Appalachian Music

I Love Mountain Music
I love mountain music / William. A. Barnhill, photographer, [between 1914 and 1917].

The term “Appalachian music” is in truth an artificial category, created and defined by a small group of scholars in the early twentieth century, but bearing only a limited relationship to the actual musical activity of people living in the Appalachian mountains. Since the region is not only geographically, but also ethnically and musically diverse (and has been since the early days of European settlement there) [1], music of the Appalachian mountains is as difficult to define as is American music in general.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the 1920s, nearly all of the early scholarship on Appalachian music focused on “ballad-hunting” or “song-catching,” the discovery of New World variants of ballads and other songs that had originated in the British Isles. Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads(1898) served as the canonical text. [2] One of the most famous of the ballad hunters was Cecil Sharp. He and others helped create an unassailable historical connection between some of the songs of Appalachia and those of the British Isles.

The early assessments of Appalachian music by non-Appalachian writers reflected the values and interests of the writers much more than those of the subjects. For example, Robert Winslow Gordon, founder of the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress in 1928 (now the American Folklife Center), saw Appalachian folk music as defined by its direct relation to British song as the more “authentic” or “American” alternative to African-American and Jewish-American popular music: “Personally, I frankly believe that the whole project of reviving and making known our true American folk stuff is one of the most worthwhile things to be done today. From the point of view of true Americanism.[sic] That stuff is the very soul of our past, of pioneers, of the men who made America. It’s not modern Hebrew Broadway jazz.” [3]Sarah Gertrude Knott, founder of the National Folk Festival, tempered its supposed multiethnic program with the statement: “No one doubts that the Anglo-Saxon expressions should predominate at the National Folk Festival.” [4] Contemporary and topical songs of town dwellers, mine workers, and any others “spoiled” by too much contact with non-British culture or with economic realities overtaking the U.S. at the time were considered unfit for study by scholars such as Sharp. [5]

This preoccupation with a pure British heritage was not absolute. Folklorists and activists such as John and Alan Lomax, Ziphia Horton, and others collected topical and contemporary songs in the 1930s and 1940s, often in tandem with efforts at organizing the Appalachian population for leftist causes. [6] Among the few examples of early scholarly attention to non-white Appalachians are James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (1901) and Louis Chappell’s unpublished work of the 1920s, which uncovered the story of the African-American railroad ballad “John Henry.” [7]

Actually, in spite of the image promoted by early scholars, Appalachia was not settled only by Scots-Irish or other British peoples. Settlers from a multiplicity of European ethnic groups populated Appalachia, including Germans, French Huguenots and East Europeans. [8] In the early twentieth century, African Americans were reported to make up 12 percent of the Appalachian population. Furthermore, isolation between these groups was not necessarily the norm. The mountain dulcimer, now almost an icon of Appalachian music, is a direct descendant of the German Scheitholt. African-American banjos, string bands, and many of the tunes that came with them arrived sometime around the 1840s as minstrel shows began to make their way around the U.S.[9] Jane Becker notes that “Southern mountaineers still sang the old Anglo-Saxon ballads and traditional hymns, but they also enjoyed new ballads on contemporary topics as well as the popular music of the day. They used homemade fiddles side by side with guitars, banjos and mandolins purchased by mail.” Even in isolated areas, the ideal of mountaineers passing down a pure tradition did not match the observations of Lester Wheeler, who saw “the residents of Nicholson Hollow in the Blue Ridge gathered at one cabin to listen to music programs on the radio.”[10]

A slightly more accurate picture of what “Appalachian music” might have meant in the early twentieth century is provided by the recordings made at Bristol (on the Tennessee-Virginia state line) in the summer of 1927 by Ralph Peer for the Victor Record Company. In the process of selecting performers and repertoire to record, Peer did urge performers to keep out anything modern. But even this small cloud had a silver lining. The Teneva Ramblers, a group that operated out of Bristol but had recently acquired the talents of a young Mississippi singer named Jimmie Rodgers, were told that before they could record they had to find “older, more down-home songs than the ones they had been doing.” Unfortunately, while trying to comply with this request, the band broke up. Consequently, Rodgers made his first solo recordings, opening a career that produced country music’s first true star. Other artists–local star Ernest Stoneman and his family, the Carter Family with their Victorian gospel style, protest/gospel singer-songwriter Blind Alfred Reed, Rev. Ernest Phipps of the Holiness Church, stark traditionalist B. F. Shelton, fiddler “El” Watson (the only known African American at the sessions) and other string band musicians, contemporary shape-note singers the Alcoa Quartet, and numerous others–showed that the music of the mountains was woven from many strands indeed. [11]

