Beth Magill, singer of ancient tales
Fresh from her talk at the Unitarian Universalist Society of the Swannanoa Valley on the innate joy of singing and making music, Beth Magill recently brought the same winning charm to a chat at the Monte Vista Hotel.
She brings that quality to all her endeavors, be it sessions with preschool children at the Black Mountain Center of the Arts, the Swannanoa Gathering and wherever her mission takes her.
But that’s just for openers when you consider all she has to offer. She and her husband Jim are The Magills, a musical duo that have been featured on North Carolina Public Television.
She herself leads a bi-monthly community sing at Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theater and launches workshops throughout this area in the fervent belief that everyone has a singing voice and everyone is musical.
Beth Magill is also the founding member of a Celtic band. And she’s a recording session musician who has recorded several albums with Grammy award-winning songwriters.
On this particular occasion, her thoughts centered on the universal pull of traditional music. What do old-time songs offer that’s so vital, and why have they endured?
“It’s where it comes from,” she said. “It originated hundreds of years ago from Ireland and Scotland. Being Irish and Scottish, it naturally touches me. The simplicity of it, the authenticity and the way it reflects the people and the culture.
“It’s full of life and energy like the jigs and the reels. Or it’s poignant, mournful and sad because of the war-torn history, (because of) those who died and those who moved over here and settled in this area. All those songs of ‘fare-thee-well,’ enhanced by Southern instruments like banjos and dulcimers.”
Perhaps, she suggested, they’re called “old-time” because they never fail to bring you back to those days when folks lived deep in the isolation of these mountains. Making music was a way to gather and be together in community.
It was a welcome relief from the hardships and hard work of living here.
“Everyone had a place at the table,” she said, warming to the subject. “You could tell stories or sing a Scots-Irish ballad that your granny passed on to you. Music fed the hunger and need that people had.”
To illustrate, she spoke about a song with a haunting melody that evoked that hunger with the poetic pull of language: “I will build my love a tower, near yon pure crystal fountain. And on it I will build, all the flowers of the mountain. Will you go, Lassie, go?”
She has no doubt that everyone, no matter their background, can relate to these feelings, simply because the songs speak to the human experience and have the unique power to remind people of their lives.
The songs provide an opportunity to step away from the constant busyness and clamor of this linked-in age, to be fully in the moment, reflecting on life’s truer meaning.
“The reason the Swannanoa Gathering has survived all these years,” she said, “is because people have realized this is a way to feed that essential part of ourselves in community. People who are complete novices come to (the gathering’s) traditional song week and the old-time week every July.
“They feel validated and a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.