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

Hope in Lee County, Virginia

When I was younger, growing up in Lee County, Virginia, I always wondered, “What more is outside of my hometown?” Who is outside of this bubble and what are their stories? Where do the roads take you when you get off of highway 58 or 421? When do you no longer see mountains? There is so much I have not seen, so many people I have yet to meet, and many experiences I have not turned into memories yet. Lee County, Virginia is located in the southwest corner of the state smooshed between Kentucky and Tennessee. Lee County is a predominantly white, conservative, and Christian county. For as long as I can recall, the close-mindedness I encountered has made me feel sick to my stomach. Although not true of everyone in my community, there is still a lack of mental health awareness, understanding of the LGBT+ community and other minorities, along with a history of drug abuse. Little did I know, my hometown had more beauty to offer and a few secrets up its sleeves.

During this past year, 2020, our country as a whole was made to answer the question of who matters and to whom. Many white Central Appalachians will shout that we all matter; however, our societal norms and government would beg to differ. On May 25, we lost another black man to police brutality due to the racist upbringing of our country: his name was George Floyd. After his murder, I was quite surprised to see protests to support Black Lives Matter in areas close to my home because I have had little faith in the humanity that surrounds me in Lee County. Unfortunately, I was always working and could not participate in the protests other people were organizing, so I decided we needed one in my town, especially my town.

Other people in my hometown actually had the same idea, which was another big surprise to me, so a few members in the community of Lee County organized a vigil in memory of George Floyd and others lost to police brutality. The vigil took place at a farmer’s market in Pennington Gap (a small town in Lee County), which I had only seen it used by the guys that sit and hang out in their trucks. About 30 minutes before the vigil started, a handful of us decided to meet at the middle school to march with one another to bring more attention and awareness to what was happening. I was so happy with how the vigil turned out, all of us standing with one another, lit candles in hand, feeling a sense of being united. The vigil is also how I met Jill and Ron Carson, the cofounders of the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center (AAACC).

Can you believe this beautiful center is in my hometown, mine?! I did not at first. It is a one-room brick building with photographs covering the walls. In one of the corners of the room sits a couple of seats taken out of our local theatre, which Ron remembers going to as a kid. This was when it was still segregated and if you were black you had to sit in the balcony seats. A group and I went to visit the center together, we were all seated in a circle and ready to learn about the story it held. When Lee County was still segregated, the building served as the only school for African American children from 1940 to 1965. Ron Carson’s great grandmother, a barber, obtained some wealth, used it to buy land, and then built the one-room schoolhouse in 1939. The Carsons fought long and hard with the school system to keep the land and the building. In 1987, they joined the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training Program at the Highlander Research and Education Program in eastern Tennessee, where they developed the vision for the center.

What is the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center? After getting their vision for the center they began collecting photos, handwritten and oral stories, and heirlooms from Black residents of Appalachia. All of this hard work was stripped away due to a fire in 1994. A local election was taking place around the same time and many locals thought the Carsons were trying to make a political statement, so in response, the Carsons’ Center was set on fire and they lost everything. This tragedy did not stop the Carsons. They went back out and started collecting again with the mission to give Black Appalachians a voice. They have been paving the path for this voice through anti-racism workshops (since Covid-19 they have been offering these virtually) and speaking at various conferences throughout the years, gaining more knowledge on how to push the need for Black Appalachians to be seen and heard. The mission of the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center is to preserve the history, heritage, and culture of Black Appalachians, while providing a space for discussion in hopes of finding ways to resolve the racial injustices within our country.

After finding the center, the way I look at my hometown has been transformed. I see real potential to unite if people actually take the time to listen to other people’s experiences and try to understand them. More than ever, I see that many people who reside in our county were and are continuously silenced by the majority. However, through seeing this, I also see that there is beauty in the broken roads that we journey on. I never want to stop being curious of what else there could be, and I want to keep learning. I challenge all of us to keep seeking out new knowledge, especially among the people in our own communities.

 Article written by Erika Wilson

Photographs by Roberta Thacker-Oliver

 

Banjos, Storytelling, and Nostalgia: A Student’s Reflection on 2020’s Celebration of Traditional Music

The Loyal Jones Appalachian Center hosted its first ever Celebration of Traditional Music back in 1974 as a way of honoring old time music and the ritual of passing it on from generation to generation in Appalachia, and has continued to do so each fall ever since.  Every October Berea Campus is filled with dance, jam sessions, and musical performances by highly acclaimed musicians from around the world.   This year the CTM looked quite a bit different this year due to the pandemic. Everything went virtual.

