The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music—Music and Culture in the South-Central Appalachians
The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music—Music and Culture in the South-Central Appalachians
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter details the curatorial decisions that defined thematic focus and scope, participant selection, and site design and organization for a 2003 program about Appalachian culture. The author recounts the challenges of organizing and fund-raising for a multi-state program in worsening financial times. He also describes how the Smithsonian worked with its partners, the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance and East Tennessee State University, to develop a program that demonstrated the breadth of Appalachian culture. These efforts dispelled many of the stereotypes that have historically plagued these communities
Over 180 programs have been produced in the almost fifty years of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Each one has presented its own challenges. Some programs feature a geographical area: country, state, city, or region. In order to achieve the goals of the Festival, curatorial staff from the featured area and the Smithsonian must work together to develop the story they wish to tell, design the programming and site presentation, and raise the funds necessary to achieve their goals.
Coming to the Table
In 2001, the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) was approached by a Smithsonian affiliate museum, the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA) in Bristol, Virginia, about staging a 2003 Festival program to coincide with two of the Alliance’s recent initiatives. BCMA had lobbied their congressman, Rick Boucher of Virginia, to introduce a congressional resolution declaring July 2002 to July 2003 “The Year of Appalachia.” The year 2003 also marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the important Bristol recording sessions, considered by many to be the “big bang” that established the country music industry. By becoming a Smithsonian affiliate, a museum can take advantage of Smithsonian artifacts and expertise. BCMA quickly chose to do so in order to help their cause. As of 2001, BCMA had a small museum in a shopping center in Bristol, Virginia, with long-term plans to build a larger, permanent location (the larger museum opened in October 2014). The Alliance was also looking for public programming to help publicize their work.
The project was a proposed collaboration between the BCMA, East Tennessee State University, and the Smithsonian Institution. The key players for BCMA were executive director Bill Hartley and founding members Fred McClellan and Tim White. Coming in from ETSU were former Center for Appalachian Studies director Jean Haskell and ETSU professor Ted Olson. I had managed CFCH’s archive for fifteen years and had produced dozens of compact disc recordings of American music for the Smithsonian Folkways label. Since I had the most (p.200) knowledge of Appalachian music at CFCH, I was chosen as the curator on the Smithsonian end.
We began meeting regularly in 2001, most often in the Bristol/Abingdon area, with staff from each partner institution. The BCMA’s Leton Harding was one of the project’s chief fund-raisers, and early on he spoke about the importance of this project as the chance to change the world’s perception of Appalachia. An early brainstorming session was held at the historic Paramount Theater in Bristol. The program goal was to tell the story of Appalachia and the 1927 Bristol recording sessions. The proposed budget for the program was $91,000, and the plan was to have 120 participants over the course of the Festival.
We began the process of content development by defining the scope of the project and identifying the themes we wished to emphasize. There were many voices at the table, and we needed to agree on scope. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachia stretches through ten states, from the Catskills in New York State down to northern Alabama. We agreed that trying to properly represent all ten states would be impossible for our staff and confusing for the public. Instead, we decided to feature only what is considered the southern Appalachians—particularly the approximately hundred-mile area surrounding Bristol, which is divided by the Tennessee-Virginia state line. Defined as such, our geographic focus would include sections of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. There was early discussion of possibly including northern Georgia as well.
In fact, the Folklife Festival had featured Appalachia in past programs. People from Appalachia participated in the first ten Festivals and several other times afterwards: in the state programs on Kentucky (1973), Virginia (1977), and Tennessee (1986); and Appalachian balladry from North Carolina had been a part of the 1987 Festival. However, none of these programs focused solely on the Appalachian segment of these states.
In 2001 we were ambitious. We set the bar high. We made plans to develop additional programming in the local regions, envisioning a radio series, an art exhibition, educational projects, and a tour of the musical Keep on the Sunny Side, featuring the songs and story of the original Carter family of Appalachian musicians from Virginia, then appearing at the Barter Theater in Abingdon. We aspired to do all of this and present a full-blown Festival program on the National Mall that would feature the full array of traditions in the region: music, dance, storytelling, crafts, foodways, and occupational lore.
We wanted to represent Appalachia as changing, innovative, and far more diverse than it is generally perceived to be by outsiders. We wanted to address the social forces that influenced life there and made the music thrive. Our colleagues in the region emphasized that they wanted the program to tell the story they told about themselves.
