Music of the Southern Appalachians by Mike Seeger

This area is to the west of the flat tidewater and piedmont areas of the Atlantic coastline and includes some broad valleys with good agricultural land, such as the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, as well as many smaller valleys, some just wide enough for a little bottomland next to a creek. The eastern mountains are not nearly as tall as the Rockies; they generally rise 1,000 to 3,000 feet with a maximum of 6,000 feet, and are forested with a variety of deciduous and evergreen trees and many smaller bushes and flowers. Some mountains are green, rolling hills, but in certain areas, such as in the southeastern area of Kentucky and some of West Virginia, the mountains are quite steep and rocky.

After Native Americans, the first people to settle in this region came from the British Isles in the mid-1700’s. These early settlers included Scots-Irish but were primarily English. A small number of immigrants later came to this area from Germany. Although there were some large landholders, most settlers farmed just enough land to provide for themselves. There were certainly some craftspeople and some small industry to supply local needs, but until the late 1800’s there was little industrial development. Little slavery existed in the area largely because the hilly land didn’t lend itself to the plantation system of the flat land to the east and south. The mountains were more difficult to farm, less accessible, and therefore not as desirable as the tidewater and piedmont, so that many of the less wealthy settlers, or those wanting more independence and isolation, sought to live there.

For the most part, people were pretty self sufficient in these mountain areas, although they often had furniture, tools and food utensils made by experienced regional craftspeople. Clearing of land and the building of houses and barns in the new country were often community events and were followed by ample food, socializing, music playing and dancing. Most food was raised by each household and only a few items were store bought. Little money was needed or used. The work could be hard, but many older people say that it was a more satisfying, less hurried existence than today.

Communities were also nearly self sufficient culturally, and almost everyone could either sing, play an instrument, dance, or tell a story, usually in a style distinctly their own. English-language culture was dominant. The most popular instruments were the jew’s harp and fiddle. Less often one would encounter a plucked or hammer dulcimer, some other home made instrument or possibly a flute or fife. Old stories, tunes and songs were unwritten and passed down through oral tradition and were traded with travelers and new settlers. Songs were sung solo, by a group of family members or by a church congregation, almost always without instrumental accompaniment. Songs ranged from the oldest British ballads and humorous songs to religious songs, and naturally, to newer creations by community members inspired by the new environment. Southern music was and still is a very important part of life for most rural (now working class) people.

The most important element in the creation of American musical styles has been the interaction of English/European and African cultures. Spirituals, jazz, ragtime, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, rap – and in the rural southeast, the banjo-and-fiddle string band and many of the later developments in commercial country music – were all products of this interaction, which was all too often plagued by the cruelties of exploitive racism.

During the first two centuries that African slaves and their descendents were in America, Anglo Americans took little notice of African-American music, thinking it too “primitive.” This music ranged all the way from sounds transported directly from their homeland to the composed European music some slaves played for their masters. During this period, African-Americans created new genres of song and melody as they mixed the music of their native homes with the harmonic and rhythmic structures they found in the new country. In the early and mid-1800’s a few Anglo Americans began taking notice of African-American banjo music and songs, adapting them to their own use. Some were professional entertainers who learned to pick the banjo and composed songs based on what they heard African-Americans doing, often for blackface minstrel shows which portrayed African/Americans in derogatory stereotypes. It was during this period that the mixing of peoples in the armies of the civil war, the development of the minstrel show, and to some extent, the popularity of black religious music, accelerated the process of African – English musical interaction, a process which continues today. It must be emphasized that until very recently this process consisted largely of white exploitation of black creativity.

With emancipation in the 1860’s, more African-American people moved into the mountain areas, which tended to be less racially polarized. In addition to bringing their native banjo to the region, by the late 1800’s African-Americans had also introduced newly evolved guitar styles along with a new type of song, the intensely personal blues. In time the banjo and the guitar were blended with the old fiddle and song traditions to create the beginnings of a truly American string band tradition. Around the turn of the century some European instruments such as the French harp (harmonica), mandolin, and the recently invented autoharp made their appearance by way of mail order catalogues, traveling salesmen, and the increasing contact with national urban culture.

Although some music notation, usually from northern cities, came with instruments, rural men and women didn’t “play by note” (read music) and each devised their own personal way of playing rural-style music on their new instruments. This period between about 1870 and 1930 was the golden age of old-time southern Appalachian music. The old songs and tunes were still vital, and there was still a role for them in everyday life, yet there was much new music being created.

As railroading, timbering, coal mining and cotton mills began to bring industrialization to much of the mountain south around 1900, southern traditions began changing more rapidly as people moved from subsistence agriculture to industrial work. New inventions, such as automobiles, radio, and the phonograph pretty much finished the movement to a dollar economy, as it was no longer necessary–or desirable–to be self-sufficient, as one could buy anything now, including music–if one had the money.

