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This is too long for tumblr but is actually pretty brief all in all and I left a bit out in order to not make it quite so long, but here is an article in Issue #2 of Appalachian Monsters (store here) about how capitalism, racism, and sexism have influenced and changed our perceptions of traditional Appalachian music, specifically the banjo and old-time music.
Appalachian music is one of the most prominent and visible aspects of Appalachian culture. It can be seen everywhere throughout the region and affects many aspects of Appalachian life. However, what is perceived to be traditional Appalachian music may not be seen as such by actual Appalachians. With the growth of commercial capitalism and the dominance of a pop culture enamored with a misunderstood folk culture, Appalachian music has been twisted into something of a falsity that may be so engrained it can even become unclear for Appalachians themselves. When picturing Appalachian musicians, many people would most likely conjure up images of white male bluegrass bands, however, this image is incredibly misleading. Bluegrass was not popular in Appalachia until the late 1940s, and there are certainly other genres that are inherently more Appalachian. Old-time string bands or singular folk rebels may paint a more accurate picture, but a murky generalization is still very present. While they certainly existed, and still exist today, their origins, participants, and influences are more diverse than may be known by many. The same can be said of country music. The shapes that these genres have taken as an effect of becoming a product of mass consumerism have evolved stereotypes that are non-inclusive, untrue, and hurtful.
Old-time string bands and folk music are undoubtedly weaved into Appalachian culture, and are certainly an Appalachian phenomenon, although one that has changed throughout time and some aspects of its creation have been widely ignored. These traditions first began to appear in the late 1700s and began with single instruments but morphed into a traditional band, often involving fiddle, banjo, guitar, and dulcimer. Many inhabitants of Appalachia were of the Scots-Irish descent. They brought their fiddles to America with them and continued a strong culture of music, especially the ballad, and oral tradition. Their cultures often began to mold with other cultures who had settled in the Appalachians, such as Germans, Italians, Native Americans, and the British, to create something unique. The Cherokee greatly inspired the Scots-Irish storytellers, although this is not well-documented due to Cherokee reliance on oral history. However, an even more influential culture that has had a huge impact on Appalachian music but has often been left out is that of the African Americans living in, or passing through, Appalachia. This can best be illustrated through the banjo, a very important instrument to Appalachian culture.
Banjo is an African instrument that African slaves brought to America. Banjo was important to African culture before arrival in America. Griots in the Savannah region of North Africa were respected musicians and oral historians and many became slaves. They relied on banjo to communicate their ideas and carry out their daily routines. The instrument was largely ignored by Americans at first and left to develop as an important part of slave culture. As drumming was outlawed on many plantations, slaves often used the banjo to keep rhythm, thus creating what is now the clawhammer, or down-stroking, style. Banjo songs were often solo, personal tragedies drawn from slave songs, and sounded nothing like what most people today associate with banjo music. The banjo was seen as a “blacks only” instrument from the beginning in the South but by the early 1800s, it began to spread to Appalachia and began to permeate the mountains.
Even in such early decades, the ideology of isolated mountaineers does not hold up. Appalachians were influenced by popular music and played Victorian-era sheet music along with the rest of the country. Those who knew of banjos learned from local African Americans, but banjo playing by whites was not more widespread until larger exchanges took place between the two groups. Slavery was not abundant in the Appalachians, although it did exist. However most of these exchanges took place outside of the institution of slavery. There were several African American miners, traders, and later railroad workers, and these workers helped infuse the banjo throughout the culture. During the Civil War, these meetings increased greatly. Religious revivals also caused a mixing of the two cultures as they began creating religious music together and traditional hymns picked up African influences and beats. Blacks were also often hired to play for dances, and it was not uncommon for blacks and whites to mingle together while playing or dancing and this often led to improvised playing together as well as lasting documented friendships that allowed for more musical sharing. African Americans also sometimes used fiddle in their songs, although it is unknown when and how these two instruments first joined. Nonetheless, by 1820, these sounds had traveled throughout Appalachia and the old-time string band was born, mixing parts of each culture, and allowing each culture to participate without much racial separation.