Despite the unusual circumstances, CTM Director Liza DiSavino, put together a stellar line up for 2020’s Celebration of Traditional music, and even though we weren’t able to come together face to face, there was a unique intimacy about year’s celebration that was absent in previous years. We got to watch musicians perform in their own homes or destinations of their choice. From the sunlit living room of Bob Lucas, to the back porch performance by Big Possum String Band at dusk, these artists allowed us a peek into their own personal lives. Today Berea College Junior, and member of the Folk Roots Ensemble, Hannah From, shares her personal reflections on this year’s CTM and how it impacted her.

As a musician herself, Hannah was able to pick up on several nuances regarding instruments and techniques particularly with the banjo. As she watched the banjo player from the Big Possum String Band perform she noticed he was playing a mixture of bluegrass and old-time banjo. She said, “There is some plucking but also some backwards strumming. I thought that was interesting to see.” During Kevin Howard’s performance she even got her banjo out and started playing along with him. She said, “It was easy to play along with him because he talked about the tunings.”

Hannah also noted how each performer had their own style and way of addressing the audience through the screen. Guy Davis used humor to engage the audience using a deadpan voice making it hard to tell sometimes whether he was joking or not. Hannah laughed out loud when he joked about using his sister’s retainer to hold his harmonica. With Bob Lewis she enjoyed the organic feeling of his performance. She said, “It felt like I was in the room with him.” Kevin Howard’s performance felt more individualized. “Unlike the others before it, it seemed like he was talking to only one person instead of an audience.” The Big Possum Band made her feel the most nostalgic of all. “It was like I was sitting outside on a fall night. One the things I miss the most from pre-COVID-19 times is going to live music performances.” When they performed Durang’s Hornpipe, one of her favorite fiddle and banjo tunes she  was so excited to hear it that she actually got up and danced around her room.

One of things Hannah appreciated the most about this year’s CTM was the abundance of storytelling from each performer. She said, “I come from a family of storytellers. It’s a special part of Appalachia and it is sometimes forgotten when people think about the Mountains.” She was particularly excited to hear Sheila Arnold’s performance and loved both of her stories. She even recognized both of them. The first, from a book her Ma used to read to her and the second, a fable that you can find almost all over the world.

“What I like about CTM is the fact that there are so many music types that get shared. From claw hammer banjo to ballads to blues. The people who ran this really did a good job of mixing up things and getting old and new voices.” Says Hannah. She watched seasoned performers like Alice Gerrard (who influenced Hannah’s own style in ballad singing), alongside young performers like the Big Possum String Band. “There is an issue with young folks not taking up the traditional music because it’s seen as outdated.” Says Hannah. She herself, is challenging the stereotypes and carrying on the old traditions as she performs Old Time music through the Berea Folk Roots Ensemble. She performed virtually among her peers on Sunday afternoon, along with the Bluegrass, Mariachi, and Black Music Ensemble. She said it was weird seeing herself perform and that it made her miss her classmates all the more.

We are grateful to Liza DiSavino, the artists, and the enormous amount of work it took to pull off this year’s CTM. What an amazing privilege it is to be able to enjoy these performances from the comfort of our homes, and the hours of filming and editing taken to make it possible have not gone unnoticed. If you have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy these fabulous performances we encourage you can watch them here! You will not be disappointed.

Article Written by Heather Dent

Reflection on “Do Black Lives Matter in Appalachia?”

When I watched Do Black Lives Matter in Appalachia from the Freedom Stories Project, I was overwhelmed with pride to see pictures of my home in Lynch, Kentucky. Some photos it shared were of my neighbors and even one from my father’s birthday party. I couldn’t help think of all the stories that were in the images alone. Then Moma Linda Goss begins her story with bells ringing; I believed the bells to be somewhat of a wake-up call or a call for attention to the history of the Black experience in Appalachia. Moma Linda Goss’s story was captivating, and her strong voice reminded me of home. I couldn’t help but think of how important storytelling is when talking about the black experience in Appalachia. Our stories are all that we have: our history has been erased in many different ways, but our stories will live on through us.

Do Black Lives Matter in Appalachia? I would also like to add my response to the question. Black Lives Matter in general, but from my lived experience, I will say that Black Lives are often overlooked in Appalachia. When I was in high school, one of my friends came to school and found a noose in his locker; nothing was ever done, and he moved away shortly after.

