Beyond the Shellac – Aural Transmission and the Boundless Music of Appalachia

While it’s easy to get lost in the heralding romanticism of Henry Whitter’s journey to spearhead the recording of early country music, it would be a vast disservice to limit our assessment of Southwest Virginia’s musical heritage to the edge of the shellac disc.  In truth, as fateful pioneers were seeking fame and fortune in the recording studio, an equally valid musical tradition was carrying on in tandem throughout the hills and hollers iconic to the region.

This tradition—a largely aural tradition—was the pulse that kept the heart of traditional mountain music alive in the wake of substantial outside influence.  Without the engine of commercialism to propel its development, this music was allowed to simply subsist as a form of recreation at barn dances, on porches at homesteads and at still sites. While it would be wrong to suggest this music did not adopt outside influences, one can safely assume that while the recording industry artists’ music was influenced by the needs of the markets, local traditional music developed only at the want and whim of individuals and communities.  

These local congregations served as artistic incubators.  For instance, the Shelor-Blackard family homestead acted as a shelter for the family to pass on musicianship from generation to generation, maintaining a body of repertoire and approach to playing that is unique to not only the region but to the family itself.  After the family recorded in Bristol in 1927, they were never formally recorded again with the exception of a field recording session in 1975 (by Ray Alden and Dave Spilkia) nearly 50 years and at least two generations later. 

J.P. “Pres” Nester and “Uncle Norm” Edmonds also were recorded at Bristol Sessions.  After recording four sides for the Victor Company (only two of those sides, “Train On The Island” and “Black Eyed Susie,” were released), Nestor swore to never leave the Blue Ridge Mountains again and was never again recorded – that we know of.  Edmonds was also never formally recorded again outside of local interest — there are performances that aired on local radio (WHHV, Hillsville, VA – established 1978) and amateur field recordings from live performances featuring The-Old-Timers at fiddlers conventions such as Galax (Old Fiddlers Convention — established 1935). While these two masterful musicians are said to have represented a fountain of musical knowledge and ability, we are left with the pitfall of having little documentation by which to study and share their work.  

This was the case all too often for many of Southwest Virginia’s torch-bearing.  Regional icons such as Sam Conner and Dent Wimmer (of Franklin and Floyd County origin) were severely under-documented, both in their musical output and their legacy.  These artists, many of whom were born at the turn of the 20th century and whose formative musical experiences pre-dated radio and widespread recording technology,  served as local scholars and musicologists and provided a direct lineage to the region’s musical and cultural origins.  Andy Buckman studies the local history and music of this region, and describes this phenomenon best by saying that: 

“The reason that non-commercial musicians such as Sam Connor and Dent Wimmer were recorded at all is that members of the local community, as well as the folklorists who recorded them, believed that their music was rooted in the oldest local styles that anyone could remember. The oral history of that time, as well as the documentation in the liner notes of albums such as the Old Originals, strongly suggests that their music was in the style that was common in our mountains long before 1940, and well before commercial recordings began in the 1920s – or as the recording of Vester Jones playing Old Jimmy Sutton indicates, ‘way back t’ th’ covered wagon days, might’ near.’ 

This understanding of the history of our local music was widely shared among the oldest musicians still playing and being recorded – and documented by academic folklorists in the 1960s and 1970s – musicians who were born in the 1880s and who remember this style of music from their youth. Contemporary older musicians have stated that the earliest recordings of artists like Charlie Poole were seen in the late 20s and early 30s as a new and exciting popular style that was significantly different from the older, aurally transmitted, local tradition.”

While it’s impossible to truly understand this complex intersection between the ‘commercial’ and ‘folk’ musical traditions of this time period – and even that term term, ‘folk,’ is in question, as it has become corrupted by its own commerciality –  it becomes clear that the musical story of Southwest Virginia – and the Blue Ridge Plateau – extends far beyond the pages and the discs that have sought to document it for the last 100 years.

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