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Folk music

Folk music
February 25, 2008, 01:44:32 PM
Folk Music of the Southern Highlands
by the False Profit

The Southern half of the Appalachian mountain chain holds a unique place in American cultural history.   In remote communities from the Alleghenies of West Virginia to the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains of Virginia, the Carolinas and Tennessee, to the Ozarks of Alabama and Arkansas, physical and cultural isolation favored the persistence of Old World musical traditions brought by the regions early Celto-Germanic settlers.

Early white settlement in the Southern Appalachians was largely dominated by lowland Scots/Scots-Irish, but there were also strong leavenings of Highland Scots, English country folk (particularly from Northumberland and Cumbria), German Lutherans and Scandinavians, especially in Virginia and North Carolina.  

These peoples brought a tradition of ballad singing and fiddle tunes dating back a millennium or more.  Many of the characteristic ballads of the Southern Highlands - "The House Carpenter," "Little Musgrave," "Bonnie George Campbell," "St. James Infirmary" - are British songs dating to the late medieval and early modern periods.  Some are even older: "False Sir John" (known more often in the Old World as "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight") is likely rooted in an Old Norse ballad from pre-Christian Norway.  The archetypal 'Southern' fiddle tune - "Soldier's Joy" - likely goes back to a similar source.

This medieval repertoire persevered as part of a living oral tradition in the isolated fastness of mountain hollers long after they had essentially died out except as curiosities in their native countries (far more variants of the classic British Child ballads have been collected in the American South than in Britain).   With their emphasis on instrumental improvisation within either a modal or a five tone harmonic framework, the Old World musical traditions of the Southern Highlands would become the bedrock on which virtually all future American music would be anchored.

The decades immediately preceding and following the American Civil War proved to be a turning point in the history not only of Southern Appalachia, but in the history of American music.  During the 30 years between 1850 and 1880, the railroads pierced the Southern Highlands, finally bringing them in sustained contact with the rest of the country.  Laying track through the rugged terrain of the Southern mountains was a herculean task requiring a massive labor force to complete.  

Railroad work was always dangerous, but no work was more dangerous than that of tunneling through the Appalachian mountains.  450 million years of erosion had left the oldest mountains on earth as rounded nubs, but what remained was among the toughest rock on earth - the 3 billion year-old granite of the continental shield.  The usual dangers of tunnel work prevailed - cave-ins, accidental explosions, pockets of poisonous gas - but the greatest threat was silicosis acquired from inhaling the dust left behind in the process of drilling blasting holes.  

The mortality rates on many of the tunnel projects soon proved so high that only the most expendable of workers - poor local whites and blacks shipped in at bargain basement wages (or no wages at all, the use of prison work crews for rail projects being widespread through much of the South, with prison gangs often being sent hundreds of miles away, even across state lines).  Thousands of white mountain folk worked and died alongside black workers and prisoners brought in to help complete projects like West Virginia's Great Bend Tunnel (around which the legends of John Henry swirl) and the Swannanoa Tunnel just east of Asheville, NC (the 20 year nightmare that spawned the classic work song "Swannanoa Tunnel," the direct ancestor of one of country music's first great hit songs, "Nine Pound Hammer (Roll on Buddy)")

The synthesis of African rhythms and North European harmonic and melodic principles that is so fundamental to all subsequent American music first emerged among the work crews digging tunnels and laying track through the mountains of the South.  The blues were born here, country too.  They were dispersed throughout the United States  by the great population movements spurred on first by the railroads themselves, and then by great demographic shifts of the early 20th century, which saw blacks and mountain folk in the tens of thousands moving into the industrial cities of the North and Upper Midwest, as well as the emerging mill towns of the Piedmont South.  They brought with them the hybridized musical sensibilities that first emerged among the hammer swingers of the Appalachian rail projects.  

In cities like New Orleans, New York, Chicago and Kansas city, blues musicians, encountering early Modernist classical music became the first jazzmen.  Bluegrass emerged from a similar process in the textile and coal centers of the Southern foothills and Piedmont regions.  Rock 'n roll was born when the various musical offspring of those mountain railroad men merged yet again.  Fittingly, the term itself originated in the idiom of the tunnel crews: "rock 'n roll" referred in the beginning to the movements of the man holding the metal rods that 'steel drivin' men' hammered into the unyielding rock of the Southern Highlands.

That historical digression aside, however, the purest and most authentic expression of Appalachian music remains its original guise, the ballads, dances, work songs and fiddle tunes passed down through an oral tradition that stretches all the way back to medieval Europe, so it is my intent to make as much of this music as I have in my collection available for your enjoyment and edification.


Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Known as "The Minstrel of the Appalachians," Lunsford was born at Mars Hill College (Madison County) and grew up in the Turkey Creek district of my own hometown, Leicester, NC (just west of Asheville).  Lunsford was a man of many hats, singer, songwriter (notably of the country standard "Old Mountain Dew"), folklorist, traveling salesman and schoolteacher.  As a collector and preserver of the folk  traditions of the North Carolina mountains, he had no peer.  He should probably be considered the greatest of the 'songcatchers' who kept the tradition of Appalachian balladry alive in the early 20th century.  His contributions to the "Memory Project" (for which the recordings on this album were made in 1949, when Lunsford was 67) of the library of Congress represent the largest collection of material provided by any single American - over 300 songs.  Lunsford played both fiddle and banjo (in the traditional mountain clawhammer style), but it is his untrained and unaffected baritone voice that was his most endearing trait.

Jean Ritchie

Sometimes called the "Mother of Folk," Jean Ritchie is a Kentucky folk singer known for her pure, lyrical voice, her skill with the Appalachian ('mountain' or 'lap') dulcimer, and her vast repertoire of traditional ballads culled from the Southern Appalachian folk tradition.  Most of her songs, like those represented here, originated in the balladic traditions of the British Isles, and as such, are often relics of the late medieval and early modern eras (the earliest variants of "False Sir John" seem to have appeared in England and Scandinavia as early as the 11th century).

These ballads are, by and large, songs concerned intimately with honor, kinship, death and violence.  A student of modern music will be interested to find many of the characteristics of supposedly 'African' blues music (dialogue based lyrical structures, call and response, certain tonal and elaborative features, etc.).  This is a Smithsonian Folkways recording made in 1961.

This music is near and dear to my heart, as I grew up with these songs as a part of my own family life.  The variant of "The House Carpenter" included in this collection was one my mother sang when I was a child.

Music From the Lost Provinces

When commercial recording technology became available in the 1920s, Appalachian performers emerged as some of America's first recording stars.  Playing a stylized version of the folk music of the Southern Highlands now typically called 'old-time' (but was often called 'Hillbilly' music at the time), performers like Uncle Dave Mason, Fiddlin' John Carson Kelly Harrell, Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett, backed by the characteristic string bands of the time (typically consisting of two fiddles, banjo played in the finger picking, frailing or clawhammer styles, mandolin, guitar and bass) brought Appalachian music to America.  The appearance of the stringbands, and especially, the move to recorded music represented a distinct break in the tradition of mountain music.  No longer a primarily oral tradition in which strong regional variation played an important role, the stringbands served as the key evolutionary bridge between the fluid, community-oriented cultural practice of  19th century Appalachian folk music and the homogenized and performer-centric practice of the emerging country music industry.  Still, this is the medium through which the vast bulk of the folk music of the earlier period has been preserved, and, unlike most subsequent generations of commercially produced country music, the old-time stringbands of the 1920s and 30s were deeply rooted in the Appalachian tradition from which they sprung, and accordingly, played music with a degree of sincerity and authenticity that has really not been matched since.

The following compilation consists of a series of early recordings (1927-1931) made by several (mostly) lesser-known stringbands hailing from North Carolina's "Lost Provinces" (Ashe, Avery, Alleghany, Watauga and Wilkes counties in the northwest corner of the state), a region that remained one of the most isolated parts of the continental US well into the 20th century.  Of the artists included on this recording, by far the most popular (and historically significant) were Grayson & Whitter.  This duo was responsible for popularizing several of the most enduringly loved tunes from the Appalachian tradition, most notably "Train 45," "The Banks of the Ohio," "Handsome Molly" and probably the greatest of all the American murder ballads, "Tom Dooley" (G.B. Grayson was, incidentally, the grand-nephew of the Sheriff Grayson who tracked and apprehended the real-life Tom Dula).  Those familiar with similar vintage blues recordings will note strong stylistic parallels between several of these songs (notably "Short Life of Trouble" and "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind") and many early blues recordings, despite a distinctly different musical idiom, showing just how indebted to the Appalachian folk tradition the blues really were.

All tracks can be found here:

Folk Music of the Southern Highlands


Re: Folk music
February 25, 2008, 02:13:28 PM
Many thanks to The False Profit. I've listened to American folk music for a long while, but know fuck all about the history behind any of it, hence my misclassification of a few musicians as "bluegrass" in an earlier topic. Eagerly awaiting further posts.