Cosmo-regional Appalachian forefront
Part one: cut off from the world
Welcome to Celebrated Sounds, this hour we will be looking into the contradictory nature of Appalachian music. Some see Appalachian music as unchanging while others have remarked on it’s genre inventing and bending forefront. How can the music of one place be seen in very different ways? this hour we will explore the music and history of this conflict to find out.
(“Siúil A Rún performed by Judy Young”)
In 1965 in Glenville, West Virginia, a town of less than 1,500 people, a young woman at their annual music festival named Judy Young sang the english and Irish language ballad Siúil A Rún for a small crowd. For some it may not have been a surprise that a Revolutionary War song, with earlier versions from the Glorious Revolution a century earlier in England, was being sung in the Appalachian Mountains, given region’s reputation for tradition and oral history; The idea that settlers from Great Britain settled in Appalachia and stayed there holding on to old traditions and shutting out new ones.
The first attention for Appalachian Music came around in the early 20th century when Musicologists such as the english folklorist Cecil Sharp realized that old english ballads were still being sung in the region. Sharp was taken aback by the way the Appalachian people took pride in their history. Sharp collected these centuries old ballads, some thought lost forever from history, and took them back to Europe. This helped shaped the way people viewed Appalachian music.
Of course ancient Ballads were not the only songs sung in the region but for a long time this was what the outside world paid attention to. Sharp collected versions of old Irish and English ballads such Rose Connelly (also called Down in the Willow Garden) but on further notice, many of these songs had gone through evolutions in the mountains. Irish versions of Siúil A Rún have the love interest refusing to go to war, and here he dutifully obliged. Despite the reputation of Appalachia of being a place where old songs and traditions remain without change, some of the older songs were retooled for changing tastes. Let’s here jean Ritchie talk about the old song “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and sing a variation of it called “Evergreen Shore”
But it wasn’t just outsiders that manipulated how the outside world saw Appalachia. Some Appalachian born music collectors couldn’t help but to shape Appalachian culture the way they thought it should be. Jean Thomas, born in Ashland Kentucky in 1881, collected songs, hosted Festivals, and promoted musicians. Thomas said that in Appalachia, "the speech, song, and traditions of old England still survived" although she often controlled what performers wore, changed their names, and in the case of fiddler Jilson Setters, changed his name and even personal history. Born James Day, Thomas didn’t think his name sounded Appalachian enough and changed it to Jilson Setters and fabricated his past to sound more dire, even referring to him as ‘The fiddler of Lost Hope Holler’ a fictitious place. With the heavy handed help of Jean Thomas, Setters became a star, eventually playing the Royal Albert Hall. Let’s hear a track by James Day called The 6th of January where we hear Jean Thomas pulling the reins.
(6th of January played by James Day/Jilson Setters) (http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/5522/rec/5)
Part Two: Outside Influence
Appalachian music did have a way of holding onto songs and sounds from the old country, which ever country it may be, but as we will hear they also had a way of mixing and experimenting them with the sounds of the other old countries represented in the mountains.
In this next song we will hear the Irish ballad Rose Connelly, sung in the Old regular baptist style common in the Appalachian mountains and accompanied by the Banjo that has African origins.
(“Rose Connelly” [also known as Down In The Willow Garden] played by Roscoe Holcomb)
This version was played by Roscoe Holcomb in 1971. Holcomb came to prominence after another song collector, John Cohen, came across him on a song collecting trip in 1959.
Folk biographer, Photographer, and musician John Cohen (Of the New Lost City Ramblers) was driving through Eastern Kentucky in 1959 looking for Folk musicians when he came acrossed a tall wiry 47 year old man walking home from work pouring concrete. He was told this man played several instruments and asked if he would play a tune or two. After some coaxing the man agreed to one song. Cohen was so taken aback that he showed up at this man’s house everyday for three weeks asking to hear more. Later Cohen would remember first hearing Holcomb by saying "I was hearing the avant-garde and the ancient, sitting in the middle of eastern Kentucky."
Personally I cannot think of a better way to explain Appalachian music than this.
In the same recording session where Roscoe Holcomb recorded the old Irish Ballad “Rose Connelly”, Holcomb also played “Motherless Children seen hard time” a song first recorded in Dallas Texas in 1927 by preacher and blues musician Blind Willie Johnson.
