Folk Music Revivals

Updated: March 01, 2011

At the dawn of the twentieth century, amid industrial exploitation of the region’s vast natural resources and abundant labor force, educators and social workers committed to uplifting the region’s people extolled Appalachia’s wealth of distinctive cultural traditions.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, amid industrial exploitation of the region’s vast natural resources and abundant labor force, educators and social workers committed to uplifting the region’s people extolled Appalachia’s wealth of distinctive cultural traditions. In his often quoted 1899 Atlantic Monthly article “Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains,” Berea College’s third president, William Goodell Frost, affirmed the aesthetic value of traditional ballads and advocated the revival of spinning and loom weaving as profitable, wholesome pursuits for Appalachian youth. Under Frost’s leadership, Kentucky’s Berea College became the epicenter of the Appalachian folk arts and crafts movement.

Emulating Frost, teacher, poet, and folklorist Emma Bell Miles advocated handicrafts as an alternative to factory work for Appalachian people. An enthusiastic self-taught folklorist, Miles was also interested in ballads and play parties (singing games). Miles’s evocative book The Spirit of the Mountains (1905) strongly influenced the founders of Pine Mountain Settlement School and Hindman Settlement School in southeastern Kentucky.

A cofounder of Pine Mountain Settlement School in 1913, Katherine Pettit was also an avid folklorist. In 1907 eminent Harvard scholar George Lyman Kittredge published ballads and play-party rhymes collected by Pettit in an article in the Journal of American Folklore. In 1916 English folklorist and musicologist Cecil Sharp and his assistant, Maud Karpeles, collected traditional ballads and songs from students at Pine Mountain and Hindman (in this era, collecting folk music entailed transcribing lyrics and notating tunes). Among these students was Edna Ritchie, older sister of renowned musician and writer Jean Ritchie, who became a leading exponent of authentic Appalachian music in the urban folk revival that flourished in the post–World War II era.

A lively revival of Appalachian folk music was already underway during Jean Ritchie’s childhood, capturing the imagination of educated natives of the region such as Bascom Lamar Lunsford in western North Carolina and Jean Thomas in eastern Kentucky. In 1928 Lunsford established a major festival showcasing regional folk music and dance in Asheville, North Carolina. A scholar, collector, and per- former who staunchly rejected hillbilly stereotypes, Lunsford recorded traditional songs for the Library of Congress and also made a few commercial recordings, including one of his classic song “Mountain Dew.”

A native of Ashland, Kentucky, Jean Thomas in the 1920s moved to New York City, where she encountered future leaders of the urban folk revival. Returning to Kentucky, she began collecting local folk music and writing popular books about Appalachian musicians. She also established the American Folk Song Festival, which she directed from 1931 to 1972. Academic folklorists of her day questioned Thomas’s scholarship and were disturbed by the undercurrents of racism in her fanciful representations of Appalachian folk culture.

While some promoters of the revival of Appalachian folk music in the 1930s undeniably had reactionary political agendas, other influential scholars and promoters of Appalachian folk music at that time were politically liberal and progressive, while several were unabashedly radical. Teaching English at New York University from the early 1930s through the late 1940s, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle also served as a fieldworker for the Library of Congress Archives of Folk Song and espoused left-leaning political causes, including the Kentucky coal miners’ strike organized by the communist National Miners Union. In the mid-1930s, she met and shortly thereafter married Tilman Cadle, a radical Kentucky miner closely associated with union organizers Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, and Sarah Ogan Gunning, whose powerful protest songs inspired the politically left- wing music group the Almanac Singers (which included future leaders of the urban folk revival such as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger). In 1947 Barnicle and Cadle moved from Greenwich Village in New York City to east Tennessee. Barnicle taught at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for almost three years until she retired after having been accused of being a communist. Barnicle and Cadle continued to work with the Highlander Folk School, then located in Monteagle, Tennessee. Using topical songs based on folk music to raise consciousness of social injustices has been an integral feature of the Highlander program since its inception. 

