The Music of Appalachia
by Jacob Hagedorn


    The once widely held notion of the United States as a "melting pot" of cultures in which members of ethnic groups are homogenized as ‘Americans’ can no longer be considered a valid claim as we begin to understand and appreciate the cultural diversities within this country. American folklife, or folk culture, stoutly resists the effects of a melting pot. (Hufford 2) With the passage of the American Folklife Preservation Act by Congress in 1976, we as a nation have acknowledged the importance of the non-Western, but no less American, traditions throughout our pluralistic cultural landscape.
    Perhaps the most intriguing non-native cultural group we find among us are the people living in the eastern United States group of mountain ranges referred to as the Appalachians. This paper will focus mainly on the sub regions of Central Appalachia and northern South Appalachia as shown on the map, which are considered the innovative core for folk music. These mountain people have a rich and unique tapestry of traditions, which includes a lively musical culture. Appalachian folksong has become nearly synonymous with early American folksong tradition. Indeed, Appalachian history and culture provides a window into the American cultural experience. (Eller 4)

History of the Appalachian People

    The people of this diverse region are definitely not culturally homogenous, since this is such a vast mountain chain. What ties the diverse Appalachian people together is that they share a common historical experience. (Eller 4) The Appalachian region was the first area of pioneer conquest during the early colonial push for western expansion. Adventurous immigrants, mostly of Scotch-Irish, English, German and French descent, made the trek through difficult terrain, but steep mountainsides and dense forests didn’t calm the desire for owning their own land; nor did it hold back the romance of opening a new frontier. These people were highly individualistic as well, desiring the religious freedom and independence only these isolated mountains could provide. (Roberts 1)
    Troubles arose when these settlers tried to take over these lands from the predominant Native American group living there at the time, the Cherokee. At first the two groups coexisted and the white settlers learned much about mountain survival from the Cherokee. Eventually a war broke out as the settlers’ desire for more land began forcing the Cherokee from their native land. (Lomax) When gold was discovered on Cherokee land in 1829 the government passed the Indian Removal Act, confiscating the land and neutralizing the Cherokees ability to resist. (Raitz 91) In the tragic event that followed, called the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee were led on foot by military force from their native Appalachian lands to what is now Oklahoma. A quarter of the group died during the march. In a short time the mountains were filled with white pioneers.
    While the land was very beautiful, the pioneers soon found that life in the mountains was dangerous and filled with hardship. One early author remarked that the mountain country was a fine land for men and dogs, but hell on women and steers. (Eller 25) These first generations literally lived off the land through subsistence farming and wild game hunting. (Roberts 5)
    The difficulty of travel made mountain peoples live largely in isolation for much of their history. Appalachian people are still often spoken of as backward people because they haven’t changed their ways with the changing times.
    The twentieth century has seen a massive out-migration in from the Appalachian regions. Between the years 1945 and 1970 three million people left seeking economic opportunities in other areas of the country. Since that time Appalachia has rebounded slightly due to growth in industrial production and the improvement of the education system, but is still one of the poorest regions in the United States. (Ergood 82-88)