(“Motherless Children seen Hard Times” performed by Roscoe Holcomb) (http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/5604/rec/3)
Occurrences of outside influences were not uncommon, just overlooked by the early song collectors. The black musical influence was not singular to the banjo, but spread out to songs and genres as well, but were treated like any other song by Appalachians and not seen as separate or novel, as we will hear in this 1973 recording of Addie Graham (1900-1976) singing Sold and Stole from Africa, an anti-slavery song she had learned from black railroad workers.
(“Sold and Stole from Africa” performed by Addie Graham) (http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/2068/rec/4)
Part Three: Popularity and Confusion
While it’s true that Music was continually handed down from generation to generation in Appalachia, it could hardly be said that Appalachian music has been frozen in time. After all, this is the region that brought us Bluegrass, Country, and even the proto-punk sounds of Link Wray. Carrying it’s past while sculpting new musical genres alongside it, Appalachian music is a contradictory plethora of sound steeped in myth, legend, and fabrication.
Biographer Jeff Biggers wrote that “Appalachia needs to be embraced for it’s historic role as a vanguard region in the United States.” Vanguard may be a strange way to describe a region seen to many as old timey but this has mostly to do with how the outside world has packaged and distributed Appalachia.
|Julia and Wade Mainer|
(“Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane” performed by Wade and Julia Mainer)(http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/4373/rec/1)
(“Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane” performed by Bill Williams)(http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/4656/rec/4)
Another common occurrence is to list some songs as Country Songs and others as Jazz songs regardless if they really were or not.
We will hear two versions of the song “Black Is The Color” played by two different performers. The first, by Joan Salmon Campbell, would be listed as Jazz while the second, performed by Betty Smith, might be listed as Country or Hillbilly.
(“Black Is The Color” performed by Joan Salmon Campbell)(http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/2513/rec/3)
|The Carter Family|
Music wasn’t just mixed up when it was exported out of Appalachia, but it was also imported and many times accidentally. In the 1920s when Appalachian Music became all the rage on the radio, many professional songwriters outside the region tried to emulate the sound. Some of these songs became so popular that were brought into the region, and played by Appalachian musicians who thought they were old songs that had been around for hundreds of years. In 1928 The carter Family had a hit with Wildwood Flower and is often mistaken as an Appalachian Song, as well as the song Rank Strangers which is about Appalachia but written by professional songwriter Alfred E. Brumley. Let’s listen to these two songs.
(“Wildwood Flower” performed by Wade and Julia Mainer)(http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/4344/rec/3)
(“Rank Strangers” performed by Nora Carpenter) (http://cdm16020.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15131coll4/id/3404/rec/1)
Appalachian music has had a rich history of holding on to old traditions as well as incorporating new sounds, even if the outside world chooses not to see it in this respect. Weather it’s centuries old ballads and instruments, or new styles such as bluegrass, blues, or rock n’ roll, Appalachian music continues to thrive both within the world, and also in spite of it. To end this hour I’d Like to play a version of Liza Jane played by Andy Merritt in 1973. Here Merritt is singing an old Ballad but with a bit of modern popular Elvis Presley flair.
(“Liza Jane” performed by Andy Merritt)
Before I returned to school I worked on a decade long project called Louisville Is For Lovers which was an annual album release of Louisville musicians playing love songs. In the beginning, in 2000, the motivation was limited. At the time I realised there was a lot of good music being produced that was largely being ignored by the larger markets. I picked Love songs simply to try and have a common theme amongst a varied array of genres, but the only criteria was the music was original and recorded in Louisville. In the beginning I thought It would be a way to help good artists get noticed. And even though one band from that first release, My Morning Jacket, is now one of the largest selling bands on the market, most of the bands played for a couple years without any market success and gave up. So what began as an effort to help artists that may have not fit in the mold of popular music turned into a decade long effort to preserve regional music before it was too late. In the course of 10 years I collected and preserved music from hundreds of artists from a host of genres from rock to gospel and a capella to electronic and performers from the ages of 3 to 85.
I eventually had to let go of the project at the decade mark because it was becoming a full time job that didn’t pay and I had nothing to fall back on, but I stuck with it so long because it was important to save relevant regional music even if it wasn’t marketable to a larger audience. So I came to Berea and in a serendipitous moment someone noticed my resume and passed it along to the Special Collections and Archive and I was hired in the Sound Archives to again work in regional music. My job consists of reviewing field and festival recordings of music being played in Appalachia and putting selections online for educational use. In many ways it was just like what I had done before with Louisville is for Lovers. Most of the recordings range throughout the last 60 years from Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama and cover all sorts of musical genres from traditional ballads to modern country, shape note and lined-out hymnodies to gospel and from blues to bluegrass. Honestly before I came to Berea I didn’t know much about Appalachian music, I assumed it was mostly Bluegrass and Square Dance music because that is what the Kentucky old time music radio hour in Louisville played. I was amazed to hear all these different genres, and many times all mixed together. I even heard a recording from 1973 of a man named Andy Merritt at a traditional music festival in Carter County, KY, who liked to sing british ballads that were hundreds of years old but mimicking the voice of Elvis Presley.