Unfortunately, the first commercialization of this style of music was through the minstrel shows that became popular in the mid-1800s. Most participants of this type of traveling show were white Northerners, although some Southerners and blacks also participated in hopes to travel, have exciting experiences, rise above poverty, or become famous. They performed for middle-class white Northern audiences, and wandered throughout the South to collect material from prominent black musicians they met in their travels. Often these songs were turned into awful sorts of mockery of African-Americans, although this was not always the case. Though the circumstances were unjust and inopportune, this allowed the music-style to travel throughout the country and was one of America’s first popular culture renditions of a folk culture and thus began the uncomfortable relationship between Appalachia and the rest of the country. Minstrel shows were extremely popular in the North and traditional Appalachian music became a well-known and permanent establishment of culture throughout the country. Instruments and playing styles were improved and customized, and the Appalachian string band was created in a new way for a broader Northern audience.
The string band consisted of a mesh of cultures that blended together to create an Appalachian cultural phenomenon: the Scots-Irish fiddle, German dulcimer, Italian mandolin, and African banjo. As Cecilia Conway put it, “The banjo’s resilience in the mountains testifies to Appalachians’ continuing appreciation for good music. Indeed, in a historical context, the five-string banjo is an original folk instrument, for it embodies and encodes the cultural exchange that is the best of America and her music.”
A great example of this new creation was fifteen-year-old Roba Stanley, a singer and guitarist in the early days of recording. She created a mix of blues and traditional music as well as a personalization of traditional ballads. Yet she stopped recording, most likely because of pressures faced by her because of her age and gender. Although banjo and dulcimer were traditionally played by women, it was often not seen as marketable by the recording industry and white men were pressured into learning these skills while women and people of color were largely ignored. Many famous male musicians cite learning from female relatives. Clarence Ashley learned banjo from his aunts, Earl Scruggs learned from his mother, and Ralph Stanley from a sister. The first commercial recording of a banjo player was of a woman, Samantha Bumgarner in 1924. In 1880 middle-class Northern women began playing banjo due to the popularity of mistrel shows. Yet, as country music produced capital, women were more and more discouraged to participate.
Women were not the only ones who were discouraged. The negative portrayals of blacks in the minstrel shows, as well as the popularity of religious piety in many of the Appalachian communities, caused many African Americans to look down upon banjo playing. They believed it to be hurtful to their progress, sinful, and many even saw it as “backwards”. Because of these racial pressures, blacks often abandoned playing the instrument and began to move on to the blues tradition, which was looked down upon less because of its role in the church and usefulness in creating religious tunes.
Blues began as an early form of country music. Banjo greatly inspired the blues tradition and early ragtime and jazz bands often featured the banjo. As guitars became cheaper and more greatly demanded by the American populations, more African Americans began to play the guitar instead of the banjo and began the switch to blues. Blues and jazz was well alive in Appalachia and several influential artists have risen from the area, such as Bessie Smith (who has been considered one of the greatest and most influential blues singers of all time and got her start doing traveling vaudeville shows), Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Gus Cannon, and W.C. Handy, among many others. So why is this music widely ignored or considered non-Appalachian? Record companies did not see this genre as being marketable to the general population, and often only sold these types of records to black audiences. These factors caused music to become categorized racially. The very powerful Okeh Records (who turned down Bessie Smith and essentially started the country music industry), produced their records separately and intended them for separate audiences, calling them “race” records. However, many African Americans continued playing banjo and country music and some of these traditions have continued even today.
One of the most famous banjo players was Elizabeth Cotten . She created “cotten-style” picking and received several awards and much acclaim, and she is not the only example, although her name, like most others, is not a household name, and it certainly should be, and the only reason it is not is essentially because she was an African American woman, and thus often ignored by people looking to sell an incorrect marketable depiction of Appalachian life. Many other important Appalachians have seen a similar fate and as documentation and sources become more and more scarce, preserving these traditions and setting them straight has become more urgent.
