Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The St. James Sessions

The good folks at Knoxville indie label Lynn Point Records have done a great thing. They have archived on the internet the St. James recording sessions. The Brunswick Company recorded the St. James sessions in downtown Knoxville just before, and right at the beginning of the Great Depression (coincidentally, what is now the Brunswick Boat Company now calls Downtown Knoxville its corporate home). At the time many early record companies would have to go to the music. They would set up shop in a city for several weeks, and many of the musicians in the area would travel to town to lay down their songs. These roving music producers are the same people that discovered and brought American listeners country music, with pioneering acts like the Carter Family.

What Lynn Point has archived is a treasure of early recorded American music. The songs are a product of the slow and generational evolution of musical influences that occurred before worldwide distribution of records. Recorded music was a new phenomenon when these recordings were made, so this is very much the music of the region. I think you may be surprised by some of what you hear.

Listen to the songs, and watch the feature on the St. James sessions from The Heartland Series. Also make sure you read Jack Neely’s excellent, excellent, excellent article from 2005 entitled, “The Moan.”



Apple Peeler by Arthur Rothstein,
Farm Security Administration

One of my favorite childhood memories took place during a long night standing around the apple butter churn. “Apple Butter,” what a great sounding name to make my mouth water. I still try to enjoy my grandmother’s canned apple butter from years ago that was once stacked on the shelves of the family cellar. Now, that fall is coming I have longingly thought about apples and what I might be able to pull together. What about apple pie, apple bobbing at Halloween, apple sauce, apple festivals, apple juice, Johnny Apple Seed, and so on? God, I love Apples.
My family had four types of apple trees on our land along with two pear trees, a couple of cherry trees, grape vines, and blackberry bushes. Fall always meant that I could walk out of the house and climb into one of these trees and eat for hours. We did not use pesticides and so there was a race between us and the rest of nature to enjoy such glorious things produced right outside my home. I must say that if I had my choice to sit down and either enjoy a fancy Italian meal on the streets of Florence or a country biscuit with a spoonful of apple butter oozing from the middle I would definitely pull up my chair on a brisk morning in the mountains with the biscuit. There is something beautiful about a mountain breakfast. My grandmother and I used to share tomato slices on toast, that’s good eatin. But the fall apple butter was the moment we waited for. The process of making apple butter is this: There is no right recipe. So many variations exist but the process is usually the same. The key ingredients to making apple butter are patience and work. The apple are sliced and placed into a very large open fire pot, or caldron with the specific ingredients selected. There should be a good constant first burning under this caldron the full time of cooking. In order to break down the slices into a type of mush the caldron must keep cooking over night. In most cases making apple butter meant some kind of festival in order to have teams of people stand around the fire all night with an apple butter churner in hand. Do not stop churning the apple butter because you do not want to have this goodness baking on the side of the caldron. The best tasting apple butter comes after years of cooking this pot over an open fire. The black soot that bakes on the outside of the caldron forms a type of insulation. This is why you do not want to clean the outside when you are done. Also to store the caldron you should wipe olive oil on the inside and then leave it upside down until the next year.
So, back to my first paragraph and why this one night became an important part in my life. My grandfather died of Black Lung when I was 4 years old so I really only have two personal memories of the man. Clarence Crabtree worked in the Gypsum Mine in Saltville VA for most of his adult life and formed a case of Black Lung. During this late fall night I guess my parents let me stay up with the crowd of people at the house to help stir the butter. I remember when the truck arrived with freshly picked apples from Chilhowie, VA and as they unloaded the trucks my grandfather came over to me and handed me an apple. He then sat me down on one of the bushels that rested on the truck and carried me riding this apple cart over to the tables where my relatives stood around slicing the apples. I remember his knife my grandfather pulled out to start slicing the apples open. I have kept that knife since he passed away. I remember spending the whole night with my grandfather, learning how and what he was doing to prepare for the cooking. The essence of apple butter is a symbol of a community coming together to create something beautiful and nourishing, it is the spice that makes the paste good. It is a symbol of my family’s closeness and what happens when we work together as one. It is simply a symbol of love, the kind of love people from that Appalachian mountains know by heart, the thing that pumps through their veins.