Over the 3 years I have worked in the archives I have become enthralled in Appalachian musical history and chose to also study it when offered. My GSTR 210 class let us choose a topic related to Appalachian history to write our research paper on so I choose music. My topic was on family musical traditions and the recurring claim over the last 100 years that a changing world would disrupt and possibly end the tradition of playing and passing down music and musical skills. Many of these claims began when music was first able to be recorded, most famously by John Philip Sousa, the world famous marching band leader who published an article titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music.”Tthe article warned the reader that “sweeping across the country with the speed of a transparent fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul”
I focused on traditional music families that had played together and passed down songs to younger generations for at least 50 years. Several of the families were well known in the traditional music world such as Grandpa and Ramona Jones, who had played for 50 years on the grand Ole Opry until he died, now in her 90s, she continues to play still, and also includes her children. One couple I wrote about was lesser known husband and wife team Carl and Buzzy Leming who had played the berea College Celebration of Traditional Music back in the 1980s. I was able to find them and even though they were in their mid-nineties they came to Berea to talk to me. they talked to me about how they began playing together when they married after WWII and still play today, along with their kids. But they both had issues with the Traditional Music industry, they felt the institutions were too rigid on what constituted ‘traditional’ and so much was overlooked. They said they had been recording musicians and musical events for decades but couldn’t find an institution that wanted the recordings. They felt that in the future these songs would be seen as important ‘traditional’ recordings but it might be too late and many of the songs would be lost by then.
When I took APS 224 Appalachian Music I learned that the fight of what constituted Appalachian music has been going on ever since the first musicologists began studying Appalachian music. Indeed, in the pursuit of preserving a culture many institutions began putting limitations on what has constituted ‘culture.’ Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says “Cultural purity is an oxymoron.” Regardless, appalachian music is being packaged and presented in a very rigid format even though it’s history is lauded for being multi-cultural.
This year I asked the Berea college Celebration of Traditional music Board if I could recommend some acts for this year’s festival. I had a list of several artists that are continuing the tradition. I was told that none of the artists fit the criteria. All of my artists were under the age of 50, and although all of them played traditional instruments and songs they also played their own arrangements. And one artist specialized in ragtime and blues guitar. I was told that they looked for artists over the age of fifty that only played traditional ‘Appalachian’ songs that they learned from family or members of their community. Of the many issues with this rigid criteria, is that it is ignoring the history of the culture they are trying to preserve. in the last couple hundred years in Appalachia was it only people over fifty that played the music? was the music played only old british ballads? was the music only discovered from family members? Absolutely not. immigrants constantly pouring in from around the world to work the coal mines brought the songs and instruments that comprise of Appalachian music. Song books, radio, and drifters brought in music from everywhere, and took it out too.
In fact every musician I saw at the 2013 Celebration of Traditional Music mentioned that idea of ‘Traditional’ was troublesome and without new musicians and songwriters the genre would stagnate. The other day I was listening to a recording in our archives from the early 1970s from a traditional music festival in Kentucky and an artist said “Every folk song was written by somebody, and here is mine..”
The first person to shine the light on Appalachian music was Cecil Sharp, and english musicologist, but Sharp had an agenda. He wasn’t in Appalachia to collec ‘Appalachain’ music, he was collecting specifically English ballads that has survived in the mountains. So he excluded anything else. This is where the idea of Appalachian music being a pure form of ancient anglo ballads. Modern study of Sharp’s Appalachian research finds Sharp to despise everything about the Appalachian people that didn’t pertain to Ancestry. Sharp saw the Appalachian people as a “Lower race” filled with “tobacco, molasses, and niggers.”
