Appalachian Music Celebrates Modern Culture, Immigrant Past

03 August, 2018

"To me the difference between a violin, and a fiddle, is that a violin never had a beer spilled on it... That is the difference."

Will Fanning laughs at his joke as he rocks on his chair outside his home in Mingo, West Virginia. Fanning is a musician and hotel owner born in Ireland. But now he lives deep in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States.

"The Irish nearly every day have a song and play music," said Fanning. "So that tradition is kind of bred into me. My family, every weekend we'd play music at the house."

Like Fanning, many in the area continue the traditions from their families' immigrant history including a kind of music called old-time.

The oldest music from the oldest mountains

Old-time music comes from the Appalachian Mountains, a 2,400-kilometer-long system of mountains along the eastern part of the United States.

In the 18th century, many Europeans from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany arrived in the area to begin new lives.

In the 18th century, many Europeans from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany came to the Appalachian Mountains to begin new lives.
In the 18th century, many Europeans from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany came to the Appalachian Mountains to begin new lives.

The U.S. was now their home, but these Appalachian communities continued the European music and dance traditions they loved. Over time, the music mixed with that of African slaves and became its own. It is called old-time music.

Gerry Milnes is a musician and folklorist from Elkins, West Virginia. He says the culture of the Appalachian people has survived throughout time because they lived far from other groups.

"The sort of earliest culture that arrived here in that period has really maintained those old traditions. It's both dialect, and music and customs and traditions and folk ways of all kinds... have a particular Appalachian sensibility to them."

Bringing communities together

The instruments used to make old-time music usually include guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass.

"Old time music -- you can hear fiddle tunes that have been played pretty much the same way for a couple hundred years," Milnes said.

Professional musician John Lilly, of Charleston, West Virginia, plays old-time and country music. He says the earliest purpose of the music was for dancing. Life in the mountains was hard work. Music and dancing provided Appalachians a much needed break from the labors of the day.

And it brought members of different generations together. Emily Miller, another local West Virginian musician, says that in small Appalachian towns in the past, there was always an old fiddler or musician in the neighborhood. Young people would study the art under him or her.

Richard Heffner, a musician from Lewisburg, West Virginia, is in the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys Band. He says his community often enjoyed music in groups.

"A lot of the people, they would just meet at their houses, move the furniture back, and dance in the living room, and, like I say, roll up the rug... and that still goes on in our family!"

Learning by listening

High school student Silas Riley and his sister Hazel are learning to banjo. Old-time music is learned by ear, Silas said.

"It's a lot harder than other music. There's no written stuff, no written notes, so you have to learn it all by listening to it and trying to reproduce the sound," Silas said

Silas adds that old-time musicians might not read music, but they can still easily put a song together.

"You can just listen to it and then play it," he said.

A musical history record

Old-time songs are records of history. Some called "spirituals" are based in the Christian religion. Others are American civil war songs. And, many are about the life and land that surround the songwriter, says Heffner.

"Some of the words of the songs have so much to do with the area. The hills, mountains, streams, and rivers, the old log cabin, and real gruesome ones about murder and things like that," Heffner said.

But some of the earliest songs go back to the music's European roots.

Patrick O'Flaherty was born in Ireland, but now lives in Lewisburg, West Virginia. He owns an Irish restaurant there and plays Irish music in his band, The Poor Claires.

O'Flaherty says that when he hears old-time music, he recognizes songs that he heard growing up in Ireland.

"Lots of the tunes of the old timey music and the bluegrass, you hear the Scottish reels and Scottish jigs, or the Irish reels and Irish jigs and ... I can nearly tell where that came from. The root is there."

Reels and jigs are forms of music and dance.

A family tradition

It is a sunny day at the Augusta Heritage Festival in West Virginia.

"The first thing you ever learn on the clawhammer banjo is the basic strum... And the way to hold your hand, if you've ever like, I usually tell people how they hold an axe, like you're splitting wood or something, that's how you hold your hand. After you learn that, you can just really play anything..."

Trevor Hammons is describing how to play the banjo.

The Hammons family is an important part of old-time music in West Virginia. They came from Kentucky, and settled in the area just before the Civil War. Hammonds' family musicians wrote many of the songs that people play in West Virginia today.

Trevor is in high school, and first became interested in music after listening to an album that had a photo of his great-grandfather, Lee Hammons, on the cover. Trevor quickly learned to play the banjo. His style is often compared to that of his great-grandfather's.

"They say my hand is just like his," Trevor said. "People say it's like I'm his shadow or something."

What he likes best about the old-time music culture is its hopefulness.

"With this music, you never really meet a person with negativity," Trevor says. "They all kind of are like a big family, a special bond you get when you sit around and jam and play."

Continuing a history

These days, old-time music is not often heard over the radio. But it still lives on strongly in the communities where it came from.

Organizations like the Mountain Music Trail have created a record of events and places people can visit to experience this rich part of American history.

A history, that Miller says is important to the identity of the people.

"So I think that there's a real pride in what the people of Appalachia have made together... And the music specifically is just something that everyone kind of identifies with. This region has hard times, we've been going through economic transition, but this music has stuck with us through it all"

I'm Phil Dierking. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Phil Dierking wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Is there popular music from your area that was brought by immigrants? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

beer - n. an alcoholic drink made from malt and flavored with hops

bond - n. something (such as an idea, interest, experience, or feeling) that is shared between people or groups and forms a connection between them

breed - v. to take care of and teach (a child who is growing up)

maintain - v. to continue having or doing (something)

dialect - n. a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations

particular- adj. used to indicate that one specific person or thing is being referred to and no others

dialect - n. a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations

rug- n. a floor cover, usually made of cloth

gruesome - adj. causing horror or disgust

jam - v. to play music informally together without preparation

shadow - n. a dark shape that appears on a surface when someone or something moves between the surface and a source of light

strum - v. to play (a guitar or similar instrument) by moving your fingers across the strings

negativity - n. an attitude in which someone considers only the bad qualities of someone or something

specifically - adv. in a definite and exact way

region - n. a part of a country, of the world, etc., that is different or separate from other parts in some way

transition - n. a change from one state or condition to another