Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Culture’

Out of Frame: Regional Stereotypes in Photography

Saturday, December 19th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Lou Murrey

Doris Ulmann, “Maggie Lewis and Wilma Creech, Pine Mountain, KY,” 1934, Photograph on paper, Bequest of Doris Ulmann, Berea College Art Collection 150.140.2022, With Permission of the Doris Ulmann Foundation

Doris Ulmann, “Maggie Lewis and Wilma Creech, Pine Mountain, KY,” 1934, Photograph on paper, Bequest of Doris Ulmann, Berea College Art Collection 150.140.2022, With Permission of the Doris Ulmann Foundation

Earlier this year, a photo essay published by Vice Magazine titled “Two Days in Appalachia” provoked controversy over the portrayal of the region in the media. The images were made in the photographer Bruce Gilden’s signature style, using a harsh flash and zooming in on his subject to an almost-uncomfortable and unflattering degree. The piece solicited a strong online debate, with some commenters objecting that the photographs perpetuated a derogatory stereotype and narrow view of the region, and others defending the artistic merits of the work. To understand why Gilden’s photographs caused such an outcry from some people living in the region, it is important to have an understanding of the history of Appalachian imagery.

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the re-discovery of culture and resources in the Appalachian Mountains by the rest of the country. Missionaries, industrialists, scholars, writers, photographers and the like perceived these wild and untouched mountains as America’s last frontier, to be used for the coal beneath the ground and the lumber on its hillsides, or a chance to preserve the last remnant of “Pioneer America.”

Child-labor advocate Thomas Robinson Dawley selected photographs of families in western North Carolina and East Tennessee in his 1912 unofficial government-report-turned-book, The Child that Toileth Not, to highlight the ignorance, lawlessness and immorality of the mountain people as a justification for industrialization. Northern missionaries and educators flooded into Appalachia, determined to preserve and enhance the lifestyle of the hard-working, hand-hewn and independent mountain people who still spoke in Elizabethan tongue.

Simultaneously, colorful stories appeared in the well-established Atlantic Monthly magazine that characterized the people in Appalachia as uneducated moonshiners and hillbillies, designed to entertain urban readers.

This era of re-discovery resulted in two polarizing and anglo-centric stereotypes that have continued to represent Appalachia: that of the wizened but simple mountaineer on the verge of extinction, and his brother, the poor, ignorant and sometimes dangerous hillbilly.

Bayard Wootten’s photographs for Muriel Early Sheppard’s 1935 book, Cabins in the Laurel, present the Appalachian people as ignorant and unindustrialized. Wootten’s portraits and Sheppard’s writing omit any evidence that industrialization or broader American culture had ever reached Southern Appalachia, when in fact the railroads had been running lines through the region since the 1850s. Appalachian State University history professor Ralph E. Lentz wrote that while Cabins in the Laurel was well-received by critics outside of western North Carolina, the subjects of the book were less than pleased to be presented as “backward, illiterate, drunken hicks.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Appalachian photography is also commonly associated with the image of the dignified and wise but simple mountaineer, who is the last of his kind. Photographer Doris Ulmann’s beautiful and nostalgic portraits for the 1937 book Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands echo this sentiment. When Ulmann arrived in western North Carolina in 1932, she would ask her subjects to change out of their normal clothes and into their old-time linsey-woolsey clothing to look the part of the “Appalachian mountaineer.”

It is worth noting that with the arrival of the railroad came the Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue; so even though people in the mountains were unable to afford all the amenities of modern life, many were aware of and able to follow the fashion of the day. But in Ulmann’s images of the Appalachian people, bonneted and barefoot women spin wool and churn butter and old men wield handmade tools.

“Ulmann consciously sought those people who fit the Appalachian stereotype because she believed they were a disappearing species in modern, 20th century America,” Lentz writes.

The photographer’s desire to collect and preserve the traditional Appalachian mountaineer, while well-intentioned, produced a popular assumption that to be considered Appalachian you had to be isolated and of Scotch-Irish or English descent. Even the magnificent landscape photographs made by George Masa to advocate for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the 1920s tell the story of a geography so remote there was nary a sign of human life in the mountains. In reality, hundreds of people were displaced from their homes in order to build the national park.

These narratives depict Appalachia, for better and for worse, as an isolated land of poverty, backwardness, fierce religiosity and tradition. This singular view became the standard for representation of the region in the canon of popular culture. While the images are certainly rooted in elements of truth, they often fail to represent residents of Appalachia as people from differing racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds with a full spectrum of emotions and experiences.

Additionally, photographs that continue to just show one view of the region, like the ones that appeared in “Two Days in Appalachia” piece, suggest the culture in Appalachia does not differ from hill to holler to city. This kind of homogenization of an entire region establishes a rigid set of criteria for what it looks like to be Appalachian, denying many people their sense of belonging to the area. As Affrilachian poet and social media activist Crystal Good implored on her Facebook page in response to the photo essay, “Ain’t I Appalachian too?”