Appalachia is a place with a proud heritage. It is a place where people have always needed to be creative and make do with what they have. In earlier years, if you needed a musical instrument, you did not buy it—you made it. Religion and family are central to community life, and musical, craft, and spiritual traditions are shared over generations.
Geopolitical state boundaries ignore that the Appalachian counties in these states have more in common with one another than with other areas of their states. The reality is that Appalachia is a cultural region unto itself. During the Festival, a participant and advisor, Katie Doman, described Appalachia as a quilt with many segments, all of which make up a complete, functioning whole.1
We wanted to counter stereotypes held by outsiders, such as images depicted in Li’l Abner cartoons and the Beverly Hillbillies. By presenting the diversity of occupations and talents in the region—beyond the expected mining, railroading, lumber, and furniture making, but also ones representing technology industries—we aimed to widen visitors’ perceptions. For instance, the atomic bomb was first developed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. NASCAR, which originated in the Appalachians, is big business in the region. The two NASCAR races staged there each year are the biggest events in Bristol. The residents of the region have a history of adapting to changing circumstances in creative ways. One example is BCMA member Fred McClellan, who farmed tobacco on a mountain in southwestern Virginia. He took the tobacco buyout and started a new business raising gourmet shiitake mushrooms.2
During these early discussions, we also developed a number of ideas for the design of the program site and, specifically, for how to frame some of our thematic ideas. For instance, we originally envisioned constructing a pole barn for demonstrations of both traditional and contemporary crafts. We had also identified radio as an important means by which we could tell an alternative history of the roots of country music beyond Nashville. We considered how we might restage and broadcast one of the well-known regional country music radio shows—such as a program from station WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky—on the National Mall.
After deciding on the concepts and themes we wished to highlight, we had to face the prospect of securing funding. How could we best address our chosen themes at the Festival? Our challenge was to present as much as we could using the resources we had. My role was to help figure out how to do so. If we could not do it all, what themes would not be included?
We began raising money for the program shortly after the September 11, 2001, tragedies. The nation was in a somber mood. Residents in small-town Appalachia believed terrorist attacks could happen there. We were working within a difficult fund-raising environment, and by 2002 we were well below our stated goal.
Traditionally, Festival programs benefit from focusing on a state or country whose government contributes much of the financial support. In these cases, the Festival is often considered as publicity that can drive future tourism. But with our program, since we were focusing on small parts of five states and some of their poorer counties, state governments were reluctant to back the project.
Among the challenges we faced in finding donors is that regulations dictated by the National Park Service do not allow naming rights or large corporate banners. These are the kinds of benefits regional companies come to expect for their donations. The Smithsonian, with dedicated fund-raiser Loretta Cooper and partner organizations, was able to raise money, receiving generous donations from King Pharmaceuticals, the Norfolk Southern Railroad, the Appalachian Regional Commission, Tennessee and West Virginia departments of tourism, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and Eastman Chemical. However, we raised only about a third of what we needed.
At the Festival, you can only tell as much of the story as you can afford. When the bottom line kicks in, you have to rethink how to maintain the program’s integrity with the resources available. You must deliberate and consider. Will cutting down the amount you can present across the various themes be better than focusing on a subset of themes? Will telling part of the story strongly be better than representing more themes with less depth? We chose to do the former and began to look for individual participants who could best represent the selected themes.
Scaling Back a Festival Program
By early 2003, our plan of inviting 120 participants seemed unworkable. The curatorial team had the sad chore of deciding what we could not do and how to stretch what we had left. With regret, we had to abandon crafts demonstrations and the section on NASCAR. (p.203)
These were difficult decisions. Fieldwork had already been done for the crafts section. Curatorial panel member Anna Fariello and her committee had submitted a list of recommended participants, including instrument makers, basket makers, metalworkers, quilters, potters, weavers, and woodworkers. These proposed participants would have added an extra dimension to the program, but we ultimately determined that we did not have the resources to construct the pole barn or rent many small tents, transport equipment to the Mall, and cover travel expenses. Booths dedicated to technical innovations from the region were also dropped.
We had hoped to get funding from NASCAR, as Appalachians are proud that the association started in their region. Many of the early drivers were liquor runners and raced each other on weekends. This hobby eventually developed into organized races, where drivers showed off their cars. We had planned a narrative component on early drivers and the business of NASCAR, but the entire section had to be eliminated.
