Professor of Music Lydia Hamessley recently presented a talk at the New England Chapter Meeting of the American Musicological Society (AMS-NE) at Smith College.
In “Elizabethan Traces in Appalachia? How Music Critics Interpret Dolly Parton’s Songs and Voice,” Hamessley pointed out that music critics often struggle to find a vocabulary for the musical characteristics they hear in Parton’s songs, such as “Jolene,” “Down From Dover” and “The Bargain Store.”
She said writers often use the word “Elizabethan” to describe Parton’s unique sound, calling on “Elizabethan” as shorthand for modal inflections and Parton’s idiosyncratic vocal quality.
Hamessley argued that this use of “Elizabethan” is spurious and is based on simplistic understandings of the Anglo-Celtic roots of Appalachian music and a lack of familiarity with the range of Appalachian vocal styles. She also demonstrated that it is a remnant of writings by American nationalist composers in the 1930s who sought to elevate Appalachian music by conflating it with Elizabethan music. She said “Elizabethan” maintains its currency through its recuperative status in American culture.
In her work, Hamessley traced the widespread use of “Elizabethan” in writings about Dolly Parton and analyzed some of Parton’s songs and her vocal style, using a musical vocabulary and approach that clarifies, rather than idealizes, Parton’s Appalachian musical influences.