Cultural, Social and Physical Features of Appalachia

    Appalachia has a rich cultural heritage. Most of the early settlers were of Anglo-Saxon ancestry and brought their traditions and customs with them into the new country. Many modern folklorists now claim that Appalachia preserved much of the forgotten British folk culture by providing a new outlet for the culture following the industrial revolution. (Lomax) This is not to say that the culture is entirely British. African-American and Native American influences are also factors since mountain people borrowed extensively from these and other cultures. Some cultural traits are just a matter of circumstance since they freely created new traditions to follow their available resources.
    The building of handicrafts is a favorite pastime and oftentimes a source of extra income. Mountain people had an appreciable amount of leisure time due to their seclusion and rather than sitting idly by, they create items for enjoyment and practical use. Woodcarving, yarn spinning, quilting, and flower arrangements are all favorite handicraft activities.
    Mountain agriculture has never been very profitable. The mountain tradition of moonshining, or illegally producing distilled spirits, was a product of this problem. Large quantities of Indian corn were available and made into the potent "white whiskey." Attempts to prevent or tax the moonshine have been failures up in the secluded mountainsides. (Raitz 140-143)
    Religion is a deeply ingrained element of all Appalachian culture. A majority of Appalachians adhere to Protestant fundamentalism, mainly the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations (Ergood 274) They have a fatalistic belief system, which includes a trust in God for the inevitable fate of their life. One author, Norma Miller commented in 1935 that "The mountain woman lives a life of physical labor and drudgery. Her faith in a reward in the next world for sufferings and work well done on earth is about all the encouragement or incentive which she has for living." (Eller 25)
    Appalachia can be defined in social terms as a traditional society. A traditional society contains characteristic elements differing from a modern society. Traditional societies value family above individuality, faith above rationalism or science, independence above dependence, tradition above progress and have a rural focus rather than urban. (Eller 6)
    Appalachian people find family and kin of utmost importance. Families are often very large and close knit with relatives. Traditionally large families were a means of providing adequate labor since slave labor was frowned upon and often not possible. Family groups tend to be very clannish and distrustful to strangers. Appalachia is also a patriarchal society in which the male is considered dominant in the family.
    Appalachia is also an agrarian society of small farms with a large percentage of the population living in rural areas. Poverty is widespread, especially in the Central Appalachian region. There is a labor surplus and the scarce opportunities in industry are highly contested and less than desirable. The largest industry is coal mining. America’s industrial revolution was born of Appalachian coal, (Raitx 229) but nature and the mountain people paid the price. Many coal miners developed the deadly "black-lung" disease and the environment was polluted from unsafe mining practices meant to cut production costs. (Ergood 172-173)
    Rapid social changes have begun in recent years. Industry and manufacturing have developed and poverty rates have begun lowering. A large number of Appalachian families own TVs or radios which has influenced Appalachian traditional ideals.
    The physical features of the Appalachian Mountains in many ways determined the cultural and social aspects we have seen. This mountain chain, while old and relatively low in elevation, slowed inhabitation and expansion because of its tangled topography. (Fischer 44) Many water sources were available and people settled around them. The inclines and heavy forestation limited the amount of buildable and arable land. The land included many natural resources including the majority of the US coal resources.

Appalachian Musical Life

    Music holds a special status in the Appalachian culture. No other folk art is quite as pervasive nor serves such important social function as music. Music is a universal activity of daily life. It is indeed true that you do not meet many people in the mountains who cannot saw a fiddle or twang a banjo. (Roberts 46) This homemade music can be best characterized as vernacular tradition—a mixture of religious, dance, popular, and folk musics. (Rosenberg 19)