By that point, we were looking at a smaller site plan. In the Appalachian tradition of making do with what you have, we turned our attention to developing ways to present the feeling of Appalachia at the Festival. Even though we were forced to drop themes, we knew we still had a strong program. It was just a (p.204) matter of doing the math and determining how many participants we could bring to fill a daily seven-hour schedule of events.
Our fieldworkers had carried out research in the region to identify vernacular architecture that could be built or suggested as part of the Festival design. Since the program was called Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony, the music stage was called “Harmony.” It was set in a typical Festival tent in the center plot on the Mall. For the narrative tent, christened “Heritage,” we scheduled conversations with the participants on the program themes.
For site design inspiration, Festival technical director Robert Schneider and I traveled around Appalachia taking photographs. We especially enjoyed our evening at the Carter Fold, an amphitheater carved out of a hillside off a side road in an area known as Poor Valley in Hyltons, Virginia. On Saturdays, the Fold hosts local music, and visitors of all ages dance a repertoire that includes local flatfooting, a style of regional dance. The stage backdrop shows historical portraits of the Carter family, and the concrete stair seating is supplemented by rows of donated school bus seats. The Carter Fold was our inspiration for the physical design of the Heritage stage. We even got the local school district to lend us school bus seats.
We eventually negotiated support for a third stage dedicated to smaller musical groups and narrative sessions. Taking the recommendation of the BCMA to re-create a famous mural in Bristol, we named this the “Bristol Mural Stage.” The actual mural was painted by local artist Tim White on the side of a building on State Street, a short distance from where the 1927 Bristol sessions took place. It depicted Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and the Stoneman Family, the three best-known acts recorded during the sessions. For the Festival, we built a false-front cabin with a metal roof like those we had seen on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A facsimile of the Bristol mural was installed in the back.
Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony was situated on the Festival grounds between programs featuring Scotland and Mali, both better funded and featuring far more programming, so we wanted to devise additional strategies for strengthening our presence. With our limited funding, were able to add two additional activity areas for foodways demonstrations and storytelling. Cooks demonstrated their food traditions and discussed everything from barbecue to Latino dishes, Cherokee cooking, and all manner of preparing and preserving food. Susan Bridges from Virginia described how she foraged for wild herbs to create dried and canned food products. As they cooked, the participants and presenters discussed life in Appalachia. Bennie Massey even sang gospel songs as he cooked.
Additionally, we conceived of an alternative way to populate our area without expensive infrastructure. One thing that is always present at Appalachian music events is the parking lot jam session. We decided it would be easy to set up an area with picnic tables that might invite people to congregate informally (p.205)
and play music together. This plan was successful, and many people arrived with instruments and spent the day in the “picking area,” as we called it. We also designated an area for playing horseshoes—and made sure to have it monitored so that stray horseshoes did not hit unsuspecting visitors.
We needed to identify the artists and presenters who would share and interpret the stories and culture of Appalachia. When it came to musicians, it was quickly apparent (as one would expect) that we would have no end of possibilities. Tapes and compact discs were submitted for consideration. Online research yielded a large file box of information on regional musicians. However, our budget limited the number of participants we could bring to sixty per week. How would we be able to represent what we wanted with this number? We needed participants who could play different roles. For instance, we needed participants who could engage with the public on narrative stages as well as perform. And we needed to be mindful of the fact that we had certain musicians who worked as accompanists to more than one participant. Additionally, since we had the advantage of the relativity short distance between Washington, DC, and Appalachia—we decided to bring two sets of musicians, one for each week of the Festival.
(p.206) The next important consideration involved the selection of genres. In the history of folk and country music in the Appalachian region, certain “hotbeds” for specific genres stand out. If we were to present a given genre of music, then we should bring participants from the area best known for that style. Some of these areas may have become hotbeds only because that was where folklorists and record producers went to document music. In some cases, popularity was connected with event venues like those for the Galax or Union Grove fiddle contests. We were fortunate to be able to borrow a relief map from the Birth of Country Music Museum in Bristol that displayed the birthplaces of hundreds of Appalachian musicians. One could see the mountains and how people were distributed across them. So, for instance, one could see how musical styles would have emerged locally in earlier days when travel from valley to valley was more difficult, and why musicians born near each other, yet separated by a mountain range, played in very different styles.
