Professor of Music Lydia Hamessley recently presented a paper titled “Elizabethan Traces in Appalachia? How Critics (Mis)Understand Dolly Parton’s Songs and Voice” at the national meeting of the Society for American Music in Kansas City, Mo.
Hamessley’s paper examined the term “Elizabethan” as it is used by some music critics to describe Parton’s songs that are most indebted to the singer’s mountain heritage.
Since the mid-1970s, critics have used “Elizabethan” as a shorthand for modal inflections in Parton’s songs as well as her idiosyncratic vocal quality. Hamessley says this use of “Elizabethan” is specious and that it is based on simplistic understandings of the Anglo-Celtic roots of Appalachian music as described by folksong collector Cecil Sharp and others, as well as a lack of familiarity with the range of Appalachian vocal styles.
She noted that the term is also likely a remnant of writings by American nationalist composers such as Lamar Stringfield and John Powell in the 1930s, who sought to elevate Appalachian music by conflating it with Elizabethan music. She said the term maintains its currency through its recuperative status in American culture.
Hamessley traced and critiqued this history’s influence on the use of the term in “Dolly hagiography.” She also further analyzed Parton’s vocal style and some of her songs to uncover the so-called “Elizabethan” characteristics that critics note, showing how this shorthand term does an injustice to the complexity of Parton’s compositions and vocal style.
Hamessley demonstrated that these critics make a category and history error when they describe Parton’s Appalachian heritage as “Elizabethan.” She said that in using this misnomer that has been attached to Appalachia for more than a century, critics continue the political agenda of “grafting the stock of our culture on the Anglo-Saxon root” (Powell), and they construct Parton as a bearer of this romanticized Anglo-American identity.