Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Podcast Appalachia: "Appalachian Music"
You’re listening to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.
Today’s episode is based on a suggestion I received from a listener known as the Vol Abroad, who maintains an interesting blog about her life in England at thevolabroad.blogspot.com. She requested an episode on Appalachian music, and the influence it has had on various genres. Well, I hope you enjoy this episode!
Music has become one of the most widely recognized aspects of Appalachian culture, both inside and outside the region. With the help of concerts and radio, Appalachian music and musicians have achieved worldwide fame, and the distinctive styles of Appalachian music and musicians have become representatives of the Appalachian region to fans throughout the world. Additionally, Appalachian music has proven to be very influential within numerous other genres of music as well.
The two most obvious genres of music with heavy Appalachian influence are Bluegrass and Country, but, as is often the case, the reality is far more complex than many observers assume. Appalachians have indeed been critical in the development of Bluegrass and Country music, but they have also provided much influence to various other genres as well, including rock, rhythm and blues, and even pop.
The earliest music to come from the Appalachian region is today the most obscure. It is the music of the Cherokee and other Native American groups. This music is often considered sacred and was frequently performed only as part of secret rituals that were of course closed to outsiders. Over the years, it’s likely that much of this music has been lost. Regardless, very few recording exist, leaving much Native American music shrouded in mystery. What is known that more recent Cherokee music has been both influenced by and influential to European and African American music.
The greatest single ethnic influence on the music of Appalachian comes from Celtic traditions. The fiddle, for example, was brought to the mountains by settlers from Scotland and Ireland. It had been used widely in Scotland since the prohibition against bagpipes following the Scottish defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746. Numerous traditional Appalachian ballads, among them “Pretty Polly,” “Wind and Rain,” “Butcher Boy,” and “Jack Went A-Sailing” also all stem from Scottish origins.
The first musical traditions of European origin to appear in Appalachia came from the British Isles, in the form of ballads and fiddling. Such ballads often told sad stories of British origin, sometimes featuring real life tragedies and natural disasters. Ballad form originated in Europe during the Middle Ages and was strongly established in Britain by the 1400s. References to places and people in Britain were sometimes changed to reflect people and places in Appalachia, but this did not happen as often as one might expect. In fact, many songs remained unchanged as later research would indicate.
During World War I, an English song collector named Cecil Sharp began collecting ballads from Appalachia. With the help of an assistant, Sharp collected over 100 Old World ballads that were still being sung in the mountains with little or no variation from the early versions sang by their ancestors in Europe centuries before.
Because so many tradition forms of British music had survived in Appalachia, collectors and folklorists took a special interest in the region. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries many songs were transcribed by collectors, thus creating a valuable record of Appalachian music of that era.
By the mid-19th century an unlikely merging of Celtic and African American music began to occur. Rural whites began to learn to play the banjo, which had been brought to the New World from Africa during the 1700s. These white musicians learned to play from African Americans themselves and started to incorporate this new instrument into their own music. The result was a unique brand of music existing only in Appalachia.
Another early influence on Appalachian music comes from religious hymns. Music had long been an important part of church life, and became especially so with the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. The Good News of salvation was communicated very effectively through music, especially in the Methodist and Baptist denominations. Later, English hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “Jesus, My All, to Heaven Is Gone” became quite popular in Appalachia and remain so today.
Gospel music was also extremely important in African American churches. Many of the most important African American gospel performers were from Appalachia, specifically from the American Missionary Association. The Tuskegee Institute Singers of Alabama, for example, borrowed heavily from harmonic patterns of the European tradition. These aspects would become important to African American gospel and remain present even today. Thus there was great cultural and musical exchange in Appalachia: African Americans influenced traditionally white music genres and vice versa.
Thomas A. Dorsey of Georgia was a pioneer of modern African American gospel music. He was the author of many songs, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley,” which were adopted by both black and white churches and can still be heard today.
During the 1920s Appalachian music began to reach a much wider audience with the advent of radio. The first of this music to be heard over the airwaves was Southern gospel, which would eventually include such well known acts as the Statler Brothers, the Speer Family, and the Blackwood Brothers.
Unfortunately, many early music producers from outside the region relied on stereotypes to market the music. Most of these producers also showed little interest in keeping the music true to its original form, instead choosing to alter it to make it more marketable to a broader audience. As a result, Appalachian music presented to wider audiences was different from that which native Appalachians enjoyed. Music producers in the 1920s and 1930s encouraged musicians to alter their sounds, sometimes encouraging less use of instrumental tunes and more popular songs and folk songs. Also strongly discouraged were traditional ballads, considered too long and complex for mainstream audiences who wanted simpler music.
Country music, a genre very closely associated with Appalachia, emerged during the 1920s. Originally known as “hillbilly music”—the term was not yet considered derogatory—country music drew from various musical traditions, including Appalachian ballads, gospel, and others. It was also heavily influenced by African Americans; country legends such as Hank Williams Sr., Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family all learned songs and techniques from African Americans musicians.
