Appalachia: Geographies, Historical Narratives, and Bluegrass
The name of the genre bluegrass comes from one of the very first bands to play this style of music, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Many people attribute the invention of the genre to them without recognizing the rich history of bluegrass. Bluegrass came out of Appalachia, which led me to wonder what influenced the music in Appalachia. I started with the idea that mountains significantly impact cultural development. Billings and Lewis shed light on the living situation in rural Appalachia. They speak on the idea of Appalachia as a “third world” within America and dispute the claim that geographical features, such as mountains, are the cause of this isolation. Instead, Billings and Lewis say social norms and legislative action are the primary cause of Appalachian isolation. Therefore, we should question why mountains, particularly those in Appalachia, are viewed as alien.
Jenny Pickerill offers an insight by defining difference through power dynamics. Through her argument, we can begin to understand the bigger picture and ask: Who is in power? What assumptions are they making? Why are they making such assumptions? In his piece, Africa, Appalachia, and Acculturation: The History of Bluegrass Music, Charles Perryman clarifies that bluegrass is geographically diverse, pulling influence from multiple continents, the one often forgotten being Africa. This note emphasizes that Black history has been purposefully forgotten. This loss undoubtedly fed the motivations behind the significant piece of legislation, the Appalachian Regional Development Act. In this paper, I will analyze the connections between these sources that write a new story about the history of bluegrass. Bluegrass music, and cultural development as a whole in Appalachia, was a result of power struggles and systemic oppression in American history, not a byproduct of “backwardness.”
According to Charles Perryman, bluegrass is a popular music genre originating in rural Appalachia in the 11940’s characterized by fast tempos, a “high lonesome sound,” and acoustic instruments, especially the banjo (8). These observations are true, but much about bluegrass is often forgotten or neglected. A significant example of this is the Black history of bluegrass music. Many people attribute the invention of the genre to Bill Monroe, a southern white man from Kentucky. However, Monroe is quoted himself saying that his style of music was heavily influenced by a Black musician named Arnold Schultz. Bluegrass also pulls influences from the Blues and has a “Black inspired rhythmic drive;” the banjo, one of bluegrass’s most distinctive features, even originated in Africa (Crawford 742). All of this considered, bluegrass is not an invention created by Appalachia alone. Instead, it is more accurately described as the “ruit of a union” of multiple different parts of the world (Cantwell xix) . With this understanding, there are no doubt more questions about why bluegrass is only attributed to Appalachia and how our view of Appalachia is impacted.
When picturing rural Appalachia, most people would probably imagine a “third world” within America (Lewis and Billings 6). In their piece in the Journal of Appalachian Studies, Billings and Lewis discuss a struggle Appalachia has faced for all of American history: being viewed as something it is not. Appalachia is a large geographical area, yet many people, in the American government and public alike, associate Appalachia with the words “economic backwardness and poverty” (Lewis and Billings 3). In the mid-twentieth century, the American government had the original intention of “socio-culturally integrating” rural Appalachia with the rest of American society (Lewis and Billings 4). There is a problem with this goal, though. It assumes that Appalachia is “isolated and homogenous” (Lewis and Billings 5). This historically mistaken idea allows room for the creation of what Billings and Lewis call a “culture of poverty” (Lewis and Billings 8). Arguably, it has impaired Appalachia’s ability to move forward as it does not offer any solution to the problem it is pointing out. The American government is correct in noticing that the poverty rates in Appalachia have historically been higher than the rest of the country, but creating this culture of poverty does nothing but identify a difference and paint Appalachia as an “other.” It also ensures that others view the people of Appalachia as lesser, which would only cause further cultural oppression, which has been challenged by the people of Appalachia time and again.
Billings and Lewis seek to change this narrative, and they provide some of their insight using the first folk song in American history. The song, called “New England’s Annoyances,” was written to mock colonial ideas about the hillbilly. A picture often still held today about hillbillies, of the hillbilly wearing raggedy clothing because of their low socioeconomic status, is disputed in the song. The lines that accomplish this read:
“Our clothes we brought with us are apt to be torn
They need to be clouted before they are worn
For clouting our garments does injure us nothing
Clouts double are warmer than single whole clothing.”
The author of these lyrics clearly understands how the “outside world” views Appalachia and its inhabitants. They wrote this to prove that just because their clothes are “raggedy” or patched up does not make them any less of a person; it doesn’t take away from their capabilities or potential. The author says patched clothing, or clouts, are better suited for life in Appalachia because they are warmer. The lyric implies that the people in Appalachia know best what they need for their lifestyle and that the “outside world” is wrong in its assumption that hillbillies wear raggedy clothing. If the American government and public were wrong about such a basic hillbilly stereotype and about Appalachia’s ability to “join” the rest of the country, what else did they get wrong about Appalachia? Why were all these assumptions made? And what impacts did they have on Appalachia?