There have been photographers both before and since the discovery of Appalachia who have made meaningful, authentic work that represents the complexities of the region. These photographs, until recently, lacked the sensationalism to make it into the media.

The advent of social media has provided an opportunity to look at Appalachia through a wide-angle lens. Increased access to the internet and websites like Instagram and Facebook have broadened the diversity of images and stories coming from the region.

Contemporary movements include the “Affrilachian Artists Project,” which aims to build community among artists of color living in and inspired by the mountains, the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project’s Appalachian Love Story campaign which encourages individuals to share their own photographs and stories using the hashtag #appalachianlovestory, or the “Looking at Appalachia Fifty Years After the War on Poverty” project created by Roger May. All around Appalachia there are photographers engaged in a dialogue to change and expand perception of the region, allowing folks to declare ‘hey, I’m Appalachian too.’

View images from contemporary Appalachian photographers here.

Lou Murrey is a photographer from western North Carolina. Her work has appeared in The Sun Magazine, the North Carolina Folklore Journal, and the Looking at Appalachia Project. She was the photographer and co-creator of The Blue Ridge Farm Book with Blue Ridge Women and Agriculture. Lou Murrey’s work can be found at www.loumurrey.com and on instagram at lnmurrey.

Documenting Appalachia

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Filmmakers Discuss Their Work in the Region

Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

By Elizabeth E. Payne

It has been almost forty years since “Harlan County, USA” (1976) brought attention to the miners’ strike at the Brookside Mine in southeast Kentucky. Since then, dozens of films, including “Justice in the Coalfields” (1995), “Sludge” (2005) and “The Last Mountain” (2011), have explored the challenges facing Appalachia.

Three new films continue this long tradition. “Blood on the Mountain” and “Overburden” take different approaches to investigating the grip that coal has on West Virginia. And “Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television” explores the role that Hollywood played in creating the “hillbilly” stereotype and contrasts this stereotype with real men and women from the region.

The directors of these documentaries discussed their films and how they approached representing the region and its people authentically.

Blood on the Mountain (2014)

Protesters at the March on Blair Mountain in 2011. Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

Protesters at the March on Blair Mountain in 2011. Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

On April 5, 2010, while Mari-Lynn Evans was promoting her film “Coal Country,” an explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., killed 29 miners. Evans quickly returned to filmmaking hoping to answer her own questions about what led to this tragedy.

Her latest film, “Blood on the Mountain,” co-directed with Jordan Freeman, seeks these answers with what Evans describes as “a 150-year autopsy of the state of West Virginia.” The film tells the history of West Virginia’s environmental and labor movements, from the state’s creation during the Civil War until the current day, focusing on the steady pattern of resource and wealth extraction by outside corporations and efforts by the labor movement to protect the health and livelihoods of workers.

The film depicts how events such as the labor uprising in 1921, known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, were systematically omitted from the traditional history of West Virginia in favor of presenting an image more hospitable to industry. According to Evans, who is from West Virginia, “Our history has always been censored to us.”

Documentary Digest

Several other recent and forthcoming documentary projects are listed here. More are available through Appalshop, a nonprofit Kentucky-based cultural organization focused on documenting Appalachia.

Coal Ash Chronicles

In a book and series of short documentaries films, this project collects stories from people across the country, speaking with those impacted by, and working to solves problems created by, coal ash waste.
In production.
A transmedia project by Rhiannon Fionn-Bowman. Official website: coalashchronicles.com.

Hollow

The residents of McDowell County, W.Va., have faced many challenges including population and job loss. Through photos, videos and music clips, this interactive online documentary tells the stories of 30 inspiring individuals who call this county home.
Directed and produced by Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Official website: hollowdocumentary.com, best viewed with Google Chrome web browser

In the Hills and Hollows

The individuals documented in this film face an uncertain future. In rural West Virginia, where the coal industry has had an impact for over a century, many residents are now also affected by the extraction and transport of natural gas. In production.
Produced and filmed by Keely Kernan. Official website: inthehillsandhollows.com.

Herb Key: Nurturing American Heritage

The great talent and DIY spirit of master luthier and renowned musician Herb Key comes through in this short documentary film.
Directed by Rebecca Branson Jones and Jim Lloyd. For more information, email rebeccajonesb@gmail.com

Evans makes it clear that as a documentary filmmaker and an activist, she hopes to not only educate people through her films but also to motivate them to work for change. “What’s happened to the people of West Virginia and to Appalachia has been a great injustice,” Evans says. “And justice is what the people in our film, and the people of the region, are fighting for.”

According to Evans, she feels a responsibility to capture and tell the stories of the people she documents. She has been motivated by a concern that, “If I didn’t capture these stories, if I didn’t do this work as a documentary filmmaker, … no one would ever know who we were and no one would remember us.”