The exclusionary process of looking at Appalachian music continued when radio and record companies took notice of Appalachia. The book we used in GSTR 210 was a great source for me, The United States of Appalachia by Jeff Biggers. Biggers looks into all the types of music played in Appalachia throughout history including Jazz and Blues, and some of the musicians from Appalachia including Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and W.C. Handy, and how they embodied the spirit of Appalachian ingenuity but are largely left out of Appalachian music history. “So, why do critics and historians consider [Bill] Monroe’s modern Bluegrass, and not Handy’s traditional blues, part of the “real” Appalachia?” Asks Biggers; “the simple answer is marketing: Since it’s inception in the early twentieth century, the recording industry and it’s radio and tv counterparts have always appealed to their customers through a tidy division of the races. Hillbilly, country, folk, and then bluegrass records were placed in the white slots; “Race” or “Black” music such as the blues or jazz, filled the other.”
I tried to pay special attention to the musicologists and “Song Collectors” that helped shaped the way we see Appalachian music as well as manipulate it such as Cecil Sharp and Jean Thomas, as well as show examples of what all was being played and by whom before they were divided into groups like “hillbilly” “race” and “Jazz”.
It was also important to show many different aspects of Appalachian music and how it really is Cosmopolitan, pulling sounds and instruments from all over the world, and not the lock box it is seen as, with very little changing overtime.
The truth is I have come to love the wide array of music Appalachia has produced over the centuries, and how it was really on the forefront of many musical genres, and it’s really sad to see it still being stifled by those who have the opportunity to show it’s unique and complex range.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. W. W. Norton & Company. 2007. P. 105-106, 113.
Biggers, Jeff. The United States of Appalachia. Counterpoint Press. 2006. P. XI, 3, 4, 6, 12.
Beyer, R. The Greatest Music Stories Never Told. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 2011. P.92-93.
Campbell, Joan Salmon. Black Is The Color. Berea College Sound Archive. Celebration of Traditional Music Collection. Reel AC-OR-005-050. 1977-10-28.
Carpenter, Nora. Rank Strangers. Berea College Sound Archive. Nora Carpenter Collection. Reel NC-OR-006. 1961-6-9.
Cohen, John. The High Lonesome Sound of Roscoe Holcomb. Steidl Press, 2012.
Day, James. Joseph and Mary [6th of January]. Berea College Sound Archive. Appalachian Center Collection. Reel 276-002-A-01. 1937.
Graham, Addie. Sold and Stole from Africa. Berea College Sound Archive. Barbara Kunkle Collection. Reel BK-OR-016-010-B. 1973.
Holcomb, Roscoe. Rose Connelly [ Down In The Willow Garden]. Berea College Sound Archive. Lee Knight Collection. Reel AC-OR-094-004. 1971-3-27.
Holcomb, Roscoe. Motherless Children seen Hard Times. Berea College Sound Archive. Phipps Family Collection. Reel PF-OR-003-016-10. 1978.
Johnson, Blind Willie. Motherless Children have a Hard time. Song. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/Mother
Karpeles. Maude. Cecil Sharp: His Life and Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. P.156-157.
Leming, B. (Personal Communication February 20th 2012, February 27th 2012, March 20th 2012) about 60+ years playing music with her husband. Interviewed by the author.
Leming, C. (Personal Communication February 20th 2012, February 27th 2012, March 20th 2012) about 60+ years playing music with his wife. Interviewed by the author.
Mainer, Wade and Julia. Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane. Berea College Sound Archive. Celebration of Traditional Music Collection. Reel 005-401-01. 1988.
Mainer, Wade and Julia. Wildwood Flower. Berea College Sound Archive. Celebration of Traditional Music Collection. Reel 005-131-05. 1979.
Merritt, Andy. Liza Jane Berea College Sound Archive. Fraley Family Reunion and Festival of Traditional Music. WR Collection. Reel WR-002-001-B-03. 1973-8.
Ritchie, Jean. On Jordan's Stormy Banks. Berea College Sound Archive. Celebration of Traditional Music Collection. Reel AC-OR-005-329.1985-10-25.
Smith, Betty. Black Is The Color. Berea College Sound Archive. Celebration of Traditional Music Archive. Reel 005-159-06. 1980-11-01.
Simmonds, Jeremy. The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches. Chicago: Chicago review Press. 2008. P.559.
Thomas, Jean. The Sun Shines Bright. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1940. P.88.
Williams, Bill. Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane. Berea College Sound Archive. Leonard Ward Roberts Collection. Reel LR-OR-082-B. 1961.
Young, Judy. Siúil A Rún. Berea College Sound Archive. Fern Rollyson Collection. Reel RF-CT-006-B-11. 1965.