I can recall having to fight tooth and nail to convince my high school English teacher that the racist remarks coming from the back of the room were not just jokes. Nothing was ever done—I was gaslighted and made to seem like the angry Black kid who couldn’t take a joke. I will say that the education system in these rural Appalachian places needs some serious work when it comes to the topic of race. Despite the challenges I faced in school, I feel like I have been blessed with a community that loves and supports me, a community I wouldn’t trade for the world because I know that my life matters to them.

~ Shaylan Clark, Berea College Senior

From Violin to Fiddle: An Interview with Ann Whitley

“I have always wanted to sing since I was very small,” says Ann Whitley, an avid singer and fiddler player of Dahlonega, Georgia. For many children in Lumpkin County, she is simply known as Mrs. Ann. She is a staff member and former president of Pick and Bow Traditional Music School, an after school program that teaches children grades 4th through 12th traditional Appalachian Music. I am very fortunate to have come up through this amazing program, and I grew up listening to her sing and play. I am now a student at Berea College and was curious to find out how Mrs. Ann found her way to old time music and recently had the opportunity to interview her.

I asked her about her parents and if they could also play music. She related, “Mother played the piano pretty well, and they bought one for the house when I was taking lessons . . . . She also sang alto at church, so I sat next to her. That was a big boost for me in my developing the ability to sing harmony, because I always had her harmony alto part in my ear during church. Our dad couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket, bless his heart, but he loved the fact that we all were musical, and he supported my brother and me in every musical endeavor we wanted. My brother and I started singing together probably when he was in high school and I was in junior high. We still love to sing together.”

One of my favorite stories Mrs. Ann tells is from when she first started playing the violin and her mother’s reaction: “She (mother) would come to the door of the room that I was playing my violin and get this silly little grin on her face and say, ‘Can you play that tune, far far away?’ I tell that to the beginning fiddle students and especially their parents because it’s not a pretty sound when you’re learning to play the violin or the fiddle.”

On top of working with Pick and Bow, Mrs. Ann is also in a group called the Rosin Sisters, a group of three women, Mrs. Barbra Panter, Mrs. Jan Smith, and Mrs. Ann Whitley.  Together they perform old-time songs with hauntingly beautiful three-part harmony.

I asked how she went from playing in All-State Orchestra in high school to playing in an Old-time band.  She shared,

“I came onto the old-time music scene in Atlanta in 85 or 86…. I already played violin but I wanted it to be a fiddle, not a violin…. We were all country dancing, square dancing, contra dancing, and then 9-11 happened. Our hearts were hurting. We were all sitting around in a circle going around asking ‘How are you doing?’ and someone said, ‘We need to sing!’ and Jan said, ‘How about every Thursday night at my house?’ So about a dozen of us went to her house and we sat around her table. And there wasn’t any music except for words. If people said, ‘Oh, I think the group would like singing this song.’ We’d print up the words and pass them around the table. All of us were good singers and most of us could sing harmony and we really meshed. That still goes on every month or so… Well, Jan and Barbra got to talking, “Let’s get together and try some of these songs with our instruments.” Cause this was all acapella singing. They got together once or twice and said, “You know, let’s get Ann in on this,” and so I got invited. That was in 2005 or 6. Basically that’s how the Rosin sisters got started.”

I then asked her about how music had affected her, and she said, “Honestly, Hannah, I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for this old-time music scene I got into in the mid-80s. I don’t know where I’d be because I was at a big crossroads of my life back then and I needed a community in the worst way. And it was this old-time scene that just nurtured me and gave me more friends than I could ever imagine I would ever have. From going to the first cliff-top in ’90 and meeting so many people… Going to Augusta in ’88 and meeting all those people and going to Swannanoa all those years. I know I would be a totally different person, and I wouldn’t be such a happy person. It was fortune that got me involved with the right people at the right time. That’s just really what life is all about: being at the right place at the right time.”

At the end of our talk, she talked a little about Pick and Bow and how she was passing the torch of Presidency on to a younger person. She said it was about time and that a new person will bring new ideas for the programs. She ended our talk by saying, “It’s just so wonderful to have so many young people, that’s the beauty of passing it on to the young people, that they’re in our lives. You are in our lives and you will pass it on and this music will keep going. And, that’s a good, good thing.”

Article Written by Hannah From

Black Appalachian Journalists, 1843-2020

Last week Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson was banned from  covering George Floyd’s protests in the paper due to a tweet on her personal account which the paper claimed to show bias.  In response to her removal, people across the United States started showing support for Alexis and protesting on Twitter.

