On the music of Appalachia, with a playlist
Around the world, culture is homogenized by the dominant styles of popular music, widely disseminated through streaming platforms like Tik Tok and Youtube. Even so, regional music continues to be surprisingly resilient. I’m not just talking about variations like KPop, or like Ghanaian drill music which has been on the verge of becoming a worldwide hit (Yaw Tog! Jay Band!) for 18 months. Nor do I have in mind the worldwide popularity of reggaeton, son, cumbia, bachata and other forms of Latin music. There’s a good reason why Puerto Rican musician Bad Bunny has topped Billboard’s Pop Star Power chart all year.
Instead, I’m talking about the resilience of truly off-the-grid regional music — both old and new — featured on this week’s Werewolf Music Playlist, which I’ve loosely called Mountain Music. The mountains in question being the Appalachians, which range from Georgia in the south to Pennsylvania and New York (and beyond) in the north. What I call “mountain music” is largely a product of central and southern Appalachia, including parts of eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
The resilience of this music has been a byproduct of talent, geography and intense poverty. Appalachia happens to diagonally cross the east/west lines of most highways and railroads in the region. People have been left behind – economically and culturally – along the ridges and in the valleys. It’s no coincidence that two of the region’s greatest musicians – Jean Ritchie and Roscoe Holcomb – were members of the old regular baptist church.
This music is not a museum piece, however. Young artists like banjo prodigy Nora Brown introduced new audiences to older forms of banjo playing (for example, the clawhammer style versus the dominant three-finger style of bluegrass banjo playing pioneered by Earl Scruggs). New audiences are also drawn to the nasal, “high lonesome” style of singing that Holcomb learned in church, and which has become associated with the ballads brought across the Atlantic by pioneers from England, Ireland and Europe. ‘Scotland.
Specifically, Brown and those before her diligently researched and learned regional variations of old folk standards such as ‘Shady Grove’, ‘Cumberland Gap’, ‘Trouble in Mind’, etc., etc. In many cases these variants were learned – directly or from recordings – from musicians like Lee Sexton (1928-2021), Addie Graham (1890-1978) Virgil Anderson (1902-1997) and Fred Cockerham (1905- 1980).
As Brown said in a recent interview, this search through the many different versions of older tunes is one of the constant rewards:
….That’s one of the great things about music; you find a really great song and you’re like, “Oh my God…that’s the best thing I could have ever learned…I love the song so much. You [then]
find out something else and you get that feeling again. It’s very cool not only to see the amount of music recorded, but also the different versions of songs that you might know a version of. For example, “Shady Grove”, it’s a fairly common well-known tune, but there are a lot of cool and unique versions of the song that are just played differently…it could be in a different tuning, or slightly different . melody. There is always this curiosity to discover other things and to listen to more things.
The tracks in the playlist
This werewolf playlist is by no means definitive and I claim no in-depth knowledge of the music or its cultural sources. Nora Brown was an inspiration to go further. Five years into his career, Brown has just turned 17. The version of “Wild Goose Chase” that kicks off the playlist came from Virgil Anderson and is on his just-released live album. Long to go. Her 2020 recording of “The Very Day I’m Gone” is based on Addie Graham’s wonderful variation of the old folk music chestnut “500 Miles.”
The revenge drama “Frankie and Albert” (also known as “Frankie and Johnny”) was inspired by an 1899 murder in St Louis, Missouri. At 22, Frankie Baker shot his 17-year-old lover, Albert Britt, after double-crossing her with Nelly Bly, with whom he had just won a slow-dancing contest at a local tavern. It’s one of the rare killer ballads where the woman kills the man.
Here is a link to a 1921 animated version with Frank Crumit on vocals.
The beautiful instrumental “Flowery Girls” by Omer Forster is one of the highlights of this list :
All his life, Omer played in an archaic two-finger (thumb and index) style that he doesn’t remember learning from anyone; “It has always come naturally to me.” Nor was he aware during his lifetime that his style was so unusual; apparently his friends and neighbors in rural Humphries County [Tennessee] accepted the style without much comment. But it is distinctive: soft, graceful, complex, different both from the classic three-finger vaudeville styles of other central Tennessee performers like Uncle Dave Macon, and different from the claw-hammer style of the eastern mountains. .
Ira and Charlie Louvin were a classic example of the region’s close-knit sibling groups. (The Everly Brothers were the style’s most successful pop practitioners.) “Kentucky” is from the Louvins’ great tragic songs of life album from 1956 – a time when, apparently, lyrics like “I miss the dark ones singing in the silver moonlight” could still pass. Everyone loved Charlie Louvin. But Ira Louvin, who played the mandolin beautifully and sang with a high, quavering tenor, was said to be “as mean as a rattlesnake” in private life. Somehow, Ira survived being shot four times in the chest by his third wife Faye after he allegedly tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. He finally died in a car accident in 1965, along with his fourth wife, Anne Young.
Other Tracks: “Matty Groves” harkens back to 17th century Britain and is another killer ballad. In the background, the lord of the manor discovers his wife in bed with a young man, and kills them both, but not without regret. Like many other English, Scottish and Irish ballads, “Matty Groves” was imported to the American colonies and eventually found a lasting home in Appalachia. The much-recorded “Shady Grove” is an offshoot of the same song. The other Doc Watson (1923-2012) track on this list is “Your Long Journey” – which was written by his wife Rosa Lee, and is best known from a syrupy version by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. There is an ongoing controversy over the title. Arguably, it may be “Lone Journey Home” (which makes more sense) and the title could have been misconstrued as “Long” by Smithsonian collectors, thanks to Watson’s heavy Tennessee accent. Or so the story goes.
Any number of pieces could have been included by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973), a tireless collector of folk music and practitioner of American music and dance styles for over 60 years. He also had a keen interest in the traditional music of the Cherokee Native Americans. Lunsford can be briefly seen in these extraordinary images of the old-fashioned mountain clog dance. It seems very strange to think that this event was happening at the same time in the mid-1960s as protests were taking place against the Vietnam War, and hippies the same age as these teenagers were marching towards Haight Ashbury. Old and strange America indeed.
Despite the immense value of his collectible work to American culture, Lunsford was a polarizing figure. In his autobiography, folk musician Dave Van Ronk (not shrinking himself) described Lunsford as “a racist, anti-Semitic white supremacist who would later categorically refuse to come to Newport folk festivals because of [Pete] Seeger’s involvement. (Seeger left the Communist Party in 1950. In 1995 he was still being described as a communist, but by then the term had lost much of its cultural pizzazz.)
Definitive versions of Lunsford classics like “Goodbye Old Stepstone” and “Old Mountain Dew” can be found on his
Turkey Creek Music album. “Lost John Dean,” his 1928 recording of a 19th-century song about a runaway black slave from Bowling Green, Kentucky with superhero powers, is also worth checking out.
Finally, it’s back to Nora Brown. His version of “Jay Gould’s Daughter” takes the song back to its roots, as tragedy befalls the child of the baron of 19th century railroad robbers. As with much of the music Brown learned from his elders – like, for example, his own version of Fred Cockerham’s “Little Satchel” – the tunes evolve and eventually become his own over repeated performances. So, how are you.
She keeps her options open. “I don’t know if I want to pursue a career in music for my entire adult life,” she said in an interview a year ago. “But I know I still want to play music. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do, but I know that I want to continue transmitting musical traditions. Here is a fine example of this processfrom when she was only 13 years old.
Here is the playlist:
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