Throughout her career, Evans has fought against stereotypical portrayals of her native state. She undertook her first documentary, “The Appalachians,” a three-part television miniseries that first aired in 2005, in part because “I thought, someone needs to make a documentary about who we really are because I am so sick and tired of people asking me if my grandfather made moonshine and I was married to my brother.”

To Evans, the origins and motives of these stereotypes are linked to corporate interests that have historically been eager to “dehumanize” the region. “It’s easier to take the land and lives of people that you don’t view as equal.”

“What I hope the take-away [of this film] is, is to see that all of us that live in the region, all of us that work in the region, we have common ground,” Evans says. “We’re human beings. And this is our story, and this is our struggle.”

“Blood on the Mountain” is currently screening at film festivals, with broader distribution expected in spring 2016. Runtime 91 minutes. Visit bloodonthemountain.com.

Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television (expected 2016)

Hillbilly,” a documentary still in production and directed by Sally Rubin and Ashley York, aims to contrast the traditional Hollywood “hillbilly” stereotype with portraits of individual artists, writers, activists and others. According to Rubin, the film will illustrate “what Appalachia is and what Appalachia isn’t, simultaneously, in the same film.”

Billy Redden, who played the banjo boy in “Deliverance,” is interviewed in “Hillbilly: Appalachia in television and film.” Movie still provided by Sally Rubin and Ashley York

Billy Redden, who played the banjo boy in “Deliverance,” is interviewed in “Hillbilly: Appalachia in television and film.” Movie still provided by Sally Rubin and Ashley York

Both directors have strong ties to Appalachia. York is from eastern Kentucky. And Rubin, whose previous work includes “Deep Down: A story from the heart of coal country,” which she co-directed with Jen Gilomen, has family from the mountains of Tennessee. Yet both Rubin and York now live in Los Angeles, which provides them with a simultaneous closeness to and distance from their topic.

“We talk about that a lot in the film, how leaving the region affects your view of it, what it’s like to be someone who’s from the region and then leaves and then comes back,” says Rubin. Such issues of regionalism and identity will be interwoven with their discussion of media portrayals of Appalachian stereotypes.

Appalachia at the Movies

Hollywood films such as the iconic 1972 thriller “Deliverance” have often represented Appalachia through negative stereotypes. But a recent wide-release film is breaking new ground by presenting a more nuanced and authentic view of the region.

“Big Stone Gap” — starring Ashley Judd and Whoopi Goldberg — is a 2014 movie based on a novel by Adriana Trigiani. Trigiani, who also directed the film, grew up in Big Stone Gap, the small Virginia town that gave this fictional portrayal its name.

Set in 1978, “Big Stone Gap” centers on Ave Maria Mulligan, an unmarried pharmacist whose life changes forever when she learns a family secret. This romantic comedy is as much a love story of this small town as it is of the characters themselves.

“People all over the world think they know something about Appalachia, because they’ve seen ‘Deliverance,’” wrote Silas House, award-winning novelist and former Appalachian Voices board member, in an October article published by Salon magazine. He adds, “Movies have taught us that all rural people are racist, homophobic and misogynistic.”

“Big Stone Gap” defies these stereotypes by portraying characters who are diverse, accepting and well-read. “These may seem like small victories,” wrote House, who is also NEH Chair of Appalachian Literature at Berea College, “but for Appalachian people, this portrayal is revolutionary.”

Rubin is excited by the level of support the project is receiving within Appalachia, noting that the film was recently awarded a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council. Individuals supporting the film either as advisors or as interviewees include such well-known Appalachian personalities as Silas House, Chad Berry and bell hooks.

According to Rubin, she and York value these collaborations and are proud that the film will be “produced all, totally, within the region, with the partnership and support of people who live there.”

In one of the film’s interviews, Virginia Tech professor Barbara Ellen Smith summarizes how the stereotypes about the region have benefited those who extract the region’s resources. According to Smith, because popular culture sees Appalachia as “a region of people who are depraved, not part of the American dream, [and] don’t really deserve the kind of resources and wealth that lie beneath the land of Appalachia, particularly coal, [then] of course we can dispossess them of their land.”

Rubin has found that outside the region, many have questioned why there is a need to investigate representations of Appalachia. “There’s a reason that the hillbilly stereotype is so prevalent, and I would even say so popular, in popular culture and media,” she says. “We’re trying to overturn something that people, in many ways, don’t want overturned.”

“Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television” is in production, with release expected in late 2016. Runtime approximately 90 minutes. Visit hillbillymovie.com.