Musical Instruments

    Chordophone instruments are used almost exclusively throughout Appalachian folk music. The first instrument many people think of when talking about mountain folk music is the banjo. While its usage today is almost exclusively by white musicians, the banjo is actually of African origins. The banjo was a favorite instrument of black minstrels that traveled throughout the region. By the middle of the 19th century, whites had become fascinated with the banjo and soon began adopting it themselves. During the 1900s the majority of African-Americans left their banjo tradition behind in favor of inexpensive guitars and the new blues genre. (Conway 285-295)
    The banjo is a unique instrument to classify because it has combined elements of a membranophone and a chordophone. The top of the banjo actually is a drumhead that provides a percussive sound each time a string is strummed or plucked. There are five strings on the banjo tuned by intervals rather than exact pitches. Many alterations of the standard G tuning, gDGBD, can be found. (Conway 223-225) The banjo has a unique string setup with the short fifth string beginning on the fifth fret and providing a drone to the tonic of the key.
    The fiddle, otherwise known as the western violin, has been the most prominent and popular Appalachian instrument since the pioneer era. Everyone had a relative or neighbor who played the fiddle, and many people could play a little. (Rosenberg 21) Early Appalachian music was accompanied with only a fiddle, often because it was the only available instrument.
    The voice is the universal musical "instrument" in this culture. An early English scholar to the area commented that Appalachia was "a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking." (Ergood 148) Indeed the practice of singing is highly interwoven with everyday life, not relegated to a special few.
    The Appalachian dulcimer, or mountain dulcimer is the instrument most unique to the Appalachian region. For one, it actually is not a true dulcimer because it is strummed or plucked, not played with hammers. Believed to have evolved from the German "scheitholt," it made its way to Appalachia in the 18th century and gradually evolved to suit the needs of Appalachian players. (Huvard) The instrument is shaped in a double teardrop form with a flat back suited for the playing style. The Appalachian dulcimer is played while placed flat on your lap. There are three string sets, one a double course and two single strings. It is said to be fairly simple to learn and play. The mountain dulcimer does not produce enough volume to compete with the guitar or fiddle so it generally accompanies solo folk songs.
    The steel-string folk guitar, while very prominent in modern Appalachia, was not part of traditional Appalachian music until the popularization of the instrument in the early 1900s by the Sears & Roebuck catalogs. Compared to the banjo, the guitar was both a latecomer and a folk instrument by commercial fiat. (Humphrey) It was adopted very quickly because it fit quite well in the Appalachian style and was inexpensive to purchase. The flattop guitar has six metal strings tuned in fourths. It is currently used both as a rhythmic and melodic instrument in Appalachian music.
    The mandolin also found it’s way into Appalachia by commercial means. Originally an Italian folk instrument, the mandolin was wildly popular in the early 1900s and also was readily available through commercial means. Bill Monroe, the originator of Bluegrass music, is credited with bringing the mandolin into popular usage. It has four courses of doubled strings tuned in fifths like a violin. (Beimborn)
    A few other instruments can be found in Appalachian music, but they are much less common to everyday practice. The western double-bass, or string bass can be seen in bluegrass bands, providing rhythmic and harmonic support to the sound. More recently the multi-reed aerophone called the harmonica has been borrowed from other folk traditions and placed in an Appalachian context. Some early primitive instruments have survived the ages as is evidenced by one strange idiophone, the mouthbow. (Lomax) Borrowed from Cherokee tradition it is a flat piece of wood that creates sound by vibrating while placed on the lips.

Use of Music

    Music is used for many different purposes in mountain culture. One might begin the day singing unaccompanied hymns at church, move on to playing folksongs during the quiet afternoon and finish off by square dancing to string-band music during the evening corn-shucking festival. Socials and dances were popular forms of entertainment where participation was a must. Appalachian music was primarily a social music that celebrated local events and provided diversion from hard work, a music that created bonds between neighbors and served as a link from one generation to the next. (Wyatt)
    Religious life has always been important to Appalachian people. Hymns were important religious expressions to these people and were always sung without accompaniment. Instrumentation was not considered appropriate in a church setting.
    At one time every mountain community had their own street minstrels or balladeers that would provide the news through song, since newspapers were in short supply. (Roberts p 46) Folksongs commonly known in modern times highlighted important news and gossip stories of their time, as in the Ballad of Tom Dooley. Tom Dula was a man on trial for murdering his mistress after she gave him syphilis. (Lomax) These songs brought important news stories and gossip to the secluded areas of Appalachia.
    Playing and singing for personal enjoyment is also a very important function. The mountain lifestyle is difficult and by playing these songs the Appalachian people often found solace for their pain. Similarities with the blues of black Americans are numerous except that the mountain people rarely show outward emotion while playing.