We knew we wanted a diverse slate of artists, with a balance of gender, ethnicity, and age. We especially wanted to steer away from the stereotype of old men fiddling. And so we planned to present three generations of players in order to demonstrate how much of the music is learned in a master-apprentice interaction and within family relationships. We also wanted to demonstrate how tradition is being carried on by younger players, with younger musicians doing new and innovative things with the music.
String Bands and Bluegrass
String band music is one of the main forms associated with Appalachia, in both black and white communities. The instrumentation usually includes the European violin and the African American banjo. This combination contributes to a merging of musical traditions and creates a new genre called old-time music. Industrious settlers built instruments—fretless and fretted banjos, four-stringed and the more prevalent five-stringed—to entertain themselves and their neighbors. Galax and Hillsville, Virginia, have had a strong string band community for many years. One of the most famous groups there was the Bogtrotters, who were recorded by the Library of Congress in the 1930s. Others, like Wade and Fields Ward and Charlie Higgins, were recorded in the 1950s and 1960s. To represent this tradition during the first week of the Festival, we selected the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters, a contemporary group that had recently won the overall band competition at the previous Galax festival, and fiddler Eddie Bond, considered by many to be an exemplar of the Galax tradition. The Galax Fiddle Contest is to this day one of the most important competitions of its type.
For the second week, we selected the New Southern Ramblers, representing another string band style that is found in Tennessee. Bandleader Ralph Blizard (p.207) played a long-bow style of fiddle and was a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. While he was not in good health, he insisted on coming, considering it something he needed to do. An added bonus of bringing the New Southern Ramblers was that members Gordy Hinners, John Lilly, and Phil Jameson are also longtime members of the Appalachian dance group the Green Grass Cloggers, a happy coincidence that allowed us to represent both performance traditions. Additionally, luthiers demonstrating their instrument making could also be performers on stage. Selecting participants who can serve in more than one role has been a programming strategy throughout the history of the Festival. For instance, for the Working Americans program (1973–77), which highlighted occupational culture, we selected participants who were both Gulf oil workers and Cajun musicians, and a union singer/truck driver.
By 2003, African American string band music, formerly strong in Tennessee and North Carolina, was in decline. It has since gone through a revival owing to groups like the African American banjo group the Carolina Chocolate Drops. North Carolina has a strong tradition in this musical genre (the Chocolate Drops started in Greensboro). Many of these players came from the foothills. We knew that Joe and Odell Thompson were standouts, but Odell had passed away, and Joe had recently suffered a stroke. In the end, Joe was able to attend, and he played admirably. The second week, we brought North Carolina bluesman John Dee Holeman. John Dee was also known for his buck dancing, but age made it impossible for him to demonstrate this talent. We also invited Tennessean Sparky Rucker to represent Appalachian African American music. He performed with his wife, Rhonda, and as a music historian he also made a strong presenter.
While we could have invited full groups, it was less expensive to invite soloists who could perform with one accompanist. Doug Dorschug and Rich Kirby were kind enough to do double—and sometimes triple—duty by backing up some of the Tennessee and Kentucky performers. We tried to show a range of ages when featuring musicians, and we tried to strike a balance among the five states represented, despite the distinct regional styles and associated tunes that constitute Appalachian music. From West Virginia, we invited Dwight Diller and Dave Bing, two longtime performers in local festivals and events. The second week, we brought nineteen-year-old Jake Krack and his family band from Orma, West Virginia. Jake was the new rising star on the block, having won all-around fiddle prizes at Galax as a teen. He had studied with master fiddler Melvin Wine and represents the continuity of West Virginia traditional music. From east Tennessee, we brought one fiddler and one banjo player: National Heritage Fellow and fiddle player Clyde Davenport of Jamestown, Tennessee, and Will Keys, a master banjo player from Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, who had participated in the 1986 Festival’s Tennessee program. From North Carolina, (p.208)
we invited Bruce Greene, a fine fiddler who had spent years studying Kentucky fiddle and frequently performed with Don Pedi. We also brought Asheville resident Rayna Gellert, in her twenties at the time, who represented a new generation of string band musicians. Rayna had grown up in a musical household and was a member of an all-female band called Uncle Earl that had been making waves on the Americana scene. Her father Dan is a fiddler, and she had grown up in a musical household. The participating guitarists from North Carolina were Doug Rorrer and his son Taylor, both from Eden. The Rorrers come from a local string band tradition and are descendants of Charlie Poole and Posey Rorer of the legendary North Carolina Ramblers. Various members of the Rorrer family have been working to keep their legacy alive.