Most historians believe the country music recording industry began in 1923 with recordings of “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow” by Fiddlin’ John Carson. This recording happened on June 9, 1923 in Atlanta. These two songs became the first country recording to be released, an early milestone in country music history
Another seminal event in the history of country music occurred in Bristol, TN with the Bristol Sessions. During the summer of 1927 Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded 76 performances by 19 groups. Musicians came from Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia to audition, and included various genres of music such as gospel, blues, and vaudeville.
In spite of this diversity of music, the greatest achievement of the Bristol Sessions was the discovery of two acts that would become country music legends—Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Rodgers had been born in Mississippi and moved to Asheville earlier that year. He had performed on the radio in western North Carolina, including on WWNC, but the Bristol recording sessions proved to be his big break. He would go on to record over 100 songs and become widely known as the “Father of Country Music.”
The Carter family hailed from Scott County, VA, and became the most important country music recording act prior to World War II. Patriarch A. P Carter and matriarch Sara Carter, along with sister-in-law Maybelle, sang traditional ballads, hymns, and Victorian popular songs. While the marriage of A. P. and Sara would later fail, their influence did not, and the Carter family remains the first family of country music.
As a result of the 1927 Bristol recording sessions, Bristol, TN now lays claim to being the birthplace of country music. However, after the mid-1930s, most country music was recorded in Nashville—outside Appalachia.
Another genre of music with heavy Appalachian influence is Bluegrass music. Bluegrass was actually born outside the Appalachian region—Bill Monroe, “the father of Bluegrass music” was from western Kentucky. Even so, Appalachian musicians have been very important to its development, among them Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. Bluegrass used many elements of traditional Appalachian music, including string-bands, harmony singing of quartets, and high pitched vocals, or “high lonesome.” Many of Bluegrass’ roots can be found in Scots-Irish folk music.
Bluegrass music is characterized by intense delivery—sometimes known as “high lonesome”—and generally places greater emphasis on instruments, including the fiddle, the five-string banjo, upright acoustic bass, and others.
Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass,” hailed from western Kentucky, although his heritage was heavily influenced by Appalachia, and the music he produced was most influential in the region. Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Blues debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, although most scholars agree that classic bluegrass began with Earl Scruggs’ three-finger picking, which was added to the group in 1945.
Early on, bluegrass was simply considered a segment of country music. It was not until the mid-1950s that the term bluegrass was used as a label. Many early stars of bluegrass came from the Appalachian region. Early stars included Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Red Smiley, Jimmy Martin, and Sonny Osborne.
Bluegrass remains quite popular today. It is estimated that 500 bluegrass festivals are being held annually in the United States, with smaller numbers being held in such far off places as Canada, Europe, and Japan. Although most popular in Appalachia, bluegrass music has proven it can find an audience almost anywhere!
Another important musical genre in Appalachia is Blues. Although it is not well known, many subgenres of blues music, as well as music with blues influence, such as soul and rhythm and blues, are influenced by traditional Appalachian music.
The Blues began among African Americans in the lowland South during the later part of the 19th century. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many African Americans relocated into urban centers in Appalachia. In doing so, they encountered many traditional European music styles, and great cultural exchange occurred. As a result, various distinct styles of blues music can be found in different parts of Appalachia.
For example, Piedmont blues became popular in the Blue Ridge foothills of the Carolinas. It differed from other forms of blues in that it utilized fingerpicked acoustic guitars and stylistic elements of European music. Popular musicians of this distinctive brand of the blues included Willie Walker, Brownie McGhee, and Etta Baker, all native Appalachians. Both whites and blacks attended their performances, although unfortunately they usually did so separately.
Given the Appalachian influence on bluegrass, country, and blues music, it should come as no surprise that Appalachian music has also influenced rock and roll. Rock music emerged during the 1950s from a fusion between various genres of music, including blues, gospel and country—all of which were heavily influenced by Appalachian music.
Rock’s earliest pioneers Elvis Presley and Bill Haley hailed from just outside the fringes of Appalachia. In listening to both performers’ music, it is easy to recognize the influence of country, blues, and even gospel, albeit with a much edgier sound. Elvis has the distinction of being the only musician ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Hall of Fame. That last induction might be a little ironic given the criticism he often received from ministers who felt his music was a corrupting influence on 1950s youth!
Appalachian music has been highly romanticized outside the region for its preservation of earlier musical influences. Recent movies like O Brother Where Art Thou? have also helped bring attention to Appalachian music from a wide audience.
As we have seen, Appalachia has a rich musical tradition that has influenced countless musicians of various genres. Appalachian music can trace its origins centuries back to the British Isles and to Africa, and to numerous societies and traditions within these locations. All of these traditions combined to form a style of music that is truly American.
Although most obvious present in country and bluegrass virtually every genre of music can find elements that originated in Appalachia. Just has Appalachian music evolved from earlier traditions, it has aided in the evolution of many musical genres. No matter what type of music you like best, chances are it would be very different if not for the efforts of Appalachian musicians.
The sources for this episode were the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell and A Handbook to Appalachia, edited by Grace Toney Edwards, JoAnn Aust Asbury, and Ricky L. Cox.
That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. I greatly appreciate all of the feedback I’ve received, as well as all the webmasters and bloggers who have linked to this podcast. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at podcastappalachia.blogspot.com, as well as two videos of photography from the region that you might enjoy. If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find this podcast on myspace at myspace.com/podcastappalachia. I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.