The “New Audiences for Old Songs” project aims to expand awareness for – and enjoyment of – a rare and important collection of folk songs and traditional ballads from the Adirondack region of New York State; the kind of “self-made” music sung by everyday people and passed down through the generations in earlier days.
(Yes, that kind of thing happened in New York State just as it did in Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.)
This music is little-known today outside a small circle of enthusiasts, and few people maintain the tradition. The goal of this project is to introduce these songs to musicians working in more “mainstream” genres (country, bluegrass, old-time, contemporary folk, even rock and jam bands) so that they in turn can bring the music to their audiences.
Sara Cleveland (1905-1987)
Sara Cleveland has been called one of America’s most important ballad singers. Born in the southeastern Adirondack region of New York State, she started learning the old songs and folk ballads of her Scotch and Irish parents and relatives at a young age, all the while collecting scores more from friends, neighbors and extended family in the Adirondacks. Around the age of sixteen, Sara and her mother started compiling a notebook of these pieces. With the later help of a cousin, the collection eventually grew to include over 600 regional, American and British Isles songs, and remains a cherished family heirloom to this day.
Sara passed her enormous repertoire to her son Jim, and then to her granddaughter Colleen who is the fifth generation (that they know of) to carry on the family tradition of ballad singing.
Colleen Cleveland (1961-present)
Colleen Cleveland is a fifth generation ballad singer of songs & ballads living near Lake George in the Adirondack mountains of New York. She grew up in an extended household listening to her grandmother Sara Cleveland sing music that she had learned from her family in the early 1900’s. Scots and Irish ballads carried over by her mother’s family from Northern Ireland in 1840 mixed with cowboy songs, Civil War and World War I songs, local history songs and humorous ditties learned from friends, neighbors, uncles & brothers.
Colleen tagged along with her grandmother to folk festivals and events from a very young age and began to assimilate the songs and unaccompanied singing style in a very natural way. After her grandmother’s death she was convinced to carry on the family repertoire along with her father, Jim Cleveland. He passed away in 1999 and Colleen has continued to carry on the family singing tradition.
Colleen has focused mainly on the family songs, but much like her grandmother, will sing anything that strikes a chord in her heart. Most of the ballads are usually sung unaccompanied but Colleen does play a few instruments and has added these where it seems appropriate. She produced one CD in 2004 and hopes to record more. She certainly has plenty of material to choose from. She has appeared at Caffé Lena, Old Songs Festival, New England Folk Festival and other festivals in the northeast. In 1994 she and her father received the North Country Heritage Award from TAUNY for carrying on the tradition. Colleen looks forward to continuing to learn more family songs and sharing them with other singers and musicians.