Wayne Henderson, another Heritage Award winner, lives just across the Virginia border. One of the best acoustic guitar players in the region, he is also an internationally recognized luthier. Well-known musicians wait almost a decade for his guitars. Wayne has been a participant at many Folklife Festivals, so he was an obvious choice. We initially hoped he could also demonstrate guitar making, but instead he demonstrated the making of “squirrel stew” in the foodways area. One thing Wayne exemplified was the character of the musicians at our program. People could not wait to play with one another at the Festival—and back at the hotel. Wayne could always be found in the “picking area,” playing with (p.209) any visitor who brought an instrument. He, like the others, lived and breathed music. In the evenings at the hotel, they would explore common musical ground with Scottish musicians—as they did one night with Malian music legend Ali Farka Touré.
For enthusiasts of older Appalachian music, one distinctive guitar style hales from southern West Virginia: finger-picking with a heavy blues influence, including the occasional bottleneck guitar played by white musicians. This style emerged when African American railroad workers mingled with local miners. Guitarists Frank Hutchison and Dick Justice were well-known guitarists who played in this style. Carl Rutherford from War, West Virginia, had recorded in the 1990s for a small North Carolina blues label, and he was one of the few remaining players in this style. Carl also wrote occupational songs he learned during his years working in coal mines and logging in the Pacific Northwest. He was not well known, but we were eager to bring him to the Festival; he was a good representative of occupational songs and could talk about working in the mines. Like Carl, Elaine Purkey has written powerful songs about the labor struggles in West Virginia, and both have written songs that are now performed by others regionally. Elaine first came to the attention of folklorists as one of the main songwriters associated with the Pittston strike. Her music is not solely labor related; she is more of a songster, singing Hank Williams songs and even a few Carter Family songs. Also in the blues tradition, African American West Virginian Nat Reece of Princeton participated in the program. Nat worked in hotels around Bluefield playing jazz and blues for the local workers, both black and white.
While bluegrass music was created by Bill Monroe in western Kentucky, it has a strong association with Appalachia, and many of the important groups that came after Monroe were from the mountains and the Appalachian foothills. The Stanley Brothers from Coeburn, Virginia, were one of the other early important bluegrass groups. The style is still one of the most popular in the region. We filled three performing slots with bluegrass groups, all different in nature. From East Tennessee, we invited the VW Boys, a modern group that mixes satire with older songs. Group member Tim White was one of the founding members of BCMA and the artist who painted the famous Bristol mural of the “big bang” of country music, which we replicated. VW Boy Larry McPeak of the Shenandoah Valley came from an important bluegrass family band, the McPeak Brothers. Christianity has always been closely linked to bluegrass music, which traditionally stresses older values of church and home. Nearly all bluegrass bands record a gospel record every few albums, and some bands play religious music exclusively. Wanting to include this aspect of Appalachian music on the National Mall, we considered bringing a Primitive Baptist church choir, but the Festival coincided with an important annual church event. Furthermore, (p.210) we could not afford such a large delegation. Instead, we chose Still Waters from eastern Kentucky. By selecting them, we were able to present both bluegrass and gospel. The group considered themselves a musical ministry; preaching was part of what they did. As such, it was important to contextualize their performances, which we did with signs, along with introductions and explanations from presenters. Nevertheless, some audience members who were expecting a conventional concert were put off by the preaching between songs.
We also presented the East Tennessee State University bluegrass studies program to illustrate the continuity of traditions in Appalachia. Alumni of this program, which offers bachelor’s degrees in bluegrass and old-time music, include Kenny Chesney and Tim Stafford. In 2003, the program was run by musicians Jack Tottle and Raymond McLain, from the renowned Kentucky group the McLain Family Band. We presented the ETSU Student All-Star Band, a group of stellar young musicians. Nineteen-year-old Josh Goforth was an amazing instrumentalist and soon found himself playing with others at the Festival—even trading licks, note for note, with Wayne Henderson. Josh had had a cameo as one of the mountain musicians in the film Songcatcher (2000).