Overburden (2015)

Betty Harrah featured in “Overburden.” Movie stills provided by Chad A. Stevens

Betty Harrah fights to increase miner safety in “Overburden.” Movie still provided by Chad A. Stevens

Driven by a desire to help stop mountaintop removal coal mining, Chad A. Stevens began work on his new film “Overburden” in 2006. His story begins by following two environmental activists — Lorelei Scarbro and Rory McIlmoil — as they work to save Coal River Mountain, W.Va., from mining by pushing instead for a wind-power project. The film takes a dramatic turn when the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster leads to an unlikely alliance between Scarbro and Betty Harrah, a pro-coal advocate who begins fighting for greater miner safety after her brother was killed in the explosion.

As a filmmaker striving to tell this story as authentically as possible, Stevens emphasizes how important it is to let the people in his film have their own voice and avoid imposing his own preconceived narrative onto the film. “Ultimately, it’s about respect,” he says. “Respecting where they’re coming from and then [having an] openness to that.”

Stevens’ respect for the two main women in his film is evident.
In describing his years-long collaboration with Scarbro while making the film, Stevens notes that as early as 2008 she was using the term “mono-economy” to describe the lack of opportunities residents in her area had outside of the coal industry.

“I look back at that and see how insightful she really was at that time, and I didn’t even get it then. I didn’t get that until later in the process,” Stevens says.

He was also deeply affected by his interactions with Harrah. While he remains opposed to mountaintop removal, he says he now has a more nuanced view of the situation. Despite her efforts to increase miner safety, Stevens says that Harrah remains “ultimately pro-coal.”

“I think it’s because it’s the only option she can see for families like hers to survive there,” he says. “And I can understand that now, having worked with her over time. So, she really changed my thinking in a pretty big way.”

Lorelei Scarbro fights to increase miner safety in “Overburden.” Movie stills provided by Chad A. Stevens

Lorelei Scarbro fights to increase miner safety in “Overburden.” Movie still provided by Chad A. Stevens

Stevens sees Scarbro and Harrah, not the environmental and social justice themes, as the emotional heart of the film. “The most important thing to me is that these two women are really on opposite sides of the struggle. And they find this common ground,” he says. “And I think that that’s hopefully inspiring and a model that can be used by others.”

“Overburden” is currently screening at film festivals, with broader distribution expected in early 2016. Runtime 65 minutes. Visit thecoalwar.com.

“After Coal,” Beyond the Big Screen

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns
Filmmaker Tom Hansell and camera person Suzanne Clouseau interview Geraint Lewis near Abercraf, Wales. The company Lewis started, Call of the Wild, has repurposed an old farm and created a leadership development center. Photo by Mair Francis

Filmmaker Tom Hansell and camera person Suzanne Clouseau interview Geraint Lewis near Abercraf, Wales. The company Lewis started, Call of the Wild, has repurposed an old farm and created a leadership development center. Photo by Mair Francis

By Samantha Eubanks

Appalachia has long been misrepresented in media. As a result, many filmmakers working in the region have made a push to ensure accurate portrayals of community members. One way the filmmakers are doing this is by including the input and feedback of documentary participants.

In “Hollow,” a 2013 Peabody award winning interactive documentary, Elaine McMillion Sheldon documents the realities of life in McDowell County, W.Va., by placing cameras into the hands of residents. The method she used allows local people to play an active role in the storytelling.

The documentary “After Coal” is another example of a participatory documentary project. “After Coal” filmmaker Tom Hansell profiled inspiring individuals who are building a new future in the coalfields of central Appalachia and south Wales in the United Kingdom, two regions developed around the extraction of coal. Between 1980 and 1990, Wales lost 20,000 coal jobs, and central Appalachia lost an identical number of coal jobs between 1994 and 2014. “After Coal” shares stories between residents of Appalachia and Wales, building collective wisdom about how to survive dramatic job loss and supporting a just economic transition in the coalfields.

A panel discusses strategies for regenerating coalfield communities in Appalachia and Wales at a 2014 community forum held at the Appalshop building in Whitesburg, Ky. From left to right: Mair Francis, founder of DOVE Workshop, Hywel Francis, then a member of Parliament, Robin Gabbard of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and Evan Smith of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center. Photo by Angela Wiley.

A panel discusses strategies for regenerating coalfield communities in Appalachia and Wales at a 2014 community forum held at the Appalshop building in Whitesburg, Ky. From left to right: Mair Francis, founder of DOVE Workshop, Hywel Francis, then a member of Parliament, Robin Gabbard of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and Evan Smith of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center. Photo by Angela Wiley.

According to Hansell, participatory exchange is one way to empower communities to control their own destiny. His participatory approach to documentary filmmaking involves the input and feedback of the community members being represented. This type of filmmaking gives power to the subjects — they determine if the portrayal is accurate, and it becomes the filmmaker’s responsibility to interpret this feedback for the audience.

“My experience in Appalachia showed that when a film was perceived as offering a skewed vision of a community, then people dismiss the issues in the film,” Hansell says. “I don’t want the grassroots groups who are doing the real work of revitalizing the Appalachian region, or South Wales, to discount this film. I want ‘After Coal’ to be of use to the communities where it was filmed.”

