you're referencing I actually learned from Bob Lucas, but I've heard Sheila sing it. I learned it from Bob. Sheila and I have spent some time together. She's a powerhouse - she's amazing. If anyone listening to this has never listened to her, you just gotta go listen to her. She's incredible. You know, I tried to figure out how to rebel against my family in a way. So I started singing a lot of traditional Bulgarian and Croatian and Bosnian and South African music. I sort of splintered bigger, into different styles of traditional music. When I'm teaching, I teach a lot about colonization and cultural appropriation, and I utilize the connections of the relationships I have with people in these other countries, and that's how I learned the songs from them still, but a part of it is to really say these aren't my songs. But these are amazing songs ,and here's these similar threads, and aren't these harmonies amazing, and isn't it useful to have to mumble and not know how to pronounce things as an American or someone who speaks English. It's a good opportunity to be like we don't have the only good or best music. So with Sheila, one of the things I love about her is how steeped and deep and home she is here, and that that's really what she's done. She's sassy and vibrant and powerful... I think to at any kind of great singer, in the traditional music realm, there's certain like rules and polite... Down here, there's a whole thing about how you respect your elders and the way in which you approach people. And I think growing up in a tradition, there's just so much like... she's my elder, she's up here. I get called a tradition bearer. I am a tradition bearer. But I think anyone with that title, there's a certain place of like, it's not about me. It's about whoever is older than me. And I think we all do that. Because there's this place where it's like, well, I just know a hundred songs, but they know 200 songs and they know... there's this place where you're always like... and it's funny to address. And it's not trying to not be pleased with the songs I know. But there's this piece of really delighting and celebrating elders in this culture and in this traditional musical circle. So yeah, Sheila, just look her up, listen to her. She's amazing.
Maggie: I was going to ask you, what are some of your favorite traditional singers and what makes them powerful? You just were getting into that.
Suzannah: There's so many. And I think to not dismiss people, like Jane Hicks, Gentry's granddaughter, Darren Douglas, she's an amazing singer. She's a fabulous Fiddler. I think one of the things I love about traditional Appalachian music is that there's a rawness that I just love. And I love how human it is. Think of Betty Smith. These are some of the ladies from this region that come to mind. There's younger singers too that are just doing amazing work. Loy McWhirter doesn't sing out hardly at all, but is one of my beloved voices and friends. So yeah, there's lots, there's so many good musicians, that's the thing. Once you start name-dropping anyone, you're like, "Oh my God, I'm going to leave so many people out. "
Maggie: No, don't worry about that. I was getting more at what makes them powerful, but I also wonder what you think traditional singers from around the world have in common?
Suzannah: A beautiful question. I mean, to me, it's that they really are delighted to share things from their upbringing. And that they're tapped into the rhythms and the harmonies and the history and the people and the region and the mountains. There's a way so many traditional songs reference bodies of water and particular mountain ranges or the mode of travel, like the sea shanties versus work songs. So, you're in a field, you're on a boat, the understanding of the context, and then the excitement - to be able to share that and to speak to why there were work songs in the prisons. When you know more than just the notes - to me, that's my favorite. And then you know about the people. There's a student in my choir at Warren Wilson and she asked if she could teach a Mongolian song from her childhood. And I said, "Yes, we'll do the song from Mongolia in our semester next year. What I need from you is, you know, can you write it out? And then can you phonetically write it? So Westerners could read it and understand how to try to get our mouths around the pronunciation." And then I said, "As many ways back, who did you learn it from? And then if they're still alive, ask who they learned it from. And if they're still alive ask." Just give as many layers as you could, so that when you then gift the song to our singers next semester, it's not "Here's this song," with any embarrassment rooted in it. Who did I get it from? Where did it come from? Who did they get it from? And I think even if you're not a "tradition bearer," that's something that everyone can play a part in. Specifically here in the United States, it's a really important, valuable way that we're pushing against colonization and appropriation, the "I learned the song Thus It's Mine." And I'm like, "No, the song lives beyond you." What's the history? Follow that as best we can, and we'll make mistakes, and that's totally fine because we're human and that's complicated. But then just clean it up, figure it out, be like, "I was wrong. I misspoke - it's actually from this particular region or this person." That's one of the things I love about tradition bearers - that's a way that they lead. Again, you asked something like, is the singer or the song more important? That goes back to the history of the song, what we're trying to send forward. And the context of how to be the most in the moment with that song.