Image: Mountain ManIn truth, the more Appalachians are able to represent themselves, the harder it becomes to define “Appalachian” music or culture in any meaningful way. Stephen William Foster has stated, “One might argue that the notion of Appalachia as a distinctive and creditable variant of American culture remains a minority opinion.” [12] It has more or less disappeared as a scholarly topic, not because the music is unimportant, but because the term has become less and less meaningful. In fact, music of the Appalachian region has never been one thing, but rather another multifaceted force in the creation of twentieth-century music. Its influence has appeared in blues, jazz, bluegrass, honky tonk, country, gospel, and pop, at the very least. These music styles owe to Appalachia much the same debt they owe to cities and rural areas outside Appalachia. The story of Appalachian music is very similar to the story of music in America, where musicians have never cared much for categories or purity of lineage, but have eagerly mined whatever styles and forms felt suitable for the raw material of new adaptations.

Caption for image above:Mountaineer whittling / William A. Barnhill, photographer, c1920.


  1. Wilson, “Country Music in Tennessee,” 102.
    Williams, Appalachia, 212-13. (back to essay)
  2. Becker, Selling Tradition, 60.
    Williams, Appalachia, 205. (back to essay)
  3. Quoted in Williams, Appalachia, 210. (back to essay)
  4. Quoted in Becker, Selling Tradition, 25. (back to essay)
  5. Williams, Appalachia, 211-12. (back to essay)
  6. Becker, Selling Tradition, 26. (back to essay)
  7. Williams, Appalachia, 213-17. (back to essay)
  8. Wilson, “Country Music in Tennessee,” 102. (back to essay)
  9. Ibid., 102-103 [pages]. (back to essay)
  10. Becker, Selling Tradition, 51-53. (back to essay)
  11. Wolfe, “Pre-War Melodies and Old-Mountain Songs.” (back to essay)
  12. Foster, The Past Is Another Country, 160. (back to essay)


Becker, Jane S. Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of the American Folk, 1930-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Foster, Stephen William. The Past Is Another Country: Representation, Historical Consciousness, and Resistance in the Blue Ridge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Wilson, Joe. “Country Music in Tennessee: From Hollow to Honkey-Tonk.” Chap. 15 in American Musical Traditions. Vol. 3, British Isles Music. New York: Schirmer, 2002.

Wolfe, Charles. “Pre-War Melodies and Old-Mountain Songs.” Notes in The Bristol Sessions. Country Music Foundation CMF-11, 1987. 2LP


Mike Seeger devoted over fifty years of his life to the performance, documentation, and preservation of the rural music of the South. He learned his craft so well that Bob Dylan could say of him:“What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes, in his genetic makeup. Before he was even born, this music had to be in his blood.”This reputation, to which many other people could attest, albeit without the hyperbole found in Dylan’s statement, was all the more remarkable when it is recalled that he was born into the family of two distinguished classical musicians, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Even more significant is the fact that Mike Seeger did have to work hard to attain his musical mastery, while trying to carve out an identity that was distinct from that of his parents and his iconic half-brother, Pete Seeger. Mike’s introduction to southern musical styles had come in his parents’ home at the end of the 1930s, as he listened to their storehouse of Library of Congress recordings and commercial hillbilly recordings. This music, however, was a faceless entity to the young Mike Seeger, and he did not begin to associate it with a specific region or culture until the mid-fifties when he more fully encountered bluegrass music and older rural styles. Before he made his all-embracing commitment to the music of the South, Mike, like many young people, searched rather aimlessly for something meaningful, and did not seriously take up an instrument until he was eighteen.

He found his life’s mission when he moved to Baltimore in 1954 to begin his public service as a conscientious objector in a tuberculosis hospital. In Baltimore he began to meet and play music with the people who actually made the kind of music that he had first heard in his parents’ home. Hazel Dickens and her brothers, who had come to the city from the West Virginia coal country, put human flesh on the music that he had come to love, and with them he became immersed in bluegrass music in the local honky-tonks, at parties, and at the country music parks in the Upper South. He became an indefatigable collector of grassroots music, as well as an impeccable musician.

These early endeavors resulted in his production of two historic Folkways LPs, American Banjo Scruggs Style and Mountain Music, Bluegrass Style, which played a major role in introducing this vital style to northern audiences and to the urban folk music revival. At the same time Mike also began working with two friends, John Cohen and Tom Paley, in a band called The New Lost City Ramblers, recreating the songs and styles heard on commercial 78 rpm records in the two decades before World War II.