Hansell showed rough-cut screenings in coalfield communities across both regions to encourage a discussion of issues such as cleaning up mine waste, retraining miners and developing renewable energy.

At the same time, he collaborated with community groups to support an exchange between former miners, musicians, activists and policymakers from both Appalachia and Wales. Recordings from these discussions were used for a radio series broadcast on WMMT-FM in eastern Kentucky and BBC Wales in the U.K.

The Kentucky Mine Supply Building in downtown Harlan, Ky. Photo by Tom Hansell

The Kentucky Mine Supply Building in downtown Harlan, Ky. Photo by Tom Hansell

Hansell learned these methods at the Appalshop media arts center, one of the region’s premier media making organizations. While living in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, he listened to the concerns of miners about adjusting to an economy that no longer needed coal.

For Hansell, “After Coal” is an attempt to explore what keeps communities alive after their main industry has moved on. He stresses that making a documentary goes beyond simply entertaining the audience — it is about asking questions and seeking truth. And through building relationships and asking thoughtful questions, Hansell is able to assist community members in the search for varied and sustainable industry “after coal.”

“After Coal” has a 56 minute run time. The final film will be released in 2016. For more information, visit aftercoal.com

Land through the Lens

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Photographs of Appalachia’s wild wonders have shaped our relationship with the mountains since the early 20th century, and witnessing the destruction of the region’s land and waters has long stirred residents to defend our natural heritage. - Compiled by Molly Moore

Image of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, left, presumed to be by George Masa, and postcard of Mt. Mitchell, above, made from George Masa photograph. Photos courtesy North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C.

A postcard of Mt. Mitchell, made from George Masa photograph. Photos courtesy North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C.

Image of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, left, presumed to be by George Masa.

Image of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, left, presumed to be by George Masa.

George Masa’s stunning landscape images from the 1920s and ‘30s are credited with raising awareness of the natural beauty of the area that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His black and white pictures were often hand-colored to create postcards promoting the area. A Japanese immigrant, Masa arrived in the United States in the early 1900s and moved to Asheville in 1915. He was close friends with naturalist Horace Kephart, another prominent advocate for the creation of the Smoky Mountains park, and the two explored and documented the natural features of the region in great detail. Masa also charted the path of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.

Photos of mountaintop removal coal mining by Carl Galie

Photos of mountaintop removal coal mining by Carl Galie

The New River by Carl Galie

The New River by Carl Galie

Lost on the Road to Oblivion, The Vanishing Beauty of Coal Country” is a photography project by Carl Galie, a West Virginia native and current North Carolinian. Galie’s artist statement describes the images as both “an attempt to expose the devastating mining practice of mountaintop removal that has only one purpose, maximizing profits” and “to focus on the beauty of coal country rather than just devastation.”

The aerial image above was captured during a flight with Southwings, a nonprofit aviation organization that provides flights to decision-makers and members of the media to help illustrate the impact of environmental issues ranging from coal ash contamination to coastal erosion. The organization’s flights also assist scientists with remote monitoring efforts.

The exhibit is accompanied by poems from North Carolina poet laureate Joseph Bathanti, and will be on display at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center in Portsmouth, Va., in spring 2016. Visit carlgaliephotography.com

Photo by E.S. Shipp, courtesy U.S. Forest Service and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Photo by E.S. Shipp, courtesy U.S. Forest Service and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

A note archived with this 1923 image of Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina states, “Here fire swept through repeatedly after destructive logging with the result that today … this peak is a distressing sight.” Images of logging in the southern Appalachians helped spur the movement to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Blue Ridge Country Magazine, WV Living Magazine, WNC Magazine

Photographs of Appalachia’s natural beauty still beckon visitors to the area, and invite locals to explore and relish their surroundings.

Blue Ridge Country Magazine’s September/October 2015 cover featured a fall image by Michele Sons, and WV Living Magazine selected a frosty image of Paw Paw Creek by graphic designer Carla Witt Ford for their Winter 2014 issue. WNC Magazine chose a photograph of sunrise on Roan Bald in the Roan Highlands, by Kevin Adams, to grace the cover of their May/June 2014 special Travel & Outdoors Issue.

Peter Givens

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

Countering Stereotypes in the Classroom and on the Parkway

By Dan Radmacher

Photo by Carole Givens.

Photo by Carole Givens.

Peter Givens has made a career out of dispelling Appalachian myths and stereotypes, first as a ranger for the National Park Service and now as a faculty member in Virginia Western Community College’s history department.

The driver behind it all? A deep and abiding love for the region.

“We live in such an incredibly special place in the world,” says Givens. “You can take any aspect of what Appalachia is — whether it’s the natural history, the biodiversity, the recreational value that’s just inherent in the mountains and what I think is a very, very deep and rich culture — and it just hurts me when it’s not treated right.”

