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Carol Ponder

Little Journeys: A Cappella Ballads and Folk Songs (2000)


March 26, 2001

Tuning / Blend 4.0
Energy / Intensity 2.7
Innovation / Creativity 3.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 2.7
Repeat Listenability 2.0
1 How Can I Keep From Singing 2.7
2 The Old Cumberland Land 2.3
3 My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains 3.3
4 Lady Margaret 2.3
5 Barbara Allen 3.0
6 Bless Me, Barbie 2.7
7 Mercedes Benz 2.7
8 Kitty Come Down 2.7
9 Signs and Wonders 3.3
10 Woodstock 2.7
11 The Ballad of Penny Evans 3.3
12 Generations 2.7

Recorded 2000
Total time: 36:25, 12 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
1 How Can I Keep From Singing 3
2 The Old Cumberland Land 3
3 My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains 4
4 Lady Margaret 3
5 Barbara Allen 4
6 Bless Me, Barbie 5
7 Mercedes Benz 5
8 Kitty Come Down 4
9 Signs and Wonders 5
10 Woodstock 3
11 The Ballad of Penny Evans 5
12 Generations 3

So this is a first to my ears — an album which features not a cappella harmony (though there is some of that), but rather a single voice. It's an interesting concept, singing without any accompaniment at all, and I have to say that the attempt falls flat for me.

What I do like is Ms. Ponder's liner notes, which are wonderfully written to include sources and stories about where she learned each piece and what kind of background it comes from. These are some of the best liner notes I've come across while reviewing for RARB.

Back to the music. The album consists of mainly folk songs and traditional pieces, with a couple of great Janis Joplin/Joni Mitchell tunes to top it all off. Musically, Carol Ponder has it down; her tuning is great, her inflections gentle, and her emotion real. Ms. Ponder has obviously worked hard at her craft, and you can surely hear it on Little Journeys. Her timing, dynamics, and breathing are all exemplary — you don't get this kind of quality singing from your average college a cappella CD. However, I'm not a huge fan of folk music, and there's nothing but folk song melody here. On Generations, she does sing some harmonies, but for the most part, all you've got is a skillful singer and a whole bunch of folk songs.

There are highlights, though. Signs and Wonders has a great variety of emotional ups and downs, and Carol Ponder delivers this song with an enviable touch. Bless Me, Barbie is hilarious and fun, as is the ironic Mercedes Benz. The dramatic ending of The Ballad of Penny Evans ("And my name is Penny Evans and I've just gone 21, a young widow in the war that's being fought in Vietnam. And I have two infant daughters and I thank GOD I HAVE NO SONS!!! Now they say the war is over, but I think it's just begun.") strikes at the heartstrings memorably.

If you love folk songs, then this would be an excellent album for you. If you're a singer and would like to study another musician's craft, this may be a great album to learn from. However, I'm personally more a fan of ensemble singing. There's a magic in unifying voices which captures my imagination and soul, and that just isn't done here.

Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
1 How Can I Keep From Singing 2
2 The Old Cumberland Land 2
3 My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains 3
4 Lady Margaret 2
5 Barbara Allen 2
6 Bless Me, Barbie 2
7 Mercedes Benz 2
8 Kitty Come Down 2
9 Signs and Wonders 2
10 Woodstock 2
11 The Ballad of Penny Evans 2
12 Generations 3

Little Journeys by Carol Ponder is a masterpiece of Appalachian Mountain folk music. Stylistic inflections and musical interpretations are what make this project so joyously special. The unfortunate thing is that I have to score this album against the general body of a cappella music, in all genres. If it were just in the genre of Appalachian folk albums, this album and its tracks would be scored much higher.

Carol Ponder has beautiful control over her voice, which allows these mountain folk songs to create an almost spiritual experience for the listener. She sings this album almost entirely by herself; the exception is when the Multi-Generations East Nashville Pick-up Choir joins her on Generations. The other change on the album is when Carol plays the spoons during her rendition of Kitty Come Down and My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As delicately superb as this album truly is, it won't be a national bestseller anytime soon. Not many people outside of the traditional Appalachian culture will purchase this album and receive the message from its theme and sense of purpose. If Carol Ponder would like to reach more people across the nation spreading the word of the old Appalachian mountain people, she needs to become more mainstream with her music. More tracks like Generations and My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains will create for more pleasing listening to the average music consumer.

The track that I didn't enjoy very much was Bless Me Barbie. Carol describes this as "the first of the newer songs on this album", which leads me to believe that this is descriptive of the new Appalachian folk music. If the Appalachian folk singers want to create new traditions in music, they should probably stay away from commercial icons such as Barbie and Ken.

You have to appreciate this genre of music to truly enjoy this album. This isn't something I would listen to all the time, but this is an album that has many traditional and educational uses in a cappella music today.

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 1
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 1
1 How Can I Keep From Singing 3
2 The Old Cumberland Land 2
3 My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains 3
4 Lady Margaret 2
5 Barbara Allen 3
6 Bless Me, Barbie 1
7 Mercedes Benz 1
8 Kitty Come Down 2
9 Signs and Wonders 3
10 Woodstock 3
11 The Ballad of Penny Evans 3
12 Generations 2

Before I begin this review, I feel I have to put out a few disclaimers. While I like some folk music, I don't tend to gravitate towards music in what Carol Ponders calls "the Southern Mountain Tradition" in her liner notes. Also, when I think of a cappella, I usually think of at least more than one voice, even if it's the same person multi-tracking. Finally, I really tried to like this CD. I really did.

To be fair, Little Journeys caught me off guard. It's billed as "a cappella ballads & folk songs", and the liner notes credit all arrangements to Carol Ponder and Robert Kiefer, and all vocals to Carol Ponder. I thought it might be something like the work of Enya or Sarah McLachlan, layering the soloist's voice in multiple tracks to create an a cappella group sound with only one voice. It would be kind of cool to have one person do it sans instruments altogether — no blend issues there, right?

Except I'm not quite sure what arranging went into this, because every single track barring #3 and #12 are Carol Ponder soloing on the melody of the song. That's it. Nothing else. We get the benefit of the percussion of wooden spoons on two tracks and one harmony sung by Carol on track #3, but otherwise it is Carol singing folk ballad after folk ballad unaccompanied. Carol has a pleasant voice, with a warm and folky sound that works well at moments. However, it would take an amazing voice to carry this project, which I'm not sure I can credit her with. Additionally, the lack of distinction between songs makes even the stronger tracks fade into the background.

Bless Me, Barbie, sung in Carol's style, seemed like a mildly funny joke that I wasn't in on. Even the closing track Generations, which might have excited with the addition of a choir (Finally! Other voices!), was marred by questionable pitch and blend at times and poor production (some kind of buzzing noise throughout the track). Two of the better tracks were How Can I Keep From Singing and a decent version of Joni Mitchell's Woodstock; Carol's head voice is pleasantly clear and focused and lends itself nicely to the latter.

My original rating was a 1, but after some misgivings, I went back and revised my review. Carol Ponder's CD is not atrociously bad or grating on the ear, as a 1 would suggest. But neither can I really recommend it as a CD for anyone who is not already versed in this genre. I don't really know what to make of it. I can only wonder if I was missing something really huge, so I'd welcome enlightenment from other reviewers or Carol Ponder fans. 'Til then, unless you're a huge fan of unaccompanied Appalachian ballads, steer clear.


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