Awareness and appreciation of traditional Appalachian music greatly increased between the mid 1950s and early 1960s. The folk music boom created new audiences and markets for performers, instrument makers, and producers. The commercial success of the Weavers, a quartet featuring Pete Seeger on the five-string banjo, inspired the formation of a host of banjo-playing popular groups performing folk- inspired music, most notably the Kingston Trio, but also the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the New Christy Minstrels. Issued in 1958, the Kingston Trio’s first and biggest hit song was “Tom Dooley,” adapted from the text of a traditional murder ballad that Frank Proffitt Sr., of Watauga County, North Carolina, had recorded in the field for folklorist Frank Warner in 1939. Folklorist Alan Lomax published the ballad in his 1947 book Folk Song USA, crediting Warner rather than Proffitt, and the Kingston Trio learned Warner’s rearranged version of “Tom Dooley” from his 1950 Elektra recording. In 1962, after Warner intervened on behalf of Proffitt, the ballad singer finally received a small share of revenue from the hit version.

Proffitt was but one of many Appalachian musicians (known in revivalist circles as “source musicians”) who were “discovered” (or “rediscovered”) during the urban folk revival in the 1950s and early 1960s. Literally reviving the careers of such older musicians as Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Dock Boggs, and Clark Kessinger (who had recorded commercially during the 1920s), this revival also introduced new and highly appreciative audiences to younger Appalachian performers such as the Stanley Brothers and Doc Watson, who mixed traditional material with contemporary innovation.

The urban folk music boom appeared to have peaked by the mid-1960s, when many young urban musicians previously performing acoustic folk-style material began switching to electric formats and harder rock-oriented styles. However, interest in older and newer forms of Appalachian music was renewed in the late 1960s after the influence of the British Invasion and psychedelic rock began to diminish. Urban non- native folk rock and country rock musicians, such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the group Old and In the Way, brought a more comprehensive vision to acoustic Appalachian music. Such recording projects as the former band’s influential 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken featured traditional country music performers (such as Roy Acuff and Maybelle Carter) alongside bluegrass musicians (for example, Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs) and eclectic interpreters of Appalachian music (including Doc Watson and Norman Blake). A number of younger revivalist performers during this era maintained an even more traditional stance, interpreting Appalachian music on recordings, at concerts and festivals, and in publications. Some of these performers, such as David Holt, Mike Seeger, John McCutcheon, Alice Gerrard, Wayne Erbsen, and Betty Smith, were not originally from the region, while others— James “Sparky” Rucker, Hazel Dickens, Rich Kirby, and Sheila Kay Adams—were natives of Appalachia. During the 1960s and 1970s, a variety of performance venues, including festivals, conventions, and contests, attracted new and old devotees of traditional music. A resurgence of interest in country music dance halls and music barns also took place during this same period. A noteworthy example is the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, established in 1974 by Joe and Janette Carter to celebrate their family’s musical heritage and to promote active interest in Appalachian music and dance traditions. Other notable individual promoters of Appalachian traditional music include John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, which stages the Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a major annual traditional music festival, and master old-time fiddler J. P. Fraley, who hosts an annual festival near his family home place of Denton, Kentucky.

Various organizations and institutions have also promoted interest in Appalachian music, including the John C. Campbell Folk School, in Brasstown, North Carolina; the Jubilee Arts Center, in Knoxville, Tennessee; the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia; the Blue Ridge Traditional Music Association, in Galax, Virginia; and the Appalshop Center, in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Regional schools, colleges, and universities have also played a substantial role in promoting appreciation of Appalachian music. Warren Wilson College, in Swannanoa, North Carolina, hosts highly acclaimed summer workshops in Appalachian music, as does Davis and Elkins College, in Elkins, West Virginia. East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tennessee, offers a popular bluegrass and country music program, attracting students from across the United States and from various other countries.

Just as earlier urban folk revivals led to the dissemination of traditional Appalachian music (via limited-release recordings from specialized folk labels) and of hybrid forms of regional music (via more commercially successful recordings by major labels), the commercial success of tradition- influenced recordings both by Appalachia-born and non- native performers in the late 1980s led to the emergence of a far wider audience for various Appalachian musics. Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, and Ralph Stanley, from within Appalachia, and Steve Earle and Gillian Welch, among non-Appalachian alternative country music performers, have achieved significant commercial success in recent years performing music overtly based on the region’s musical traditions. While such musicians cannot rightfully claim to make authentic “folk music,” they have surely contributed to increasing the receptivity of mainstream audiences toward more traditional Appalachian music.

After more than a century of rediscovery and revival, Appalachian music has achieved worldwide popularity while remaining firmly rooted within the region, a testament to the tenacity of generations of Appalachian people who have expressed themselves through their traditional music.

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MLA Style

"Folk Music Revivals," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 21 Oct 2018 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=87>

APA Style

"Folk Music Revivals." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved October 21, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=87

Poster for the 75th Mountain Dance and Folk Festival