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Music: The Roots of Roots Music Part 2:
From the Folk Revivalists to the Appalachians

By Mary Burruss
ART TIMES Summer 2013

David Holt, musician
David Holt holding a banjo on Grandfather Mountain in Linville, NC. overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Photo credit: Hugh Morton

In the Fall issue of ART TIMES I contributed a story about the popularity of Roots music in indie, pop and contemporary music.  My goal is to backtrack from music from bands like Mumford and Sons, Salsa Celtica and David Wax Museum to their collective foundations.  This issue I will investigate the Euro-African influences found in the Appalachians.

Revivalists have taken many forms since the mid-1900’s and though most of the sounds coming from today’s “Roots” bands echo mountain music as witnessed through the use of banjos and mandolins, the bridge between them and the sounds that evolved from the immigration of English, German, Irish and African settlers and slaves to the Appalachians in the early to mid 1700’s is the resurrection of folk in the 1950’s - 1970’s. Bob Dylan, the poster child of this movement and the artist most often named by roots bands I have interviewed as an influence, was actually only a part of it for a short time. Initially a Woody Guthrie wanna-be, Dylan was drawn to the strong emotions expressed in folk music as seen through, Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are a Changin’, two generally accepted anthems of the neo-folk and civil rights era.  But Dylan’s music quickly morphed to incorporate other genres.  Guthrie, and Joan Baez (Dylan’s former lover and mentor) along with Peter, Paul and Mary are arguably the real royalty of the Folk Revival. Guthrie, Baez and others drew from the soul- baring ballads of the Appalachians for inspiration.  According to Joseph Wilson, Chairman of the National Council for the Traditional Arts and Wayne Martin, Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council, in A Brief History of Blue Ridge Music found on the Blue Ridge Music Trails website, The Kingston Trio borrowed from a rare ballad by Frank Profitt, a singer from western North Carolina, for their 1957 hit, Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley, igniting young people’s interest in folk music. “During the late 1960s large numbers of outsiders began to attend music events held in the Blue Ridge region. Fiddler's conventions held in Union Grove, North Carolina, and Galax, Virginia, attracted crowds of young people motivated by the desire to hear music, learn tunes, or be part of a huge party,” they note.

Also during the 1960‘s blind guitarist, Doc Watson, was making a name for himself.  Originally form Deep Gap, North Carolina, he was adored as an authentic messenger of mountain music ultimately winning seven Grammy’s between 1973 and 2006. He dedicated his life to sharing the music of his home around the world in an effort to preserve it. A 2002 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording was earned for a collaborative project with River Walk Jazz host, David Holt, titled, Legacy, a three-disc set with interviews and music plus a concert recorded at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. Holt an eight time Grammy nominee and four time Grammy winner himself, is also dedicated to preserving the sounds of traditional American music as a performer but also as an archivist.  For the past twenty years Holt has collected songs and tales that have become a part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress and though he plays ten acoustic instruments he may be best known for his banjo picking. 

“Traditional Appalachian music holds a great deal of soul and power because it was not created for money or profit but came from people's hearts and hands. It is wisdom that can't be put into words but must be expressed through sound,” he said in a recent interview. “It seems young people are rediscovering that Soulfulness and bringing it into the 21st century.” Indeed, where the ballad was the main influence during the folk revival, the traditional Appalachian mountain stringband sound dominates the current roots trend. A stringband may include several string instruments such as guitar, mandolin, or bass fiddle but the must-haves are fiddle and banjo.  Wilson and Martin refer to the string bands as, “...the symbol of Blue Ridge music for many Americans,” and that they are, “...a prime example of a new flavor that emerged from the cultural stew simmering in the region prior to the Civil War.”

The fiddle is of course a European instrument, brought to North America by the German, Irish, English and Scottish immigrants of the late 1700’s.  The banjo’s origins are West African.  “The banjo has its roots in Africa and came to America with slavery. In the mid-1800s Joe Sweeney and other white musicians began to learn to play from plantation slaves,” Holt explained. “In the southern mountains the banjo blended perfectly with the long established fiddle repertoire and became an integral part of the sound of Traditional Mountain music.” The Civil War also played a part in spreading the popularity of the banjo and Mountain music along with it as soldiers from different localities exchanged songs and technique. Holt said, “The American Civil War helped spread the sound of the banjo to the north and throughout the south. Minstrel shows featuring banjo became the most popular form of entertainment in America in the later half of the 1800s.” Wilson and Martin claim that minstrelsy was the first international pop music fad that spread to urban areas and abroad.

The age of music recording starting in the 1920’s and ’30’s instigated the preservation of mountain music.  Today there are many collectors of old recordings like Holt but for the mother lode one can go to the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia, which boasts over 3,000 recordings in its repository.  The National Council for the Traditional Arts supports the preservation of all folk arts encompassed across the United States but its support of Appalachian Music is exemplified by its sponsorship of the Blue Ridge Music Center located along the Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia.  The NCTA website states that the Blue Ridge Music Center, “is dedicated to honoring and celebrating the rich, living musical traditions of the Appalachian region.”  According to Wilson and Martin, “Performers from the region, such as Doc Watson, the Carter Family, Ralph Stanley, Etta Baker, Wayne Henderson, and others, have taken their music to audiences across the country and around the world. Many visitors journey to western North Carolina and Virginia to hear the music in its homeplace.”  There are also two music “trails” that help locals and travelers find venues and festivals that host traditional jam and dance sessions all along the Blue Ridge Mountain Range in Virginia and North Carolina: The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail and the Blue Ridge Mountain Trail. 

On a recent visit to Asheville, I stopped in at the Grove Park Inn, an award-winning golf and spa resort with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to learn about its Centennial Concert Series which begins in January with a Big Band and Swing Concert and ends Labor Day weekend with a performance by the Tams.  The highlight of the series is July 5th and 6th.  That weekend the Inn will pull out the stops for its one hundredth birthday party featuring Holt with his five piece band, The Lightening Bolts at a VIP Barbecue event on July 5th and a big concert July 6th with blues legend, B.B. King.  “We strive to engage traditional artist involvement to support the heritage of our area since it is such a big part of our heritage here at the Grove Park Inn,” said Robert Butler, Director of Special Events at the Grove Park Inn. Said Holt of his upcoming performance, “We play old time mountain music with a new time jolt. The show features lots of different instruments and sounds heard in Appalachian music played by some of western North Carolina's best musicians.” The reincarnation of the traditional sound in today’s indi, rock and pop music pleases Holt.  He is proud to be a purveyor of the old music that inspires the new. “The sounds of Anglo and African traditions blended in Appalachian music and created a powerful mix that has influenced almost all of American roots music in the last 150 years,” he said.  “You can trace a direct line of influences affecting today's roots-inspired artists.”

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