Traditional Balladry and Storytelling
We wanted to make sure to represent another musical hotbed in Madison and Buncombe counties, North Carolina. This is the area where Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell collected Appalachian ballads in 1916, and the traditional music scene there is still very much alive and well. From there, we invited Don Pedi, who is from Marshall, an area known for its ballad tradition. He also demonstrated Appalachian dulcimer playing. We invited Sheila Kay Adams, a 2013 National Heritage fellow, who is from the area’s best-known ballad singing family, the Chandler/Norton/Wallin family. Sheila’s relatives were among those from whom songs were collected in 1916. She learned from well-known singer Dellie Norton, and her other relatives include Dillard Chandler and Doug and Cas Wallin. She herself has actively kept the tradition alive by teaching younger generations. In 1976, she and neighbor Bobby McMillon were part of the Festival delegation. In 2003, they participated in the Festival, representing the region’s ballad singing tradition. North Carolinian Laura Boosinger also performed ballads and children’s songs. For the second week of the program we brought in a fine ballad singer, Ginny Hawker from West Virginia. She grew up singing in Primitive Baptist churches in southern Virginia. She was accompanied by her husband, Tracy Schwarz, formerly of the New Lost City Ramblers.
Appalachian storytelling is an important part of the culture, and we decided to represent the Jack tale, a style directly connected with Appalachia, especially the area around Boone and Blowing Rock, North Carolina. While most children in (p.211) the United States are familiar with “Jack and the Beanstalk,” few know that there are numerous stories about Jack. Folklorists such as Richard Chase have studied the Jack tale over the years. By highlighting this genre, we were able to include the Hicks and Proffitt families, who have a long association with Jack tales. In the early years of the Festival, Ray Hicks, probably the most famous twentieth-century teller of Jack tales, was a frequent participant, along with his cousin, Stanley. One of the famous ballad singers and balladeers from the area was Frank Proffitt, a cousin of the Hicks family. Among the songs collected from Proffitt by folklorist Frank Warner was the song about a local murder, “Tom Dula,” which became widely known in the 1950s as “Tom Dooley.” Orville Hicks is the family member carrying on the tradition, and he appeared at the Festival with his cousin Frank Proffitt Jr., telling stories and singing ballads. Orville was hesitant to take off work to attend but felt he needed to carry on the family tradition.
Storytelling at the Festival was amplified by the presentation of the West Virginia Liars Contest, a yearly competition devoted to telling the best tall tale. One of stars of the contest is Bill Lepp, who won every year until they stopped letting him compete and made him a judge. Another former winner and judge was ninety-year-old Bonnie Collins. Both were participants in the 2003 Festival. The stories from the Liars Contest had the audience in stitches.
We wanted to have a Cherokee Indian presence at the Festival, including music by tradition bearers, and we were able to bring Lloyd Arneach, a Cherokee storyteller, and chef Marie Junaluska. Arneach entertained the crowd with his stories of the Cherokees of North Carolina.
We represented African American gospel traditions by inviting Dorothy Myles of Appalachia, Virginia. Dorothy comes from a long line of miners, so she also spoke about labor issues and the segregation in the company towns where she grew up. While most of the performers spoke and sang negatively about mine owners, Dorothy held a different opinion: She felt the mining business was beneficial to the locals.
Historically, many migrants to Appalachia came to work in the mines and railroads. Some were African American, and others came from a number of European countries, and their interaction gave rise to a distinctive culture and music in the region. To represent the tradition of railroad workers, their work and their music, Festival curatorial advisory team member Jon Lohman suggested we bring Virginia’s Buckingham Lining Bar Gang to demonstrate track lining (p.212) and work songs. On the program site, we installed a set of railroad tracks, and the group gave several demonstrations a day, interacting with the public.
We also wanted to demonstrate the relationship between traditional music and dance, but it was a challenge to bring large groups of dancers and stay within our limited budget. In addition to the aforementioned Green Grass Cloggers, Susan Spaulding from Berea College in Kentucky, who headed up our dance committee, made suggestions for possible groups. She recommended the Carcassonne Community Dancers from Blackey, Kentucky. They were a large group, and we could only bring eleven of the dancers and one accompanist, but we filled out the band with other participants.
