Meet Saro Lynch-Thomason
Saro Lynch-Thomason, a native of Nashville, excels in many different areas. She is a musician, singer and songwriter, a folklorist, an illustrator, an activist and more. As a graduate assistant for the Reece Museum, Lynch-Thomason developed a podcast to share the stories of unique items from the museum’s permanent collection. As a musician, she has been interviewed by numerous online music journals for her compilation album, “Blair Pathways,” which explores the history of the coal industry labor disputes in West Virginia in the early 20th century.
Lynch-Thomason, who plans to graduate in December 2018 with an M.A. in Appalachian studies with a focus on traditional song, is completing her thesis on ballad singing in Western North Carolina and the choices that women ballad singers make regarding their repertoires. After graduating, she will return to Asheville, North Carolina, where she lived for nearly a decade before starting her graduate studies.
Tell us a bit about your early life and how you became interested in so many different areas of the arts.
Both my parents are interested in history and culture. My father is a historic preservationist and my mother is a writer and public speaker, and both of them have strong attachments to history and are storytellers in their own ways. So, I grew up with a real appreciation for the history and culture of the South and Southern Appalachia.
When I was a kid, I listened to some of my father’s British folk revival music, and that got me interested in ballads. At that time, I was just learning ballads from the British Isles and wasn’t really aware of the ones here (in Appalachia). Ironically, I went to college in New York state at Bard College and met other students my age who were really into historic song from Appalachia, and so I learned a lot more ballads and got a lot more interested in the culture that way. That motivated me to move to Asheville, where I knew I’d be nearby some historic singing cultures, like north of Asheville and Madison County, which has been very well-documented for its singing cultures.
I’ve done art my whole life, and for the majority of my life, I thought of myself as an artist, like, “Oh, I’m going to make my living as an artist.” And I have, at times, done that, but to me, telling a story through art is the most exciting part. Even at Bard, my focus was on illustration, and so the stories I told through my art were folktales and cosmologies, so to me, it’s always been about using story to inform about human culture and human history, whether it’s in Appalachia or other places.
What drew you to ETSU?
I wanted to round out my knowledge about Appalachian history and culture, and I also wanted to become a better musician. Since the Appalachian Studies Department also offered Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies and you could take lessons or be in these bands, that was very exciting to me.
Another way I ended up wanting to move to Southern Appalachia was because I got involved in environmental work in the region, specifically around strip mining and combating the effects of strip mining for coal. I ended up learning a lot of labor songs and movement songs, and I became very interested in finding ways to use music and historic song to educate about regional history. That’s something that I’ve been doing in my work for the last decade – looking at how we use songs, performance and teaching songs to other folks to help them understand regional history and culture, whether that’s within this region, or a at a workshop I’m teaching in the Northeast or someplace where people aren’t really familiar with Appalachian history.
Describe the work you’ve done at the Reece Museum, and particularly the “Recollections” podcast.
Last fall, the museum had already started a really great project, in collaboration with the (ETSU) Office of Disability Services, to create some programming for low-vision and blind folks in the community. So, I got to help design multimedia tours for folks from that community, and that was wonderful.
And this spring, the Reece Museum generously allowed me to start a podcast for the museum that focuses on highlighting items from our collections here that folks don’t normally get to see. With each episode, we choose an item and find someone who knows a lot about that item, or the themes related to that item, so we can tell its story, which is often tied to regional history. For example, our first episode was on a little egg-shaped bloodstone. In Appalachia and other parts of the world, bloodstones have been used for folkloric purposes of healing wounds, and they’re said to have all these different powers. It’s a way of talking about cultures from around the world, but also how that relates to Appalachia.
You’ve gotten quite a bit of attention for your album, “Blair Pathways.” What’s next for you as a musician?
I’m planning on recording my own CD sometime in the next year. I’ve written or adapted a few songs, and there are plenty of ballads and traditional songs that I just love and would like to have out there.
In terms of what I’m working toward, I’d like to do a lot more in documentary and audio storytelling, especially concerning Appalachian politics and history and culture. So that might look like being an independent audio producer, or maybe working for a radio station, and continuing to perform.
What is a “fun fact” about you?
I used to be a “Japanophile” – very interested in Japanese culture – and took several years of Japanese and visited Japan. That was an earlier incarnation of my cultural interests.