Music was the region’s most effective cultural ambassador, mixing various ethnic and popular musical styles to create unique sounds.

At the outset of the twenty-first century, few people—whether natives of Appalachia or “outsiders—would question the assertion that music has been and remains the most widely known manifestation of Appalachian culture, both within and outside the region. Throughout most of the twentieth century, Appalachian music, having evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a regional musical blend combining various ethnic and popular musics, was Appalachia’s most effective cultural ambassador and the region’s chief cultural export, transported via the media—especially radio and recordings—and via concerts by touring Appalachian musicians. Despite the growing popularity of the region’s music, many fans are unaware of its true diversity. Natives and non-natives alike tend to associate only two genres of popular music with Appalachia—bluegrass and country—while other more traditional and elite regional musics reach significantly smaller audiences. Several types of Appalachian traditional music, including ballad singing and string-band music, are still performed, informally within family and community circles and in such formal settings as concerts. Prominent contemporary performers include natives who learned Appalachian music from kin as well as non-natives whose initial exposure to Appalachian music generally came through radio and recordings. The enthusiasm of “revivalist” performers for particular genres of Appalachian music ensures that those genres will continue to be heard, studied, and enjoyed by people who otherwise might have little contact with, or knowledge of, the region that inspired them.

The oldest musical traditions in Appalachia are also the least known—in part because few recordings have been made of the music of the Cherokee and other indigenous groups and in part because the music of aboriginal peoples was integrally associated with secret rituals. The first European American musical traditions in Appalachia involved balladry and fiddling. Brought to the region by settlers from the British Isles, ballads were initially sung in Appalachia as they had been in the Old World: a cappella, in minor keys, with an unemotional presentation. Over time, Appalachian balladeers truncated the generally tragic narratives of the British ballads and incorporated instrumental accompaniment. As English folklorist Cecil Sharp and his assistant, Maud Karpeles, discovered during World War I–era collecting forays into Appalachia, the region still harbored a large repertoire of “Child ballads” of British origin. So called because they were categorized by nineteenth-century Harvard scholar Francis James 

Child, these traditional ballads were sung across Appalachia in multiple variants. Appalachian singers expanded the region’s song repertoire by introducing new ballads composed entirely in the New World. These “native American” ballads, as folklorists have termed them, directly reflected social realities in Appalachia, and some of these ballads documented historic events. “Omie Wise,” for instance, chronicles an actual early-nineteenth-century North Carolina murder. Many “traditional” ballads—both British and native American—were originally broadsides. Composed by individual songwriters commenting upon specific events, broadsides were written onto paper and sold locally. Some of them eventually entered oral tradition and public domain. By the late nineteenth century, Appalachian people also sang various composed ballads taken from commercial songbooks. Most of these later ballads—published to be performed in parlors for social occasions—were thematically sentimental rather than tragic. Ballads markedly declined within the region after World War I as a consequence of industrialization and out-migration as well as the emergence of radio, recordings, and other new forms of entertainment. Balladry, though, remained an influence on early commercial country music performers, and the popular “disaster song” repertoire (for example, “The Wreck of the Old 97”) evolved from the ballad tradition. A separate type of traditional song, the lyric folk song, survived in Appalachia into the twentieth century. Unlike ballads, lyric folk songs accentuate emotion rather than narrative.

Other singing traditions historically found in the region have been associated with the church. Shape-note singing, which flourished across the southeastern U.S. during the nineteenth century, still lingers in Appalachia (especially in northern Alabama and Mississippi). Another older vocal tradition occasionally practiced in contemporary Appalachia is “lined-out” hymnody, wherein a minister presiding over a service speaks a line of a religious hymn, with that same line then sung in chorus by the congregation. These two traditions of sacred music, though different in terms of their musical structures, bear similar social functions in that both singing traditions are vehicles for the aesthetic expression of religious feelings. In the twentieth century, new forms of religious music prevailed in Appalachia. Mass-marketed song- books containing notated tunes and texts of original sacred-themed songs were promoted throughout the region by quartet singing groups sponsored by commercial publishing companies. The earliest of these was the influential Ruebush-Kieffer Company, established in the Shenandoah Valley not long after the Civil War. Later, most such firms were located outside Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1920s, this music genre (known as southern gospel) reached even wider audiences in Appalachia through the new technologies of radio and commercial recordings. Popular white gospel quartets from the region have included the Speer Family (from Double Springs, Alabama), the Blackwood Brothers (from Choctaw County, Mississippi), and the Statler Brothers (from the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia). African Americans in Appalachia have created their own legacy of religious music, from spirituals and shape-note singing traditions to commercial quartet singing groups—including such nationally famous acts as the Dixie Hummingbirds (from Greenville, South Carolina)—and larger ensembles, such as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama (from Jefferson County) and the Birmingham Mass Choir.

