At the Twilight: Keeping Appalachian Music Alive
Bluegrass and old-time string music is associated with the past. It’s very much of the future says this musicologist.
Hailey Asmussen’s lipstick is red. Her dress is red. And she’s going to talk about cold-blooded murder. She lifts her chin, closes her eyes and starts to sing: “Clarksville, Pennsylvania, is not too far from here. Coal miners were hoping for a brighter New Year. But for Jock Yablonski, his daughter and wife, The New Year brought an ending to their precious lives. “Well it’s cold-blooded murder, friends, I’m talking about. Now who’s gonna stand up, and who’s gonna fight?”
Asmussen is in college. And her audience is in high school. The fight described in Hazel Dickens’ song “The Yablonski Murder” was in 1970 after a United Mine Workers of America union leader, Jock Yablonski, and his family were shot to death by hired guns as Yablonski sought the UMWA presidency. It’s true in the auditorium at Brooke High School in Wellsburg, W.Va., that Clarksville, Pa., isn’t too far from here.
If you lived in Wellsburg, a town of almost 3,000, you could claim to live in the Pittsburgh area, and some do, says Ashley Hinton, who was a senior at the high school this spring when the West Virginia University Bluegrass Band performed as part of their spring school tour.
In the last hour, she and hundreds of classmates heard songs by West Virginia writers like “The Yablonski Murder,” “West Virginia, My Home,” and “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me” played on banjo, mandolin, fiddle, jaw harp, ukulele, guitar and bass.
“The people around here needed to get that again,” Hinton said.
She thinks the high schoolers’ grandparents could have heard these songs that came from their state.
“Our state, people kind of downgrade it, and a lot of people try to hide and say, ‘Oh, I’m just from the Pittsburgh area,’” Hinton said. “They don’t try to say, ‘Oh, I’m from West Virginia.’
“I think it was nice to say this originated from my state. This is something that’s meaningful to us.”
Travis Stimeling, the assistant professor who created the WVU Bluegrass Band two years ago, knows exactly what Hinton is talking about. He grew up surrounded by Appalachian music near Buckhannon, W.Va., and chose to become a classical musician, a low brass major in college, because he got the idea that the local music that surrounded his childhood was the “wrong” kind.
“When I was growing up, there were certainly indications that doing things that were Appalachian marked you as backwards, and I had teachers who made fun of me for having a little bit of an accent or using a phrase that my great-granddad used,” Stimeling said, MM ’03, Music History.
“I have decided that this bluegrass band, it’s primary goal is to remind people of the great things that we have here in the state of West Virginia. And that’s why we go to the schools, and that’s why we go to places that are a little bit off the beaten path. Because it’s in those places … where you have kids who are growing up in this tradition but who are also looking out to the rest of the world and wondering, ‘Is it better out there?’
“And I want to remind them that it’s not necessarily better, it’s just different. And that the things that they’re growing up around and that they value and that really excite them have value as well – that the rest of the world sees that.”
Hillary Kay is part of the rest of the world, and she sees the value of this music that she wasn’t born into yet has claimed as an adult. The musicology graduate student from Detroit followed Stimeling to WVU from his first bluegrass band at Millikin University in Illinois. She’s a regular in the WVU Bluegrass Band who finds a similarity in this music to that of her own region.
“I find that there’s a similar spirit and character to it and a lot of beautiful pride for the culture and the lifestyle and the history – the heritage – in a beautiful, unapologetic way,” Kay said of Appalachian music. “I love how that feels – that it’s so connected to place – and there are these people who have been taught by their grandparents how to play this music.
Kay is dissecting Appalachian lyrics written by women for her master’s thesis. She’s also writing some of her own lyrics and singing and playing ukulele with her classmates out in Morgantown at jam sessions. They’re supposed to go to a couple of jam sessions each semester as part of the bluegrass band class. But they can’t seem to get enough of it.
The band members favor the jam at McClafferty’s Irish Pub on Tuesday nights. That same night in Percival Hall there’s an old-time jam that includes adults with lifetimes of musical experience and at least one teenager. They know the time and the place but not who is going to show up or what they’ll play.
