See, crankies are a little bit of magic. They bring old-time music to life and delight audiences in a way that no CGI-creation ever could. Anna--of the Southwest Virginia performing duo known simply as Anna and Elizabeth--talked with me this weekend about what makes crankies so special and how you can make one all your own.
TR: Anna, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. First, let me ask, what inspired you to start making crankies?
Anna: We get really excited about stories. Whether they are stories in ballads or stories about musicians. We ask What's the context of this old music and where did it come from? That's really hard to say to an audience, so we turned to visuals on the stage. Crankies were inspired by the idea of helping our audience get into the music.
TR: That's great. So do you pick your songs thinking "this would make a great cranky" or do you have an image in mind and go from there?
Anna: It's been a little of both. For instance, with "The Lost Gander," we wanted to do a song that we could definitely show to kids. Well, a lot of ballads have murders, so that eliminated them. Then we heard "The Lost Gander." Hearing that tune hit the spark for both of us.
TR: So how do you make the crankies?
Anna: I saw one six years ago, and that was my only exposure to it, and I was like I'm going to make one. There's the frame part--a box with two dowels. We pick which song or ballad is inspiring us, then decide whether we want it to be quilted or more like shadow puppets. Elizabeth lives in this giant farmhouse with long hallways, and we roll the fabric out. Then we spend a month or two sewing.
TR: Wow. That's a really long time.
Anna: It's kind of why people have fallen in love with them. People who like music also get excited about things that are handmade. It represents, like, a hundred hours of a person's life.
TR: So when you dim the lights and turn the cranky, what's the audience reaction like?
Anna: It's so fun! It turns adults into children. Not everyone is mesmerized by the fiddle the way I am, but everyone is mesmerized by the cranky. You look out and you see open eyes and open mouths, and we've been able to perform in a lot of different spaces. We went to this cookout in Louisiana and did a cranky for the ladies making potato salad in the kitchen. We can do it on the street. People stop and look at it. And yet it works on a stage or in a living room. It's this portable kind of magic.
TR: You say that part of your mission is to inspire people to make art in their own homes. Do you ever teach people to make their own crankies?
Anna: We do! We do workshops. You can make teeny, tiny crankies, like the size of a matchbox or teabox. With kids, we have them make a giant cranky together. We tell them you're going to do this part of the story and you're going to do that part. For us, the cranky comes from this idea that anyone can make one, and it doesn't have to go with music. You can tell a story about your family or make a birthday card cranky.
TR: And people can find upcoming workshops in your list of tour dates online. Anna, thanks so much for telling us all about cranks and for bringing them to life.
Anna: You're welcome.