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The music of Appalachia: an American treasure

Mountain Stewards
Handmade and decorated guitars take skill to craft but offer endless hours of musical entertainment. Photos by Don Wells


By Don and Diane Wells
Our musical talents are limited. Diane played clarinet in the high school band and my musical skill would not fill a thimble. It is from that personal perspective we view with amazement the innate abilities of the people of Appalachia, who not only can sing without musical accompaniment but also can build and play their own musical instruments.

  Mountain Stewards 2 Dec 2013
  This mandolin, built by artist Wiley Massie, is made of plywood using factory tuners.

The music of Appalachia was shaped by Native American, English, Scottish, Scotch-Irish and African influences. The early settlers of this mountainous region that spans 1,500 miles from Maine to Georgia came from the northern latitudes of Europe. It was mostly Scotch-Irish and English who brought their Gaelic and balladeer music to the mountains. When coal mining became a major industry in the mountain region, African-Americans began migrating to this area. This cross-pollination of musical culture created the unique Appalachia sounds and music.

Life was hard in the Appalachian Mountains, and money was short. For many, there was no power, no telephone, no television and little transportation to go to town for entertainment. For them, gathering family and friends on the porch to sing after chores were done was a way of life.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s song “Louisiana Saturday Night” epitomizes the lifestyle of many country folks. While not centered on Appalachia, it shows families singing together was an integral part of life in many areas. As one verse of the song describes: “Well you get down the fiddle and you get down the bow, kick off your shoes and you throw ’em on the floor, dance in the kitchen till the morning light, Louisiana Saturday night.”

Johnny Cash’s song, “Daddy Sang Bass,” written by Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan is another example of family singing: “I remember when I was a lad, times were hard and things were bad.

But there's a silver lining behind every cloud. Just poor people, that's all we were, trying to make a living out of black land dirt. We'd get together in a family circle singing loud.”

As with the song “Louisiana Saturday Night,” Appalachia music was initially limited to fiddle playing until near the end of the 19th century, when the banjo was added. In the 20th century, when this style of music began to gain in popularity, string bands were formed that added the guitar, bass, mandolin and, sometimes, other instruments, such as the dulcimer.

This music went on to form the bluegrass and country genres. Many might remember such notables as Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones, Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs, Ricky Scaggs, Bill Monroe, Red Rector, Cass Walker, Mother Maybelle Carter and many others. But it is the unknown names that were the backbone of Appalachian music, and it was the families who gathered on their porches and in their cabins to entertain themselves that are the important ingredient of this music.

  Mountain Stewards
  The creators of most Appalachian instruments, like this ham can banjo, are unknown, but their influence on the musical traditions of the mountains can be heard to this day.

The fiddle, a chief part of Appalachian music, was the hardest to build unless you were a skilled craftsman. Those who built fiddles had special forms in which to mold the pieces; a toolkit had to be purchased in order to create them. The banjo and mandolin took fewer skills to make. Many of the Appalachian people were able to craft their own music makers.

When we think about these instruments today, we see the highly polished wood and metal beauties for which one might have to mortgage his worldly possessions in order to afford. But the typical Appalachia versions were built more simply. The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tenn., has one of the best collections of these handmade musical instruments. There you will find ones made from gourds, large animal jawbones, metal ham cans, bed pans, cigar boxes and many more items.

Susie Helton of White County, Ga., whose family lived in a cove in the Blue Ridge Mountains, told us about her father building musical instruments so her family could entertain themselves. He created a banjo for himself and a guitar for Susie’s mother. The banjo’s base was formed from what appeared to be a wood barrel stave bent into a circle and held with small bolts. The animal skin cover is missing but was likely a groundhog hide held on with metal clips known as bracket hooks. Adding the banjo neck, strings, tuning pegs and bridge—some of which likely were purchased from a mail-order catalog—created a finished banjo. Using these same creative skills, he also built the guitar.

Susie wanted to play the piano but they could not afford one. So she made a piano keyboard out of a cardboard cutout and made believe she was playing along with her mother and father. Susie said her mother knew all the Gaelic songs, and the family would sing together until bedtime.

Susie’s story was repeated hundreds of times for many families that lived in the Appalachian Mountains and in the back country of the valleys. In one of our research trips into Meriwether County, Ga., Charlie Rowe told us about the Moody family, all of whom lived on Moody Road. He said they would gather on the porch of one of the houses and play their musical instruments and sing. Charlie said they didn’t like folks coming to hear them play, but, if you got close, you could be entertained for hours.

This music, which originally was played for family and friends, migrated to the churches, and, with the addition of “shape notes,” whole congregations could join in and sing along. Many gospel quartets got their start learning to sing in the mountain community churches.

Vestal Goodman was a singer who performed in the Southern Gospel genre for more than half a century. One of the well-known songs she performed on the “Gaither Homecoming” series was “The Little Wooden Church on the Hill.” Part of the chorus to that song says, “You could hear the people singing from half a mile away.”

In today’s world of iPhones, tablets, Xboxes and other electronic wizardry, we see families sitting around, each engrossed in his own electronic marvel and paying little attention to each other. Perhaps it is time to chuck all those devices and go back to building musical instruments and gathering the family together to sing. Maybe we could overcome some of the family troubles that seem to be more prevalent in today’s society.

 

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