Innovation in Appalachian Music
Trying to keep with our theme of innovation and change, we were determined to show that music could evolve. So from the Shenandoah Valley, we invited the Celtibillies, a group that mixes traditional Scottish and Irish music with Appalachian string band music. Ted Olson suggested Appalachian reggae band Ras Alan and Brother Bob. Ras Alan had embraced Rastafarianism and moved to the mountains near Zionville, North Carolina. He mixes Appalachian music with reggae, and his lyrics comment on his life in the mountains.
During the planning process, we entered into negotiations with the National Endowment for the Arts to create a series of six evening concerts featuring National Heritage Fellows from Appalachia. This arrangement enabled us to bring in some well-known performers from the region that we could not otherwise have afforded. The concerts were publicized in local media and attracted crowds who then visited the Festival to experience the rest of the program. We already included a number of awardees in our daytime events, and with the additional budget allotment, we brought John Cephas, Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens, and Jesse McReynolds.
The better known bluegrass groups travel by tour bus. At bluegrass festivals, the buses usually pull up right next to the stage, and each band uses its bus as a green room. Since both Jesse McReynolds and Ralph Stanley had buses, we hoped to park them next to the stage to simulate the feeling of a proper bluegrass festival. Of course, this was the National Mall two years after 9/11. As (p.213) Ralph’s bus drove onto the gravel path leading to the stage, it was surrounded by a SWAT team equipped with automatic weapons. We received an anguished phone call from Ralph’s driver: “We just got surrounded by Rambo and crew with machine guns!” The situation was diplomatically sorted out.
For one evening, we presented Jean Ritchie with other ballad singers from Appalachia. We also invited performers from the Scotland program to participate. These Scottish artists, Jean and Stanley Robertson, had been recorded by Ritchie in the early 1950s. This performance provided a reunion for artists who had not seen each other in fifty years.
Another important musical event at the Festival was the yearly Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert. Ralph was the first artistic director and co-founder of the Festival and had worked extensively in Appalachia. He organized a concert in 1968 with Maybelle Carter and her daughters at the Smithsonian and wrote a discography on the Carter Family. The concert fell on the eightieth birthday of Janette Carter, daughter of A. P. and Sara Carter, niece of Maybelle, and cousin to Anita, Helen, and June. Janette and her family have run the Carter Fold for years. We brought Janette and her son Dale Jett for the event. Janette performed during the concert. Capturing the feeling of a night at the Fold, most of the participants in the program knew a Carter Family song or two and got up to perform. In the afternoon, Janette participated in a narrative session at the Heritage stage about the family’s legacy and life and the Bristol Sessions. Janette was the only person at the Festival who had been present—albeit as a small child—at the 1927 Bristol sessions. During the session, I mentioned that our set design resembling the Fold stage was meant to be a respectful reproduction. The only difference, I said, was that our school bus seats had seat belts. Janette said, “Lordy, we could use them for some of those kids running around!”
Contextualizing Appalachian Culture
In our narrative stages and presentations, we were determined not to lose track of the wider context in which the music existed, where there are community events in both secular and spiritual realms. These can include church suppers—“dinner on the ground,” an Appalachian tradition after church on Sundays—and holiday celebrations. Dance and food are part of every celebration. One Sunday we featured a program of gospel music and discussed local traditions such as all-day sings and dinner on the ground. We also discussed Decoration Day, a holiday during which people pay homage to the gravesites of their forebears.
(p.214) We worked with advisors and selected a group of presenters. Many were individuals from the region who were already involved in planning the program. They included Jean Haskell and Ted Olson from ETSU, as well as Katie Doman, Jon Lohman, Stephen Wade, Charlie Camp, Rich Kirby, Phyllis Deel, Susan Spaulding, and John Lilly.
On both the Heritage and Mural stages we included narrative sessions addressing the wider social context from which the music comes. We had three sessions called “What is it to be Appalachian?” Fred McClellan introduced the July 27 session by saying, “It is an opportunity to share, in our own words, our music and quality of life.” Fred pointed out that frequently “people outside our region define us.” Program participants and organizers felt that Appalachians are frequently stereotyped. In our modern, politically correct world, participants and organizers from Appalachia felt like they were still “fair game” for “scrutiny and slander.” Katie Doman, a professor at Tusculum College, shared that many of her incoming Appalachian students felt ashamed of their accents. They had been taught that their culture was backward.3 Fred was upset that as of 2003, CBS was discussing a new reality television series called The Real Beverly Hillbillies, which would relocate an Appalachian family to Beverly Hills, making fun of them.4 Alas, even in 2014 reality television shows like Appalachian Outlaws continue to exist. Other sessions discussed “Technology in Appalachia” and “Life in the Coal Fields,” where participants were able to describe their home lives.
