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The Crankie Comes To NC: What It Is And Why People Freak Out When They See One

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle singing the ballad 'Lord Bateman' with a 'crankie.'
Laura Candler

When traditional Appalachian musician Anna Roberts-Gevalt first showed ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle a crankie, Elizabeth was speechless.

“I really freaked out,” LaPrelle said. She was astounded not only because she had never seen one before, but also because it was such a powerful tool for storytelling.

A crankie consists of long swaths of decorated fabric or paper rolled up on both ends like a scroll. The scroll is installed in a box, and a storyteller uses it by slowly cranking the scroll as they relate a narrative, so that one part of the scroll (or one scene from the story) is visible in the frame at a time. It’s kind of like a “TV-in-a-box,” an art project common in elementary school.

Elizabeth LaPrelle sings traditional Appalachian ballads. Her songs tell the stories of jealous suitors, separated lovers, and elaborate murder plots.

“Ballads are all story songs,” LaPrelle said. “And a lot of ballad singers talk about being able to see the ballad in their mind. I see all the characters and I costume them. There’s a setting with a certain quality of light, and I imagine these places and people  and events. And I had been really interested in telling people how visual these stories are.” So when LaPrelle saw that first crankie, she got excited about its potential to illustrate the ballads she performed.

Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle met at a concert in Virginia a when LaPrelle’s car broke down. They had planned on meeting there, but because the car would not start,  Roberts-Gevalt invited LaPrelle to stay at her place, where they sang songs to pass the time and where Roberts-Gevalt first showed her a crankie she had made. They immediately clicked and wanted to start performing together.

"Somehow, word got out, and we got these offers of people who were interested around America." -- Anna Roberts-Gevalt

“We really had no foresight beyond the next couple of months,” said Roberts-Gevalt. “We were like, ‘we’re gonna make these crankies and we’re gonna do this tour just in southwest Virginia,’ which is what we did. But somehow, word got out, and we got these offers of people who were interested around America.”

The duo began touring. In addition to singing and performing traditional Appalchian songs on banjo, fiddle, and guitar, they also made their own crankies to accompnay songs.

“We did our first show in a bar,” Roberts-Gevalt said. “We were at this bar in Richmond and sang an a cappella song, and all of a sudden, the whole room was quiet. And then we got everyone to sit on the floor cross-legged to  watch our crankies.”

This video of a crankie they made is called the Lost Gander.

The reactions they get to their crankies are varied. Roberts-Gevalt says that often, “Adults turn into children,” staring wide-eyed up at the stage.

“I think my favorite [reaction] is when people go ‘that was great, but…I kind of really want to go home right now and make one!’” LaPrelle says. “Because I think it brings stories to mind in the minds of other people.”

“You know, wherever we go, it’s not that we’re trying to get people to love banjos or learn to play them,” LaPrelle says. “We would rather go somewhere and have it bring up a question in their mind, like ‘Oh, what’s the heritage where I am? Whether it’s through my family or where I live. What are the stories that are in my life?’”

Anna and Elizabeth will be performing this weekend at The Nightlight (405 1/2 West Rosemary, Chapel Hill) MARCH 27, 8 pm


Laura moved from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill in 2013 to join WUNC as a web producer. She graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the spring of 2012 and has created radio and multimedia stories for a variety of outlets, including Marketplace, Prairie Public, and Maine Public Broadcasting. When she's not out hunting stories, you can usually find her playing the fiddle.
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