Great Links

The Secrets of Apple Butter

VA Apple Growers Association

VA Apple Festivals

Check out the Cookbook Listed here:
Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine:
The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking

Above Photo Link

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Dancing Outlaw

Well, this weekend I finally got to see the famous, or should I say infamous, documentary on Jesco, The Dancing Outlaw. More than any other documentary, this piece on one family in Boone County, West Virginia, has defined Appalachia as a place to the outside world – indeed, with the exception of cartoon portrayals of Appalachians (e.g. The Flintstones) and the film version of Deliverance, this film is arguably the most important work defining how Americans from other regions view Appalachia.

I won’t comment on Jesco at any length. I believe his story, and that of his family is tragic – that they maintain their humor at all, much less an ancient form of dance that has survived, while evolving, a long hiatus from the British Isles, is frankly amazing.

That said, I want to discuss how the film left me feeling a little sick, literally. The filmmaker, at least it seems, intentionally edited his work in such a form as to belittle Jesco and his family, making light of the fact that they are undereducated, part of a cycle of violence, and that Jesco obviously has some variant form of mental illness, probably the result of losing hope given his personal desperation. In other words, the goal of this “documentary” was to publicly embarrass and insult its subjects, not enlighten the world as to the nature of their condition. Humor was not a side note, but the intent of the film. If he had edited a documentary on the ghettos of New Orleans, New York, Boston, or Los Angeles in such a way, public outrage would be astounding – and rightly so. Don’t agree? Imagine a “documentary” in which the intent was to make you laugh at poor, uneducated blacks from New Orleans, with particular emphasis on the one member of the family who could perform an artistic act but was obviously either under grave duress, hopeless, or mentally ill. Now add in the fact that this family was obviously being torn asunder by the anguish of having lost several members very recently, all of them either to murder or automobile accidents.

Yeah, that’d be hilarious.

Now, I want to pause here and note that many of the people who enjoy the film enjoy it by mere virtue of the air of nobility that manages to squeak through the film's editing. Despite all you like Jesco and his family, because they are, in the end, good, decent folks. You like them because they are trying to take advantage of their moment in the sun, like any human being would; they're drawing some pride from being able to tell their stories. And, frankly, you admire them because they draw happiness from the minimum qualities of life - woods, air, food, drink, music, family, and so on - very Taoist.

To say I have mixed feelings is, well, an understatement.

You know what, though? I think everyone should see this film. I do. I think everyone should see these films to see the outcome of the colonial economy that still dominates the coalfields (and, even worse, their wake, once the coal has been mined out). I think everyone should see why our governments damned well have to overhaul the public education systems in impoverished areas, Appalachian and otherwise. And, frankly, I think that everyone, and most especially artists and artistians, should see just how foul a human being can be – and by that I mean the filmmaker responsible for this grotesquery – as a model of what not to do. This film is the kind of documentary published by imperial nations in the early 20th Century, justifying their continued dominance over children-peoples – it is, in other words, propaganda that justifies exactly the kind of economic oppression which continues in Appalachia, and that is exactly what it deserves to be called. And, frankly, the film is a demonstration of the potential for human beings to endure enormous angst and come out smiling. Sort of. I know in this blog's by-line it explicitly states that we're trying to get over Rousseau's sylvan myths - but damned if Appalachia's endemic fatalism doesn't share a helluva' a lot with Taoism and philsophical Buddhism. Crazy.

All that said, I hope someday I get to see Jesco dance. Because damn, that man can step.

Also see:

The Documentary Channel's biography of Jesco White and review of the movie.

The homepage of Jescofest, which benefits the great Mr. White (we just missed it, I fear - it was this past weekend).

The Austin Chronicle's interview with Jacob Young, the filmmaker who launched Jesco to fame.

A Charleston Daily Mail article on Jesco and Jescofest.

An interview with Hank Williams, III on Midwest Excess in which Jesco was discussed at length.

God Bless Jessie White.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

See Beautiful Bland County, Virginia

Greater Bland. That's the name I use when I think of Bland County, Virginia, that tennis racquet-shaped swath of land that lies between Bluefield to the North and Wytheville to the south. Most people experience Bland as little more than a swath of green (alternatively, in the fall a swath of red, or of white-brown-gray in the winter) as the drive madly north or south along Interstate 77, slowing only in "flatlander" fashion as their cars enter East River or Big Walker Mountain tunnels.