It is undeniable that the country music catered to white males, and continues to do so today. Appalachian music was first marketed as a novelty and was not expected to stay or be so influential and heavily embedded in American pop culture. Even with the development of the film industry, country artists were seen first as comedians and as talented artists second. The first fiddle tune on the radio was performed by John Carson, and it was unplanned. Carson filled in for someone that did not show up, and no one could have foreseen the effect of this impulsive decision. The song was an 1870s tune written in a black dialect, yet as Jeff Biggers explains, “this recognition of a more complex Appalachia, and its entangled history with African American music culture was left out of Carson’s marketing plan and was forever lost in our modern perceptions of Appalachian or country music.” This chance recording was incredibly popular and Okeh Record Company began marketing “hillbilly” music, and kept this genre completely separate from their “race” records which were composed of mostly blues and jazz. Soon other stations and studios were set up and the country was overtaken by hillbilly mania that portrayed Appalachians as dim-witted, poor, naïve, isolated, clumsy and nearly exclusively white. Performers were often asked to dress in a way to perpetuate these stereotypes: in dirty, cheap, and battered clothing, even when they showed up in their Sunday best. They were also often forced to change their sound to fit with stereotypes and sometimes forced to play music that was not even originating from Appalachia at all in order to please non-Appalachian audiences expecting such stereotypes. Many of the songs that became popular and perceived as Appalachian had no actual roots in Appalachia. Jean Ritchie, a Kentucky Cumberland native often considered the “Mother of Folk Music”, said these songs were supposed to have been “sung all through the mountains, but we had never heard anything like them before.” Most stars that were carrying out these ideals were even from the urban North or the South, not from Appalachia and most actual Appalachians were offended by the tern “hillbilly”. This music was not made for Appalachians, but for other parts of the country indulging in such stereotypes and to most Appalachians these sounds were completely foreign and nothing close to true Appalachian character and music.
Appalachian folk songs have also been affected by yuppie pop culture. Appalachians have often been dumbed down, but just as often they have been romanticized as being brave, strong, and loyal. These characteristics have appealed to alternative youth culture over and over again. True Appalachian folk music is often ignored, except when dug up by folk enthusiasts with good intentions, but they often unknowingly surround Appalachian tradition with even more misrepresentation. Early folk songs were often drawn from the Scots-Irish ballads and later rose up in labor movements throughout Appalachia. In 1929, labor activist Ella May Wiggins turned traditional songs into labor ballads as a form of protest. Because of these protest songs, and urban youth yearning for a more simple or romantic way of life, Appalachain folk style has often been allied to the liberal left. This can be seen throughout Appalachian history, whether through protesting the death of Mother Jones in West Virginia or creating the protest song “We Shall Overcome” which was adopted by Martin Luther King Junior for the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963. White middle class youth culture has often taken up an interest in Appalachian folk life and this has led to scholarly collecting of folk songs, as well as folk festivals. However well-intentioned these events and bouts of enthusiasm are, they themselves are often not true to Appalachia either. This can still be seen today with popular movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou, which is thought to remain true to Appalachian music, although most of the music in that film is not Appalachian, nor is it made for Appalachians. According to A Handbook to Appalachia, “The application of the term ‘roots’ and ‘folk’ to recent Appalachian-influenced music, whether that of musicians associated with the O Brother… soundtracks or that of other acts associated with the Americana music movement, has a longstanding history. For over a century, non-natives have been fascinated by the relative distinctiveness of Appalachian music, and producers and musicians have sought to amplify this difference to make their music seem more fascinating and attractive to non-native audiences.” These ideas have led to a romanticized, or sometimes just false, view of Appalachian music, no matter how good their intentions may be.
Appalachian music has blended regional folk life into something that has become a very interesting, rich, and misunderstood culture. The most important thing to do today is to raise awareness of its heritage and misrepresentations. As John Williams Alexander said, a “tendency toward generalization reinforced the presumption that, no matter how carefully a researcher’s conclusions were qualified or how sharply the research might be focused upon a particular genre or on the folklife or a particular locality or even of a particular family, they would be interpreted as documentation of a regional folk culture.” Other strong Appalachian traditions, such as blues, should not be stripped away from its people, and should no longer be ignored. Even today, “few Appalachian musicians are able to escape the compulsion to react strongly to such stereotypes, whether through conforming to them, or through rejecting them.” (A Handbook to Appalachia). Appalachians need to come together to confront and disprove these stereotypes to the rest of the country, as well as celebrating all parts of its rich and interesting culture and the regions ability to create something unique and innovative.