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Article Appalachian Music

I Love Mountain Music
I love mountain music / William. A. Barnhill, photographer, [between 1914 and 1917].

The term "Appalachian music" is in truth an artificial category, created and defined by a small group of scholars in the early twentieth century, but bearing only a limited relationship to the actual musical activity of people living in the Appalachian mountains. Since the region is not only geographically, but also ethnically and musically diverse (and has been since the early days of European settlement there) [1], music of the Appalachian mountains is as difficult to define as is American music in general.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the 1920s, nearly all of the early scholarship on Appalachian music focused on "ballad-hunting" or "song-catching," the discovery of New World variants of ballads and other songs that had originated in the British Isles. Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898) served as the canonical text. [2] One of the most famous of the ballad hunters was Cecil Sharp. He and others helped create an unassailable historical connection between some of the songs of Appalachia and those of the British Isles.

The early assessments of Appalachian music by non-Appalachian writers reflected the values and interests of the writers much more than those of the subjects. For example, Robert Winslow Gordon, founder of the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress in 1928 (now the American Folklife Center), saw Appalachian folk music as defined by its direct relation to British song as the more "authentic" or "American" alternative to African-American and Jewish-American popular music: "Personally, I frankly believe that the whole project of reviving and making known our true American folk stuff is one of the most worthwhile things to be done today. From the point of view of true Americanism.[sic] That stuff is the very soul of our past, of pioneers, of the men who made America. It's not modern Hebrew Broadway jazz." [3] Sarah Gertrude Knott, founder of the National Folk Festival, tempered its supposed multiethnic program with the statement: "No one doubts that the Anglo-Saxon expressions should predominate at the National Folk Festival." [4] Contemporary and topical songs of town dwellers, mine workers, and any others "spoiled" by too much contact with non-British culture or with economic realities overtaking the U.S. at the time were considered unfit for study by scholars such as Sharp. [5]

This preoccupation with a pure British heritage was not absolute. Folklorists and activists such as John and Alan Lomax, Ziphia Horton, and others collected topical and contemporary songs in the 1930s and 1940s, often in tandem with efforts at organizing the Appalachian population for leftist causes. [6] Among the few examples of early scholarly attention to non-white Appalachians are James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee (1901) and Louis Chappell's unpublished work of the 1920s, which uncovered the story of the African-American railroad ballad "John Henry." [7]

Actually, in spite of the image promoted by early scholars, Appalachia was not settled only by Scots-Irish or other British peoples. Settlers from a multiplicity of European ethnic groups populated Appalachia, including Germans, French Huguenots and East Europeans. [8] In the early twentieth century, African Americans were reported to make up 12 percent of the Appalachian population. Furthermore, isolation between these groups was not necessarily the norm. The mountain dulcimer, now almost an icon of Appalachian music, is a direct descendant of the German Scheitholt. African-American banjos, string bands, and many of the tunes that came with them arrived sometime around the 1840s as minstrel shows began to make their way around the U.S. [9] Jane Becker notes that "Southern mountaineers still sang the old Anglo-Saxon ballads and traditional hymns, but they also enjoyed new ballads on contemporary topics as well as the popular music of the day. They used homemade fiddles side by side with guitars, banjos and mandolins purchased by mail." Even in isolated areas, the ideal of mountaineers passing down a pure tradition did not match the observations of Lester Wheeler, who saw "the residents of Nicholson Hollow in the Blue Ridge gathered at one cabin to listen to music programs on the radio." [10]

A slightly more accurate picture of what "Appalachian music" might have meant in the early twentieth century is provided by the recordings made at Bristol (on the Tennessee-Virginia state line) in the summer of 1927 by Ralph Peer for the Victor Record Company. In the process of selecting performers and repertoire to record, Peer did urge performers to keep out anything modern. But even this small cloud had a silver lining. The Teneva Ramblers, a group that operated out of Bristol but had recently acquired the talents of a young Mississippi singer named Jimmie Rodgers, were told that before they could record they had to find "older, more down-home songs than the ones they had been doing." Unfortunately, while trying to comply with this request, the band broke up. Consequently, Rodgers made his first solo recordings, opening a career that produced country music's first true star. Other artists--local star Ernest Stoneman and his family, the Carter Family with their Victorian gospel style, protest/gospel singer-songwriter Blind Alfred Reed, Rev. Ernest Phipps of the Holiness Church, stark traditionalist B. F. Shelton, fiddler "El" Watson (the only known African American at the sessions) and other string band musicians, contemporary shape-note singers the Alcoa Quartet, and numerous others--showed that the music of the mountains was woven from many strands indeed. [11]

Image: Mountain ManIn truth, the more Appalachians are able to represent themselves, the harder it becomes to define "Appalachian" music or culture in any meaningful way. Stephen William Foster has stated, "One might argue that the notion of Appalachia as a distinctive and creditable variant of American culture remains a minority opinion." [12] It has more or less disappeared as a scholarly topic, not because the music is unimportant, but because the term has become less and less meaningful. In fact, music of the Appalachian region has never been one thing, but rather another multifaceted force in the creation of twentieth-century music. Its influence has appeared in blues, jazz, bluegrass, honky tonk, country, gospel, and pop, at the very least. These music styles owe to Appalachia much the same debt they owe to cities and rural areas outside Appalachia. The story of Appalachian music is very similar to the story of music in America, where musicians have never cared much for categories or purity of lineage, but have eagerly mined whatever styles and forms felt suitable for the raw material of new adaptations.

Caption for image above: Mountaineer whittling / William A. Barnhill, photographer, c1920.


  1. Wilson, "Country Music in Tennessee," 102.
    Williams, Appalachia, 212-13. (back to essay)
  2. Becker, Selling Tradition, 60.
    Williams, Appalachia, 205. (back to essay)
  3. Quoted in Williams, Appalachia, 210. (back to essay)
  4. Quoted in Becker, Selling Tradition, 25. (back to essay)
  5. Williams, Appalachia, 211-12. (back to essay)
  6. Becker, Selling Tradition, 26. (back to essay)
  7. Williams, Appalachia, 213-17. (back to essay)
  8. Wilson, "Country Music in Tennessee," 102. (back to essay)
  9. Ibid., 102-103 [pages]. (back to essay)
  10. Becker, Selling Tradition, 51-53. (back to essay)
  11. Wolfe, "Pre-War Melodies and Old-Mountain Songs." (back to essay)
  12. Foster, The Past Is Another Country, 160. (back to essay)


Becker, Jane S. Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of the American Folk, 1930-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Foster, Stephen William. The Past Is Another Country: Representation, Historical Consciousness, and Resistance in the Blue Ridge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Wilson, Joe. "Country Music in Tennessee: From Hollow to Honkey-Tonk." Chap. 15 in American Musical Traditions. Vol. 3, British Isles Music. New York: Schirmer, 2002.

Wolfe, Charles. "Pre-War Melodies and Old-Mountain Songs." Notes in The Bristol Sessions. Country Music Foundation CMF-11, 1987. 2LP

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  • -  Bluegrass music
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  • -  Songs and Music


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