The New Lost City Ramblers were unlike any other band heard in the revival: they strived for stylistic authenticity, acknowledged their sources, and demonstrated the folkloristic value of the old recordings. In stressing the need to recreate faithfully the older styles, they lent legitimacy to both the people and culture that had originally created the music. While working with the New Lost City Ramblers, Mike also pursued a solo career that led him into the deepest recesses of what he called “old-time music.” Not only did he develop the capacity for recreating the instrumental styles of old-time musicians (particularly those played by banjo players), he also instructed his listeners about the origins of these styles. Most important, he moved well beyond the recreation of older styles, and began bringing out of retirement such old timers as Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten and Dock Boggs to make music again.

This, he felt, was his most memorable achievement. By the time Mike died, he had witnessed not only the resurrection of careers like these, but also the burgeoning of old-time string band music among America’s young people. And he now recognized a fact of which he had only been dimly aware in his early career.The music he loved was the product of the long and multifaceted interrelationship of black and white musical cultures: Music from the True Vine. Bill C. Malone Emeritus Professor of History, Tulane University. The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to “preserve and present American Folklife” through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training.

The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world.

Folklife Center

For more than seventy-five years, scholars working for the Library of Congress, individuals associated with regional universities, hobbyists, amateur enthusiasts, and commercial companies have all sought to document the rich Appalachian musical heritage on sound recordings.

For more than seventy-five years, scholars working for the Library of Congress, individuals associated with regional universities, hobbyists, amateur enthusiasts, and commercial companies have all sought to document the rich Appalachian musical heritage on sound recordings. These recordings, numbering into the thousands, range from one- of-a-kind recordings preserved only in archives to recordings reproduced on mass-produced phonograph albums that have sold thousands of copies. While some important recordings of Appalachian performers have been made out- side the region, the vast majority have been recorded within Appalachia on back porches and in front rooms, in churches and meeting halls, as well as in temporary studios set up in hotel rooms, rented buildings, and radio stations.

Although Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, phonograph recordings of Appalachian music were not made until the 1920s. In June 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson, from north Georgia, recorded two songs for the OKeh label, and the commercial success of this recording sparked interest among the makers of Victrola records in “old time” or “hill country” music. Record companies first sought to meet this demand by hiring New York City studio musicians such as singer Vernon Dalhart to imitate the old southern style, but it was soon apparent that many of their customers wanted the real thing. From 1924 to 1928, record companies coaxed a number of Appalachian musicians into traveling to studios in New York or Chicago to record. These musicians included such major figures as fiddler Uncle Am Stuart, banjoist and singer Samantha Bumgarner, singer Henry Whitter, singer and bandleader Ernest V. Stoneman, fiddler Dedrick Harris, guitarist Frank Hutchison, banjoist Dock Boggs, fiddler and singer G. B. Grayson, string bands the Hill Billies and Da Costa Woltz (with Ben Jarrell and Frank Jenkins), and the band led by Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers. Such trips were expensive and time-consuming, and many older musicians simply refused to travel. Major record companies soon decided it was to their advantage to go to the musicians, and the era of commercial field recordings began.

By far the best known and most dramatic of these sessions took place in Bristol, Tennessee, in July and August of 1927. However, the first such session to take place within Appalachia was an expedition to Asheville, North Carolina, in late August 1925 sponsored by OKeh Records. Like the later Bristol sessions, the Asheville session was directed by Ralph Peer, a Kansas City–born, New York–based producer who had earlier supervised the first recordings of rural blues in 1920 and of Fiddlin’ John Carson. Peer set up a “recording laboratory” in a small room on the roof of the George Vanderbilt Hotel and within two weeks had recorded some fifty-nine masters of local musicians, including Stoneman, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Kelly Harrell, fiddler John D. Weaver, and other purveyors of what newspaper accounts called “folk lore songs of the mountain land.” Although Peer himself told local reporters that “the superior quality of the air” around Asheville made for excellent recordings and that OKeh planned to record there again, this 1925 session would be the only commercial one held in the city. However, some six weeks later, folklorist Robert W. Gordon, later to become the first head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, came into the area with a cylinder recorder and recorded some of the same musicians for noncommercial archival purposes. Despite a vastly inferior sound than the OKeh commercial sides, the 202 cylinders that Gordon recorded featured a wider range of music, including unaccompanied ballads.

