Appalachian Blues

By Pearson, Barry Lee | Black Music Research Journal, Spring-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Appalachian Blues

Pearson, Barry Lee, Black Music Research Journal

By sheer coincidence, the U.S. Congress declared July 2002 to July 2003 "The Year of Appalachia" while, concurrently, the Senate designated 2003 "The Year of the Blues." Whatever the value of such congressional endorsements, the conjunction of these two separate actions provides

an opportune historical moment to consider the blues tradition in Appalachia. Appalachian blues, whether an oxymoron or a valid though undervalued blues substyle, has received little scholarly attention. Despite the history of Appalachian studies and the dynamics of contemporary blues research, the region and the genre have not been paired. Possibly, this is because the terms themselves pose a number of challenges.

In the American imagination, Appalachia consists of a rugged, yet beautiful mountain chain inhabited by a relatively homogenous, marginalized population, poor in material wealth but rich in traditional culture, especially "authentic" forms of music. From this romantic perspective, Appalachia may be reduced to a half-dozen states: North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, with Bristol--a city that sits astride the Tennessee/Virginia border--as cultural center. On the other extreme, a more bureaucratic approach lists designated Appalachian counties in a full thirteen states: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Approaching the region from a blues point of view, I find the former too limited and the latter too broad. Attempting to envision a blues region, I would limit the region to counties in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, excluding Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York--not so much because there are no blues players in those states, but because they lack a recognizable, long-standing blues tradition.

I would also leave out Mississippi for a different reason. The prominence of Mississippi as the home of the blues is largely based on the dominant blues culture in the Delta and the adjoining hill country running down to Jackson. I would argue that artists born in designated Appalachian counties, such as Big Joe Williams, Booker White, or Howling Wolf, work largely within the Delta-based tradition and, for that matter, moved to and lived and worked in the Delta.

But even pared down to eight states, the region remains problematic because of its size and cultural diversity. Since it ranges from urban centers, such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the small towns and farmsteads of Virginia to the coalfields of Kentucky and West Virginia, Appalachia embraces a musical kaleidoscope rather than a single common thread.

We also have to deal with the term blues, which designates an African-American song form that is both folk and popular culture and that came to the stage in 1902, to sheet music in 1912, and to phonograph recordings in 1920. Moreover, blues meant different things to different performers at different times in different venues. For a definition, I take my cue from the 260 blues artists that I have interviewed over the years. Although they do not all agree nor should be expected to, the majority offer a relatively consistent set of definitions that focus more on what blues does than on its formal characteristics. For this project, I look to what several Appalachian artists have to say about blues.

Their take on blues tends to downplay the stress on hard times and oppression that features so heavily in definitions put forward by Delta artists. For example, Alabama-born Wilbur "Big Chief" Ellis (1977) said, "Blues makes you happy sometimes, makes you sad sometimes 'cause it's a living thing." Virginian Archie Edwards (1986) offered a similar observation: "So, it's just the mood you're in. When you're moody, you sing a moody song; you're happy, you sing a happy song.

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