As with many British ballads, some instrumental tunes from the British Isles continued to be played in Appalachia. Regional musicians performed such instrumental tunes when accompanying reels, waltzes, and other old-world dances; many of these tunes gradually acquired new titles and new tune variations. Throughout the nineteenth century, a dance would often be accompanied by a solo musician playing fiddle. Toward the end of that century, the combination of fiddle and banjo became common. By the twentieth century, instrumentalists performed together in larger ensembles, as recently introduced instruments, especially the guitar and the mandolin, were combined with those instruments already familiar in Appalachia. Called “string bands” for their emphasis on string instruments, such ensembles performed for dances and—after radio and commercial records allowed musical groups to build fan bases—concerts. String bands often boasted instrumentalists who displayed considerable virtuosity.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, developments in mass-media technologies across the United States (initially, widely distributed songbooks, and, later, radio and commercial recordings) accelerated the spread of Appalachian music to new audiences. Inevitably, the process of broadcasting a largely regional music to a mass, generalized audience changed the music’s character. With the expanding market for print collections of traditional Appalachian ballads, songs, and instrumentals, occasioned by mainstream America’s newfound interest in American folk music, arrangers often refashioned traditional texts and tunes. By the mid-twentieth century, native- born classical composers such as Lamar Stringfield were incorporating stylistic influences from the region’s folk music into their compositions. Even German composer Kurt Weill at this time composed a piece featuring vocal arrangements of Appalachian folk songs.

Unavoidably, the versions of Appalachian material presented to broad-based, non-native audiences were different from the original sources. The Kingston Trio’s hit song “Tom Dooley,” for example, significantly modified the traditional North Carolina ballad “Tom Dula.” Such mainstream versions of Appalachian folk music commonly became more popular than traditional versions and styles. Producers of commercial recordings as early as the 1920s encouraged traditional Appalachian musicians to alter their sound, whether subtly or overtly. Victor Talking Machine Company producer Ralph Peer, for instance, requested that most of the musicians he recorded at the 1927 and 1928 Bristol sessions avoid instrumental tunes and instead perform popular and folk songs. But even though he favored vocals, Peer discouraged the recording of traditional ballads, which he deemed as being too long for commercial 78 rpm recordings and too complex and thematically troubling for mainstream audiences.

The Bristol sessions and most other late-1920s and early-1930s field recording sessions in Appalachian and southern cities were motivated by commercial rather than documentary interest, and collectively they spawned the commercial country music industry. Although from the mid-1930s onward most country music recording sessions occurred outside Appalachia, a significant number of major country music singers (Roy Acuff), singer-songwriters (Don Gibson, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton), and instrumentalists (Chet Atkins and Charlie McCoy) have been Appalachian natives whose regional styles were essential to the evolution of the genre. While bluegrass music originated outside the geographical boundaries of Appalachia (blue- grass’s founding father, Bill Monroe, was from western Kentucky), the genre has received vital contributions since its inception from Appalachian musicians, including Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, who were early members of Monroe’s band. Bluegrass was soon embraced by Appalachian audiences because it reflected the influence of the Appalachian string-band tradition and the inspiration of the harmony singing of Appalachian brother duos and gospel quartets. The high-pitched vocals employed in bluegrass singing—often described as “high lonesome”—invoke the angular vocal style within Appalachian balladry and shape-note singing. Many premier first- and second-generation bluegrass musicians, such as Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Jim and Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and Doc Watson, were native Appalachians—as are several of the most respected newer bluegrass acts, including Ricky Skaggs and members of such groups as the Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, and Union Station.

Appalachian music was unmistakably influenced by African American culture, as white and black musicians within Appalachian communities long shared their knowledge of songs, tunes, and musical instruments. Several well-known songs from the region, such as the blues ballad “John Henry,” and one instrument widely associated with the region (the banjo) were of African American origin. The blues had a considerable impact on both country and bluegrass music, a fact evident, for in- stance, in Jimmie Rodgers’s “blue yodel” singing style and Merle Travis’s and Bill Monroe’s instrumental styles.

