Singing the songs of the forgotten: An evening with Anna & Elizabeth

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Anna & Elizabeth/Courtesy

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On September 5, 1941, Margaret Shipman sang “Jeano and Jeanette” at her home in Lee, Massachusetts. On Saturday at the Joe Henderson Lab at SFJAZZ Center, nearly 80 years later, folk singer Anna Roberts-Gevalt of Anna & Elizabeth welcomed Shipman onstage: “We have a guest making her SF debut. … Welcome to SF, Margaret.” Heeding her cue, Elizabeth LaPrelle — the Elizabeth of Anna & Elizabeth — hit play, and a recording of Shipman’s voice resonated through the room. Though staticky, the recording registered as tender and emotive as Shipman mournfully sang the tale of Jeanette’s love, Jeano, going to war. With Roberts-Gevalt strumming along on her guitar, the track transcended the time passed since its recording.

Considering the passion of folk duo Anna & Elizabeth for incorporating old songs and stories into its music, Shipman’s appearance made sense. For the band’s most recent album, The Invisible Comes to Us, Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle spent hours sifting through audio archives at Middlebury College in Vermont. As such, The Invisible Comes to Us draws directly from music and tales stretching as far back as the 1800s.

Despite the rich history from which their music stems, Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle dressed plainly for the concert — both were clad in black jeans and tops. Yet nonetheless, Anna & Elizabeth captivated viewers throughout the set with stunningly beautiful, and at times tragic, material.

The pair performed one such heart wrenching song near the beginning of the set. To preface “Mother in the Graveyard,” Roberts-Gevalt told the story of an 83-year-old friend named Lisa Sexton who lived in Kentucky. “We would sit in her kitchen at the table, and she would tell us this story,” Roberts-Gevalt explained, then began to sing. The song tells the story of a mother who lost a child in childbirth, a story of life and death encapsulated in a visit to a graveyard. Intertwined within the narrative of the song was the tale of Sexton herself, a profound reflection on a legacy of storytelling. Roberts-Gevalt sang soulfully — mournful eyes closed, as if lost in a reverie.

And yet the two did not rely on sonics alone to move viewers — Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle also awed their audience visually with stunningly beautiful handmade pieces of art depicting the stories they sang. For instance, during their rendition of “Golden Vanity” (“A song from Elizabethan times that was passed down from ear to ear,” Roberts-Gevalt explained), the two displayed bit by bit a long quilted strip of fabric. On it, they had taken the time to render in painstaking detail the story told in the song — a ship called The Golden Willow Tree sailing out to sea, a cabin boy diving into the ocean, an enemy ship sinking. The fabric work alone deserved its own exhibition space.

Though at times singing of grim subject matter, in between songs the pair proved affable. For instance, as LaPrelle took a few minutes to tune her banjo, Roberts-Gevalt recounted for the audience her journey to find Shipman’s house in Lee. Upon finally locating the correct building, Roberts-Gevalt found the teenage daughter of the current owner — a party planner with no relation to Shipman — “watching TV and eating Nutella,” Roberts-Gevalt noted to chuckles from the audience. Nonetheless, the performer found significance in visiting the place. “There’s some way that there was this lady that sang that song that made me cry, in 1943 in this living room,” she recounted of her experience when the young woman allowed Roberts-Gevalt a tour of the residence.

Toward the end of the set, Anna & Elizabeth performed a stretch of potent and powerful music terrifying in its suggestions of a vast nothingness. After completing the sorrowful tune “Farewell to Erin,” Roberts-Gevalt continued to play the violin dissonantly. LaPrelle displayed artwork that no longer reflected a narrative, but simply continued on and on with the same eerie scene of a still lake and purple sky. It left the room disquieted, to say the least, and paid testament to the performative power of the pair.

Though suggesting fear and darkness, Anna & Elizabeth concluded its performance with a hopeful expression of community, asking the audience to sing along to “Don’t Want to Die in the Storm.” As viewers sang with one another, a sense of calm came over the Joe Henderson Lab, a reassurance of light in togetherness.

Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle stepped off the stage smiling proudly as the audience applauded loudly. It’s fair to say that, in spirit, Shipman took a bow beside them.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.