Appalachian Music Fellowship 12

Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship
Day 12, June 16, 2009

Stereotype: “a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group: The cowboy and Indian are American stereotypes.” –Random House Dictionary.

Yes, and so is the southern Appalachian, as I’ve been aptly reminded today while studying newspaper, magazine, and journal articles circa 1900-1920 related to ballad-collecting in the mountains. So Child’s work with ballads in America (See Day 11) sparked a whole contest of folk-song collectors trying to get into the mountains to record the ancient songs that many mountain people sang as easily then as we sing Beatles songs today. Even the gov’munt got in on the race.

In November, 1913, the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, issued an appeal to public school teachers and others on “An Opportunity to Help in an Important Work,” With the help of Edgar Allan Poe, professor of English in the University of Virginia, the Bureau intended to collect the American survivals of the ballads classified by Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

While many collectors/folklorists did important preservation work in the mountains, they also felt compelled to pepper their song texts with quaint (or hateful) descriptions of the singers and their communities.

An article in The Nation, Feb. 5, 1914, makes light of the Department of the Interior’s call for ballads. “Ballad singing,” the editorial states, “was a lost art almost as long ago as ballad-making. . . . And it is doubtful if ballad recitation or oral preservation, in old country or new, is more than vestigial. . . . Survivals will inevitably be most sought in the still medieval-minded Appalachians, so akin in speech, custom, and superstition to the folk among whom balladry was common three centuries ago.”

And there’s much, much more, including three articles from Harper’s Monthly, written by one William Aspenwall Bradley, whose flowery, ornamental style of feature writing barely disguises his disdain for the mountain people in Kentucky. (One article is called “Hobnobbing with Hillbillies.”)

There were more sympathetic collectors. Olive Dame Campbell references the imperative of the Bureau of Education and wrote of her work collecting the words and music of ballads in a 1915 article, “Songs and Ballads of the Southern Mountains,” in The Survey. First, she mentions the great geographical hardships endured in collecting ballads (unlike Child who only collected ballad manuscripts and did no field work—heard little to no singing!):
“For one traveling now over portions of the Wilderness Road and sections yet more remote, it is not hard to understand why so many of these pioneers lingered in the fastnesses of the mountains, while others pushed on across the ranges to settle the Great Valley and to open up the new country of the West. Even now, the main roads, in places, are bitterly hard to travel, while many less-frequented roads are, in the winter season, almost impassable. After several days of journey, one comes to appreciate the old funeral hymns,
Been a long time traveling here below
To lay this body down

Professor Hubert G. Shearin of Transylvania University, writing in the July 1911 issue of Sewanee Review predicted that the days of authentic ballad collecting would soon be over in the “sequestered valleys of eastern Kentucky” because of the industries moving into the mountains: “In another generation or two these songs will be but a memory in the Kentucky highlands; the clank of the colliery, the rattle of the locomotive, the roar of the blast-furnace, the shriek of the factory-whistle, and, alas, even the music of the school-bell, are already overwhelming the thin tones of the dulcimore and the quavering voice of the Last Minstrel of the Cumberlands.”

–from the Berea College Special Collections, Hutchins Library

Published by Marianne Worthington

Marianne Worthington is a poet, editor, and co-founder of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to the Appalachian region since 2009. She received the Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award for her poetry chapbook, Larger Bodies Than Mine. She was awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship at Berea College. She co-edited, with Silas House, Piano in a Sycamore: Writing Lessons from the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, a writing craft anthology from teachers at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop from the last 40 years. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, CALYX, Grist, Shenandoah, The Louisville Review, Appalachian Review, Cheap Pop, and Chapter 16, among other places. She lives in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and teaches communication studies, media writing, and journalism at University of the Cumberlands. Her poetry collection, The Girl Singer, is available from University Press of Kentucky, 2021.

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