Music News & Reviews

A cappella group Anonymous 4 blends Old English and Appalachian music

Anonymous 4: Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horne-Kwiatek.
Anonymous 4: Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horne-Kwiatek.

Anonymous 4 is known primarily for haunting renditions of a cappella medieval music. But when the quartet comes to Transylvania University on Wednesday, it will be bringing some music back home.

The Cherry Tree, A4's latest seasonal album, centers on an Appalachian rendition of the title hymn and includes the Southern Harmony version of a carol called The Shepherd's Star.

The Cherry Tree is probably familiar to fans of American folk music; It was recorded by Joan Baez and other artists. Group member Susan Hellauer says Anonymous 4's intention with The Cherry Tree was to take the familiar tune and dig back to its Old English roots.

The carol tells a story of the Virgin Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem and passing a cherry tree. When Mary asks Joseph to pick cherries for her, Joseph tells her to have her baby's father pick the cherries. Then Jesus, speaking from Mary's womb, commands a branch of the tree to lower. When it happens and cherries fall from the branch, it convinces Joseph that Jesus is divine."The Cherry Tree story, even though we associate it with American folk singers and Joan Baez, really is a medieval carol and story, and we found medieval carols that go back to that story and tell the story of Joseph's doubting," Hellauer said.

To create the album, Hellauer researched the medieval side of the equation, and A4 member Marsha Genensky looked into the Americana.

Genensky's research, Hellauer says, was more difficult than her medieval European research because so much American music is undocumented.

"She had to call people and see what they had in their basements," Hellauer said. "It was a lot of random research and phone calls and e-mails."

With The Cherry Tree, Hellauer said, Genensky "wanted to find a version that had not been widely done by Joan Baez and Sting and people like that. She found one that someone had sung on their porch in Kentucky. And when Marsha sings it herself, you can't believe that she grew up in Santa Monica, Calif. — a nice Jewish girl from Santa Monica is channeling some Appalachian lady on her porch in Kentucky.

"The way that the story actually reached back and embraced in its arms all of the medieval stuff so that it sounds very different but ... all of the content is at peace with the medieval — she really did that quite miraculously."

That version pairs on the album with Anonymous 4's signature chant and ancient styles.

"The structural idea was to find American songs with definite British roots," Hellauer said.

"It's a little odd at first, but as we performed it, we found that each turn we took to the other repertoire was like a breath of fresh air, so there kept being this fresh air coming into the program."

In the holiday season, loaded with renditions of Let It Snow and Jingle Bells, there can be something refreshing about an Anonymous 4 Christmas program focused on other times and cultures.

Wednesday's program, part of the Dorothy J. and Fred K. Smith Endowed Concert Series, with free performances by international recording artists at Transylvania, will draw from The Cherry Tree and other Anonymous 4 albums, including Noël.

Hellauer says, "We sing what's there, including in the original language ... it's not modernized. It's in glorious Middle English and Old English.

"We don't try to cater to any generic or homogenized tastes. We do what we do, whether it's Christmas or any other time."