“The mountains are high, and the Emperor lives far away.”
So replied recently the owner of a notoriously substandard and unsafe coal mine in China’s Shanxi Province to a National Public Radio (npr) reporter when asked how he eluded the scrutiny and control of the Central Government.
“The mountains are high.”
To note that the area the Appalachian Regional Commission (arc) defines as Appalachia—thirteen states and more than four hundred counties—is quite diverse in terms of the varieties of its topographical features is quite an understatement. Add to that the diversity of peoples and their different cultures in that extremely large territory, and Appalachia, all at once, is an enigma. Writing in The New Yorker last April, Burkhard Bilger called the Appalachians, “a kind of cultural Galapagos.” As condescending as that statement is, and as much as it reinforces images of a quaint, isolated area, it also indicates a fairly broad awareness of our region’s diversity.
“The Emperor lives far away.”
African-American life in Appalachia began with America’s original sin—slavery. Dubbed The Peculiar Institution in Kenneth Stampp’s 1956 book, slavery was alive and well in Appalachia, despite a huge body of literature that viewed our region as unique. In East Tennessee, Elihu Embree, a former slave owner and iron manufacturer, established in 1820 the nation’s first abolitionist periodical, The Emancipator. The nation’s best known white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, wrote of Embree’s influence upon him when he established The Liberator eleven years later in Boston. The first substantive actions taken to kick-off the Civil War took place in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Despite this history, most people inside the mountains’ walls (the people in the Central Appalachians—Eastern Kentucky, Southern West Virginia, and Southwest Virginia—the domain of coal mining) have always been out of view to the “Emperor classes,” the outsiders. [End Page 7]
Benign and Malicious Neglect of Black Appalachia
Black mountain life and culture have not just been largely out of view; they have been rendered invisible. The invisibility and marginalization of blacks in Appalachia explains, at least in part, why there is virtually nothing in this issue about music, that most ubiquitous element of Black Americans’ cultural footprints, wherever they are found. Did Appalachian ethnomusicologists take the same path as Cecil Sharp, whose tour of the Southern Appalachians just after World War I gave the world its most comprehensive collection of ancient folk songs from the British Isles? What might we know today about the Black Appalachian musical aesthetic had Cecil Sharp had some patience for hymns, spirituals, ragtime, or blues? Bilger notes that Sharp bemoaned “all our troubles and spent energies” after making it into an unidentified black township in Eastern Kentucky, where, “upon reaching the cove, found it peopled with niggers!” Too bad for us that Mr. Sharp and other scholars who, in the words of Benjamin Filene’s Romancing the Folk, paid little or no attention to African-American traditions. They trekked the hills and hollers and filled their diaries with records from the points where the mountains met the magnolias to where the gritty heritage of coal mining melded with Birmingham’s and Pittsburgh’s steel, consciously oblivious to black life and culture in the mountains.
Despite the traditions of white cultural imperialism, it is still hard to believe that these scholars could not hear the music made by the legions of black Gandy dancers who laid thousands of miles of rail tracks, which drove the industrialization of Central Appalachia. In Roots, Virginia slaves Alex Haley traced to Senegal and The Gambia (West Africa) played the “banjar.” As incongruous and as mocking as it is, the banjo entered the mainstream of American and Appalachian music in the hands of white performers in blackface in the early 1840s when Dan Emmett formed the Virginia Minstrels. Banjo players and the many versions of folk songs celebrating John Henry—the Steel Drivin’ Man of West Virginia—left their footprints in Appalachian soil long before such natives as W. C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and Bill Withers.
One of America’s...