Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Critical Conservationist: George Gibson and Patterns of Vernacular Resistance 1

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Critical Conservationist: George Gibson and Patterns of Vernacular Resistance 1

Article excerpt


I believe that continuing to play banjo was my way of holding on to a past that I glimpsed only briefly. That past is part of a world and time in Knott County that has vanished forever (Gibson 2000a:9).

-George Gibson is a banjo player from Knott County which lies in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. In this paper, I interpret a range of Gibson's pursuits to be practices that he effectively employs in order to counter unwelcome outside incursions-be they cultural, academic, or environmental-upon his native region. Gibson undertakes a number of initiatives to conserve Knott County's cultural heritage both tangible and intangible; they include his selective musical activity; targeted historical research; opposition to resource extraction companies operating in the area; and sustainment of material culture. Through his engagement with these activities, Gibson draws on a number of his native region's pre-existing traditions.

George Gibson's selective musical activity consists of several elements, the first of which concerns repertoire. Gibson has been exposed to many different types of music but he chooses to focus on a small body of material and playing styles connected to Knott County. It is a repertoire that has taken him much time and energy to build and consolidate. The way in which he passes on this musical legacy is another important element of his musical activity. He consciously chooses a pedagogic mode that he believes maintains the vitality and integrity of the tradition. A further element is the extensive research that Gibson has carried out into the history of the banjo in the Upland South and the numerous articles produced as a result. These writings, which have featured in a number of print publications as well as on Gibson's own website, often argue against claims about the musical history of eastern Kentucky made by scholars from elsewhere.

Gibson's conservation activities extend beyond music and indicate his concern for Knott County's landscape and environment. His property there includes the house where he was bom. When a gas company put forward a proposal to install a pipeline on his land, he became involved in legal wrangles to prevent them from doing so. Gibson has also undertaken various restoration initiatives that hark back to a time before external onslaughts were so pervasive, such as the replanting of a settler orchard and the preservation of several log buildings.

Thus for George Gibson, musical activity, activist pedagogy, activist scholarship, environmental conservation, and critical nostalgia all function as forms of vernacular resistance. He has formed his own unique, multi-pronged "critical conservation" campaign by combining these elements over a period of decades. 1 should clarify that I deploy the word "critical," as used within "critical conservation," in four senses simultaneously: 1. To describe something as "important". 2. To convey that a concern is "serious". 3. To express temporal urgency i.e. a matter is "critically" time-sensitive. 4. To indicate condemnation.

While examples of critical conservation in practice may be found around the world, the modes employed by Gibson connect to patterns of protest and resistance already established within his native region. In order to offer context therefore, I will briefly consider some instances of these patterns before considering how Gibson's endeavors both draw on and contribute to them.

Critical Conservation and Patterns of Vernacular Resistance

George Gibson nurtures his native folkloric culture, especially its music. Such care is something for which the people of the southern Appalachian mountains have long been known. Their reputation attracted such figures as Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, early fieldworkers who largely focused on songs, ballads, and other oral forms. Scholars since have continued to be fascinated by the area, but have paid increasing attention to the actual people who maintain the various strands of local expressive culture. …

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