By the summer of 1927, Peer, then working for the Victor Talking Machine Company, had acquired new electric carbon microphones developed by Western Electric and had taken his recording crew to Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans. On July 22, he and his crew drove into Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, for a two-week stay, renting the second and third floors of an empty building at 408 State Street (on the Tennessee side of that street). For the first week, Peer had scheduled specific musicians he wanted to record, including Stoneman. For the second week, he planned to hold open auditions and see who showed up. Sparked by colorful newspaper stories, musicians from as far as a hundred miles away came to audition, and Peer generated some seventy-six recordings. The results represented a cross-section of Appalachian music: vaudeville entertainers (the Johnson Brothers); gospel groups (Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Quartet); buskers and singers of topical ballads (Blind Alfred Reed); string bands (the Tenneva Ramblers and the West Virginia Coon Hunters); and family groups (the Shelor Family, Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Baker, and the Carter Family). Along with another unknown act, a young singer named Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family made the session legendary; within a year, both the Carter Family and Rodgers would have national reputations and see their records become some of the biggest sellers in the new country music industry. Peer did a follow-up session in Bristol in the fall of 1928, which produced an additional sixty-four recordings by some of the groups Peer had recorded in 1927 as well as by Clarence Greene, the gospel-singing Stamps Quartet, two African American musicians named Tarter and Gay, and banjoist Shortbuckle Roark.

Impressed by the sales success that Victor and OKeh had achieved with commercial releases of their field sessions, rival record companies wasted no time in initiating their own “old-time music” series and in sending their talent scouts into Appalachia. In late September 1927, shortly after Peer left Bristol, his former colleague Polk C. Brockman led an OKeh crew into Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a session that drew such performers as the Aiken County (South Carolina) String Band, Wanda and Ruth Neal, Dudley Vance’s Tennessee Breakdowners, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers and his Family, and Crockett Ward and his band (who recorded their well-known version of “Sugar Hill”). In February 1928, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company held a session in Ashland, Kentucky, in the back room of Carter’s Phonograph and Music Shop on Sixteenth Street. There, artist and repertoire agent James O’Keefe supervised some thirty recordings of such musicians as Lunsford (including the first recording of the song “Mountain Dew”), Clark Kessinger, gospel singers Welling and McGhee, Roy Harvey, the Tennessee Ramblers, Caplinger’s Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, and Jack Ready’s Walker Mountain String Band. Most of these recordings were issued on the Brunswick label, and some of them sold well, but the company never returned to Ashland.

Victor’s archrival, Columbia Records, apparently felt uneasy about following Ralph Peer into Bristol but did not hesitate to set up field recording sessions in nearby Johnson City, Tennessee, in October 1928 and October 1929. In charge of Columbia’s program was Frank Walker, who had discovered the Skillet Lickers earlier in Atlanta and who would in later years become the recording supervisor for Hank Williams Sr. Locating his studio in an empty cream- separating station, Walker ran advertisements in the local newspapers asking, “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” Very few of the musicians who responded to these ads had been at the Peer sessions—a testimony to the depth of musical talent in the Tri-Cities area. In 1928 Walker recorded fifty-seven masters in Johnson City by, among others, the Grant Brothers, Jimmy McCarroll and his Roane County (Tennessee) Ramblers, Richard Greene, and Earl Shirkey and Roy Harper. The following year an additional sixty-five titles were recorded in Johnson City, including some of the best-known recordings of Appalachian music: Clarence “Tom” Ashley’s banjo song “The Coo-Coo Bird,” Byrd Moore’s “Frankie Silvers,” and the Bentley Boys’ “Down on Penny’s Farm.” Virtually all of these titles were performed by white musicians, with the exception of “Buttermilk Blues,” by black harmonica player Ellis Williams.

By 1929, field recording activity by commercial companies was starting to taper off—the depression would soon curtail such sessions altogether. In August 1929 and again in April 1930, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company brought equipment from its Chicago headquarters to Knoxville and set up temporary studios at radio station WNOX in the Saint James Hotel. Several “staff musicians,” including fiddler Lowe Stokes and promoter Bill Brown, were hired to augment the local musicians on records. The company’s arrival garnered a full page of stories in the local newspaper. Most of the performers in Knoxville came from the east Tennessee– southern Kentucky area and included the popular family band the Tennessee Ramblers, Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, blues singers Leola Manning and Will Bennett, the Southern Moon- light Entertainers (comprised of the Rainey Family), and the harmony duo Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac and Bob). Two especially significant recordings were made by a local black string band headed by fiddler Howard Armstrong (called the Tennessee Trio) and by banjoist and songster Hays Shepherd (billed as the Appalachian Vagabond). The two Knoxville sessions yielded 157 sides, most of them released on the Vocalion label. In October 1929, OKeh staged a session in Richmond, Virginia, recording 92 sides; many of these were of non-Appalachian African American vocal groups, but some important mountain performers made recordings, including Bela Lam and his Green County Singers, fiddler Babe Spangler, and Fields Ward.

