Many Sounds, One Voice.
So here we are again, seated in the Coca-Cola Theatre, about to watch a show. What a surreal experience-- and what a story to greet us on our return. DARLIN’ CORY shares the story of a town that experiences the world collectively, where (for better or for worse) everyone knows just about everything about everybody else. The Appalachian tradition of storytelling comes to life in the most authentic way for a tiny town tucked away in the North Georgia mountains-- through music.
Appalachian folk music is an artificial category, defined not by a specific sound but by the region in which it was created. In reality, Appalachian music, just like the region, is diverse and has many roots. Over time, Appalachian music has borrowed and adapted elements from jazz, blues, bluegrass, honky tonk, country, gospel, and pop. It might be more accurate to say that Appalachian music is a scrapbook of the styles and genres of the many ethnic and cultural traditions of the Appalachian region.
An Appalachian culture was molded from various Indigenous, African, and European traditions, all carrying different musical sounds and instruments. The banjo, one of the oldest instruments used in traditional Appalachian music, was derived from African instruments as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The instrument was initially made of gourd bodies or pots and covered in animal hide with four strings (a fifth string was added later.) Anglo-celtic colonialists are credited for bringing the fiddle to Appalachian music, and German immigrants brought instruments like the harmonica, Appalachian dulcimer, and autoharp. String bands rose in popularity, usually consisting of fiddle players, a banjo, a standing bass, and a guitar. These bands played ballads, dance tunes, old-time popular music, and parlour and vaudeville music picked up from travelling shows, with players riffing and shifting the music they learned.
Musicians and families would gather on the front porch of their homes, transforming it into a stage, just as our stage has transformed for music on the front porches of a cabin and public stoops outside of the general store. Through these makeshift performances, communities shared music, techniques, and stories. Appalachian music is a product of the constant collaboration and change from these gatherings, each musician mining whatever styles and forms were suitable for new adaptations of raw material.
The collaborative nature of Appalachian music may seem surprising when the community culture was also deeply influenced by a long history of isolation and endurance due to the geography, socio-economic opportunities, and differing needs of mountain communities. The culture of Appalachian people is most aptly described as “cooperative independence:” there was pride in self-sufficiency, but people had strong ties and responsibilities to their family and neighbors. Appalachian culture is one that is independent together and communities tend to follow their own rules, easily seen in the new music rules made up on the front porches of the Appalachian home. Nowadays, there are many efforts to preserve the folk stories and music of the Appalachians, gathered from the collaboration between the different cultural backgrounds of those who originated there or made their way up the mountain. It’s only fitting that we are finally back in the theatre again to join in the act of gathering before a cabin’s front porch for a story and a song.
Photo: Frank Proffitt sings and plays for Anne Warner in 1941. Pick Britches Valley, North Carolina. Anne and Frank Warner Collection. Photo by Frank Warner.