What is Appalachian Music?

Hannah From, this article’s author

I grew up in the North Georgia Mountains. I love my home. I love the rolling hills, cornbread and butterbeans, and my community–the ones who raised me. But I think the thing I love most is the music. I grew up listening to and learning old-time and bluegrass music which turned into one of my greatest passions as I play in the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble and Berea Folk Root Ensemble.

Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble

My labor supervisor at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center recently asked, “How do you define Appalachian music?” This was a difficult question and one I’ve been pondering for weeks.

One might be tempted to respond, “Appalachian Music is music played by the people who are from the region.” But it’s not quite that simple. Take the Carolina Chocolate Drops for example. They are widely considered Appalachian, but many of the band members are from different parts of America.

One could also say “Appalachian Music is Bluegrass.” But that leaves out mountain blues, ballads, African Spirituals, and shape-note singing. How can you include one without the others? So then one might say, “Well, then Appalachian music is old-time music.” But how do you define this? What qualifies as old-time music. It’s nearly impossible to pin down.

Lee Sexton @ Berea’s Celebration of Traditional Music

Appalachia, in many ways is similar to the United States as a whole. It is a place where people of different backgrounds and cultures come to live, build communities, and as they interact with one another their cultures become entwined, each leaving behind bits and pieces of their own traditions. This is particularly true of Appalachian music.

The Spanish brought the guitar. Italians brought an instrument that would later become the mandolin, an instrument that the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, played. The Scots-Irish brought the violin songs—or fiddle tunes—as well as many of the ballads which were handed down through oral tradition. Germans brought the dulcimer, an instrument that would make an important appearance in the 50s and 60s on the lap of the amazing Mrs. Jean Ritchie. And last but certainly not least, the African influence. When Africans were brought to America as slaves, they brought along their polyrhythms and the banjo, arguably the most significant and influential instrument in the Appalachian region.

Amythyst Kiah @ the Celebration of Tradition Music, 2016

So in conclusion, there is no one right answer to the question, “What is Appalachian Music?” It is what you make it, in all its many shapes and forms.  It is—like all folk music—A starting place for people to grow off of. There isn’t just one way to play this “genre” and there isn’t just one group of people who can play it.

Article by Hannah From