First, it is essential to offer an answer as to why someone would make assumptions about a geographical space. In her piece, Geographies of Difference, Jenny Pickerill explores this question. She offers an answer in her definition of difference. She says that difference, “in its assertion creates an ‘other’ in those we are not” (Pickerill 1). This “othering” means that difference is used to distinguish between places, yes, but 1it is also used as a vehicle for other motives. In Appalachia’s case, the area was painted so vastly different to make it seem wildly out of place and lagging behind the rest of the country. Why would someone want to create an “other” in Appalachia, and who is making this other? This answer lies in American government and politics.
It is essential to look at the American government’s solution to the culture of poverty it created. A significant solution the American government came up with was the Appalachian Regional Development Act. This piece of legislation, initially written in 1965, was intended to lower the poverty rates in Appalachia and aid them in “economic development.” With its multiple “findings” sections, this law claims that Appalachia has a problem. This legislation claims that there is something wrong with Appalachia. So, it seeks to “ix it.” This is a lofty goal, but since 1965 and the inception of this act, the poverty rates have declined. However, the solution the government came up with was the construction of a massive highway called the Appalachian Regional Development Highway. This highway remains uncompleted to this day and is not projected to be complete until 2040. How could an uncompleted project be attributed to the credit for solving poverty in Appalachia?
It was supposed to bridge the gap between Appalachia and the rest of America. That logic is somewhat easy to follow, and most people might stop thinking about the problem at hand right there. However, is it not quite interesting that the government chose to build a highway to solve poverty rather than give resources to Appalachia? One could argue that building a highway would allow Appalachia to obtain resources, yes. It is rather important, however, to consider the issue from other vantage points, one being that a highway would allow the U.S. government to obtain resources from rural Appalachia. In the findings section of 1965, the legislative body itself says that Appalachia is “abundant in natural resources and rich in potential” (United States Government 4). So would the government have allocated money towards constructing this highway had Appalachia lacked these natural resources?
Another critical vantage point to consider this issue from is bluegrass itself. With its claim to fame as a genre in the 11940’s it outdates the Appalachian Regional Development Act. That means there was a notable boom in Appalachian culture before this act was written. In 1965, bluegrass was well on its track to fame. Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys were still releasing new music, and other artists had also begun to pick up the style, like Jean Ritchie, Don Reno, and The Stanley Brothers. Generally speaking, when a geographical area has a cultural change, is not exactly in dire need of change. Most of the time, the development of music or art from a particular area would exhibit that the people in that area are thriving in their conditions. A cultural boom like this would also bring more money and attraction to Appalachia, meaning the area may not have needed this drastic construction from the American government to support its economy. If the people of Appalachia were doing well enough to support the creation and popularity of bluegrass music, why did America assume they were suffering? It could be as simple as this: the American government needed a reason to interfere with Appalachia to construct a massive highway that would aid the Appalachian economy only as a side effect of the greater purpose of supporting other, richer parts of America off the backs of the natural resources (like lumber and coal) found in Appalachia for years to come.
A greater understanding of Black history in America, a foundational analysis of the law, and an open mind when interacting with “othered” cultures such as that in Appalachia are essential to reclaiming the history of bluegrass music. It can also draw attention to the fact that those histories are not separate or alienated from American history as a whole; they play an integral part in understanding it. The histories of bluegrass and Appalachia offer insight into three negative facets of American history: the erasure of Black history, the classist narratives and exploitation faced by people with low incomes in America, and the tendency to separate American history from global history and therefore disconnect America from the rest of the world. The erasure of the Black history of bluegrass music is not much different from that of Black history in other parts of American history. Just as Arnold Schultz’s name is not well known despite his significant contribution to the creation of bluegrass, the names of countless Black people whom this country would not be the same without remain unknown. The story of the poor people in rural Appalachia being used as a vehicle to exploit the natural resources in Appalachia is not all that unique when put into perspective through the lens of American history. Neither is the erasure of the global impact on bluegrass music. These stories do not differ from the rest of American history. Instead, they are a repetition of troubling, systemic patterns of behavior exhibited by the American government since its formation, patterns that need changing. The story of bluegrass and Appalachia fill in some of the gaps in understanding and offer a unique lens through which one can analyze other parts of American history with the hopes that these systemic issues in America can be rectified.
Billings, Dwight B, and Ronald L Lewis. “Appalachian Culture and Economic Development: A Retrospective View on the Theory and Literature.” Journal of Appalachian Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 1997, pp. 3–42.
Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. W. W. Norton, 2001.
Perryman, Charles W. Africa, Appalachia, and Acculturation: The History of Bluegrass Music. West Virginia University, 2013.
Pickerill, Jenny. “Geographies of Difference.” Encyclopedia of Geography, 2010,
United States Congress, Congress, Committee on Public Works. The Appalachian Regional Development Act. Title 40 Sec. 14101, 2021. 1965. t