Stylistic Elements

    Appalachian music has distinctive elements throughout that can give us clues into the purpose of these folksongs, to convey a story or emotion. While many elements are similar to western music style, certain elements demonstrate non-western styling. Outside cultural influences become clearer when we examine these musical traits.
    The melody in an Appalachian piece of music is perhaps the most important stylistic feature because through the melody we receive the story. Melodies are generally very basic since they follow the pentatonic scale and, characteristic of folk music, have simple structures that emphasize important or chordal notes. Melodic motion is generally stepwise or linear in a zigzag shape with few large skips.
    Exceptions to these features occur when the melodies are being played in exclusively instrumental contexts. The instruments, like in a modern Bluegrass band, will use all of the notes in the western major scale.
    Appalachian music always uses harmony according to the chordal western style. This gives it a homophonic texture with clearly defined harmonic changes. Vocal harmonies are used in-group performances adding to the chordal sense.
    Rhythm is a very important element to this style. The common use of membranophone instruments for rhythm does not occur. Even so, clear emphasized beats can be heard because of the rhythmic style of playing the chordophones. The notes played have as much rhythmic significance as melodic. Strumming or plucking of chords provides both rhythmic drive and harmony. Traditional folk songs are played at moderate tempos while bluegrass groups often play at ‘breakneck’ speeds. These songs are usually played in the common time 4/4 signature.
    Most of these folksongs have a rhythmic sense of syncopation not found in western music. The influence of African-American rhythmic sense has clearly added the offbeat rhythmic feel Appalachian music employs.
    A wide variety of timbres can be heard from each of the instruments. From the bright plunk of the banjo to the whining sound of the fiddle, these chordophones have contrasting sound qualities that help distinguish them within a group context. One not accustomed to the sound, especially the singing, might find the tone quality annoying or shrill. The singing is often described as lonesome sounding.
    When text put to the music, as is often the case, it has a strophic form. Many of the folksongs follow hymn styling very closely because they repeat the same sectional content with different lyrics.
    The poetic nature of folksong lyrics contributes to Appalachian styling by communicating a more specific message about the theme of the song. These folksongs would not be relevant without the words that make a song.

Other Features

    Appalachian folk music, often referred to as old time or hillbilly music, became immensely popular during the 1920s as talent scouts sought out talented folk musicians and new folksongs to feed the growing market for country music. (Wyatt) Old-Time music is music rich in cultural continuity, and found great resonance with record buyers. (Humphrey) The technology that brought Appalachian folk music to the public was also the force that nearly caused its demise. Some claim that the mountain culture was exploited in its own right, picked apart, and ruined just as surely as its forests and coal seams. (Ergood 149)
    Appalachian music did not die away but, rather, found new modes of expression as the culture gradually changed into a more modern society. A number of grandchildren genres have spawned from the mountain music, including bluegrass. Bluegrass came out of the 1940s when Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys used the traditional string-band arrangement to form a new style. The genre has grown to have great popularity and has played an important part in the recent push for recapturing the Appalachian culture.


    Even as we begin to learn and appreciate American sub-cultures more and more, they are rapidly fading away, or at least changing due to outside influences. The traditional music of Appalachia is "receding like dream fragments of ancient ballads saved fast in the memories of a dwindling few tradition keepers." (Humphrey) But as Mary Hufford points out, "something as fluid and dynamic as folklife does not lend itself to preservation." (4). We can be sure that such a dynamic music-culture will continue on expanding and adapting to the changing environment as it has in the past.

Works Consulted

Beimborn, Dan. "A Brief History of the Mandolin." Internet. Mandolin Café web page. 5/12/99.

Conway, Cecelia. "African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions." Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1995.

Eller, Ron. "Appalachian History" Internet. The Appalachian Center. University of Kentucky: Lexington. 5/16/99.

Ergood, Bruce and Bruce E. Kuhre. "Appalachia: Social context past and present." Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co. 1976.

Hufford, Mary. "American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures." Internet. Library of Congress web site. 3/8/99.

Humphrey, Mark "Old Time Music" Available on-line. ~oldtimefiddler/otdef.html 5/12/99.

Huvard, Anthony. "Appalachian Dulcimer." Internet. 5/16/99.

Lomax, Alan. "Appalachian Journey." American Patchwork video series. Vestapol Productions. Rounder Records distribution. Cambridge, MA. 1998.

Raitz, Karl B. and Richard Ulack. "Appalachia, a regional geography: land, people and development." Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. 1984.

Roberts, Bruce and Nancy. "Where time stood still: a portrait of Appalachia." New York: Crowell-Collier Press. 1970.

Rosenberg, Neil V. "Bluegrass: A History." Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1985.

Tribe, Ivan M. "The Stonemans: An Appalachian Family and the Music that shaped their Lives." Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1993.

Wyatt, Marshall. "Music from the Lost Provinces: Old-Time String bands from Ashe County, NC" Internet. Musical Traditions web page. 5/12/99.