By Shea Anderson
Appalachian music has proven its prowess: compelling enough to be passed down from generation to generation, substantial enough to move from country to country, and versatile enough to still be evolving today.
Traditional Appalachian music pulls from a wide variety of themes, and its staying power comes from the intriguing and relatable tales that appeal deeply to emotions.
“They had murder, love, riddles,” said Suzanna Holstein, a member of the West Virginia Storyteller’s Guild who focuses on folk ballads. “If they’re good enough, they take on a life of their own. Ballads make you wonder about what happened and why. Some are funny; everyone likes to laugh. Family-themed songs make you feel connected to the past. Some folk music talks about facing adversity and it’s encouraging.”
“Pretty Polly,” a tale of love and courting that takes an abrupt and shocking twist, is an example of the unconventional element of Appalachian folk that Holstein said gets lost in today’s more predictable pop music.
The “roots” traditional music eventually expanded into genres like bluegrass, folk and country. But at their beginning, many folk tunes were performed without instruments, meant to be simple songs for people to sing as they worked. The European songs traveled with settlers to America, and eventually were coupled with music. Common instruments for Appalachian tunes were guitars, violins (fiddles) and banjos. In the early 19th Century, the genre even inspired its own instruments, including the fretted dulcimer.
Possibly an alternative to the fiddle that was easier to produce, the dulcimer had its own unique sound and became a common accompaniment to Appalachian ballads. Here is an example of a traditional comedic Appalachian song, “The Devil and The Farmer’s Wife,” played on the dulcimer.
In addition to adding music, lyrical changes and vocal variations have contributed to the evolution of Appalachian music. Songs with uncertain origins in Scotland, Ireland and other European countries, as well as Africa, migrated to America and have been reinvented by popular artists, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Grateful Dead. Here is an example of Nirvana covering “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (The song originated in Appalachia and was also known as “In The Pines” and “Black Girl.” The original printed version as compiled by Cecil Sharp appeared in 1917. At the time, it had only four lines and lyrics which, by today’s standards, might seem racist.)
Ever-evolving, Appalachian music does not always have roots in the far-distant past. Musicians are still taking the heart of the Appalachian ballad to pass on their histories today. “The Last Public Hanging in West Virginia” was penned by Tom T. Hall after he read an article about the 100th anniversary of an event in 1897 in Ripley, WV. Listen to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s version of the modern yet historically-inspired piece.
If you could write a modern-day folk song about your visits to Adventures on the Gorge, what would it sound like?