Giving Voice To The Past

Giving Voice To The Past

Thirteen-year-old preserves ballads of the Ozarks


Kyla Cross looks like a pretty ordinary 13-year-old — dusty blonde hair down to her shoulders, blue jeans, braces. But her eyes give something away; there’s an intelligence, a poise, that belies her years.

And then, she stands up to sing, a capella, and the voice of an angel fills the room. Kyla Cross is an Ozarks balladeer who has been studying the music of the mountains since she was 8. She’ll share some of what she’s learned — 11 ballads, Ozarks songs and play/party songs — April 27 at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in a program titled, “Rare and Precious: Ballads and Songs of the Ozarks.”

To be clear, Kyla wasn’t born into a family of Ozarks ballad keepers. Her father is from Sheridan; her mother grew up in Farmington, but her family is from California. Instead, Kyla has come to share cultural roots with Lyle Sparkman of Springdale, a seventh-generation Ozarker who calls himself the “clan loresman” for his family. There’s one in every generation, he says, the one “naturally suited” to keep the family stories — and in this case, the music. His parents and grandparents were teaching him songs from the earliest he can remember, Sparkman says, and by the time he was a senior in high school, he went from being an “unconscious acquirer” to a willing participant.

A few years ago, Sparkman approached Judy Costello, the education manager at the Shiloh Museum, saying he wanted to teach the ballads he knew to a younger generation. Of the nine students he started with, Kyla is the “most advanced,” his words say, but his eyes say “his pride and joy.”

Kyla remembers simply that her mom told her someone wanted to teach her some old songs. It sounded like fun.

“I loved the stories first. But I came to realize what treasures these songs are,” she says. “It is important to me that this tradition should not be lost, but continue as a living part of Ozark life.”

Sparkman taught 108 songs, and Kyla and another student, Richard Whitaker, have recorded 99 of them with the production assistance of Marideth Sisco of Juneapple Records. Kyla laughs when Sparkman reminds her there are songs she said “no” to. “Some ballads are graphic,” he says, “and she didn’t want to sing any with children dying.”

With her talent — and the fact she sings with the University of Arkansas Children’s Choir — one might expect Kyla to pursue a career in music.

“I would love to carry on the tradition of these ballads to my children and my grandchildren,” she says. “But I don’t want to earn a living with music.”

The same is true of cooking, another hobby about which she is passionate. She also writes, whittles, started a business to help pay for a choir trip to Ireland — Made by Kyla, hand-stamped jewelry, raised almost $6,000, she says — studies college-level biblical Greek, loves to read and says her faith is “a huge part of my life.” Home schooled, she also volunteers at the Shiloh Museum and does living history re-enacting for the Washington County Historical Society.

Over the years, Kyla says, “Mr. Lyle” has become like family, her favorite resource for all things historical. She, he says, is the cultural representative for the eighth generation of his family. And both of them, says Susan Young, outreach coordinator for the museum, are living examples of the folkways the museum works to preserve.

“Folkways are always evolving,” she says. “Here, we have an Ozarks elder teaching old ballads to the next generation. Last year we had a Marshallese elder teaching how to make a fishing boat. Folk songs from the British Isles and fishing boats from the Marshall Islands are both examples of traditions brought here to the Ozarks. And the beauty of the folk-singing and boat-building projects is that they came to us from the community. We didn’t create either of them; we just facilitated them. That is the joy for us in what we do.”



‘Rare and Precious:

Ballads and Songs of the Ozarks’

With Kyla Cross

WHEN — 2 p.m. April 27

WHERE — Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale

COST — Free

INFO — 750-8165,

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