Blue Ridge Folklife (Folklife in the South)

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My work for the North Carolina Folklife Institute includes directing fieldwork among traditional musicians and craftspeople in dozens of North Carolina counties, fundraising and grant-writing, financial and administrative management, and research and writing for a variety of folklore programming an d heritage tourism programs across the state. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. I serve as the Editor of the ARSC Journal , a peer-reviewed journal published twice annually, which covers a wide variety of topics related to recorded sound, including field recording, archival practices, sound restoration, discography, collecting, and copyright.

Editor, Old-Time Herald. As an independent folklorist, I offer research and writing services to cultural organizations. My work for such institutions includes folklife fieldwork identifying and interviewing traditional artists and other heritage bearers , writing based both on my own fieldwork and archival sources, and writing for both general and specialized audiences in a variety of online and print media. Statewide Heritage Initiative. Myrtle Beach Oral History Project — Native American Breast Cancer Registry Folklore Consultation For the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Newton grove, North Carolina, I conducted interviews in Spanish with folk artists in the migrant farmworker community in Eastern North Carolina, and wrote newspaper articles, in English and Spanish, about the artists and their work.

December 11, With country music historian Dick Spottswood and old-time musician and collector David Holt, I discussed the life of banjo player Wade Mainer, and traditions of banjo music in Western North Carolina. April 21, You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. They told jokes, sang comedy songs and performed tunes such as "Turkey in the Straw" and "Arkansas Traveler" on banjo, fiddle, hand drum, and bones.

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Southern Folklife Collection | Field Trip South | Page 7

Some of these performers worked in early circus troops and were playing for Blue Ridge audiences by the early s. These artists initiated the first international pop music fad, the so-called minstrel era, which lasted until the end of the century. During the heyday of minstrelsy, the banjo, a traditional instrument once used solely by country people, was adopted by urban players who could afford fine instruments.

Banjo construction improved and the instrument as we know it today was created. Like all fads, minstrelsy passed, but it left much behind in the Blue Ridge. Many mountain square dance tunes have minstrel roots. The banjo, the main prop of the minstrel performer, found its way into the mountains and in tandem with the fiddle became the core of stringband music. The people of Middle Appalachia, including the Blue Ridge range, began to attract the notice of the popular press shortly after the Civil War.

Many journalists relied on a vivid imagination rather than accurate reporting of mountain ways. By the s the term "mountaineers" conjured up a widely recognized stereotype of uneducated, fiercely independent people, often feuding and living in clans in remote hollers. This pervasive notion of isolation colors public perception of the region's traditional music. Many believe that the relative inaccessibility of mountain communities has preserved music in an unchanged, and even primitive, state over generations.

The most romantic version of this theory imagines mountain music as a holdover of the ballads, reels, and pipe tunes of the British Isles. The influence of African American music and the minstrel stage demonstrates that the Blue Ridge was far from isolated, even in the early nineteenth century.

Music in the region was shaped by other national events and trends. A few of these are worth noting. A wave of religious revivals that swept the South at the beginning of the nineteenth century reached deeply into the Southern Appalachians.

The songs associated with this "Great Awakening" became a permanent part of the repertory of many church congregations in Virginia and North Carolina. The middle of the nineteenth century witnessed one of the cataclysmic events of American history, the Civil War.

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Loyalties were divided in the mountains of western North Carolina and Virginia, and communities witnessed conflicts between families and neighbors who chose different sides. Traditional songs that found their way into the region express this division.

Despite its divisiveness, the Civil War seems to have expanded the repertories of Blue Ridge musicians. Soldiers from the mountains traded tunes with fiddlers and banjo players from other parts of the South and learned pieces played by regimental bands. After the conflict ended, mountain musicians also brought home songs and tunes composed to commemorate battles or convey the experiences of wartime. In the late s logging and mining companies expanded operations in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains.

Laborers from across the region were hired to work in the mines and log the forests. Camps created to house and feed the workers became fertile ground for swapping tunes.

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Large-scale mining and logging required the construction of railroads into the mountains. The employment of African American work crews to lay track and drill tunnels introduced worksongs and ballads such as "John Henry" and "Swannanoa Tunnel" to mountain musicians and audiences. By the turn of the twentieth century, mountain residents could buy merchandise made available to the national market by large mail-order companies.

In addition to tools and clothing, they ordered instruments from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Guitars, mandolins, autoharps, and cellos, mass produced and easily accessible, were combined with fiddles and banjos to form larger stringband ensembles, the precursors to the old-time and bluegrass bands so pervasive in the region today.

In the s the growth of commercial radio and the record industry brought traditional Blue Ridge music to a national audience. The promotions devised to sell traditional music drew upon the stereotype of isolated mountaineers who had preserved the "old-time" music. Although many musicians from the Blue Ridge were recruited to make records, most made only a handful of recordings. These recording artists also influenced their neighbors in the Blue Ridge.

Their playing styles and repertories began to supplement, and sometimes replace, local styles and tunes. About the same time that commercial labels were recording Blue Ridge musicians for profit, collectors interested in cultural preservation were scouting the region to document traditional music. British scholar and folksong collector Cecil Sharp was one of the first.

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He journeyed to the Blue Ridge at the time of the First World War to take down the words and music of old ballads songs that tell stories. Sharp was captivated with the quality of the music he heard and was surprised by the fact that people of all ages knew songs.


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In his English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians , Sharp described some communities in the Blue Ridge as places where "singing is as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking. Other music scholars and collectors followed Sharp. Their field recordings, along with those made by record companies, constitute a treasure trove of ballads and love songs, dance tunes, children's songs, hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs.

Over the years many people have plumbed this archive. Aaron Copland, perhaps the nation's best-known composer, interpreted traditional fiddle tunes in his classical works as a way to express the American spirit and cultural identity.


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  5. Young urbanites began to visit the Blue Ridge to find old-time and bluegrass musicians. They made recordings and films of traditional artists and introduced mountain musicians to college and city audiences. Some were inspired to learn to play the music they heard performed in concerts or issued on recordings. During the late s large numbers of outsiders began to attend music events held in the Blue Ridge region.

    Fiddler's conventions and bluegrass festivals attracted crowds of young people motivated by the desire to hear music, learn tunes, or be part of a huge party. Aspiring musicians from across the nation as well as Europe and Japan continued to visit Blue Ridge music venues during the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the Blue Ridge, as in nearly all places in America nowadays, one can find fans and performers of almost any type of classical, contemporary, pop, and alternative music.

    In addition, recent immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Asia are bringing their musical tastes and preferences to the region. In this mix the established traditions of the Blue Ridge continue to thrive and evolve. Today the Blue Ridge still harbors a fine array of stringbands. Singers of the older Anglo-Irish ballad repertoire still live and perform in the region, and classic sentimental mountain lyric songs are widely sung.

    A variety of white and black churches draw heavily from longstanding traditional music styles. In addition, the Blue Ridge is home to a vigorous tradition of making musical instruments, mainly fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins, and dulcimers. The nation's best musical instruments are handmade, and some of the finest are made in small woodworking shops in the region. Importantly, many young people growing up in Blue Ridge communities are learning to play the music passed down in their families and communities.

    They learn through informal apprenticeships with relatives and friends, by attending community musical events, or by taking more formal lessons offered in after-school programs in some of the public schools. Several area colleges offering traditional music camps and workshops provide scholarships to promising young musicians in the region. People from outside of the mountains come to get closer to the traditions and the growing community of revivalist musicians.