According to Givens, the Park Service, where he started in 1977, was sometimes guilty of perpetuating Appalachian stereotypes at its facilities.
“In the 1930s, when the Blue Ridge Parkway was built and the signs were put up and they were deciding what to interpret and what not to, you can tell they thought, ‘Let’s make it quaint; let’s make it what people expect to see,’” Givens says. “You know, let’s tear down the two-story white frame farmhouse and find a log cabin somewhere and put it there instead. They were creating what they felt like the public wanted to see.”

Givens, who worked on a number of visitor centers and exhibits during his 35 years with the Park Service, tried to rectify as much of that as he could.

“In the facilities that I worked on and some of the wayside exhibits, we just feel like we were telling a much truer, richer, honest sort of story than maybe the parkway did in the beginning,” he says.

Though Appalachia is featured in films dating back to the late ’30s, Givens says the real explosion of cultural attention occurred after the 1960 presidential election. It was the first presidential campaign that America really watched on television and John F. Kennedy focused an incredible amount of attention on the region.

“You can make a case that many Americans sat in their homes during that campaign and saw Appalachia for the first time, on television,” he says. “And they were interested, intrigued, enamored — even horrified, maybe — by what they saw on their television screens.”

That new interest was reflected in a slew of new television shows — Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Hee Haw — that all consisted of one-sided portrayals of Appalachia. That went on for 10 or 15 years, or longer, Givens says.

“Dukes of Hazard is right out of Li’l Abner,” he says. “You can take Daisy Mae from Li’l Abner and you can put Ellie Mae Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies or Daisy Duke in there and not tell the difference. It’s the same sort of image.”

Images that lack a broader perspective still predominate — even within Appalachia. Givens points to a mural set in the sidewalk around the renovated Market Square Building in Roanoke, Va., which depicts a young, barefoot banjo player in threadbare clothing sitting with a hound dog.

Several recent novels more accurately reflect the actual richness of Appalachia, Givens says, pointing especially to novels by Adriana Trigiani and Ron Rash. Trigiani’s “Big Stone Gap” was recently adapted as a movie that Givens recommends.

“The depiction of Appalachia in popular culture is getting better and better,” he says. “But we’re not there yet. We still see lots of stereotypes.”

In his classes on Appalachian history, Givens tries to ensure that his students understand the complexity of the story and help them understand that many Appalachian stereotypes really depict rural life across America, not just in this region.

“There is a preponderance of iconic images that America associates with Appalachia that really are just rural things,” he says. “I tell my students that people in Kansas made quilts and played banjos and lived in log cabins.”
Appalachia isn’t a static entity, either, Givens stresses. “Appalachia is changing, and it has always been changing,” he says.

But one thing does seem constant: The deep sense of place developed by those raised here. “There seems to be something very precious and personal for people who’ve grown up in this region that they just don’t want to let go of,” he says. “There are so many stories of people who have left the region for big cities and factory jobs and they just keep coming back, and they won’t let go of the homeplace.”

That sense of place seems to really motivate Givens. “I just want people to know, in whatever sphere of influence I have, how special this place is.”

Mountain Music Trail Winds Through WV

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Following U.S. Route 219 through Monroe, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker counties in West Virginia, the Mountain Music Trail highlights the old-time music of the Mountain State.

Inspired by Virginia’s heritage music trail, the Crooked Road, The Mountain Music Trail connects musicians and musical venues along this scenic highway. Participating musicians include The Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys and Aurora Celtic, and venues range from the Pocahontas County Opera House in Marlinton to The Purple Fiddle in Thomas.

“Economic development is one of the primary reasons we wanted to start this project,” Cara Rose, executive director of the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “But it’s also about preserving the music. It’s about sharing the music of our region and our culture.”

The trail also provides an opportunity to highlight local businesses along the route, including several microbreweries. The organizers have also partnered with the Mountain Dance Trail, a project celebrating West Virginia’s vibrant tradition of community square dancing.

The West Virginia Division of Tourism and West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage collaborated to produce a virtual tour of the new music trail. The website provides videos of stops along the trail, streaming music of featured artists and an interactive map. It is an invitation to spend at least a weekend exploring West Virginia.

For more information and to take in the sounds and sights of the virtual tour, visit mountainmusictrail.com.

Appalachian Millennials and social media in Wyoming County

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Donald Welch is a writer and educator currently living in Brooklyn, N.Y., who recently interviewed AmeriCorps members working with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in West Virginia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Day Hikes Near Denver, Grow Anywhere, and elsewhere. He writes about the intersection of environmentalism and technology at The Frontier Blog.

Photographer Brady Darragh and activist Chuck Nelson stand outside the abandoned union hall in Lindytown, W.Va. Lindytown's population, like that of Coalville, was displaced by the mining industry.

