Thursday, January 18, 2007

Appalachia: A Strange Place and a Peculiar People

Book Cover: All that is Native and Fine

I've found these two academic books very interesting as I cruise the bookshelves, reading about Appalachia. They were published 20 years ago, and I don't know how the "Appalachian Studies" folks view them these days, but they explain some attitudes that have puzzled me.

All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region by David E. Whisnant. 1986. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807841439. This is an academic book on "systemic cultural intervention" and its effects on Appalachian communities in the late ninteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whisnant describes the way urban Americans, interested in the European idea of Volkskultur, identified the Southern Appalachians as a backwater in which otherwise lost Anglo-Saxon folkways and folk arts had been preserved in pure form. They also identified their rural "informants" as needy, and they proposed to collect and preserve the cultural heritage at the same time they brought them the benefits of urban education, morality, and capitalism. This book focuses on the consequences, intended and otherwise, of this meeting of two "cultures." It's a slightly dry read, but the data are fascinating, and there are some great photographs. I recommend it to anyone interested in Appalachian traditional music (or other arts). How much of what we accept as "traditional" is really traditional? What does "traditional" mean?

Book Cover: Appalachia On Our Mind

Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920by Henry D. Shapiro. 1986. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807841587. This book is also about how outsiders have discovered Appalachia, described it, and decided it needed to be fixed, by them. This isn't one of the "capitalist exploitation" histories focusing on material change, but rather an exploration of how outsiders have defined Appalachia by their own lights, sometimes accurately and sometimes not, and used their own definitions as justification for intervention of all sorts, from missionary work to nature preserves. Except for a few stylisitic affectations (I was ready to scream the twentieth time he used the phrase "a strange place and a peculiar people"), this is an interesting and readable scholarly book.


Dave said...

What does "traditional" mean?
I don't know, but I know what it doesn't mean: static, unchanging, or hostile to truly creative innovation and assimilation of outside influences. I would suggest that the most vibrant folk traditions are those that have been the most open to outside influences. (That's what Bela Bartok thought, too.) In Appalachian music, much has been made over the preservation of old ballads from the British Isles, but I think scholars have only recently begun to appreciate the extent of the African-American contribution.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I'm with you and Bela. It's interesting how emotional people become when you suggest that Appalachian music and traditions were not brought over from Ulster and passed down unchanged since the 18th century. For some reason, suggesting that white Appalachia settlers communicated with the outside world throughout American history really offends a lot of people (although it's well documented).

Dave said...

Well, there are a lot of romantic and just plain wrongheaded notions in circulation among folk music fans, from what I've seen.