In one interview Alexis said, “Black journalists have been covering these stories since the beginning of time.” Abolitionist and journalist Martin Delany, published the first African American newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains, The Mystery in 1843 in Pittsburgh. He then went on to collaborate with Fredrick Douglas on the North Star  out of Rochester, New York.

In West Virginia during 1904, the McDowell Times was the leading African-American newspaper in the state. Creator and Editor M. T. Whittico was the driving force behind this newspaper and he kept it flourishing until his death in 1939.

In 1907 Robert L. Vann  joined forces with the Pittsburgh Courier helping it become a force for social change for blacks in America. It was the most influential African American newspaper in the country.

Without journalists like Delaney, Whittico, Vann, and Johnson, our country would lack the crucial perspective of African Americans in America. Because of their courage and perseverance we are able to see history through a more accurate lens.

We here at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center stand with Alexis Johnson and other journalists of color who face the threat of being silenced. Their stories must be heard.

Home Away From Home

In recent weeks our daily lives have been disrupted. We’ve shifted from our usual interactions with friends, family, and colleagues to different forms of communication. In this time I am reminded of ties to home and those summer evenings with the family around a fire pit. Slapping mosquitoes off our legs and waiting for the sun to ease below the hills so that the night could cool off while we stoked the flames. I am reminded of how grateful I should be for those winding evenings with loved ones. It is these moments of drought that force us to appreciate what we have in front of us. In turbulent times if we have no concept of where we came from then we will end up turned around inside out.

In his Appalachian Values essay Loyal Jones wrote, “We are oriented around places. We never forget our native places, and we go back as often as possible.” I have always called Estill County home, but as the years have moved on I have found myself tied closer to Berea. Through college, into my first professional experience, and getting married here. It has become obvious that Berea was much more than just a pit stop in my life. But I can never forget my home in Irvine. As my wife and I curve through Red Lick, a backroad between Berea and Irvine, it comes to me how blended home can be. The lines of Madison and Estill County have become transfused in my mind, a geographical boundary that has existed to me since I was a child and we would visit family in Richmond. Loyal’s quote about how we orient ourselves around place continually rings truth. Counties in Eastern Kentucky or boroughs in New York, these places and the people around us are what have the greatest influence on how we tread through life.

Home might be an area code or a region. It could just be where you feel the love. Even those who drift have some place that pulls on the needle of their inner magnet. For some that place may not be where they were raised but perhaps a center on campus or a group in the community. In a time when they expect that support and familiarity they have found themselves uprooted. But the spirit of this campus community including places like the Appalachian Center remain with them, prepared to serve in any way possible. In uncertain times we may not always feel at home, but those lasting impressions of our origins are engraved into our being. We may be distant, but we are still present.

Article Written by Rick Childers

Crossing Time and Space

The old family house had been worn by weather and time. The floors and remaining furniture all covered in layers of dust and dirt. Teenagers left empty beer cans laying around. In the living room, next to the wood furnace, hangs a cross. It’s faded maroon and green patterns are made of folded cigarette packs weaved together. I could see the Surgeon General’s warning text wrapping around the folded packs. Centered on the back is a small leather string looped together that hung it from a nail in the wall. This handmade cross belonged to my Great Uncle who had just recently passed away and I knew I had to save it.

Sometimes known as trench art, prison art, or tramp art. These types of pieces have gathered a reputation as intense reminders of artists’ most challenging experiences. Click the following link for more on the genre of prison art. https://www.justiceaction.org.au/art-in-prison

My Uncle had been part of the large migration out of Appalachia that took place after World War II. Many mountain people went north seeking opportunities in industrial work at places such as car manufacturers. According to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia during the Great Migration of 1940 to 1970 millions of Eastern Kentuckians, West Virginians, Tennesseans and other Appalachians migrated to cities such as Cincinnati and Detroit (Abramson and Haskell 903).

While living in Michigan my Great Uncle went to prison after driving drunk and hitting someone. From what I’ve been told by my family his jail time would have been sometime around the 50s and 60s, dating this piece of art. This cross traveled from its creator’s prison cell all the way back home to Lee County, Kentucky. I took it down from the old family’s wall and brought it home with me. Christopher Miller, our curator here at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, was able to tell me this piece is made of two types of cigarette packs. The brown colors are Camel packs and the green are Kool. Every time I look upon this piece I’m struck by its many layers. From my Uncle’s life story, what it has meant to me, to the broader cultural context of such an artifact.

Even years after his death my Uncle’s cross continues to tell the story of a life and the story of a people. Pieces of family history such as this cross tell stories that span across generations. People from all cultural backgrounds have these types of heirlooms and artifacts. It is only through considering and learning about these pieces that we can come to understand those who interacted with them firsthand. It is then that we can appreciate the meaning of those seemingly ordinary objects in our own daily lives.