If you judge a place only by the number of restaurants, theaters, or shopping establishments available, well, yeah, you've probably seen all you need to see. Bland County is an incredibly rural place, the vast majority of its territory composed of National Forest and farmland, with only a tiny proportion dedicated to its very small, unincorporated settlements (Rocky Gap, Bastian, Grapefield, Bland, and Mechanicsville). On the other hand, if you're looking for the kind of artistry that only the Deity or callused men can make, well, you'll like this place.

I won't go on and on about Jefferson National Forest. The National Forestry Service will give you infinitely superior data than I will. But I will tell you that the woods of Bland are virtually Tolkein-esque - the amount of biological diversity incredible. Don't believe me? Well, to get a sense of just how rural Greater Bland is, consider that it was one of the last two counties in Virginia to play host to packs of gray wolf (into the Twentieth Century, in fact) - a fact immortalized in by the county's primary body of water - Wolf Creek. Why come to Bland County? To camp, to hike, to think, and if you can afford the gas money, to drive (some of my favorite memories in life are of my midnight drives from Bluefield to my cabin between Grapefield and Bastian in my little blue 1994 Ford Ranger under full moons, my headlights only just cutting through the valley fogs and the blue-green-purple shadows).

When you come to Bland, I suggest starting your trip either at Big Walker Mountain Lookout or on top of East River Mountain (pull over at one of the overlooks after crossing the West Virginia/Virginia border). Look down into Bland and you'll see the pattern of things here - the long mountains that run southwest to northeast (and their parallel valleys), the huddled settlements, and the relatively few gray roads that cut the wild. Then, taking your time, roll down into the county. I suggest getting a map and being prepared to backtrack (you'll see infinitely more that way) almost as much as I suggest avoiding the interstate - they're for getting you there quickly, not philosophically. Cut up the Laurel Fork, for instance, or head north towards Pearisburg and Narrows, to see just how powerful Bland's little creek really is, slicing rock for millenia along its course to the grand old New River. If its fall and its Friday, and you don't already have an appointment, you might want to park and watch the Bland County Bears, a high school football team made up of two different high schools (neither had high enough populations to field teams alone), Bland County and Rocky Gap. There are a couple little shops in the county seat of Bland, but the main reason I stop there is hit up the ol' IGA for picnic or barbeque supplies - the people are damned nice and the size and shape of the place reminds me of the Food King in Animal House. Ah. Food King. And of course you can't miss the Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum.

I can't recommend Bland enough for folks looking for a relaxing day, weekend, or even week - that is to say if your interest genuinely is relaxation. The restaurant scene is a little underdeveloped, sure, but if you need to eat out you can be in Wytheville (ah, Skeeter's) or Bluefield (ah, Macado's), or Tazewell (ah, Cuz's) in short order. I have never spent the night in a hotel in Bland County before, but I have stayed in virtually every hotel in Bluefield, just outside of Bland, and can say that they meet the general requirements - clean rooms, cable, warm water, decent service, and prices that don't make you sweat. Don't miss the summer, and please, for the love of God, don't miss the fall - seriously, its like Whistler painted with Hopper's palette.

Not satisfied? Of course you aren't. Because you're headed to Bland and you want to know the game before you play the game. Well, thank the Deity for the internet - I think I can help.

The Government of Bland County

The Bland County Messenger

Bland County Historical Archives

Bland County Public Schools

University of Virginia - Wise's Southwest Virginia Graduate Medical Education Consortium's Review of Bland County Medical Conditions

The Bland County Library

And remember ladies and gentlemen, Bland's county seat is the first in Southwest Virginia to have free wireless internet service through the entire town. No need to give up your techishness for trees. Unless you want to.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Appalachian Stereotypes in Art (Part 2)

We have seen that the hillbilly stereotypes that are stuck on Appalachia are used effectively in visual art, in spite of the problems inherent in many of these ideas. The folks at Yee-Haw industries have shown that while these stereotypes can be harmful, embracing them leads to an art form that is not only pleasing, but presents an aspect of Appalachian life that is in its own way accurate.

Visual artists are not the only ones that pursue the white trash aesthetic. Many musicians also use these ideas to create a musical style that attracts legions of fans. We will take a look at one band in particular that for over twenty years has been amplifying Appalachian stereotypes with some very fun results.

Southern Culture on the Skids is seemingly constantly touring and bringing their raucous shows to venues around the country. Their shows are loud, exciting and very much in tune with the often-swept-under-the-rug side of Appalachia. Much like Yee-Haw, SCOTS uses these stereotypes to its advantage, and with good effect. They have made a career out of raising hell with their fans and singing the praises of the lives of rowdy rednecks and flossy floozies.

Before considering the music, one must first look at their name: Southern Culture on the Skids. The name perfectly attracts the music fan in search of good old fashioned blue collar fun. “Southern,” the first word in the band’s name proudly announces its roots, while the last four, “Culture on the Skids,” unashamedly proclaims their musical intention: to embrace the proud rabble-rousing tradition that is so easily identified with southern Appalachia.

On its own, this is a musical attraction fairly familiar to American listeners. The Country Top-40 chart is littered with acts that serve as proclamations of the redneck lifestyle to the masses. Acts like Shooter Jennings, Hank Williams, Jr., and Kenny Chesney all sing the song of the redneck. These should not be ignored in a complete analysis of Appalachian stereotypes in culture. For one thing, their success is unimpeachable. But bands like Southern Culture on the Skids present a more targeted approach to these images. Whereas Toby Keith asks listeners (quite lamely, I would submit) to “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” SCOTS sings about the ecstasy of a “Dirt Track Date.” Anyone can get drunk and foolish, but Appalachians per se may better identify with an evening out watching local drivers skid across their favorite bullring. Moreover, many people the world over from time-to-time step out on the weekend and engage in various acts of debauchery as a form of release. Fair or not, this is often perceived as more of a lifestyle in southern Appalachia, than the occasional vice. (It should be noted that dirt track racing is not at all an exclusively Appalachian attraction; its popularity is nation-wide. Still, the sport is certainly enthusiastically embraced in the region.)

Southern Culture on the Skids play an upbeat hybrid of California surf music, country and southern rock. Their sound is akin Athens, Georgia’s The B-52’s, but more edgy. SCOTS is a trio, though from time-to-time they feature other players. One thing that concert-goers will notice is that this band is good. Like their music or not, no one can deny that Southern Culture on the Skids is a tight band with fun rhythms, blistering leads and strong vocal work. Rick Miller (guitar, vocals), Mary Huff (bass, vocals) and Dave Hartman (percussion) put on loud, rowdy and very interactive shows. Audience participation is a hallmark of every SCOTS concert. They are known for throwing out fried chicken into the audience while playing standards like “Eight Piece Box,” and “Liquored Up and Lacquered Down.” A few years back, at a mountain festival where fried chicken was scarce, the band improvised with a substitute, naturally: white bread. At some point during the performance the girls in the audience are invited to come up onto the stage and dance with the band.

At a recent Knoxville show at the Bijou Theatre, probably 30 girls joined the band onstage to writhe, shake and conga to a string of songs about seedy motels, sex, big hair and, of course, fried chicken. The remainder of the crowd was content to dance in the aisles, tossing about chunks of greasy poultry. It was glorious fun.

While SCOTS enthusiastically explores this subject matter in its music, it should be noted that their songs are decent. For the most part, SCOTS songs are void of nastiness. It’s more outrageous humor than vulgarity.

It is interesting to compare the Southern Culture on the Skids subject matter to the band’s listeners. It would be easy to estimate that SCOTS attracts the very characters about which they so boldly sing, and they probably do to some extent. One thing, though, is certain: The SCOTS audience is diverse. Personally, I have been to Southern Culture on the Skids concerts alongside people from a variety of different backgrounds. One is likely to find professionals, academics, students, artists and an infinite number of other types at a SCOTS show. Further evidence of their broad appeal is the fact that Southern Culture on the Skids has a song featured on the soundtrack to the mainstream teen blockbuster, I Know What You Did Last Summer.


So what do artists like the folks at Yee-Haw, and Southern Culture on the Skids contribute to Appalachian culture? For one thing, their success cannot be denied. Bands simply do not stay together for twenty years unless they are making a living, and Yee-Haw Industries is garnering praise from all over the world. So if these artists are enjoying success, then it stands to reason that their audiences are enjoying the consumption of their creations. I certainly am. But as Appalachia tries to emerge from the deceptive light of stereotype in order to effectively compete in a global marketplace, does it serve us to highlight these very images?

I believe that it does. If a culture cannot look inward for inspiration, where can it look? If we were to look elsewhere for inspiration, we would be effectively handing over our identity. We are Appalachians. We have a long and storied history of struggling with many different issues that include, among others, education, poverty, substance abuse, and isolation. During the course of these struggles many glorious and admirable qualities have emerged that, along with the less desirable ones, make us who we are. We ought not to run from that history. Every culture has its less desirable traits. It is to recognize these and what they contribute to our identity that makes us truly progressive.

**note: Some pictures featured in this piece were taken in 2004 at a festival in Del Rio, Tenn. Their quality is not the greatest. That’s just what happens in a 30 ° F mountain-top field at midnight with a disposable camera.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Moving the Mountains

Roanoke Times reporter Tim Thornton has a series about what is happening in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia called Moving the Mountains. Below is the most recent feature in the series, the rest can be found here.

Women make some noise about mining blasts
Two residents of a coal mining town are fighting for an ordinance that would limit explosions.

STEPHENS, VA -- The coal mine is quiet now. It has been since the company that ran it went bankrupt in May. But Kathy Selvage and Charlene Greene are pretty sure some other company will come along and pick up where that one left off.

They're convinced it's just a matter of time before another crew comes in to set off explosives and bring the beep and roar of heavy machinery back to their houses from early morning to early morning.

"If you opened the windows," Selvage recalled, "in rushed the noise and the dust."

So Selvage, 56, and Greene, 64, are trying to get the Wise County Board of Supervisors to pass a noise ordinance. Their proposal has been embraced as a new front in the struggle over mountaintop removal mining and other large strip mine operations in Southwest Virginia.

The ordinance wouldn't apply only to the mine that looms over Stephens, but it would certainly affect it. The old operation was supposed to run 20 hours a day, though Selvage and Greene say it routinely went longer. They want to limit mining in residential areas to 15 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the week. On Sundays, the noise couldn't start until 10 a.m.

The ordinance would apply to other noisy things, too: stereos, leaf blowers, power tools. But it's the mining that's drawn attention.

"This is an issue that could be -- and has been in times past -- kind of volatile," Board of Supervisors Chairman Fred Luntsford said wryly. "I think everybody deserves to have a peaceful atmosphere around them. But we all know Wise County is a coal-producing county, and with that comes this type of thing.

"Those points will be argued seven ways to Sunday."

If the argument ever gets started.

Greene and Selvage took a draft ordinance to a board work session on the first Thursday in July and left believing their proposal would be on the agenda at the supervisors' regular meeting the next week. It wasn't.

"Frankly, there wasn't a lot of support among the supervisors to have it on the agenda," Luntsford said.

But he persuaded the board to put the issue on August's agenda, Luntsford said in July. Luntsford wasn't talking about discussing the ordinance. He's proposing having a discussion about whether the board should schedule a public hearing so there can be a discussion about the ordinance.

And even that may not happen. After some county officials said they didn't want to talk about a noise ordinance until they'd seen an enforceable county ordinance -- Selvage and Greene modeled their proposal after a town ordinance -- Selvage and Greene brought the supervisors a copy of Pulaski County's noise ordinance.

The supervisors liked that ordinance, but Selvage said Aug. 1 that Pulaski County's ordinance wouldn't accomplish what she and Greene want. In Pulaski, the big issue was a racetrack, Selvage said. That's entirely different from mining, she said. Some of the activists who are trying to end mountaintop removal mining have taken notice of Greene and Selvage's efforts, but the pair aren't professional campaigners. Far from it.

"We were just two housewives, is what we were," Greene said, sitting on Selvage's front porch. "We weren't interested in things like this -- were we, Kathy? -- until it was put right here in front of us."

"We started at ground level," Selvage agreed. "We didn't know anything."

Selvage's first complaint about the mine came late last summer, after a particularly violent explosion. She was accustomed to the blasts used to break up the layers of rock that cover coal seams, but this one was different.

"I actually thought for a few seconds there it was an earthquake," Selvage said.

She suspected that Glamorgan, the company running the mine, was using a bigger charge than the law allows. Selvage has lodged many complaints since then, she said. State mining regulators bring out equipment to measure the blasts. Only two or three times have the explosions been officially over the line, she said.

There's been no blasting since Glamorgan's parent company went bankrupt, and now the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy may revoke the company's permits at Stephens and three other sites because of apparent misstatements in company filings with the agency.

Greene began her campaign six or eight months before she teamed up with Selvage. Mining laws are just too lax, she said. Mining activity, including blasting, is allowed 300 feet from houses. Last year, a rock the size of a hard hat plunged into one house in Stephens.

Greene and Selvage say the bankrupt company had permits to mine 500 acres underneath Stephens, and that worries them more. "We don't want to go the way of Pardee," Selvage said. "Pardee doesn't have an inhabitant."

Named for the president of a coal company, Pardee was a Wise County coal camp. The only place you can see it these days is in "Coal Miner's Daughter." Pardee provided street scenes and a company store for the Loretta Lynn film biography.

"Right after they finished filming, they tore down the commissary," said Brian McKnight, a former teaching fellow at the University of Virginia's College at Wise.

The whole community is a mine site now.

Bill McCabe, a Sierra Club organizer, has helped Greene and Selvage in their campaign. Greene and Selvage have helped an anti-mountaintop-removal group that appeared in the coalfields last year, Mountain Justice Summer, make contacts in their community.

"I don't know if what we're looking at is mountaintop removal because they didn't just remove the top," Selvage said as she looked toward the silent mine. "They took the whole thing."

This pair of coalfield housewives is promoting renewable energy.

"I think Charlene and I would have been tickled to death to see windmills on top of that mountain instead of taking the whole thing down," Selvage said.

But for now, they'll concentrate on noise, asserting that residents' right to a few hours of quiet is worth as much as a company's right to dig coal.

"We would hope that other people in other parts of Virginia would come to understand what is happening to us," Selvage said.

Maybe if the blasting were going on 300 feet from the state Capitol, legislators would notice, she said. Maybe if a coal company executive had to live in a house at the edge of a mine for a month, something would change.

"I will spend whatever time I have on this earth," Greene said, "trying to bring regular people on the same level as coal."

Friday, August 04, 2006

Old Fiddler's Convention

Starting Monday, August 7, the Granddaddy of music festivals kicks off in Galax, Virginia. I type, of course, about the 71st Annual Old Fiddler’s Convention. During the next week, over 40,000 people will hear the sounds of strings being plucked and pulled in harmonic and steady rhythms.

The convention is held at Felts Park, which its grounds are normally covered with Dixie League baseball players and sandlot football teams but during this week it becomes one giant party. Gate won’t open for campers to lay claim to their 10x10 plot until Sunday morning but the line for entry started earlier this week. By this time Sunday, a sea of pop-up campers, tents, motor coaches and tarps will cover virtually all grass patches in the park except for walking paths. The Galax version of Fredrick Law Olmstead has arranged the camping sites in blocks so that it’s easy to get from one site to another but it can be tricky to find your way back. Especially if you find a friend with a mason jar on the other side of tent city from your plot.

The Fiddler’s Convention was started in 1935 with a goal of “keeping alive the memories and sentiments of days gone by and make it possible for people of today to hear and enjoy the tunes of yesterday". Several hundred people compete in Old Time Bands, Bluegrass and flat-footing contest with the lure of cash prizes and pride. As for me and most of the other attendees, the attraction to the convention is walking around, listening to the hundreds of “jam sessions” taking place in the tent city. You’ll hear every type of music being played, from Bill Monroe to Ben Harper. You’ll see impromptu square dances. You’ll find good eats and friendly folks that won’t let you leave their “home” until you’re nourish and watered (Someone gave me some damn good ‘gator meat the last time I was there). You might see a celebrity or two in the mix. David Grisman is known to attend and jam with the locals. You’ll watch people from all walks of life share stories only because their love of music and its history brings them together

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Appalachian Quilts and Textiles

A Mid-Nineteenth Century Quilt
(Western Carolina University's Mountain Heritage Center)

A couple of years ago, as I was walking back to my car after class one afternoon, I passed the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum – one of those venues that seems to be evenly divided between anthropological and natural history exhibits. Regardless, hanging outside of the museum was a banner which informed me that there was an exhibit on Appalachian textiles.

I was intrigued.

Let me pause for a second. My Momma’ loved quilts and handmade blankets – loved ‘m. Every time I walk past a homemade quilt, well, I think of her and debate internally, as if she was still alive, whether or not she would like it, and often, if its for sale, whether or not I have enough money to buy it. Then it all hits me again and, honestly, Momma’ dies a little death again. Makes festivals tough, honestly – maybe it’s strange, but it’s true.

So now you know why a guy, then in his late twenties, decided to delay his weekend to look at quilts.

The point to this backstory is simply this - it was my encounter with the McClung Museum's exhibit that made me start think of the process of quilt-making, weaving, and other forms of textile creation as an artform, rather than simply as a craft. The exhibit discussed the influence these arts had on modern fine artists (not so much cubism as much as the more geometric, fully abstract arts). And when I considered this point, I was convinced. Sure, some weavers or quilters aim solely at mass production or pragmatism, but a substantial number were deeply creative, concentrating on the composition and design process not only as a practical consideration but further as a genuine expression of artistic sensibilities (Vaughn, I am curious to hear your reaction to this).

Let me further add that I am entirely aware that the quilt is not solely and Appalachian art-form, or even solely American. But, like so many fine arts and crafts, quilting has largely become a geographically isolated activity, found in rural regions that are largely unconnected – like isolated patches of forest - as megalopolii expand and overtake previously agricultural and frontier areas. Appalachia, as a region, is probably the largest unbroken small-population region left east of the Mississippi, which means that the quilt, um, connoisseur, can immerse him- or herself more deeply here than anywhere else.

That said, I am the first to admit that I am no quilt expert. The only sewing I can do is cross-stitching (the product of Mom trying to occupy little hands when I was a kid) and emergency ‘trail’ sewing of the kind that every Boy Scout is obliged to learn the first time a storm is coming and a pole went astray. The internet, however, being a bountiful place, more than makes up for that weakness.

Consider, for instance, the Clinch-Holston “Quilt Trails” - which, from what I can tell, are a set of roads along which home and business owners in Grangier, Hawkins, Hancock, and Claiborne Counties (Tennessee) display quilts of different designs as architectural elements. Could make a heck of a Sunday drive – at least if gasoline doesn’t reach $5.00 a gallon. Next week. Regardless, the Watauga region of northeast Tennessee has a similar Quilt Trail – so, um, do that one to. On another Sunday.

All I am going to say is – and get ready for this – Cosmic Possum.

So you’re looking for more “academic” sites? Well, there is always Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center, where you can find the Southern Appalachian Quilt Exhibit. The Digital Heritage Network provides this article (also on coverlets), and this article on East Tennessee State University’s Reese Museum website on Bets Ramsey, who’s work is absolutely beautiful. Morehead State University’s Center for Virtual Appalachia has an on-line Quilt Collection that warrants a take-a-gander as well – this one is particularly awesome because of the fact that it allows you to compare the personal styles of particular quilt-artisans. Also worth a look-see are the quilts featured at the Appalachian College Association’s Digital Library of Appalachia and the length and breadth of Harrisonburg’s Virginia Quilt Museum.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"Authentic, Grassroots Americans"

While perusing the multimedia of Nat'l Geographic's "Mining the Summits" article, I came across this reflection from the author, John G. Mitchell:

The best treasure I came away with is my memory of the collective courage of the people I was privileged to meet in the little hollows and hamlets of southern West Virginia.

I emphasize the word "courage" because you need a lot of it to speak your mind in a state so openly enthralled—economically, politically, and socially—to the industrial giant known throughout much of Appalachia as King Coal.

Outside of Appalachia, in the city-slick precincts of Hollywood and Manhattan, there has long been forged a smug stereotypical view of these mountain-and-hollow folks as crackers and hillbillies.

Call them what you will.

I call them authentic, grassroots Americans, and they may well be the best and bravest, long-suffering, authentic Americans in the U.S.A.

I salute them. And I salute my friend and colleague, photographer Melissa Farlow, not only for introducing me to many of these brave West Virginians but also for turning the key that opened our door on this story in the first place.