During the 1920s and 1930s, while the Carter Family and other white Appalachian musicians made influential “hillbilly” records, several black blues and jazz musicians from the region—especially Bessie Smith and W. C. Handy—were key figures in “race” music, attracting the attention of African American audiences nationally through concerts and recordings. Blues traditions thrived in Appalachia, particularly the foothills of Virginia and the Carolinas (which produced such musicians as the Reverend Gary Davis, Etta Baker, and John Jackson), urban and industrial centers within the region (Bessie Smith, Cow Cow Davenport, and Brownie McGhee), and the north Mississippi hills (Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Kimbrough, and R. L. Burnside). Within Appalachia, jazz was heard primarily in cities with large African American populations. Pittsburgh produced such jazz stalwarts as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Erroll Garner, Ray Brown, Billy Eckstine, George Benson, and Stanley Turrentine, while Birmingham, Alabama, was home to Sun Ra and Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Bessie Smith and Jimmy Blanton.

By the late 1940s, African American popular music was generally referred to as rhythm and blues. Several important rhythm and blues performers originally from Appalachia found commercial success only after relocating to urban centers out- side the region; these include Stick McGhee, Nina Simone, Bill Withers, and Lionel Richie. By the mid-1960s, soul music—a subgenre of rhythm and blues—was gaining attention nationally. Accentuating an emotionalism borrowed from gospel, soul boasted a number of singers from Appalachia, including Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, and Wilson Pickett. One of the most important recording centers for 1960s soul was in the Muscle Shoals area of northern Alabama. White musicians from the region provided instrumental accompaniment for soul artists who recorded in the Muscle Shoals studios. Since soul and bluegrass were the only commercial musics that offered steady economic sustenance to musicians in Appalachia, many soul and blue- grass performers remained in the region throughout their careers.

African American musicians from Appalachia have long been influenced by “white” music genres. Many regional black musicians often entertained white audiences and thus borrowed from the white repertoire and musical style. Conversely, many white musicians from Appalachia have acknowledged their indebtedness to black musicians they knew personally. Leslie Riddle and Arnold Shultz, for instance, have been acknowledged as influences by the Carter Family and Bill Monroe, respectively. However, the hybrid styles of such African American musicians failed to fit the early recording industry’s idea of either “race” music or “hillbilly” music (the major identified markets in the South). The majority of African American string bands (for example, the Hillbillies, from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which featured Willie Walker and Gary Davis) were never recorded.

Florence, Alabama, native Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records in Memphis, publicly stated that his label’s recording star Elvis Presley, a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, became a revolutionary cultural force in the mid-1950s precisely because his musical persona incorporated both white and black stylistic influences. Presley’s trend- setting Sun singles were the first commercially successful recordings of rockabilly (a coinage derived from the conjoining of the term rock, which suggested that music’s rhythmic drive, and billy, which referred to the term hillbilly). A major subgenre of rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly was a high-energy hybrid music initially performed primarily by southern and Appalachian singers and instrumentalists. The country music establishment viewed rockabilly as a threat because of its appeal to younger Americans, including many Appalachians, who also embraced subsequent types of rock ’n’ roll.

A racially colorblind music equally indebted to rhythm and blues and to country, rock ’n’ roll (by then generally referred to as rock) was reflecting trend-conscious urban and suburban values by the 1960s. Accordingly, as a largely rural region, Appalachia was the site of few important recording or performance centers for rock music. Even so, significant musicians in various rock subgenres have hailed from the region, including such individual performers as Charlie Feathers (rockabilly), Dave Loggins (pop), Darrell Scott (Americana), and Trent Reznor (industrial rock), and such groups as the Chambers Brothers (psychedelic soul), the Marshall Tucker Band (southern rock), Goose Creek Symphony (country rock), Superdrag (alternative rock), and Drive-By Truckers (alternative country). Many of these musicians have explored regional themes and have exhibited overt Appalachian musical influences.

Due to its broad scope of influence both within and outside the region, Appalachian music has been a powerful perpetrator of regional stereotypes. Although originating outside Appalachia, nineteenth-century minstrel show performances featuring white musicians derisively exaggerating black culture adversely affected the social standing of African Americans in the region after emancipation. In the twentieth century, the barn dance—which achieved national popularity via radio and which sustained that popularity into the 1990s through such television programs as Hee Haw—provided steady work and significant exposure for many Appalachian musicians. But in order to represent rural culture, which held novelty appeal for main- stream audiences, producers directed Appalachian musicians to project a hillbilly identity. The stereotype inevitably left far-flung audiences with negative and inaccurate impressions of Appalachian people. These barn dances particularly misrepresented two aspects of the region’s culture: Appalachian speech and Appalachian clothes. Musicians were encouraged to exaggerate their regional speech and to wear standardized hillbilly dress, including bib overalls and straw hats.