Photographer Brady Darragh and activist Chuck Nelson stand outside the abandoned union hall in Lindytown, W.Va. Lindytown’s population, like that of Coalville, was displaced by the mining industry. Photo by Brandon Lavoie.

In Mullens, W.Va., there’s a model town made from Popsicle sticks. While these sorts of projects are a fairly common hobby, this particular display is a replica of Coalville, a town that no longer exists.

The artist who made the model, once a resident of Coalville, constructed it from his memory and old photographs. The display sits in the Mullens Opportunity Center, home to the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, or RAIL, an organization focused on sustainability and creating social change in southern West Virginia. Like so many other towns in the Mountain State, the residents of Coalville left in search of new jobs when the area mine closed.

“Wyoming County and Mullens has a lot of people leaving,” says Nathan Tauger, a 23-year-old AmeriCorps alumni who served with RAIL, later adding that Wyoming County mainly has “older folks left so you get a lot of memories.” Tauger is a West Virginian himself, he hails the Morgantown area and elected to stay and volunteer in his home state. While memories were the motivating force behind the Coalville display, millennials like Tauger are volunteering throughout Appalachia and as they enter the region they bring an enthusiasm for technology and social media.

The millennial disposition — or “technology intuition” as Tauger describes it — helps small non-profits build a media presence in the community and beyond. Tauger says Twitter has helped RAIL “engage with outside stakeholders.”

“We were retweeted by a couple of government organizations, regional media outlets, bigger nonprofits, and universities over this past year,” says Tauger. “That helps us because visiting spring break groups see those tweets when they google us, grant makers see the tweets, potential volunteers and visitors see them. Earl Gohl, co-chair of the [Appalachian Regional Commission], follows us on Twitter.”

One of Tauger’s videos that is regularly tweeted from the RAIL account is of a community health initiative started by Patty Scott, a local pharmacist who donates her time at the Mullens Opportunity Center to run a free line dancing class. This class is an hour-long, once a week and encourages people to think positively about their bodies, have fun and bust a move.

“The Internet community in Wyoming County was probably not very big, but it felt very dense. Information can move quite quickly in Wyoming County,” Tauger recalls of the success of sharing local news and promoting events over social media. But he acknowledges the shortcomings of social networking as well. “It brought something of a false sense of belonging too. Hundreds of Facebook followers do not equal the kind of relationships built in person.” In a region where home broadband is only now becoming readily accessible, interpersonal relationships are still incredibly important for spreading information.

While RAIL’s outreach encourages plenty of groups to visit the Mullens area for volunteering, Tauger worked to engage youth in the community to create opportunities for Wyoming County residents. To that end, Tauger “interviewed leaders of successful mentoring programs, as well as lots of young folks who felt strongly about staying in or leaving Wyoming County.” Tauger went to work scheduling meetings with Volunteer West Virginia, Citizens Conservation Corps WV, WorkForce West Virginia, and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in order to coordinate youth initiatives.

RAIL is still building upon the groundwork Tauger laid during his AmeriCorps service and local volunteers continue to be integral to the organization’s community outreach and service projects. However, Tauger says, “Folks blame some of the region’s problems on character flaws, things like a lack of initiative among young people.” But the work of Tauger and other millennials all over Appalachia demands a change in the country’s perception of Appalachian youth.

“The character of young people reflects society’s investment in them,” says Tauger. “A sense of worth comes from how we’re treated and what we see in our communities, on the Internet and in media. To complain about the absence of personal responsibility in today’s youth is to conceal civic responsibility.”

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Common Connections: An Appalachian-Romanian Exchange

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by interns

By W. Spencer King

High school students from different sides of the world recently took part in a year-long cultural exchange program that involved frequent communication and highlighted similar folk traditions, arts and music.

In fall 2014, four Romanian students visited Wahama High School in Mason, W.Va., for two weeks, exploring the connections between traditional Romanian folk music and music from Appalachia. The students found that both cultures share a history of coal mining, and the music from both areas reflects themes of wages, labor and class.

This past spring, four students from Wahama High School traveled to Anina in Gorj County, Romania, to spend two weeks learning about Romanian customs and heritage, and to share some of their own Appalachian culture.

The Clay Center in Mason received a grant that paired them with museums from around the world. “It was sort of like speed dating,” says Melissa Rhodes of the Clay Center. “People from other countries and people from [West Virginia] got onto the site and tried to find similarities … we have a lot in common with Romania with our folk music, geology and geography.”

“[The Romanian people] are very proud of their heritage and their history,” she says. “Tradition is very important to them, and they’re very family oriented just like we are here in West Virginia.”

“You go to another country and expect things to be really different,” says Jamie Adamik of the Clay Center. “But when you get there you realize that everybody there are people just like us, teachers, students, we got to visit their homes and see where they lived.”