While the rest of the town ebbs for the night, these musicians do what people have been doing in the region since immigrants first got here: bring an instrument, name the song and play.
“Hangsman, hangsman, hold your rope,
And hold it for awhile;
I think I hear my father coming,
For many a many a mile.
O father, have you brought me any gold,
Or have you come to set me free?
Or have you come to see me die,
Beneath this gallows tree?
I have not come to see you die,
Beneath the gallows tree;
But I have brought a knife to cut the rope,
And take you home with me.”
“THE HANGMAN’S TREE,” VERSION FROM GEORGE PAUGH, “FOLK-SONGS OF THE SOUTH”
WVU has Appalachian music tangled in its roots. And in the University’s greenest branches you can still see the signs. Since 1947, WVU has held Mountaineer Week, a celebration of Appalachian culture, which grew to include a fiddle contest. Chris Haddox was a student at WVU in 1978. And he remembers his first Mountaineer Week Fiddle Contest at the Coliseum, where he saw his first live fiddle performance. It got Haddox, BS ’82, Animal Science, MBA ’85, PhD ’13, Human and Community Development, hooked on the fiddle, and the live sharing of musical heritage from one generation to the next.
After the contest waned, Haddox – now an assistant professor of design in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design – restarted it in the late ’90s. During the contest, each participant, from very young children to the old-timers, plays a heritage tune and gives the history of the song. There’s usually a story behind them, as in the song “Who’s Been Here Since I’ve Been Gone,” which describes a Civil War soldier returning home to find a baby in the cradle.
“A really big part of the traditional music is kind of keeping that history alive, and it’s not just a pretty tune out of a book,” Haddox said.
Farther back than the fiddle contest, WVU was one of the first preservers of Appalachian music in sounds and text.
The first significant American folk song book by an American was written by John Harrington Cox, an English professor at WVU and founder of the West Virginia Folklore Society. “Folk-Songs of the South,” now available through WVU Press, includes more than 200 ballads and folk tunes and was the model for future works cataloging American song traditions, says John Cuthbert, director and curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU Libraries.
Around the same time, WVU English Professor Louis Watson Chappell took a different path to preserving music in Appalachia. He used a handmade recording machine and drove throughout West Virginia from 1937-47, making more than 600 aluminum records that hold more than 2,000 songs, ballads and fiddle tunes.
This recording equipment, part of the WVU Libraries collection was used by Louis Watson Chappell to collect songs around West Virginia. The aluminum record (center) is one of more than 600 that Chappell recorded in the 1930s and 1940s. The violin (right) belonged to celebrated fiddler Edden Hammons.
There were other collectors whose work you can also find in the Libraries. Patrick Gainer, a musician and English professor at WVU, collected field recordings in the mid-20th century and had a legendary folklore class that had a waiting list for years, says Cuthbert, PhD ’80, Music, MA ’87, Art. Later, in the 1970s, music professor Tom Brown collected hundreds of recordings from folk musicians at the twilight of their careers.
If you go into the WVU Downtown Campus Library and play a CD from the Chappell collection, you can hear voices and tunes from the people who played for him in their homes, at hotels, maybe a courthouse, wherever there was electricity. They played as taught by someone who was taught by someone else.
As a doctoral music student, Cuthbert took his first job at the Libraries to listen to the Chappell collection and transcribe it into musical notation.
“In some of these recordings you can hear a coal or logging train or steam whistle go by,” Cuthbert said. “There’s at least one where they had to stop because this whistle was just so loud you couldn’t hear anything.”
These sounds came from before radio and records brought American musical culture together as it is today. Cuthbert says once people started hearing an interesting banjo picking style or fiddle style, they started adopting it.
“So the value of these really early recordings made in West Virginia is that you’re getting them before everybody across America was familiar with the same thing and there became a more homogenous sound in fiddle playing,” Cuthbert said.
While WVU Bluegrass Band member Ken Beezley is playing a jaw harp solo, a small boy mimics his motions by sliding a finger across his lips.