All told, commercial companies made slightly more than seven hundred high-quality sound recordings in Appalachia during the 1920s. This figure does not include those made outside the area by Appalachian musicians in Charlotte, Atlanta, New York City, Chicago, Memphis, and other sites. These recordings were not documents designed to preserve a region’s music in an archive; they were commercial products that were widely distributed. Extant sales figures suggest that an average commercial release of these recordings sold approximately five thousand copies; more than a few sold in the twenty thousand range. Major hits by the Carter Family sold up to one hundred thousand copies. The 78s on which these recordings were released were playable mainly on Victrolas and were fragile and easily worn out. However, many of the 1920s-era recordings were reissued on LPs in the 1960s and 1970s and subsequently on compact discs; numerous of these recordings are currently available in various historical compact disc anthologies.

Commercial recording of traditional Appalachian musicians by no means ceased in the 1930s and 1940s, but it shifted to centers such as Charlotte and Atlanta. In the meantime, folklorists, inspired by the 1920s work of Robert W. Gordon, used early disc recording machines to document their own research in Appalachia. Of the recordings these folklorists  made in the region, few were reproduced or made available on commercial releases, but most were housed in various public archives. In 1937 Alan and Elizabeth Lomax traveled through eastern Kentucky, where they recorded such musicians as ban- joist Pete Steele and fiddler W. M. Stepp. The latter’s recording of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” became so well known it was later incorporated into a ballet by composer Aaron Copland. In 1939 folklorist Herbert Halpert recorded ballad singer Horton Barker, of Chilhowie, Virginia, for the Library of Congress. In 1941 and 1942, Alan Lomax recorded the woman he considered the state’s finest singer, Texas Gladden, of Salem, Virginia, as well as her brother, instrumentalist Hobart Smith, of Saltville. In West Virginia, Professor Louis Watson Chappell began a private program of field recording that would last more than ten years. In Tennessee, another professor, William Kirkland, obtained a disc-cutting machine and documented the musical culture around Knoxville. Teams from the Library of Congress did extensive recordings of the Harmon Family in Cades Cove in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and her husband, Tilman Cadle, traveled through the Kentucky coalfields recording union and protest songs. After World War II, a new generation of folklorists entered Appalachia with tape recorders and video recorders. For example, in the 1960s, Thomas G. Burton and Ambrose N. Manning, working from their base at East Tennessee State University, chronicled the ballad singing tradition of the Beech Mountain area in nearby Watauga County, North Carolina.

The late 1940s also saw the rise of a number of independent record companies based in Appalachia. The most successful was Rich-R-Tone, owned and operated by Johnson City businessman Jim Stanton. Rich-R-Tone made the first recordings of several major performers, including the Stanley Brothers, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Buffalo Johnson, the Bailey Brothers, and the Church Brothers; a subsidiary label, Folk Star, released recordings by lesser-known performers. Acme Records, owned by Clifford Spurlock, of Columbia, Kentucky, flourished in the early 1950s and featured a series of new recordings by A. P. and Sara Carter. Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge and Cozy labels helped document early bluegrass. Through the 1950s, the Shadow label, based in Bristol, Tennessee, released recordings by local musicians on a series of 45 rpm singles.

Folk music–Appalachian Mountains. (2)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Mountains, Southern. (4)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region. (110)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk-music–Appalachian region. [from old catalog] (1)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region–History–20th century. (1)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region–History and criticism. (4)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region–History–Congresses. (1)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region, Southern. (49)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region, Southern–Audiotape catalogs. (1)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region, Southern–Irish influences. (2)Library of Congress subject headings

Folk music–Appalachian Region, Southern–Scottish influences. (2)Library of Congress subject headings


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Folklife Annual 90, edited by James Hardin (1991).

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Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis External Link. Council on Library and Information Sources. (2001).

Folk Recordings: Selected from the Archive of Folk Culture. Catalog and order form for recordings available from the Library of Congress.

Folklife Sourcebook: A Directory of Folklife Resources in the United States, by Peter Bartis and Stephanie A. Hall.

Grouse Creek Cultural Survey: Integrating Folklife and Historic Preservation Field Research, by Thomas Carter and Carl Fleischhauer (1988).

Old Ties, New Attachments: Italian-American Folklife in the West, by David A. Taylor and John Alexander Williams (1992). Hardcover, 224 pages, with 197 black-and-white illustrations.

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