The students and teachers remain in contact through email, Facebook and letters. The Clay Center is working on a grant that, if approved, will continue the project with new schools from West Virginia and Romania.

Paying Tribute to a Beloved Daughter of Appalachia

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Kimber Ray

Jean Ritchie, Kentucky-born folk hero, environmentalist and activist, died this June in her Berea, Ky. home at the age of 92. Widely regarded as “The Mother of Folk,” Ritchie was born in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. Her family is renowned by folk music scholars for their astounding repertoire of traditional songs and centuries-old ballads, but it was Ritchie’s sweet, distinct voice which carried these Appalachian tunes to a broad audience of listeners.

This same voice also spoke out against environmental and social injustices, particularly those surrounding coal mining communities in Appalachia. Among Ritchie’s most celebrated songs is “Black Waters,” which describes the painful realities of surface mining in Kentucky.

In recent years, her friends — including artists such as Kathy Mattea and Pete Seeger — produced a tribute album called “Dear Jean,” and Appalachian Voices had the opportunity to celebrate with Ritchie at a concert in her honor last year. As per her wishes, Ritchie’s family is donating a portion of the proceeds from the album to Appalachian Voices.

Author, activist and Appalachian Voices board member Silas House considered Ritchie a dear friend. “She was a source of incredible pride for my people,” he writes. “Everyone I knew loved Jean Ritchie, and they especially loved the way she represented Appalachian people: with generosity and sweetness, yes. But also with defiance and strength.”

“The hillside explodes with the dynamite’s roar
And the voices of the small birds will sound there no more
And the mountain comes a-sliding so awful and grand
And the flooding black waters rise over my land”

— “Black Waters” by Jean Ritchie, 1971

Read House’s full remembrance at appvoices.org/remembering-jean-ritchie

Ginseng’s growing role in the new Appalachian economy

Monday, July 20th, 2015 - posted by Adam
The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia,

The cultivation of ginseng, a medicinal plant native to Appalachia, could provide a boost for local economies.

Most people who live in or come to visit the mountains know that just being here, surrounded by lush green hills and clear, fast-flowing rivers, can have a healing effect on the soul.

But not as many people know that many of the plants that make the mountains’ forest floor so lush and green have real medicinal properties and, when used properly, can help treat ailments ranging from sore throats to cancer.

Growing and marketing those wild medicinal plants and herbs was the subject of a recent workshop offered by the group Appalachian Communities Encouraging Economic Diversification (AppalCEED) in Norton, Va. Based in the heart of Virginia’s coal country, AppalCEED works to promote sustainable ways to diversify the local economy. The workshop focused on helping local landowners, farmers and gardeners gain the information they need to break into this innovative and sustainable market.

Turnout to the workshop was a testament to the possibilities and enthusiasm for new ideas to boost local economies. The room was overflowing with interested people who came from as far away as Williamson, W.Va. — an hour-and-a-half drive.

Part of the draw was the expert panel that AppalCEED assembled for the workshop, which included three experts on the cultivation of wild and medicinal plants and herbs. Scott Persons, Jeanine Davis and David Grimsley are each highly regarded as “gurus” in their niche field of study, and each gave detailed presentations on their respective areas of expertise. Persons and Davis have co-authored a book together that is held as The authoritative text on growing and marketing the plants.

Another big draw is the fact that wild ginseng, perhaps the best known of Appalachian wild medicinal plants, fetches anywhere from $700 to $1,200 per dried pound. While it’s possible to cultivate ginseng on a commercial scale in large fields, the resulting crop is deemed to be of lower quality than its wild-grown counterparts.

Persons has spent his career developing a technique known as “wild simulated” cultivation, where ginseng plants are deliberately planted in small patches in woodlands. This allows for resources and energy to be concentrated, streamlining the process. He’s also developed techniques that can produce a product identical to that of ginseng that would pop up naturally in the wild.

While Scott’s presentation was exclusively on ginseng, Davis and Grimsley focused their talks on other plants, such as goldenseal, black cohosh and even some medicinal plants native to China. All three presenters stress how cultivating these plants in our woodlots and gardens can help to preserve threatened wild stock from being over harvested.

They also discussed strategies for cultivators to supplement their income through strategic marketing. Grimsley in particular is working to develop co-op-like arrangements among consortiums of growers in Floyd County, Va., to reduce production costs and increase collective selling power.

At the end of the day, we’re still talking about farming, even if it’s on a small scale. And while farming these plants won’t make anyone a millionaire overnight, the extra income can certainly help. Anything helps these days.

The coal bust has created some harsh economic realities here in Central Appalachia. The implications of our reliance on one major industry for a century are finally becoming unmistakably clear. No one industry or sector can or should replace coal as it fades into history. We could do well to take a lesson from Appalachia’s forests: there’s strength and healing in diversity.