By the late 1920’s, the effect on southern culture was revolutionary. Formerly, a family would gather around and listen to a story or unaccompanied solo ballad (narrative song) at night before bedtime or would sing while doing chores, but now they listened to a radio or phonograph performance by a professional musician in a studio miles away. Or perhaps they had a public dance at an auditorium instead of a community work gathering at someone’s home. By the mid 1900’s fewer and fewer singers and musicians were transmitting local songs or participating in old-time family music, since virtually all were influenced by or learning totally from recordings by professional country-style musicians. The old songs and ways, which had built on centuries of tradition, especially unaccompanied singing and the quiet instruments such as the trump (jew’s harp), fiddle, dulcimer, and later the banjo, simply went out of fashion. Performance styles became more professional, homogenized, and showy. New songs were influenced increasingly by urban music, and their tunes and themes became less varied. The banjo and fiddle gave way to the guitar, which became the most prominent instrument amongst both professional and amateur players. Newer styles of music created for public performance, such as hillbilly, country and western, and bluegrass evolved from the older traditionals, which had been deeply rooted in the rural communities of southern Appalachia.

Since many of the emerging professional writers and performers were raised in a rural environment, some of that traditional feeling, some of the musical elements, the style of expression, and the use of story persisted in country-style music. But if you hear someone making music in a southern Appalachian home today nearly all of the songs and styles will have been learned from a recent commercial recording.

The questions are often asked, “Why was traditional old-time music so important in the rural South?” And since it is so rare anymore, “Why did they give up the tradition so quickly?” Neither question can really be answered satisfactorily, but there are some certainties.

If one values music highly, as most southerners do, and the only way you could have it is to make it yourself, as was the case in the pre-media rural South, then you had to make it yourself. There wasn’t a tradition (or the possibility in this non-affluent culture) of paying people to play for them. So they were content, perhaps proud, to be able to provide for themselves musically. Perhaps it was also that there was such diversity: there were long, centuries-old narratives; songs expressing humor, sadness, love, anger; songs about local recent occurences; and so forth. There were tunes, mostly on the fiddle, that could be slow and lonesome or that would make you want to dance. It was their theater, their classics, their popular songs, their dance music: they were self-sufficient agriculturally and culturally. It was a body of music that was a big part of their heritage, belonged to them, and was always accessible all day, anywhere.

There are a number of certain reasons why home/self-made music went out of style earlier in this century, and nearly all of them relate to the establishment of an industrial consumer economy. Though cultural change and development is inevitable, prior to the advent of electronic media change occured far more slowly and for different reasons. This change to the commercial media domination of culture, however, killed a rich, long-lived tradition and within about 25 years left commercial music products in its place. In traditional rural communities, money had not been used very much, and music was not treated like a commodity; it was more like a natural resource. For a brief period when electronic media first appeared, producers mined some portions of traditional music such as fiddle tunes and string band music. Then when those products were sold (in effect, the natural resource, like a mine, was worked out), the market had to develop new country-oriented sounds to sell more products.

Why did formerly rural people buy into this? For one thing, it was certainly easier to tune a radio than to learn to play an instrument. And as often stated here, southerners love their music, and many thought that professional musicians were “better.” (They sounded smoother but a little less “country,” usually.) Also, in the beginning, radio and recordings were new “toys” and they could be perceived as progress, as part of a desirable prescription for socially and economically upward behavior as one became a part of national culture. The older songs were associated with old times and hard work, with being “hicks” or “hillbillies,” someone from the “lower” rural class.

Rural people tried to travel the fine line of bettering themselves yet retaining some of the togetherness of community with other southerners by embracing a new country-oriented music which had a broader and more popular appeal. Another factor in the decline of homemade music was that most of the old structures of family and work were being destroyed by or adapted into the dollar economy. Long days were spent working in factories and there was often too little time for family and community gatherings. It must be added that a lot of the newly created music was really good and interesting. The problem is that most of the old ways, both positive and negative, were overwhelmed and nearly buried by the new diversions of automobiles and commercial forms of entertainment.

Over the past 25 years or so people all across the United States have been searching for ways to reconcile modern life and material progress with some elements of older traditional cultures to fit their late twentieth century need for self-made entertainment and recreation. Some people search for cultural identity, for roots, and a few people in the South are exploring these older styles of music and taking them back into their everyday lives. They have been joined and encouraged by musicians throughout the country who love southern music, especially the fiddle-banjo-and-guitar string band and early country harmony singing. In some areas such as the Galax, Virginia/Mt Airy, North Carolina region, you will find perhaps a hundred people playing these kinds of music, most of them reared in the area and mostly in their thirties or older. At the Fiddler’s Conventions in these areas you would hear several hundred old-time style musicians from all over the United States and some from foreign countries. They rarely play for money, and very few are full-time professional musicians–they work at factories, as carpenters, computer programmers, in their own businesses, though rarely as executives. Through the alternative media, they have chosen the elements that they wish to make into their own sub-culture.

Some associated elements of southern folk culture such as the story telling and flatfoot and buck dancing are also enjoying a period of revival as part of this movement. Other aspects of the tradition such as unaccompanied ballad singing have not been so fortunate, and are now very rare.

What place can this music play in today’s life? Perhaps I may write more personally here. I would be playing this music whether or not it is my profession. (I’m pleased that it is.) This is the music that I was raised with (though by college-educated parents), and it includes a lot that I have learned more recently from older traditional rural musicians or their recordings. It has those great old love songs and ballads, the story songs. It has blues, topical songs and humorous songs and a world of instrumentals that I enjoy playing when I am alone at home or with my string-band-music friends. This music connects me to the past, it expresses feelings and thoughts about life. It is a pleasure every day, either as I play myself or as I listen to others–usually, these days, to younger musicians, who will be experiencing the same pleasure for many years to come. I hope you experience some of that pleasure, too.

Courtesy of Mike Seeger

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