Some Thoughts on the Music of the Mountain South

There is a genre of tunes I like to call mountain music. Other genres often affiliated with the South, such as jazz, and even what most now call country or bluegrass, are mostly twentieth century creations and will require additional treatment beyond the present scope. Mountain music encompasses a history that begins in rural Britain, and grows in the South to become a unique sound. Historian Bill Malone in Country Music, USA has argued that country music, the term he uses for many traditional rural sounds found in the South, has a long history encompassing the entire timespan of the Southern experience. He also argued that the long history of this music deserves just as much care and attention as any other aspect of Southern culture. He is right, and his work remains one of the more significant histories of music in the rural South. Malone suggested that although British ballads and folksongs found their way to all parts of the North American mainland, only in the South did they contribute to the creation of a distinctively regional music. And although Malone is right in suggesting that the music was not relegated to the Appalachians, and that the South from Virginia to Texas might be seen in many ways as a single family unit, the fact remains that most of the source material and deepest musical history exists in what some have called the fertile crescent of country music, the Southern mountains.

The early twentieth century saw a revival of interest among Americans about mountain people and mountain life. Some of the attention became genuinely interested in promoting mountain culture, but most of it centered around the writings of Northern culture workers and philanthropists who traveled and worked in the mountains because of some personal or group affiliated mission to help mountain people adapt or adopt mainstream American culture. The historiography of balladry in the Southern mountains comes out of this twentieth century milieu, and can often be more confusing that it needs to be. Although balladry did come to exist in many areas of the South, it thrived in the mountain regions, and it is with historiography about mountain life and culture where most of the literature on American balladry is to be found. The ballads themselves are critically important for creating better understanding of Southern intellectual history, as there is just as much indication about personal thought and worldview in the text of a ballad as there is in an antebellum political treatise. The history of balladry is not simply the story of sound, but also a study of the understandings that brought meaning to the words.

Those interested in studying mountain balladry should first read Englishman Cecil Sharp’s 1932 publication English Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians. Sharp was a music teacher born in south London, and during the latter part of the nineteenth century he became interested in a cultural heritage preservation movement that began to take form across England. This movement operated as if traditional English culture was quickly dying away. There began a concerted effort to record and chronicle elements of this traditional culture in such a way to preserve some of its meaning for future generations. Sharp began his first collection in 1903 in the county of Somerset. He collected a total of nearly 4800 songs and ballads, nearly 1600 that he gathered in the mountains of the American South. Sharp came to know of American ballad collectors seeking to search the Southern mountains for British ballads, and he decided in the fall of 1915 to travel to the South himself for the purposes of collecting and recording these ballads scientifically. When Sharp arrived in the mountains in the summer of 1916, he spent a total of nine weeks traveling first through the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, and then briefly to Harlan, Kentucky and Charlottesville, Virginia. Although he died in 1924, his book was finally published in 1932. Sharp wrote an informative introduction to this book, and his collection of several predominant ballad texts are scientifically collected and accurately printed. Sharp’s work is simply indispensible.

Shape note singing is one of the earliest forms of original American music, and pivotal to understanding the history of mountain culture. During the antebellum period, South Carolina native William Walker (Singin’ Billy) became an instrumental figure in the evolution of shape-note singing. Walker’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion gained initial publication in 1835. It is still in print today by the University Press of Kentucky, and serves as a major source of shape note studies. A little known book among Southern scholars, The Makers of the Sacred Harp (University of Illinois Press, 2010), gives a detailed historiographical essay about shape note singing, a list of significant figures, songs, songbook publishing companies, and perhaps most interesting for Southern historians, an appropriate discussion about the importance of Singin’ Billy. Authored by David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan, this book is the most detailed and scholarly to date on the subject of shape note singing. Steel and Hulan’s bibliography alone should be on the shelf of any serious student of Southern history and culture.

While it is certainly important to know about the history of the tunes and music itself, writings by Southern literary artists often reflect with great accuracy the different places and ways mountain people enjoyed music in times past. Southern literature provides some of the most insightful discussions of music that we have. Read the mountain trilogy of Harriette Simpson Arnow, The Time of Man by Elixabeth Madox Roberts, the original ballads of Georgia writer Byron Herbert Reece, and one finds that mountain music plays a role far more significant than background material. The music is a character in the story. Donald Davidson’s The Big Ballad Jamboree, many of his published essays, as well as The Tennessee all profile mountain music as a tool of cultural preservation. Davidson saw this music as something that came out of the South’s agrarian culture, and he hoped, as he taught English within walking distance of the Grand Ole Opry, that what was coming to be called country music might just be a catalyst to help guide rural Southerners across the turbulent stream of American modernity.

But I’m ultimately interested in this question: what does traditional rural music mean to the South now that the older agricultural and rural society from which it came has largely vanished? It’s food for thought.

-Alan Harrelson

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