Family was a major theme in the program. During both weeks, we hosted family groups of artists, such as the Hicks, Proffitts, and Rorrers, who have been performing music together for many generations. With multiple generations on hand, they discussed how tradition has been carried on by younger members. In these discussions, an interesting phenomenon emerged. During the early days of the Festival, there had been tension between traditional performers and revival performers. Traditional performers had learned their art growing up in the community. Revival performers learned from recordings and books, and from other urban performances. The latter included urban musicians who studied books and records, and in some cases took lessons from traditional performers. The Festival had a longstanding policy of not presenting revival performers. But since those early days, many of the revival performers had relocated to Appalachia to be closer to the music. Now in their sixties and seventies, they had been playing music locally for decades, and the grandchildren of the earlier generation of traditional performers were now learning from revival musicians. The revival performers had become the “old masters.”
And finally, looking at the Festival across all three programs, we created opportunities to explore connections between participants from Appalachia, Scotland, and Mali. “Connecting cultures” became a phrase used throughout the Festival, referring to a larger theme, one about relationships between the (p.215) programs. The cultures of both West Africa and the British Isles had certainly influenced the culture of Appalachia. Where possible, we tried to explore these connections on narrative stages and even in performances. There was a high degree of interaction among participants in the three programs, and they left the Festival having learned much about one another. The Appalachian participants recognized elements of their heritage that connected them with the others. Musicians played together at the hotel and found the music jelled. A Malian puppeteer would come by the Mural stage and make his puppet dance, totally unscripted, to the music, much as a Limberjack toy might dance in the mountains on stage.
The Legacy of the Program
We were able to conduct oral histories with potential participants while planning the Festival. Most of these tapes are archived at the Center for Appalachian Studies. Other fieldwork submissions are in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. The two-week program was extensively documented on audiotape, videotape, and in photographs. All of these are in the archives and can be accessed by researchers. When asked, we also provided copies to the participants and their families. These materials constitute a resource that has outlived the program itself and will be part of the Smithsonian in perpetuity.
A decade after the program ended, Fred McClellan, one of the founders of BCMA, commented on its legacy. He spoke of the pride he felt in presenting Appalachians’ culture on their terms on the National Mall. After the participants returned home, BCMA mounted a “Smithsonian to the Mountains” tour, and many performers expressed the same feeling on stage there. Fred described how the connection with the Smithsonian and the Festival brought attention to and validated BCMA’s work to promote the area as “the birthplace of country music” and an area with a strong cultural heritage. Collaboration with the Smithsonian (in the Festival and as an affiliate) represented a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” for their work in their home region.5
The Festival was one of a number of projects, many of which continue to promote cultural tourism in the region. One of these is the Crooked Road project, which maps out a “travel tour” for visitors wishing to explore Appalachian music on its own terms. It compiles the many performances and amateur jam sessions taking place in southwestern Virginia. The nearby Blue Ridge Music Center has also become a go-to place for musical performances. In Bristol, the yearly Roots and Rhythm Festival has become a huge local event, drawing tens of thousands of fans for a weekend of Appalachian, country, and Americana music. This festival combines local musicians with quite a few national (p.216) acts, and it now rivals North Carolina’s Merlefest. The music program at ETSU has expanded and now includes other forms of traditional music in addition to bluegrass. With a permanent exhibition, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which opened in August 2014, BCMA has been successful in setting Bristol up as an alternative country music capital.
The Festival program instilled a sense in Appalachian natives that they could rely on the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage for advice and guidance. The program accomplished its goal of providing a platform from which people from Appalachia could tell their own story, and it validated their work at home. In retrospect, despite its lack of resources, Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony was a success. The participants left Washington with extra energy and motivation to keep their culture prospering, and it continues to this day.
(1.) Smithsonian Folklife Festival narrative session, “What It Is to Be Appalachian” June 27, 2003 (cassette tape FP-2003-CT-0075).
(2.) The state of Virginia participated in what they called the “tobacco buyout,” which subsidized farmers who switched from growing tobacco to other crops.
(5.) Fred McClellan, personal communication, 2014.