On “The Myth of Isolation”

The history of popular culture has often painted a unidimensional perspective of Southern Appalachia, and with it a statement about the region’s musical heritage. It is without a doubt easiest to compare early country music with its European fiddle forebears in Scotland and Ireland, but to end an assessment of the region’s musical roots there is a grave misinterpretation.

In reality, the breadth and diversity of the region’s musical and social influences can not be overstated.  African American work songs, revivalist hymns and blues from the Piedmont all played crucial roles in defining the musical elements we now think of as old time country music.  Likewise, while many many notions of Southern Appalachian identity serve to define the regional influences as an insulated system, the truth is that widespread sharing of repertoire and musical technique throughout the South dates as far back as the Civil War.  

As Joe Wilson and Wayne Martin write in A Brief History of Blue Ridge Music
“…the Civil War seems to have expanded the repertoires of Blue Ridge musicians. Soldiers from the mountains traded tunes with fiddlers and banjo players from other parts of the South and learned pieces played by regimental bands. After the conflict ended, mountain musicians also brought home songs and tunes composed to commemorate battles or convey the experiences of wartime.”

Phil Jamison affims and expands upon this notion in his book Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance. In his assessment of the myth of Appalachian isolation, he points out that even the most desperate portions of Appalachia were connected to the outside world through trade routes as early as the 18th century:

“By the early 1700s, the southern backcountry was tied to the world economy through the fur trade with Europe.  In the early 1800s, drovers routinely herded thousands of hogs, cattle, turkeys, and other livestock along the early roads that led from the mountains of western North Carolina to the markets in Charleston and Savannah, and ginseng was shipped all the way to China by way of Philadelphia”

With these perspectives in mind, it becomes clear that the region has never been entirely culturally isolated. In many ways, the mass exchange of culture that came with the Civil War in the 1860s was foreshadowing important cultural developments of the 1900’s as the industrial revolution drove laborers from family homesteads in the hills to the milltowns situated on trade routes and rivers. These congregations of workers brought with them their culture, and with the aid of newly founded wealth were privy to the conveniences of modern technology, namely the phonograph and other then state-of-the-art home music players. 

While some musicians from the region were recruited to record and share their music, others were simply enjoying the labors of their distant regional neighbors.  In some cases, this meant supplanting local repertoire in favor of newly documented songs and tunes.  Wilson and Martin write:
“Although many musicians from the Blue Ridge were recruited to make records, most made only a handful of recordings. A few, such as Ernest Stoneman (Galax, Virginia), J. E. and Wade Mainer (Buncombe County, North Carolina), and the Carter Family (Maces Springs, Virginia), had prolific recording careers and shaped the beginnings of Country & Western music. These recording artists also influenced their neighbors in the Blue Ridge. Their playing styles and repertories began to supplement, and sometimes replace, local styles and tunes.”

In the end, one must realize that these widespread ideas of the ‘hillbilly’ isolationism of old are at best inaccurate if not entirely contrived falsehoods meant to bolster a blossoming recording industry.  A deeper dive into the streams and tributaries of culture that forged the flood of early country music that defined the recording industry of the 20’s and 30’s can only offer us a greater appreciation for the genius of these early pioneers of the craft.

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