“Ken was playing a pretty interesting instrument there, wasn’t he?” Stimeling asked after the solo was over. One kid hazards a guess and asks, “Mouth bow?”
Stimeling replies that the instrument is like a mouth bow, which is an Appalachian instrument that looks like an archery bow. The instrument is something the little ones at Washington Lands Elementary School in Moundsville, W.Va., were learning to use.
For three days this spring, the band performed in the northern panhandle to remind students from kindergarten to 12th grade that these songs are their history and they can take a place in that story. The band went from Oak Glen Middle School in New Cumberland, W.Va., to Brooke High School to Washington Lands Elementary School. They also played at Cabela’s and the historic Blue Church in Wheeling.
Their performance is part old-time jam, part history lesson, part inspiration, part reminder to kids to get an education and help transform their state.
Their tunes prompt the kids to wiggle in time to the music and clap in unison, as much as people in first grade can. The students know “Country Roads,” by heart and, during the fan favorite part of the show, sing along with a Taylor Swift song for the line, “We are never ever ever getting back together!”
Someone from the crowd asks how the band plays the music in sync. The answer: a lot of practice. And eye contact.
Someone else asks where the band goes on tour. Stimeling responds: “We go everywhere that a van will let us go.”
Travis Stimeling still has “Old Home Place” by the Dillards in his band’s set list, and it’s one of the songs he thinks of first when he thinks about Appalachian music. It perfectly describes his feelings while living away from home – anyone who has been homesick will recognize the emotion.
Stimeling didn’t leave West Virginia to work in a sawmill as the song says. He was getting his doctorate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He and his wife used to go home to West Virginia every holiday, driving up I-77. Where the interstate connects with I-81 in Wytheville, Va., you could see cars with North Carolina license plates and Flying WV stickers in the windows. As traffic slowed to merge, you’d roll down your window and ask where everyone was headed.
“While we’re going down the highway, we get to talking, and it was like a joyous family reunion for everyone to get to come home,” Stimeling said. “At the end of those long weekends, that same group of traffic – all those people – were going back to work in North Carolina, and the traffic, I kid you not, was slower almost every time.
“It was like people were dragging their feet to get home to North Carolina because they wanted to be in West Virginia. Living that experience and singing those songs about people who wish they were home but have to be someplace else, to me they really speak a powerful truth.”
And it’s a truth for everybody. A lot of his students are from somewhere else. His West Virginian students are not all from Morgantown. And they all get to experience this heritage, love it and take it with them.
Sometimes people put Appalachian music on the museum shelf and leave it there as something too old and too pretty to touch.
Stimeling cherishes Appalachia’s past, but he’s using it to fight for its future.
While he is teaching bluegrass and old-time and country music to his students, he says that Appalachian music is diverse, from old-time string band to gospel to hip hop. (There’s a book waiting to be written about the thriving Appalachian hip hop culture, he says.) The music is alive, and to continue to be alive, it needs new blood.
Stimeling would like to see the students from the schools along the band tour finish their education and – if they leave the state – return, knowing both the lore of their hometowns and the way the world works. And when they return, they can help reimagine their home places.
“Music provides a way for people to reimagine the places they live in, not as backwoods places or as places that time forgot or former industrial colonies that have been left to the wayside but as places that have great potential – potential for cultural development, potential for really peaceful and sustainable living,” Stimeling said.
Stimeling stresses that musicians in the 1930s were not preparing to be our definition of retro. They had modern lives like we do.
“We’re living modern lives, but it’s about how we decide to slow down and enjoy some of what I would think are some of the simpler pleasures of singing together, of eating together, of dancing together that puts us back in that tradition,” he said. “All of those folks, if you’re working in a coal mine and you’re digging coal and getting paid by the ton, there’s not much time for rest and relaxation, but when you have it, you’re going to use it. And you’re going to put great value in it.
“And so you’re going to sing, you’re going to dance, you’re going to eat together and embed value in the experience. And I think we can still do that today.”