Maggie: Beautifully said and respectful. We're coming to wrapping up here. I wanted to mention that I'm aware that you've performed in Revels productions around the country, and I was wondering what distinguishes them from each other - what do they have in common? Just something about that.
Suzannah: What they have in common is that vibrant, playful, passionate, connected, community - like being really bold, taking on a really big project. I've only ever done the Christmas or the winter celebration Revels thing. So I know there's a lot of other projects that go on, I know that these shows seem to be a really high production. Like there's a lot of moving pieces and there's actors and there's a brass band and there's dancing and costumes and lighting - so many people pull together. And that's just one of my favorite things, when the whole village comes together to do something so spectacular. And I love that it also includes the audience - in every Revels show I've done, always, there's a tradition of people coming. Again, speaking to the power of how great it is when people have a musical tradition, and for people that don't think they have one, but they come to Revels every year, I'm like "That's your musical tradition." That's a great thing. I think that's one of the things that I feel and saw in all of the communities, people that are like "I come every year," or, you know, "I've always wanted to be in it. And like this year I finally decided to apply or to audition." And, you know, I loved getting to hear the stories of how people came into the show. I think, too, me being who I am, I really tried to implant myself as much into the shows, more than maybe some other guest musicians do. Because that's part of my upbringing. There's a handful of times that like, they'd be like, "You can leave the stage." And I'm like, "Well, if this was my community in real life, I wouldn't leave. Just cause you're singing a song I have to learn in a week. Like I would stay. I stand a little further back" I'm like, "Don't take me off the stage. Like, put me underneath the tree." Doing the show, it felt embarrassing, but in all of them as the guest person, I still was like, "Um, but could I stay for the rest of the musical party please?" So that was really fun, to sort of see the flavor of each director and each music director and the choices they were making. I got to be consulted about a lot of the music and do some coaching when I would arrive about style and about... mostly it's about that thing of mannequin versus human. I think people, in general, are so relieved when we want them. And I think what I really got to see in Revels is people really celebrating each person who showed up and the differences. You know, it's different parts of the country. The oppressions are different. The flavor looks different from the south to New England to the west coast - I haven't done any of the Revels stuff in the Midwest. I think just from being a touring musician, I already like looking at different parts of the country, what are some of the struggles and things that just are embedded in how people interact? So to me, that's one of the things I love about being a touring musician. You get a lot of glimpses into some of the cultural things that are funny. But I loved them all. It's been a really beautiful treat to be a part of the larger Revels community. And particularly here in Boston, knowing David since I was a young person, getting to sing with him in the Christmas show that we did together, getting to start the show with a song that I so loved, and then watch the show kind of bloom on the stage. To me, this place of performer and audience... and that was from the fabulous artistic decision from Paddy. But to me, it was such a beautiful way to start the show where I was like, "I just got to be a part of the group of the audience."
Maggie: What was the song that you started?
Suzannah: The song I started was this livestream with Bright Morning Star, and I got to be up in the balcony and sing a verse of that. And the lights would come up on me in the auditorium, and then it would shift, and the lights would come up on the stage. I'm like, "See, songs are everywhere. We're all a part of it." I loved that choice of Paddy's. I think that it was definitely a musical highlight getting to see people in the audience. I love that too, wherein Revels will come and dance out into the audience. People are really starved for that connection. And Revels, I find, really provides that. And so I applaud what y'all are doing and how you celebrate all these different traditions and really look to do them with as much respect and clarity and fun as you have for so many years. I'm pleased to get to be a part of the extended family.
Maggie: Well, Suzannah Park, it's been wonderful conversing with you, and I want to thank you so much for being part of Musical Connections with us.
Suzannah: It's been my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on and for all you do. Thank you so much, Maggie. Great to spend some time with you.
Maggie: You too, Suzannah.