Almost lost, almost certainly lost outside the realm of scholarship, is the mountain (and beyond) tradition of ballad singing. Just singing, no instruments. It speaks to simplicity, and poverty, and more than a little nerve.
Carol Ponder’s second album of these songs is an elegant, sure-handed revival of that tradition. She has a beautiful, rich voice that sounds like a less-formal Odetta. While 1998′s Pretty Bird seemed rooted in the academic re-creation of authentic sounds and traditions (despite covers of David Olney and Hazel Dickens), including some curiously ornate vocal flourishes, Little Journeys has a more relaxed tone.
Less than half the songs are traditional ballads, including sparkling readings of “Lady Margaret” and “Barbara Allen”. The balance come from a more modern canon, including Susan Ellenton’s “Bless Me, Barbie”, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, and Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” (though the credits leave out co-writers Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth).
They’re all good, but the full force of her power — and, yes, passion — comes to play in a largely forgotten Steve Goodman song, “The Ballad Of Penny Evans”, about a Vietnam war widow. It is an old battle now, and though that era’s protest songs conjure memories for their original audience, most don’t wear well. “Penny Evans” is an extraordinary, biting performance. And it’s more than a little journey.