Likewise distorting general understanding of Appalachian regional culture during the twentieth century were attitudes toward Appalachian people of some of the musicians associated with the century’s several folk revivals, whose representations of Appalachian culture, whether earnest or intentionally exploitive, were rendered un- trustworthy by both positive and negative stereotyping. Positive stereotypes included the revivalists’ romanticized portrayals of Appalachian musicians as mountain sages or noble savages; negative stereotyping involved the unfavorable characterization of Appalachian people as “rubes,” “hicks,” or “degenerates.” Other revivalist musicians exhibited considerable dedication to understanding Appalachian culture and thus were more sensitive to regional issues. The first folk revival of Appalachian music began shortly before World War I, as the forces of modernization were threatening the continuity of traditional life in many Appalachian communities. At this time, various aficionados of Appalachian folk music—natives such as promoter and performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford as well as non-natives such as British folklorist Cecil Sharp—extensively collected traditional ballads and songs in the region. Through the work of such collectors, the extensive repertoires of many traditional Appalachian singers were permanently recorded, first on paper, then by the late 1920s via sound recording machines. A second surge in revivalist zeal occurred between 1930 and 1945, as several people— mostly non-natives, including performer and anthologist John Jacob Niles, ethno- musicologist Alan Lomax, and the husband-and-wife team of Frank and Anne Warner—collected and reinterpreted traditional Appalachian music.

A subsequent revival occurred after World War II through the 1970s, as young natives and non-natives alike embraced Appalachian traditions in reaction to the materialism and cultural modernism of mainstream America during postwar prosperity. Numerous revivalist musicians toured the U.S. and Europe performing faithful renditions of Appalachian folk music learned from old 78 rpm recordings. One prominent revivalist group, the New Lost City Ramblers, which featured non-native musicians Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tracy Schwartz, not only toured and recorded prolifically but also “discovered” several talented yet unheralded traditional Appalachian musicians (Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs, and Kilby Snow), whose lives and music they documented through various recordings and films. Several other non-native revivalist musicians, such as Wayne Erbsen and David Holt, utilized various media in their effort to promote the music they loved. Others active in Appalachia, including Si Kahn and John McCutcheon, specialized in writing and performing folklike songs bearing strong social messages. Appalachian themes and imagery influenced many non-native musicians working within the popular urban country rock style during the late 1960s and early 1970s, while many musicians from the region infused their renditions of tradition-based music with rock instrumentation and attitudes.

Renewed interest in Appalachian music was evident by the mid-1990s, as a new generation was introduced to the region’s musical heritage through reissued “classic” recordings of traditional Appalachian music on compact disc. While encouraging some younger musicians from Appalachia to learn and reinterpret their native region’s musical legacy, renewed national attention toward Appalachian music ultimately had its biggest impact on non-Appalachian musicians and audiences. Al- though their personal affiliations with the region were either marginal or nonexistent, numerous leading contemporary musicians in the alternative country, Americana, and roots rock music movements were, by the mid-1990s, writing original songs that incorporated traditional Appalachian instruments and/or explored Appalachian themes. Some of these musicians went to considerable lengths to project an archetypically “Appalachian” public image. Non-native Gillian Welch, for instance, not only wrote and performed songs evoking the region stylistically and thematically but also adopted regional dress and even affected a regional accent. Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless—prominent musicians from Appalachia who had achieved considerable success outside the region in commercial country music—returned to the more acoustic and traditional sounds they had known in their youth. By the early years of the twenty-first century, two soundtrack recordings featuring carefully produced, sympathetic interpretations of Appalachian music—from the movies O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Songcatcher (2000)—attracted a broad-based national audience; the former soundtrack sold several million copies. Media attention toward Appalachian music in recent years has had the effect of encouraging many young people within Appalachia to reinvestigate their region’s musical traditions, even as they embrace mainstream popular musics.

Ted Olson, East Tennessee State University


Suggested Reading

Thomas G. Burton, Some Ballad Folks (1978); Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1917; revised 1932);

Cecelia Conway, African Banjo Echoes in   Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions (1995);

James R. Goff Jr., Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (2002); Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986);

John Rice Irwin, Musical Instruments of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (1983);

John Lilly, ed., Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from Goldenseal (1999);

Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (2002);

Marty McGee, Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge: Old Time, Early Country, Folk, and Bluegrass Label Recording Artists, with Discographies (2000);

Beverly Bush Patterson, The Sound of the Dove: Singing in Appalachian Primitive Baptist Churches (2001);

Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History (1993); Jeff Todd Titon, Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes (2001);

Anne Warner, ed., Traditional American Folk Songs from the Anne and Frank Warner Collection (1984);

Peter Zimmerman, Tennessee Music: Its People and Places (1998).