Appalachian Mountains - The Cradle of America's Music

Updated: Dec 13, 2019


The Cradle of America’s Music

Appalachia, a thin band stretching up the mountains from Northern Alabama to Southern New York is the cultural melting pot that yielded much of America’s distinctly original musical forms.

The fiercely independent spirit of the Scotch-Irish who sought shelter in these mountains, along with their African companions, displaced by the cruel hand of slavery, found a common “hillbilly” ground and together they created new musical genres such as country, the blues and bluegrass.

The first settlers to Appalachia were 18th century Scotch Irish (seen as savages by the English Quakers), Germans, and Africans. The Europeans clashed with the Cherokee and Shawnee Natives who had historically inhabited the land, and before it was all said and done, the Natives were pushed West – most notably and brutally during Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears in 1838.

Many people consider Appalachia, especially East Tennessee & Kentucky, Western North Carolina, and North Georgia to be the cradle of what is now called country and bluegrass music, formerly “hillbilly music”. Northern Alabama and South Eastern TN are considered home to the blues.

Included under this “hillbilly music” banner was a great deal of blues influence, and in fact, both blacks and whites called themselves “hillbillies” before the commercialization of music in the early 1900s split the genre into “race music” for the blacks and “hillbilly music” for whites.

Though never recorded, Willie Walker and Gary Davis, two black men from Winston Salem called their string band “The Hillbillies,“2 evidence that the racist and derogatory connotations of the word “hillbilly” came later, and thanks a great deal to outside media influence.

The instrumentation of “hillbilly music” is even more evidence of its cross-cultural composition. Ask any traditionalist and he’ll tell you that old timey music consists of fiddle, guitar, banjo, and fretted dulcimer.3

Now where do these instruments come from? Fiddle comes from Ireland and Scotland, guitar from Spain, banjo from West Africa, and fretted dulcimer comes from Germany. Blended together, those distinctive cultural elements formed new styles of music - American music, the melting pot of sounds.

It wasn’t long before the music industry, still in its infancy, caught wind of the popularity of these new kinds of music.

In the 1920s, radio was becoming a big thing. For the first time, people could hear weather, news, and music over the airwaves. One of the biggest stations was WSM, broadcasting with 50,000 watts from Nashville, TN, home to the Grand Ole Opry. The stars that made the Opry were hand plucked from Appalachia by Ralph Peer and his pals from New York City and delivered farm fresh to the living rooms of households all over America.

The demand for this new kind of music astonished the music moguls at Victor Talking Machine Company, and they labeled 1927 the “Big Bang of Country Music,” as hillbilly music was making its way from the front porch onto the main stage.

Once the commercialization started, hillbilly music quickly became “country music,” a genre that was increasingly more defined by the business people who brought it to the fans. Ralph Peer, the fellow who was in charge of the talent finding expedition in 1927, which led to pay dirt for New York City’s record executives, was known to favor popular tunes over traditional ballads or story telling songs, and that’s what he recorded.

Acts like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were among the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry and are credited as being country music’s pioneering artists. Interestingly, these acts were both heavily influenced by black musicians.

Maybelle Carter learned her “Carter scratch” style of guitar picking from African American Lesley Riddle of Kingsport, TN who regularly accompanied A.P. Carter on song finding trips. The pair would travel the mountain towns in search of new songs that they would learn and incorporate in their own shows.

Jimmie Rodgers learned to play guitar in the Mississippi rail yards, an area steeped in the blues of black musicians.

Of course, blues music streamed out of the Appalachian people as well. Chattanooga native Bessie Smith, known as “The Empress of the Blues,” was signed to a recording contract with Columbia Records out of New York, and her debut in 1923 was a huge success.

Years later, her song “Downhearted Blues” was acclaimed by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as being one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock n Roll.” It was also listed on the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress because of its cultural and historic significance in the field of music.

W.C. Handy, from Florence, Alabama, is known as “The Father of the Blues.” Handy combined folk influences with animal and nature sounds, the groans and rhythms of the shovel brigade workers he heard around him with his formal study of orchestral music. The result was the modern musical form known as “the blues.”

Appalachia has continued to remain a hotbed of musical talent and creativity into the modern times. Here’s a list of a few of the musicians and song crafters who call Appalachia home:

  • Dolly Parton

  • Kenny Chesney

  • The Civil Wars (John Paul White)

  • Malcolm Holcombe

  • Con Hunley

  • Ashley Monroe (of Pistol Annies)

  • Kim Williams

  • Chris Wallin

  • Dean Dillon

…just to name a few.

Musical innovators continue to pour out of Appalachia to this day as evidenced by the large number of songwriters and musical artists the region generates.

It must be something in the mountain air that brings out the music in the folks living there. The historical, cultural and artistic contributions of folks hailing from Appalachia have shaped the present music scene, and their influence will continue into the future generations of musicians all over the world.

Quiz:

Match writers with song:

1. “I Will Always Love You” 2. “The Diamond Stream” 3. “Jackson” 4. “Springsteen” 5. “Three Wooden Crosses” 6. “St. Louis Blues” 7. “People Loving People” 8. “Downhearted Blues”

A. Bessie Smith B. Dolly Parton C. Ed Snodderly D. Kim Williams E. Eric Church F. Billy Edd Wheeler G. Chris Wallin H. WC Handy

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