Consider your own life and family for a moment. What kind of objects, tools, or works of art have you interacted with today that will inform the people of tomorrow?

Article Written by Rick Childers

Mapping My Appalachia

Earlier in the semester Dr. Chris Green asked me to sit in on one of his classroom lectures, and as sat there I couldn’t help but notice a stunning display of over 20 hand-drawn maps of student’s hometowns in Appalachia covering the back wall. I spent time studying these maps, keen to see where the students were from, what places were important to them, and how they expressed that in their map design. I was transported back to when I was in 7th grade and obsessed with making my own maps. At one point I even drew each and every continent (complete with all the countries!) This wall inspired me to make my own map of Appalachia, but first I needed to learn more about this project.

These maps were a result of Dr. Bobby Starnes’ Appalachian Cultures class, which is designed to help students to see Appalachia as being made up of many and diverse cultures. When I asked Bobby to expand more on the class she said, “We cover (and uncover) the histories of Appalachian cultures. I focus on unexpected historical events. For example, when we study the Indian Removal, we focus on those Appalachians who opposed the removal and even hid Cherokee so they could avoid the removal. (And that the Cherokee are the first Appalachians.)”

I asked Bobby to tell me a bit more about the maps. She said, “The purpose of the maps is to ground what we learn in students’ real lives and real places. They also serve as a bonding element for students as they share where they are from.”

As I learned more about this project I also discovered that this project of Appalachian’s mapping their own hometowns dates back all the way to 1948 when Art Professor Les Pross taught the “Man and Humanities” course from 1948-1980. He saved over 7,000 of the maps students drew, over 700 of which are now made available to view through Mappalachia, a website designed through a course taught by Dr. Jan Pearce and Dr. Chad Berry called “Mapping Appalachia: Making Meaning with Digital Media.” The goals of the class were to teach students the context behind many of the drawings, to teach students how to “read” the images from various theoretical perspectives, and to design and construct a website that would make the drawings accessible to scholars and to the public.

Finally I turned to Bobby Starne’s directions on how to make a map of my own Appalachia and got to work! Creating this map revived so many happy memories of places and people that make this little town I live in feel like home. This exercise is cathartic, rooting you to a sense of place. I encourage everyone, from Appalachia or not, to participate and make their own map of home. The instructions are below.  If you post your map to social media, please tag us #ljac or #mappalachia.  Have fun!

 

Article Written by Heather Dent

The Art of Finding Beauty

This November, we were honored to host a beloved local artist, Laura Poulette, for a Dinner on the Grounds. Laura draws inspiration for her work from the incredible biodiversity right here in Appalachia. As a fellow artist, this particular Dinner on the Grounds holds a special place in my heart. Even before her presentation began I knew we were kindred spirits. In preparation for the event, she placed several nature knick-knacks such as chestnuts, gingko leaves, feathers, and pieces of cedar wood on each table. My own coat pockets at the time were full of acorns and pebbles of my own, and I was delighted to find someone else who shares my appreciation for the little things in life.

Laura talked about her path toward becoming an artist, her creative process and offered advice for other creatives such as myself. I loved her story about how her unique artistic style was born. She had gone for a winter stroll, and the absence of the elaborate foliage and colors of spring, she was able to take notice of the more subtle colors of winter. Inspired, she began to collect pieces of wood varying in color, which on their own were unextraordinary, but when she aligned them together by color they made a beautiful rustic rainbow. Her ability to recognize beauty in her natural surroundings and help others see it too is truly remarkable.

I was not the only one who was inspired by her work. Sam Cole, from the Office of Academic Affairs, was so moved by Laura’s presentation that she wrote a poem, and was gracious enough to allow me to share this section of the poem:

Observational skills are as close to spiritual practice

As prayer. Look, here, near the path, the flowers

Of rebirth.

Hallelujah.

And here, the leaf showers of a new cycle to come.

Praise the name.

Let us unit our voices and rejoice

For sun, rain, rock, and fawn.

For the snow, wild grape, the icicle, and vine.

Hallelujah.

As winter approaches let us all take a leaf out of Laura’s book. Let us each take time to go for daily walks in this beautiful land that surrounds us. Let us stop and notice our surroundings with fresh eyes, taking nothing for granted. Let us open our hearts and minds to the hundreds of creative opportunities at our fingertips and take the time to make something new.

Article Written by Heather Dent