Appalachia and American Civilization

25 June 2009


The Swannannoa String Band in 1895.

The Swannannoa String Band in 1895.

In yesterday’s American Civilization I employed a method of exposition that mirrored the manifest destiny for the US to be a continent-spanning political entity, and this was accomplished through repeated westward expansions that continually pushed “The West” farther west.

When the first European settlers arrived on the eastern seaboard of North America, they were very much (as in the anecdote of my friend related yesterday) spiritually close to Europe, and materially as well, in several senses no less. For these settlers, the frontier was a hundred miles inland, and it was a dangerous frontier. Many who attempted to settle inland were killed by the Indians, and King Philip’s War pushed back decades of inland expansion by the Europeans and pretty much confined them to their coastal cities.

By a combination of violence and persistence the Europeans pushed westward, so that, at some point in the history of North America, every point west of the eastern seaboard was once the western frontier, “The West.” The Midwest, and intermountain west, and the west coast were each in turn successively conquered and colonized.

One disadvantage of this exposition of yesterday’s sketch of American civilization was the neglect of the south and the southwest. I briefly mentioned Appalachia in passing, but said nothing of the deep south or the southwest. Of course, no sketch of American civilization in a few paragraphs can even pretend to completeness, and nothing I say today could qualify as a full exposition, but I need to at least mention the American south in relation to music.

Music can and has played a central role in Western civilization, though it does not play a central role in all ages or all epochs. Alfred North Whitehead once said that trying to write the history of civilization while excluding mathematics might not be like leaving Hamlet out of Hamlet, but it would be like leaving Ophelia out of the story. So too with music. Leaving music out of an account of civilization would be a little like leaving Ophelia out of Hamlet: she has an important part to play, but she is not the main character.

The music of American civilization is almost entirely a product of the American south. The combination of European and African influences created not one but many new musical styles that had no precedent anywhere else in the world. The origins of jazz and blues can almost be traced to a single city — New Orleans — while bluegrass and much of American folk and what has come to be called “roots” music comes from Appalachia. Zydeco comes from rural Louisiana. The list goes on. Without the American south American civilization would not have the distinctive music that it has.

Throughout much of its history Appalachia has been a byword for poverty, isolation, and even ignorance. These stereotypes are inaccurate and unfair, but they dominate the impression that many people have of the region. Certainly there was a degree of isolation from the thriving cities of the eastern seaboard, as well as from the thriving agricultural industry of the Midwest, which latter was connected to the outside world by rivers and railroads. The very real isolation of Appalachia led to less commerce, hence higher levels of poverty, and less cultural interaction meant less of a flow of books and ideas and education. So the stereotypes have some basis in fact, and it is pure pigheadedness to pretend otherwise.

But in the midst of this isolation, poverty, and famously feuding clans, there was music, and this music is one of the wonders of indigenous American culture. Many of the peoples who settled Appalachia came from rural Scotland, and they brought with them traditional Scottish ballads. Many of these ballads survive today, having become folk songs with countless variations, as with “Hard Hearted Barbary Ellen” and “Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair.”

To listen to these haunting melodies, with their tragic stories of hideous murder and equally hideous revenge, is to be transported. It is, for me, the pure sublime to listen to the folk music of Appalachia: I am moved profoundly by these songs. There is a depth of feeling and an appeal to universal human experience in them such that one must wonder how such things appear in an isolated backwater. Probably, however, it is the isolation that is in part responsible. One can imagine that easily portable music instruments were brought in with the settlers: fiddles were common while pianos were rare. With few other options, they made their own entertainment. Their music holds the concentrated essence of the experience of the peoples of Appalachia, and achieves its focus in part from its isolation.

The music of Appalachia also reflects the changing history of the region. I have a CD titled Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways. Track number 22 is a song called The Red Jacket Mine Explosion, performed by the Phipps Family. It is a detailed description of a mining accident set to the tune of Red River Valley. When I first listened to this it gave me pause to think.

Classic Mountain Songs

Appalachia was isolated, but even the most isolated parts of the US were eventually transformed by the Industrial Revolution. When the Industrial Revolution came to Appalachia, it came in the form of mining. The furnaces of the Industrial Revolution needed coal, and coal was there to be mined. So while earlier industries bypassed isolated Appalachia, the need for coal drove the industrial development of the region. And after a long history of poverty, the mining jobs were welcome.

Coal miners in Virginia.

Coal miners in Virginia.

Industrial scale mining requires a major capital investment, and this guaranteed that the industries involved in developing coal mining in the region would be very large companies with major capital resources. And the nature of mining guaranteed that the labor involved is difficult and dangerous in the extreme. Miners live an unenviable life. The harshness of the life of the average miner and the capital required by an industry to develop large scale coal mining virtually guaranteed a profound disconnect between management and labor in Appalachia’s coal mining industry.

The shaft house at the Red Jacket mine in Calumet, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula.

The shaft house at the Red Jacket mine in Calumet, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula.

It would probably not be accurate to say that there is an Appalachian civilization, but there certainly is a vigorous Appalachian culture, and the miners were part of this culture and drew upon these cultural resources in expressing the difficulty and danger of their lives. Thus Red River Valley was re-written to commemorate a mining accident in which 45 miners were killed. And this is the authentic nature of folk music, to be so protean in character, to admit of so many versions, that no one version can be called the “correct” version and a song becomes a tradition rather than an object.


. . . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: