Celebrating the History of Appalachia

Appalachian girl and elderly woman in church, 1984. i i

A scene from an Appalachian church, 1984. David Turnley/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption David Turnley/Corbis
Appalachian girl and elderly woman in church, 1984.

A scene from an Appalachian church, 1984.

David Turnley/Corbis

Scroll down to read excerpts from The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson, and Jeff Biggers' book, The United States of Appalachia.

The birthplace of entertainers (Lucille Ball), musicians (Patsy Cline) authors (Cormac McCarthy) and scholars (Henry Louis Gates Jr.), Appalachia offers a rich slice of American history. But it is often steeped in mythic lore and stereotyped as backward, uncultured and poor.

Two new books seek to change these perceptions. The United States of Appalachia, by Jeff Biggers, and The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, co-edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, both try to get past the negative associations and bring the historical and cultural achievements of the region to the foreground.

Biggers and Abramson join Howard Berkes for a discussion of an underappreciated region.

Excerpt: The Encyclopedia of Appalachia

The Encyclopedia of Appalachia co-edited by Rudy Abramson.

An 1800-page list of the terms, people and places of Appalachia. hide caption

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Hillbilly

The hillbilly is the dominant icon of Appalachia. Asked to list images related to Appalachia, those with limited knowledge of the region inevitably cite the hillbilly. Worldwide, the hillbilly image is consistently a lanky, black-bearded, white male who lives in a cabin in the mountains with an outhouse out back. He wears a battered slouch hat, totes a shotgun and a jug of moonshine, and holds little regard for the law, work, cleanliness, or book learning. He has loose morals and is decidedly dangerous. The word hillbilly is believed to have first appeared in print in the United States in 1900 in a New York Journal article describing the "hill-billie" as "a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him." In the 1930s, the icon was solidified through the hillbilly characters of Paul Webb's Mountain Boys cartoons in Esquire magazine, Al Capp's Li'l Abner, and Billy DeBeck's Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. These characters and their cartoon-world antics forever etched the hillbilly caricature into popular culture.

Festivals, Folk

The modern folk festival was born in Appalachia. Although the term folk festival had been used previously for a few cultural display events, it became fully established in the national consciousness when four prominent festivals were created between 1928 and 1934. The first three, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, the American Folk Song Festival held near Ashland, Kentucky, and the White Top Folk Festival in southwest Virginia, all focused on Euro-American, Appalachian culture. Only the last, the National Folk Festival, was not held initially in Appalachia and was not monocultural in content.

Birth Lore

Appalachian lore about the reproductive cycle has been at its core an oral tradition held by women, and its overriding theme is the mortality of mother and child. Birth lore is an expansive category of folk belief and practice related to fertility, conception, abortion, pregnancy, birth, infancy, and the supernatural. Most of these beliefs cannot be tracked to an original source; rather, they are often a mixture of European tradition, Native American practices, and African slave culture. Beliefs vary regionally, reflecting concentrations of Scots-Irish, German, and Dutch settlements, though some themes are recurrent. Kinship within Appalachia is strong and vividly represented by the community of women who come together during the birth of a child. Historically, and even at times in contemporary Appalachia, rural childbirth practices have included not only the presence of a midwife or attending doctor, but also women who tend to household needs before, during, and after the birth of the child. Men can also play important roles in this process, even in some communities in the past filling the role of the midwife, but most birth lore beliefs and practices are passed down through generations in the community of women.

Dried Apple Stack Cake

The dried apple stack cake is a distinctive southern Appalachian cake. Called by names such as apple stack cake, Confederate old-fashioned stack cake, and Kentucky pioneer washday cake, the apple stack cake is many layered, low in fat, and not sweet. It is made with layers of stiff cookielike dough flavored with ginger and sorghum and spread with a sweet, spiced apple filling. When served, the cake is tall, heavy, and moist.

Appalachia

Just as the word Appalachia is generally pronounced Ap-pa-LATCH-a in the southern mountains, but more commonly Ap-pa-LAY-cha in the rest of the country, so too is there some dispute over the origin of the name given to the region. Legend has it that Hernando de Soto or members of his 1539 expedition named the Appalachian Mountains. Surviving accounts of the de Soto expedition, however, offer no evidence that the conquistador or his companions intended to designate the eastern mountain chain for the Apalachee Indians, whom they encountered far to the south in what is now northern Florida. The first European contact with the Apalachee had been made by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's expedition in 1528 in the vicinity of Tampa Bay, Florida. One derivation of the name argues that in the Muscogee language apala means "great sea," and combined with the personal participle chi, apalache means "those by the sea."

Colonial Survivals in Appalachian Speech

Contrary to the popular view that it is Shakespearean in character, Appalachian folk speech is much closer to the language of colonial America. It has preserved a record of colonial speech unequaled in any other American region, largely due to Appalachia's relative physical isolation during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Differing agreement patterns between subject and verb (as in "We went to hunt for the horses which was lost"; "Snails is large and common"; and "Two files was demanded by the Indians"), which were once standard usage in the north of England and in the Scottish Lowlands, were also common in the writings of colonial America. Such constructions appeared in the speech of Appalachian natives well after their disappearance from mainstream American English.

Excerpt: The United States of Appalachia

Book jacket of "The United States of Appalachia," by Jeff Biggers

Author Jeff Biggers brings the history and accomplishments of an often misunderstood region to life in his new book, The United States of Appalachia. hide caption

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Author Jeff Biggers. i i

Author Jeff Biggers. Tony Sears hide caption

itoggle caption Tony Sears
Author Jeff Biggers.

Author Jeff Biggers.

Tony Sears

Appalachia needs no defense—it needs more defenders

Beyond its mythology as a quaint backwater in the American imagination, Appalachia also needs to be embraced for its historic role as a vanguard region in the United States.

Vanguard Appalachia? The very word—vanguard—conjures up a plethora of images, though none in Appalachia. It’s Thomas Jefferson at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia; it’s George Washington plotting his campaign at Yorktown. William Lloyd Garrison, the great New England abolitionist, was in the vanguard of the antislavery movement; his transcendentalist Boston neighbors stood in the forefront of nineteenth-century American literature. The New York Times, in an era of yellow journalism, typified the vanguard press; the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City provided the nation’s music innovators with its hallowed stage. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the front of the civil rights movement, would be its modern political symbol. Expatriate Gertrude Stein might be its literary icon.

These are all reasonable examples, of course. And yet, would you believe me if I said an Appalachian preceded, led or influenced every one of these historic events or gatherings? That years before Jefferson completed the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, a backwoods settlement had already stunned the British Crown with its independence as a "dangerous example for the people of America." That an alliance of Southern Appalachian insurgents orchestrated their own attacks on British-led troops and turned the tide of the American Revolution. That a humble band of mountain preachers and writers published the first abolitionist newspaper in the nation and trained the radical Garrison. That a Cherokee mountaineer invented the first syllabary in modern times. That a back-hills young woman astounded the Boston literary circles in 1861, with the first American short story of working-class realism to be published in the Atlantic Monthly. That a young publisher from Chattanooga actually took over the New York Times and set its course for world acclaim. That the "high priestess of soul" put a spell on an audience at the Village Vanguard in 1959, with her blend of folk, jazz, gospel, country, and Bach-motif riffs she had learned in her Southern Appalachian hamlet. That a self-proclaimed "radical hillbilly" galvanized the shock troops of the civil rights movement and returned an African spiritual and labor song as its anthem. That the first American woman ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was recognized for her family memoirs of West Virginia as much as for her literary contributions to the Far East.

Few regions in the United States confound and fascinate Americans like Appalachia. No other region has been so misrepresented by the mass media. Four paradoxical images have enjoyed incredible staying power: pristine Appalachia, the unspoiled mountains and hills along the Appalachian Trail, notwithstanding centuries of warfare, the wholesale destruction of the virgin forests by the timber industry, and the continual bane of strip mining; backwater Appalachia, home of the "strange land and peculiar people" in thousands of stories, novels, radio and TV programs and films, even though the region has produced some of the most important writers, artists, scientists, and politicians in the country; Anglo-Saxon Appalachia, once defined by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as a mountain region of "white natives," despite its role as a crossroads of indigenous cultures and vast immigrant and African American migrations for centuries; and pitiful Appalachia, the poster region of welfare and privation, the haggard faces greeting Charles Kuralt on CBS News on Christmas 1964, regardless of the tremendous wealth generated by the mountain range’s mineral resources, timber, and labor force in the mines, mills, and factories, and today’s tourist industry.

Untouched wilderness, poor white backward hillbillies.

In his best-selling analysis of the Buffalo Creek mining dam disaster in the 1970s, Everything in Its Path, eminent Yale sociologist Kai Erikson captured these stereotypes in an enduring judgment of Appalachian mountain culture: "It helps breed a social order without philosophy or art or even the rudest form of letters. It brings out whatever capacity for superstition and credulity a people come endowed with, and it encourages an almost reckless individualism."

For most readers, the blood-curdling acts of Appalachian man’s inhumanity to civilized man in the mountains, replete with inbred banjo pickers, violent feuds, moonshine, sexual deviltry, and miasmic gorges, have been put to rest. We are savvy enough to refrain from uttering "hillbilly" in mixed company. Li'l Abner, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, Hee Haw, and The Andy Griffith Show are out; best-selling authors Barbara Kingsolver, Charles Frazier, Homer Hickam, and Robert Morgan are in. Sure, bizarre and offensive portrayals of Appalachians occasionally take place—during the research and writing of this book, CBS talent scouts combed the Southern mountains for corncob-piped rubes to participate in a proposed reality-TV show based on The Beverly Hillbillies; Abercrombie & Fitch dressed their manikins with a "West Virginia, It’s All Relative" T-shirt; and a horror film, Wrong Turn, featured a promo about "six young people who find themselves being hunted by inbred cannibals in the woods of West Virginia" — but we’ve come a long way from the time of literary critic H. L. Mencken, who openly discussed reducing the birthrate of "inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia."

Still, the region’s fame or infamy has forced writers and critics to dwell on what has been done to Appalachia, rather than what Appalachia has contributed to the world. For every Deliverance and its sodomites, we are quick to recall The Waltons in our collective memory, or more recently, the best-selling novel and Oscar-nominated Cold Mountain film. Or, in more tragic terms, for every Private Lynndie England, the defamed cigarette-lipped scapegoat of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, who hails from Fort Ashby, West Virginia, there is a heroic Private Jessica Lynch, from Palestine, West Virginia, molded into the image of Sergeant Alvin York, the Tennessee mountaineer and America's most famous soldier.

Appalachia, as author Wallace Stegner once remarked about the American Southwest, has been more a process than a place. Some critics would even say it has become an invention of its own. Sociologist Allen Batteau once voiced a common feeling that "Appalachia is a creature of the urban imagination." Since the first Spanish conquistador was informed of its existence in 1528 by distant tribes in Florida, Appalachia has certainly bewildered its explorers and inhabitants with its boundaries, its mystical forests, and its meaning.

But Appalachia does exist, both as a range and as a region. Beyond any singular culture, however, any "real Appalachia," the region has also endowed the nation with an enduring and conflicting treasury of innovations and innovators. That treasury, though, is rarely viewed beyond the surface or a few honorable exemplars — high lonesome singers and banjo players, black-faced coal miners, wizened front-porch storytellers — trotted out every so often to represent the entire region. Appalachian author Jim Wayne Miller once recounted an old tale about flat-boaters who traversed the Tennessee River at night, passing house after house with a "great fire burning, people dancing, always to the same fiddle tune." The boatmen didn’t realize they were caught in the "Boiling Pot" eddy, going in circles around the same house and its unchanging scene, unaware of the region’s greater wonders hidden in the forests like ginseng.

This is Appalachia’s best-kept secret: Far from being a "strange land with peculiar people," the mountains and hills have been a stage for some of the most quintessential and daring American experiences of innovation, rebellion, and social change.

This book is an attempt to get off that flatboat and enter another part of Appalachia, or, in fact, we should say Southern Appalachia, that mountain spine and its valley tributaries that trundle along the eastern and Southern states from northern Alabama to southwestern Pennsylvania. (The Appalachian Regional Commission actually defines Appalachia from southern New York to northern Mississippi.) It is not a definitive history of the region; instead, it is a portrait of a hidden Appalachia on the cutting edge, full of revolutionaries and pioneering stalwarts, abolitionists, laborers, journalists, writers, activists, and artists overlooked among the lineup of conventional Appalachian suspects.

Putting aside the banjos and pot-lickers, casting aside both the wearisome slurs and sentimental postcards, and taking a break from recounting the evil deeds done unto mountaineers, this book seeks to show how a remarkable procession of Appalachian-born innovators have gone from these hills, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, to find and shape the great America of our discovery.

Excerpted from The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America by Jeff Biggers. Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Biggers. Reprinted by permission of Shoemaker & Hoard, Publishers, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc.

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How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, And Enlightenment to America

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